This is one of those movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe that is considered a red-headed stepchild, even by Marvel fans. It was highly successful and is one of the MCU's billion-dollar box office hauls, but it definitely has a divided legacy since its release in 2015. I really don't know anyone that loves the movie, I know people that like the movie and think it's good and then I know people that downright hate it and think it's one of the worst comic book movies ever made.
For the record, I like it. I liked it the first time that I saw it in theaters and I've seen it several times since and I still like it. It's got issues, no doubt about it and I don't think it's as good as its predecessor The Avengers (2012), but it's still solid for a number of reasons. This re-watch is a unique opportunity for me because it's the first time I've watched this movie right on the heels of seeing the ten movies before it, so I'm really in a mindset of thinking of this franchise as a whole and not as just each movie in succession. That has led me to draw some new opinions about Age of Ultron that I didn't previously have and I think I've figured out what I believe its problem is.
To start off though, there's something big that I think we need to clear up about this movie. I've talked before about "The Tonal Turn" of the MCU and how the first nine movies were much more serious in tone with humor sprinkled in places, and then Guardians of the Galaxy was the start of the shift toward a franchise that made more of an effort to be funny and laid back with serious moments sprinkled in places. For Age of UItron, I'm willing to say that it's 50-50 at most. There's definitely more attempts at humor in this movie than there were in The Avengers, but what it really is to me is that the jokes in The Avengers were better timed and fit the story more organically as a result of it being the team's first assembly. In this case, the jokes are born out of the team already knowing each other and having built a rapport. It doesn't always work, but you see where they are coming from.
Another thing that affects the humor in this movie is Ultron himself, played by James Spader. I'll admit that some of the jokes and the laid back dialogue from him bugged me but this time I realized why. Ultron in this incarnation is a creation of Tony Stark and as such is appropriating a lot of Tony's thoughts and behaviors into his own personality. Elisabeth Olsen's Scarlet Witch even alludes to this later in the movie when she expresses concern about Stark taking over the cradle that would birth Vision, saying that Ultron's belief in doing whatever he thinks is right comes directly from Stark. So in essence, Ultron in this movie is acting like Tony Stark, even though he hates him and wants to destroy the entire world because he's taking Stark's "peace in our time" mantra entirely too far. When I consider that, it makes sense that his one-liners and dialogue sound the way that it does and I'm good with it. It's annoying having to deal with two Stark's essentially for the whole movie, but at least it makes sense for the story.
While we are on the subject of Stark, let's talk about him and his arc for a minute. One of my old opinions on Age of Ultron is that it laid waste to Tony's arc from the first three Iron Man movies and The Avengers where he actually made some character growth from the first movie on and was in a different place at the end of Iron Man 3. You go from him being at peace and having the shrapnel removed from his chest so he no longer needs the arc reactor in his chest, to him playing mad scientist with Ultron, Vision and justifying his rash decisions with a fear that everyone is going to die on his watch because he didn't do enough. It seemed clunky and out of continuity to say the least.
I then realized that the way to look at Tony's arc is to understand that he never learns. Ever. Seriously, he is the poster child for making mistakes, getting his hand slapped for it and then shifting the blame and responsibility under the guise of actually taking care of it. There's a boatload of this in Captain America: Civil War, but we'll get to that one later. For now, let's deal with Tony's major screw-up here, which is using a rogue AI structure from Loki's scepter to build Ultron under the guise of making an army of soldiers that would eliminate the need for the Avengers and protect the world. To me, that sounds very much like Nick Fury's Project Insight from Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It's just AI robots defending people instead of huge gunships pointing weapons at them. The structure of the plan is still the same, to ward off threats before they even reach the population and that perfectly explains Captain America's anger at the idea, in addition to the fact that Tony kept it a secret from the team because he didn't want to get shouted down like he knew he was going to be.
So this entire movie is Stark's fault without question, and just like in previous movies, he fails to learn from it at all. Follow me on this for a bit: In Iron Man, he makes a rash decision to build the suit after he discovers his weapons are still being sold and innocent people are dying. The result is that it puts him on the map and others start trying to copy his work. He stopped Obadiah Stane, but Justin Hammer and Anton Vanko challenged his work later in Iron Man 2, leading the United States military to confiscate one of his suits while he decided to go on a bender because he thought he was dying from Palladium poisoning. Nick Fury and SHIELD had an intervention to get him back on track and he figured out his problem, but then Loki and the Chitauri showed up in The Avengers and he was confronted with a situation he couldn't control, which is why he suffered from PTSD after the Battle of New York because he felt powerless against it. He built an army of suits and sunk himself into his work so heavily in Iron Man 3 that when Happy Hogan got injured by an alleged Mandarin attack, his anger and irrationality caused him to threaten the terrorist on live TV, which almost killed him, Pepper and Dr. Maya Hansen. This time a young boy intervenes to get him back on track and he figures it all out again, but it's only temporary because those aliens could come back at any time, leading to his foolish idea of creating Ultron here because he thinks it's the right thing to do, and he just does it without any deliberation or thought for anyone else. That's literally his MO for the entire MCU.
So, his behavior in Age of Ultron makes sense in that regard. No one is really checking him at all and he hasn't had to deal with any consequences, so he just does whatever he wants in this movie no matter what people tell him. He'll get his hand slapped after this big time, but again we'll get to that. For now, Stark is a major liability for the Avengers and he's having to help them fix his own mistakes, largely Ultron.
Now all of that makes sense in this movie because there was a great deal of setup from the previous films to support it. There are things in this movie though that suffer from that lack of setup and it's painful, most notably the romance between Bruce Banner and Black Widow that comes out of nowhere. It was never setup in previous movies other than the fact that Natasha was the one ordered to pick up Banner for the first team up, but there were no glances, no romantic tension, no nothing up to this point. She's had more emotional connection with Rogers in Captain America: The Winter Soldier than she did with Banner at all, but this romance just pops up and it leads to a situation in the middle of the movie at Hawkeye's ranch, after the team has been mentally and physically dismantled by Ultron, Scarlet Witch and Aaron Taylor-Johnson's Quicksilver.
When Black Widow had her "Witch dream," it was about her training as a spy early in her life and there was a reference directly made to her being sterilized in a ceremony so that agents like her could never have their judgment clouded by having children. She confides in Banner that she feels like she is a monster for this because she can't bear children. This has been criticized heavily for so many reasons with regard to messages about femininity and Joss Whedon's misogyny and whatnot and many other things. My criticism of it is strictly this: If you're going to have this scene, then you need to have setup Black Widow's character more than you did to this point. A LOT more. We've never known this about her, not even an inkling into her past other than the scene with Loki in The Avengers where he called out a lot of her past jobs and talked about the "red on her ledger." How can we as an audience feel anything for her like this if we only just find out she has been feeling this way about herself? It felt like a move that could have worked if there had been ANY setup to it at all in the previous movies, but there wasn't so it seemed very shallow and extraneous. I'm not saying she needed a solo movie to do it, but that would have helped and if she DOES get a solo movie, it should be a prequel about that part of her life because we still haven't seen anything about it since this movie.
Avengers: Age of Ultron as a whole feels like a movie that tried to be a lot deeper and more serious than it had any real right to be, because a good deal of what it was teasing wasn't anything that we were prepared for and it just came out of left field. Aside from what I've already mentioned, there's the clumsiness of Thor's cave vision where he sees the Infinity Stones, which is just part of further clumsiness with his "Witch dream" in the first place because those emotions he showed about Asgard have never really surfaced before either. Not with Heimdall anyway. Jane Foster? Loki? Odin? Sif? Any of them would have been better. At least in the case of Captain America's dream we had a good amount of setup with the dance between him and Peggy, him being a man out of time and wondering where home is for him.
I know it seems like I'm doing a lot of complaining but there's seriously some good with this movie. The Hulkbuster fight is awesome and the VFX for the whole film is top notch. We get introduced to a lot of new and important aspects of the MCU, like Paul Bettany's transformation as the voice of Jarvis to Vision, the first mention of Wakanda as a location in the world and our first time seeing Ulysses Klaue, played by Andy Serkis. We also finally see The Avengers become aware of the Infinity Stones on some level, even if it's really only Thor that picks up on it, which goes hand in hand with the Mind Stone having been inside Loki's scepter the whole time and is now powering Vision's mind as he becomes a new Avenger. Action sequences and choreography are great, the orchestral score from Brian Tyler and Danny Elfman is solid, and we certainly leave the movie with the team in a very different place considering Thor has left the planet to track down information on the Infinity Stones and Hulk has flown away in a Quinjet, despite Natasha imploring him not to leave. We will not see either one of those characters again for another six movies, incredibly from this point. Also, the consequences of Ultron's plan to use the city of Sokovia as a planet killing meteor, forcing The Avengers to evacuate the city aboard a helicarrier and then disintegrate it into the water will be felt soon enough when Phase 3 begins, but before we get there we have to pay a comical visit to the man who actually created Ultron in the comics. Stay tuned.