After scattering our heroes to the wind in various solo adventures and exploring the depths of space, we’re returning to Earth to get the band back together. (And in the film.) Tim + Alex Kill The MCU is back, baby!

AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON (2015)

Tim: Given the fairly unanimous praise that met the first Avengers (not least ’round these parts) and the bold moves made by Infinity War and Endgame, it’s fair to say Age of Ultron is regarded as the weakest of Marvel’s big team-ups. Coming back for a fresh viewing, is that a fair assessment?

Alex: It probably is the weakest, because it lacks anything that hits me right in the superhero feels the way the Battle of New York or ‘Portals’ sequences do. But to pick up the recent tradition of me having The Wrong Opinion on MCU films (after Winter Soldier and Guardians, I think this puts me three-for-three): it’s better than people say. Or at least, more interesting.

Tim: Ultron is undeniably a mess, but there’s a lot of fascinating stuff hidden in the tangle once you start unpicking it. I think people (including me) had a very visceral reaction to it at the time and probably haven’t bothered to revisit it, which is a shame.

Alex: Did you dislike it on first viewing, then?

Tim: I remember being disappointed, which was obviously tied to my expectations going in. Having removed the whatever-coloured-glasses of hype and hopes, I still think there’s a lot I’d change, but I can see that there are some good ideas at work. Unlike the first Avengers film, for example, Age of Ultron is certainly trying to be about something.

Alex: That’s something we’re going to come back to again and again, I suspect. But to lay it out here at the start: what exactly do you think it is about?

Tim: I think the film is trying to interrogate the Avengers’ place in the world – how their actions affect others on a micro and macro level – and basically ask ‘what should the Avengers be?’ A lot of that gets focused through Tony and his argument for proactive solutions, making this an interesting pre-cursor to Civil War, which asked a lot of the same questions but in different ways.

Alex: The thing I think really marks it apart is that it also seems to be asking that question on a metafictional level. To me, Age of Ultron has always been a film about having to make Age of Ultron. Which, again, is something we’ll come back to.

But yeah, it’s very clearly a film with Things to Say, and you can tell that because characters are frequently saying those Things in the dialogue. And none of them more than the chap with his name in the title.

FIRST APPEARANCES

Tim: So, let’s examine this mechanical devil they call Ultron. What do you make of this interpretation of the character, Alex?

Alex: I have to confess, I’m not super familiar with comics Ultron, so I can’t draw any comparisons there – but what strikes me about this version is how much he feels like a shiny mouthpiece for Joss Whedon as writer/director.

Ultron is the first in a fine MCU tradition of villains who basically exist as a living argument with fists – a blueprint that would be picked up (and greatly improved on) by the likes of Killmonger and Thanos.

Tim: It is slightly odd that the killer robot is more given to both speechifying and temper tantrums than the Norse trickster god from the last film.

Alex: He’s certainly a very human robot, which I know is something you’re not so keen on.

Tim: While the Ultron of the comics has never been an emotionless Terminator, this version of the character doesn’t sit right with me.

He seems too scattered, and as much as he’s used to articulate some of the film’s arguments, they never seem to cohere into an actual philosophy. He feels more like a pretentious student spitting out hot takes to sound clever. “Captain America: God’s righteous man.” What does that even mean, you wanky automaton?

Alex: I actually enjoy Ultron as an often-contradictory robot teenager with daddy issues, wrestling with the anxiety of influence. One minute he’s ironically quoting Stark, the next he’ll kill someone for suggesting he’s Tony Jr. Which in and of itself feels like part of his inheritance: it’s pretty much exactly Tony’s own relationship with Howard.

Tim: Believe me, I also love a daddy-issues robot – Ultron’s whole Freudian obsession in the comics is a fun counterpoint to his cold logic. If the film had settled on that as his central driving motivation, I’d be a lot happier. But it’s jumbled in with a need to evolve, a desire to cleanse the Earth of humanity, and a whole other bunch of bullshit.

At least to me, it doesn’t make him a complex character, but a confused one. Because he never settles on an argument, it’s hard for the Avengers to counter him philosophically. He’s like the Ben Shapiro of supervillains. Wait, that’s probably just Ben Shapiro…

Alex: This part, I agree wholeheartedly agree with you on. For all Ultron claims to want to save the world, I’ve never understood how his plan is meant to get him there. It’s a real ‘Step 1. Destroy Avengers, Step 2. ????, Step 3. Day saved!‘ situation. There’s a reason people weren’t printing up ‘Ultron is Right’ t-shirts after this film came out, y’know?

Tim: And this slightly muddled approach also carries over to his powers. At certain points he seems to show off some kind of telekinesis, which is a real arbitrary ability to give him.

Alex: Putting the snark aside for a second, I do wonder if any of this confusion is intentional. After all, Ultron is an amalgam creation: he’s a bit of Stark, a bit of Banner, a bit of Strucker and even Loki’s Sceptre if I understood that part of the film correctly?

Tim: The process of his (and Vision’s) creation is another bit of Age of Ultron where we get two half-explanations that don’t quite match up. For what appears to be such a major leap forward for this universe, the specifics are very fuzzy. That’s not necessarily bad, but we’re given just enough of the process to make the gaps frustrating.

Alex: This seems like a good time to start talking about Vision. I mean, if we really have to.

Tim: Vision is one of those characters from the comics that I feel has a lot of potential, but it’s rarely realised. Then again, I know a lot of folks just consider him dull. Where do you fall?

Alex: Well, he looks like someone peeled a human being and essentially functions as Ultron’s philosophising side, minus the relatable family woes, personality defects and robot lips that make him even vaguely interesting. So no, Tim, I do not care for him.

Tim: The film kind of sets itself up to fail with Vision – he doesn’t show up until the final act, his introduction is muddled (why is wrestling Thor his first action?) and, like Ultron, he never gets a straightforward showcase of what he’s capable of. Which is a shame, because Vision’s intangibility and density shifting adds a bit of variety to the various flavours of Punch and Shoot abilities.

Alex: (To be fair, who wouldn’t immediately wrestle with Chris Hemsworth, given the chance?)

Tim: Fair. I think the character only really comes into his own during his conversation with the final Ultron, which actually feels like the philosophical cap to the movie. But putting the argument in favour of humanity in the hands of a character who we have no real connection to feels like a misstep.

Alex: You’re right – that means we actually never see Tony or any of the Avengers resolve their conflict with Ultron, or present a counter-argument strong enough to beat his.

Tim: So, we’ve thoroughly covered the artificial additives to the cocktail that is Age of Ultron – how about the natural ingredients?

Alex: You talking about those definitely-not-mutants-nosirree kids, the Maximoffs?

Tim: He’s fast, she’s weird, and their accents are both inconsistent!

Alex: Fast and weird are, at least, more powersets to help mix things up visually. While Quicksilver obviously never reaches the heights of how Days of Future Past presents its version of the character, it’s handled well enough, and Wanda’s brain manipulation really lets Whedon cut loose with that dream-logic stuff he’s so fond of.

Tim: I’m really hoping Wanda’s brain powers show up again in Wandavision. The subsequent films haven’t featured them at all, probably because a) they’re a bit OP and b) mind control is extremely Not Cool from an ethical standpoint.

Alex: Agreed – the initial teases suggest the series will be going big on reality manipulation, right? For my money, those sequences are the only mark Wanda leaves on this film. Or possibly the entire MCU to date.

Tim: She’s evolved into a real powerhouse in terms of …powers… but Wanda’s characterisation has been pretty lacking. I’m glad she’s getting this series, as Elizabeth Olsen is an actress I really like, and the fact that all she’s really had to do is make moon eyes at Paul Bettany and waggle her fingers is a shame.

Alex: (To be fair, who wouldn’t make moon eyes and waggle their fingers at Paul Bettany given the chance?)

Tim: Fair. She and Vision have both suffered from the way these movies basically replicate the event comics that Marvel publishes, without the regular series in-between. All her character development, and their whole romance subplot, has basically taken place somewhere over there [gestures offscreen].

Alex: I think Quicksilver, who (spoiler warning) doesn’t get chance to appear after this film, fares a bit better here. And not just because I love his Eurotrash villain-from-Hanna tracksuit look. There’s a nonchalance to the way he uses his powers and reacts to the world that feels like a nice spin on the arrogance of his paper-and-ink equivalent.

Tim: And to be fair to Ultron, the film does basically replicate the characterisation the pair have had in the comics for 50 years, where he is ‘arrogant dickhead who is sometimes a villain’ and she is ‘girl’ then ‘powerful girl who is sometimes crazy’.

MARVEL METHOD

Tim: Speaking of consistency, something we’ve been trying to establish over this series is whether there really is such a thing as a ‘Marvel movie’. Where does Age of Ultron fit into that conversation?

Alex: It’s an interesting one. At this point, it’s only the second time Marvel has retained the same director for a sequel, so it’s not just a question of being a Marvel movie but also an Avengers one. But then… Ultron‘s not really anything like its older brother.

Tim: Beyond building to a finale where a bunch of identical bad guys attack a city.

Alex: Hah, yeah. But where I think we agree that Avengers is basically all one long, well-crafted ramp to an exceptional action finale… the climactic Sokovia sequence is one of Ultron‘s least interesting parts (and honestly, one of the parts Whedon feels least interested in).

Tim: There’s definitely nothing that matches the emotional impact of “I’m always angry” or the majestic sweep of that tracking shot. The closest we come is Hawkeye’s motivational speech to Wanda, which is a small moment in a bigger conflict, rather than the lynchpin of the whole thing.

Alex: And that’s the thing: to me, this feels like a film that wants to be talking, not fighting.

Tim: Very much so, which makes it a curious beast. On one hand, characterisation and watching heroes interact is one of the MCU’s biggest strengths, and produces some of this film’s best moments. But this is also an Avengers film, a film about superheroes – and it’s disinterest in the other aspects of what that entails really drains the film.

Alex: To be fair, that’s not entirely new for the MCU. To varying extends, all the films we’ve looked at so far dial aspects of traditional superhero fiction up and down, to suit the particular interests of their makers – honestly, I think that’s part of what makes these movies work – but what makes Ultron different, to me, is… well, we return to that idea about this being a film with Something To Say.

We’ve talked about Ultron and Vision in this regard already, but I scribbled down some variant of “they just said the theme out loud!” so many times in my notes, about basically every character.

Tim: If anything, I think the film suffers from an overflow of themes – it dances around a lot of ideas, but everyone seems to be reaching for different things.

Alex: Shall we try and pick through that overflow, attempt to pan for some solid thematic nuggets in the muck?

Tim: Let’s prospect!

Alex: So, one thematic baton – to mix metaphors with my usual abandon – which Ultron picks up from previous films is something we’ve talked about a lot in previous discussions: the relationship between superheroes and the military. Here it seems like the Avengers have basically supplanted the US Army, right? There’s certainly a whole lot of Iraq metaphor going on.

Tim: Yeah – that aspect seems strongest in Sokovia, where we have anti-Avengers graffiti, people throwing bottles at Stark’s Iron Legion, and obviously the Maximoffs as war orphans… Cap even explicitly compares their journey to his own story at one point, which essentially analogises Tony Stark to a Nazi weapon designer?

Alex: So I think all this stuff can be pulled together into one of Ultron‘s main themes, which is basically ‘but who are the real monsters, eh?’ You’ve got the real-world-cost-of-superheroics stuff that feels like it’s been pulled straight from The Ultimates, and most of the Avengers flashing their dark side to the camera at some point or another. Does that work for you?

Tim: To a certain extent, yes. The Maximoffs have valid criticisms of Tony Stark’s legacy, and the way he’s, to a certain extent, trying to mop up all that blood with Avengers merchandise. But having Ultron be the primary voice of the ‘are you actually helping’ question is diminished because he’s attempting to ANNIHILATE ALL LIFE ON THE PLANET. He feels like that “And yet you participate in society…” cartoon blown up to supervillain size.

Alex: Hah! I have to assume that, when Ultron got inside the internet, he was immediately up in people’s @ mentions, demanding they debate him.

You’re absolutely right about the Maximoffs being the more relatable way into this idea, and that opportunity getting thrown away. They’re also yet another example of Stark-inspired villains (a trope that, we now know, will outlive even the man himself) which contributes to a sense that this is more of a Tony Stark conflict than an Avengers one – the story of Tony’s past yet again coming to bite him on the arse. Do you feel like he’s the protagonist here?

Tim: Absolutely. Having Tony be the creator of Ultron makes total sense, especially given where previous films have taken the character, but it very much positions him in the driving seat. Honestly, I think the film is actually weaker for trying to lean away from that and maintain the ensemble feeling throughout.

Again, we hit up against the difficulty of the medium. There’s no problem having an arc of an Avengers comic that focuses on Tony, because we get a dozen-plus issues a year. But when we get one Avengers film every three years, it has to serve every character equally. And here, Cap and especially Thor don’t really have any connective tissue to the ideas that Ultron raises.

Alex: Yeah, those two are definitely the exceptions to what I think of as the other big thematic throughline of the film, which is basically about having an exit strategy.

The film gives every character a reason to walk away from the hero life. For Clint it’s his family. For Natasha and Bruce it’s each other (and the fact that using their abilities is a reminder of the trauma that created them in the first place). And for Tony it’s… building a better mousetrap? He’s the centre of the film but I’m not sure there’s much of an emotional hook there.

Tim: I mean, Ultron isn’t great about continuing the arc we saw play out in Iron Man 3, but there’s definitely the sense that Tony is torn between wanting to protect people and not actually wanting to be Iron Man anymore. The Iron Legion and Ultron are his response to that conflict – “a suit of armour around the world” and all that.

Alex: At the time, this felt like a slightly wonky repetition of the journey Tony went on in his last film – that familiar ‘Iron Man no more’ tune, once more with less feeling – but, because in retrospect so much of the Saga is about him going back and forth on that decision, it feels like an organic part of a larger character arc.

Tim: Absolutely. Between gifting Rhodey a suit, and his actions in IM3, Civil War and here, we get a whole lot of Tony’s ambivalence towards being a superhero. I think at its best that’s tied to his ongoing guilt – despite his massive ego, he doesn’t think he’s worthy of bearing that mantle.

Alex: Which actually brings us pretty neatly to the other reading of this movie that’s always stuck out to me, which is the biographical one. Do you get the impression Whedon is projecting here?

Tim: To a certain extent, but I think it’s an undercurrent rather than a clean allegory. If he’s Tony Stark, what do you think his Ultron is? The Avengers franchise?

Alex: So, this is something I saw one way when Ultron first came out (and wrote about at length back then) but rewatching now with an extra five years of hindsight, the thing I couldn’t escape was this feeling of ‘where next?’ This realisation that you’re staring down the future – in the heroes’ case, that you’ve changed the world and have to help perpetuate the new status quo; in Whedon’s, that you’ve helped create a film series so successful it could very well outlive you, and now you have to try to simultaneously build an engine that can support that and find a way to step aside from it on your own terms.

…So I guess in that reading, Ultron would be playing the role of the voice in Whedon’s head. Which is certainly how he comes off, with all the pontificating.

(Am I using that wrong? [googles] “to express one’s opinions in a pompous and dogmatic way.” Nope, that’s exactly what I mean.)

I mentioned scribbling down a lot of lines of dialogue, and one in particular I double-underlined afterwards was Tony saying of his, ahem, vision for the future: “It’s not a loop. It’s the end of the line.” Of course, he was wrong – for Tony, at least, the loop would continue for another dozen films.

But all the characters introduced in this film are created as potential futures for the Avengers and this world. Like, in the actual story, that’s what Ultron and Vision and the Maximoff twins are there for – the next generation to come up and replace your current cast of heroes. And the film tests them, and throws out some of those futures (farewell Quicksilver, sayonara Ultron) and creates a status quo that would allow the films to replace the actual real-life cast as they age out of it or their contracts expire. It feels significant to me that the film ends on New Avengers HQ, with a new team and Tony waving goodbye to it all.

…Anyway, having just accused Ultron of pontificating, I am one remarkably black pot right now. I’m just endlessly intrigued by how those behind-the-scenes processes essentially become the film, on story and metaphorical levels. And so Age of Ultron, for all that it’s remembered as a stumble of the series, becomes one of the most important sources for the films that would follow, and especially the concluding parts of this 11-year Saga.

Tim: In some ways, that’s probably an uncharacteristically neat meshing of agendas in a film that many would point to as an example of the director and studio pulling in different directions.

Thor’s Infinity Stone vision, which is the section that is most obviously setting up ideas that will be revisited in later films, is probably the clumsiest part of the movie. But like you say, it’s hardly the only part of Ultron that would be important to Marvel’s ongoing universe. And Thor’s dreams aren’t the only place the Infinity Stones show up – Loki’s sceptre is established to contain the Mind Stone, that essentially becomes the central Maguffin of both this film and Infinity War.

Which kind of begs the question of why Thanos would give away an Infinity Stone to Loki in the first place, but hey, they clearly hadn’t thought that far ahead in the first Avengers.

Alex: I prefer to believe that Thanos heard the human expression about a bird in the hand being worth two in the bush, and decided he liked the sound of the bush option.

Tim: For a while, I was convinced that the climax of Avengers, where Loki’s sceptre (which we now know contained the Mind Stone) was the thing to defeat the Tesseract aka the Space Stone, would be a crucial aspect in Endgame. Goes to show what I know.

Alex: That’s one of the fascinating things about revisiting these films now they’re (sort of) a complete object – the seemingly-obvious seeds that get ignored, and the unexpected ones that become vital. I have to assume Whedon wasn’t intending to foreshadow the climax of a film three years later with Tony’s vision of the beaten and broken Avengers, and certainly didn’t expect the mention of an “endgame” to provide the name for its sequel. But clearly, when Markus and McFeely were combing through the previous films for stuff they could work into the Infinity Saga’s conclusion, Age of Ultron proved surprisingly fertile ground.

INFINITY GEMS

Alex: Having claimed at the outset that we like Age of Ultron more than the average bear, there’s been a lot of griping so far. Shall we dig into some stuff we unreservedly like about it?

Tim: We’ve moaned about how this film wants to be all talking, no superhero-ing, but I will say that it starts with a very satisfying bang. I believe Whedon has referred to this as his ‘Bond film opening’, and that’s exactly the tone it strikes. The Avengers as a unit, mid-action, establishing their powers and dynamics for newcomers and reminding us of why we like them.

Alex: That dynamic is definitely the part that works best for me. There’s some great workplace banter that makes this feel like a more lived-in team, but the thing that really sells it for me is how heroes use their powers in combination. It’s not just cool playing-with-action-figures (though it is also that) but helps fill in what’s happened between films, and show how they’ve grown into a team. It’s a brilliant bit of storytelling through action.

Tim: Exactly. There’s some slightly dodgy CGI in some of the fighting, but overall it’s a fluid piece of action that echoes some of the moments of the Battle of New York without just repeating them. The Hydra goons they’re fighting also have a pleasingly GI Joe-like aesthetic, which gives the whole thing a very Saturday Morning Cartoon vibe. It’s one of the few times we get to see the Avengers doing their ‘everyday’ work, rather than tackling bigger event-level stuff, which I always enjoy.

Alex: I guess it’s that ‘everyday’ quality you mention that makes this a Bond intro, right – catching the hero at the end of their last mission? Do you think Bond is a touchstone for the film as a whole?

Tim: If it is, it’s the Brosnan/Craig era Bond where we start to dive into whether a figure like James Bond is relevant nowadays.

Ultron does have a certain globetrotting flair in common with Bond though – unlike the first film, which was pretty rooted in the US, this one visits South Korea, Sokovia, Norway (briefly) and sigh “the African coast”. You know, that well-known country? Africa?

While that slightly racist omission is frustrating, it does make me wonder if they’re leaving it ambiguous for Wakandan reasons? This film is our first mention of Marvel’s premier African nation, and involves both vibranium and Ulysses Klaue, a Black Panther villain who will go on to be the B villain in the subsequent movie.

Alex: Before I dip into my next pick, I have to ask about Klaue. I know you like him but I do wonder if his inclusion is a bit of an unnecessary detour in a film that’s already very distractible

Tim: The plot route that takes them from Baron Von Strucker (whose death is a total waste of a character) to Klaue to Ultron is pretty clumsy, but I enjoy Andy Serkis’ Klaue so much I’m willing to forgive it. While I find Ultron’s digressions annoying, they completely work for Klaue – I’d listen to him talk about cuttlefish all day.

Alex: In retrospect, it’s kind of weird they didn’t get the World’s Leading Mocap Actor to play the CG villain in this one.

Tim: Kevin Feige just really wanted to see Robert California covered in those little dots.

Alex: …Gah that’s one tempting tangent. But having accused Ultron (and indeed Ultron) of being distractible, I should probably stick to the plan and move onto my first Infinity Gem pick. Which, to the complete lack of surprise of any long-time readers, no doubt, is our trip to the Barton family farm.

Finally, we get to see where Clint sources the wood for all those trick arrows!

Tim: Honestly, I’m conflicted about the Barton farm – sell me on its appeal, Alex.

Alex: Okay, so as MCU Hawkeye Fan #1 I’m obviously predisposed to enjoy this, the first (and arguably last) bit of real character development Clint gets in these movies.

But basically, the sequence lays out everything I like about the character (everything that isn’t trick arrows, at least). The MCU’s version of Hawkeye is a military man promoted into an absurd role, and this whole section emphasises that, for him, being an Avenger is a job. A very cool and important one, but a job nonetheless, meaning work/life balance is a consideration for him in a way that it isn’t for the other heroes.

…Or maybe this is my ‘Ryan North describing Elmer Fudd as a family man‘ moment, and I’m massively projecting.

Tim: I’m still torn about this section. In terms of giving the Avengers some breathing space, I think it’s a good idea (although it does give us more of the poorly conceived Bruce/Natasha romance), but I’m just not a fan of Family Man Hawkeye.

Alex: It makes such perfect sense to me. He’s the boring Avenger, of course he’s a Middle America Dad.

Tim: Putting him in this role absolutely makes sense for the film and the team dynamic – I think it all comes down to finding Renner kind of unappealing. When he was initially cast, I was pretty psyched, because I assumed we’d be getting Clint as the kind of hothead he portrayed in The Hurt Locker. Then again, when he tried that flavour in Endgame, I didn’t like it either. I might just not like him in this role? It doesn’t help that he seems like a pretty terrible person in real life.

Alex: Despite the ‘I LOVE HAWKEYE AMA’ t-shirt I put on for these discussions, I’m actually not the biggest fan of Renner either. But this sequence does the smartest possible thing, by partnering him up Linda Motherfucking Cardellini.

Tim: I would march into battle for Linda Cardellini.

Alex: So then you understand Clint Barton’s motivations.

My favourite bit of the entire farm sequence is the two of them in the bedroom, catching up on their guests. I mentioned the workplace banter earlier – something I suspect we’ll be coming back to in a moment – but in a similar vein, Whedon really nails the verité of ‘married couple chatting quietly because they’ve got people staying over’, and I both recognise and appreciate that.

Tim: Oh god… am I your Black Widow?

Alex: Tim, if Imi and I were breeders, we would obviously name our third child after you.

But honestly, I think it gets at everything that’s best about Ultron, which is the quieter moments, all the times Whedon finds a way to ground this action blockbuster in relatable mundanity. Which brings us almost suspiciously neatly to the next (and final) Infinity Gem…

Tim: AVENGERS: COCKTAIL HOUR!

Alex: Yep. We’re cheating and both picking the same Infinity Gem. But hey, we did it for the Battle of New York, and this sequence is to Age of Ultron what that was to the original Avengers.

Tim: The post-Sokovia party at Avengers Tower is easily the strongest section of the whole film. It’s really two sections – the public party, and then the after-party, where the core team plus a couple of others goof around and try to lift Thor’s hammer – so in a way, we’re not even cheating (that much).

It’s a wonderful bit of character exploration, because we get to see the team in relaxed-but-still-in-public mode, and truly at ease. And the distinctions between the two, while minor, are really fascinating.

Alex: It’s finally delivering on the stuff that, on my first viewing on Avengers, disappointed me by its absence – the kind of hangout scenes Buffy was always so good at.

It’s also packed with beautiful little character details. My personal favourite – and this might be my single favourite second of film in the entire MCU – is Banner ducking under a lamp that’s well above his head, as if he’s not quite sure what size he is. It speaks so much to the physicality of what it’d be like to occasionally turn into a green brick shithouse and how that affects Banner’s personality. (And it also ties into the big Unifying Metaphorical Theory of MCU Bruce Banner I have – but that’s a story for another time.)

Tim: The minor detail I love most might be Clint fiddling with drumsticks at the start of the hammer lifting sequence. Hawkeye being a slightly ADHD-type who has to be doing something with his hands works for me in all the ways the farmhouse scene doesn’t.

Alex: I love how this sequence brings in the supporting cast from solo movies, in a way that feels totally natural, gives me that crossover giddiness and makes this feel more like a single unified world. Rhodey trying to tell “a War Machine story” implies off-screen adventures in a way that makes my brain tingle.

Tim: Having Rhodey, Sam and Maria Hill present is a definite plus point, as is having Thor and Tony measure dick size via their girlfriends’ achievements.

Alex: And on the topic of dick-measuring… shall we talk about the hammer lifting competition?

Tim: Absolutely. It’s such a wonderful portrait of everyone’s character in micro. Film YouTuber Nando v Movies has an excellent video about how everyone’s reactions speak volumes about their attitude and foreshadow some of their arcs in the film.

The hammer slightly moving when Cap attempts to pick it up had already been dissected to death before Endgame, and even more thoroughly now. I believe the Russos have said they think Cap was always worthy, but frankly, death of the author and all that, I prefer the ambiguity.

Either Cap knows he can always do that but decides not to, or he attempts to summon the hammer in a moment of desperation and finds he can. Frankly, I can see strong arguments in favour of either version, and so I’m glad that, textually, we don’t actually have an answer one way or the other.

Alex: That’s yet another of those balls Ultron throws into the air for later movies to catch – and one of the few where it feels like it might have intended for someone else to catch.

It’s so strange how closely bound Ultron now feels to Infinity War and Endgame, story-wise and how – especially in sequences like this party – it draws in a broader cast and finds new interactions and dynamics between them. In retrospect I think you can see the whole movie as kind of an early draft, a sketch for how you might scale up the Big MCU Crossover.

So it’s no surprise, maybe, that the film often feels… well, sketchy. But for about ten minutes there – from our first glimpse of the party, through to the appearance of Iron-Man-suit-puppet Ultron, at his creepy best, puncturing the comfortable atmosphere that’s been established, and then the explosion into a smart-casual action scene – Age of Ultron is firing on all cylinders. For those ten minutes, it’s the film I hoped for when I first heard Whedon was getting involved in the MCU. I just wish that was the film we’d gotten for the other two-and-a-bit hours.

THE OFFICIAL T+AKTMCU RANKINGS

TIM
1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
2. Iron Man (2008)
3. The Avengers (2012)
4. Thor (2011)
5. Iron Man 3 (2013)
6. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
7. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
8. Iron Man 2 (2010)
9. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
10. The Incredible Hulk (2008)
11. Thor: The Dark World (2010)

 

 

POST-CREDITS SEQUENCE

  • The Age of Ultron title card appears as soon as Tony picks up the sceptre, implying that this action (combined with Scarlet Witch’s mind whammy) is what makes Ultron’s rise inevitable. (TM)
  • Grand Central Station now has a statue dedicated to first responders where the original was destroyed during the Battle of New York. It’s a bit of continuity that will persist all the way up to Spider-Man: Far From Home, where it appears right at the end. (TM)
  • Fashion Statement of the Movie: This one is easy for me – every time Thor puts on human clothes. The elf-casual outfit he wears for the party, the hoodie he goes ‘undercover’ in… To quote the Simpsons: there goes the last lingering thread of my heterosexuality. (AS)
    Honourable Mention: Vision’s cloak looks very silky and I’d like pyjamas made out of that material. (TM)
  • Avengers weren’t a central pillar in my early comics reading, but my introduction to them was the Kurt Busiek and George Perez run, which includes what is arguably the best Ultron story, “Ultron Unlimited”. It’s a clear inspiration for this film, so the fact it decides to leave out some of the iconic moments from the comic is frustrating. In the comic, Ultron devastates an Eastern European country called Slorenia. No idea why the name is changed to Sokovia here. (TM)
  • Relatedly – Sokovia is the country, right? We never get a name for the actual city where all the fighting occurs. (TM)
  • Another thing I like about the Barton farm sequence – it’s one of the film’s many heavy-handed hints that Hawkeye isn’t going to make it to the end. Strong ‘one day till retirement and I can spend all my time playing with little Johnny back home’ vibes, and Whedon having fun with the phrase “buy the farm” and with his own reputation as a character-murderer. Anyway, it’s a perfect bait and switch for Quicksilver dying to save Clint at the end. (AS)
  • This film adds Hawkeye and Black Widow to the ‘people who get to throw Cap’s shield’ list. (TM)
  • Fashion Disaster: Leaving aside the obvious weirdness of Vision’s design and Ultron’s robot lips for something we only see briefly – I’m so glad Scarlet Witch’s ‘New Avengers’ look from the end of the film never shows up again. It’s got this tightly-cinched waist thing going on, and combined with her Farrah Fawcett wig, it makes her look weirdly like a late ‘70s Barbie meets Carmen San Diego. (TM)
  • Cap is once again in the vicinity of a car flipping over during the South Korea lorry chase. (TM)
  • Clint calling Wanda and Pietro “punks” is perfectly in line with his dad energy. T
  • Yet More In-Hindsight Foreshadowing: The final exchange between Iron Man and Cap, where Tony says he might “build Pepper a farm, hope nobody blows it up”, Steve sighs over “the simple life” and then Tony tells him: “you’ll get there one day.” That’s the arc, you guys! (AS)
  • Also: Natasha on Floating Island Sokovia, looking out from a high ledge and basically saying she wouldn’t mind dying with a nice view? “There’s worse ways to go”? Oof. (AS)
  • Avengers Fuckability Scale: We’ve already covered the effect that Casual Thor has on Alex, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention Chris Evans splitting a log with his bare hands. To quote George Takai: Oh my. (TM)
  • The Avengers HQ shown at the end of the film (or at least the exterior where Thor departs on his Infinity Stone sidequest) is played by the University of East Anglia, alma mater of one Tim Maytom. (TM)
  • Is this the best credits sequence in the entire MCU? I’m not sure they’re right for this film though – so austere and iconic, casting the Avengers as smooth perfect figures of myth. This film is way messier than that, both by design and… not. (AS)

POST-POST-CREDITS STINGER

Tim: We didn’t really dive into the Bruce/Natasha relationship, but when the Ultron battle kicks off at the party, Bruce accidentally ends up on top of her with his face in her boobs, a joke that Whedon repeats basically beat-for-beat in Justice League.

Alex: The two of them roleplaying as ‘30s film characters is one of the few bits of the party sequence that doesn’t work for me. In particular, the line about chicks digging “huge dorks” feels like Whedon wrote it with one hand down his trousers. This is something we’ve been talking around this whole time, but I guess we should probably address the whole Black Widow situation more broadly.

Tim: There’s two levels of bullshit here. First, the relationship with Bruce is just kind of a mess. While the two did have an interesting energy in Avengers, it’s another thing that might have worked if it was allowed to play out over a year of comics or a season of TV. Here, though, we rush to the end, with them willing to run away from the superhero life for each other, and the script just isn’t strong enough to sell them as a couple.

The other level is the whole infertility/monster thing, which is tackled really poorly. Even giving it the most generous possible reading, while the “monster” comment seems to be more about the fact that she’s killed a whole bunch of people, an editor should have caught how close it was to her discussing her infertility and had that raise a red flag.

Alex: I have to say, at the time it didn’t even occur to me that Natasha might be referring to her infertility when she talks about monstrousness, but now it’s hard not to see it. Especially given Whedon’s well-documented history of being exceedingly weird about pregnant women.

If you want to some further reading on the subject, from people more qualified to talk about this stuff than we are, this is a thorough overview that links out to loads of great pieces.