‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’ spoiler review: The superhero sequel as epic TV story arc

HitFix certainly doesn't lack for coverage of “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” including Drew McWeeny's review and the whole staff picking the best and worst parts of the film. But as someone who's been writing about Joss Whedon's work for a long time, and as someone who's been covering “Agents of SHIELD” this season (more on that in a bit), I wanted to offer some thoughts on the movie, its place in both the Marvel filmography and Whedon's, with lots and lots of spoilers for the film (so beware), coming up just as soon as I remodel the dining room…

I have to admit to feeling a certain level of dread as “Age of Ultron” approached. The first “Avengers” was a fun movie, and a culmination of all the things Whedon had been doing on both the small and big screens. This is a weird thing to suggest about a movie that combined characters from a bunch of previous blockbusters and climaxed in an alien invasion of Manhattan, but the first film was relatively compact: six Avengers (one of whom spent most of the movie brainwashed and working for the bad guy), a villain who had already been well-established in “Thor,” and a pretty basic gathering of the team origin story. “Age of Ultron,” on the other hand, seemed from the outside to be too burdened by all of the problems of the modern superhero movie sequel. It had three new heroes in Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver and the Vision, a new villain who had to be built from scratch (literally and emotionally) in Ultron, baggage from “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” and other recent Marvel sequels, a more global scope, promise of an Iron Man vs. Hulk showdown, etc. It's the More Is More problem that eventually afflicts the likes of “Spider-Man 3” and most of the '90s Bat-sequels. And given the ambivalent tone of Whedon interviews like this one, I braced myself for a mess that even the great and powerful Joss couldn't keep contained.

But despite all those moving parts – not to mention teases (some intentional, some accidental) for multiple upcoming Marvel films – and a few threads that the movie drops near the end (specifically, everyone's anger with Tony Stark for causing this near-apocalypse), “Age of Ultron” turned out to be surprisingly nimble and sharp. Yes, there's a lot going on, but there's also a thematic unity to the whole thing, as the creation of Ultron and the antics of the Scarlet Witch prompts all the Avengers to ponder the line between hero and monster. And the sequel managed to continue the wit of the first movie (even if there's nothing quite as funny as Hulk tossing around Loki like a rag doll) while going emotionally deeper.

In that way, I think the movie benefited from Whedon's background as a serialized TV storyteller, and from the way all of these movies function in a way as a mega-sized equivalent of a series like “Buffy” or “Firefly.” “Age of Ultron” works as a movie, but mainly because it feels like a kick-ass season-ending story arc from a Whedon show.

I imagine it is an enormous hassle for Whedon (just as it will be next time for the Russo brothers) to balance the many overlapping agendas at Marvel and for the keepers of the various solo films, but at the same time there's an enormous benefit to their existence. Because War Machine's been in a couple of Iron Man films, for instance, Whedon can just throw Don Cheadle into this movie, not have to really explain who he is (there's a small bit of exposition at the party, but it's hidden under a Whedon-y running gag about how War Machine stories are more impressive to civilians than to Avengers), and then have him be a key part of the climax without it feeling like a deus ex machina. Similarly, the nightmares that Scarlet Witch's powers(*) trap various Avengers in are impactful because we've had a bunch of movies to get to know them and their concerns. If Cap only existed in these Avengers films, him being guilted by visions of the girl he left behind in WWII wouldn't mean much, but because we've had a couple of films (plus, for a small segment of the audience, a fine TV show) to get to know Peggy Carter and how the two of them feel about each other, Hayley Atwell can slip in for a couple of minutes and have a big impact.

(*) Scarlet Witch's powers in the comics are so hard to define – and have been so frequently altered over the years by different writers struggling to get their arms around exactly what she can and can't do – that I can't blame Whedon for essentially turning her into Jean Grey from the X-Men: telekinesis and a bit of mind control is just much easier to explain and convey than a bunch of technobabble about probability-altering hexes that can do everything from make a picture frame fall off a wall to eliminating 90 percent of the world's mutants. 

And just as showrunners can change the way they write for characters either based on what they see the actors doing in early episodes, or after looking back on how a season's arcs worked or didn't, Whedon got to tweak some things based on what happened in the first film. A Black Widow/Hulk romance has never been a thing in the comics, but Whedon saw the chemistry Scarlett Johansson and Mark Ruffalo had the first time around and wrote towards it in a way that enriched both characters. (And the amount of groundwork he laid before about Banner controlling his transformations because “I'm always angry” made an image like the sad but still gigantic Hulk squatting in the quinjet resonate so much more.)

Hawkeye was all but ignored for most of the original; here, Whedon goes so far to course correct that he builds one of the film's emotional cores around Clint taking the Avengers home to meet his wife and kids. You can argue about whether that sequence needed to be quite so long, but the scene where Clint talks to his wife (played with unsurprisingly huge amounts of warmth by Linda Cardellini) about how much the team needs him set us up nicely for his pep talk to Wanda in the final battle, just as his willingness to potentially sacrifice himself to save the kid had more resonance. During the brief time in the first film where he wasn't mind-controlled, he was barely a character at all; here, Jeremy Renner got actual material to play, and was really good. (I particularly liked the very weary look on his face when he realizes he has to go save the kid, and what that could mean for him.)

And despite the sheer number of heroes and villains, none of the newcomers really felt shoehorned in. Pietro and Wanda's story of being trapped in a ruined home with a live Stark-made bomb did a ton of character-building in only a few minutes. Ideally, Quicksilver doesn't die in his first appearance, but Elizabeth Olsen played Wanda's grief enough to make the sacrifice feel like it meant something. Paul Bettany found the right half-alien, half-not tone with which to play Vision, and Whedon and James Spader(**) took us on an effective character arc for Ultron in the space of his one film.

(**) I don't know if it was Whedon's intention or not, but given that Ultron was meant to reflect the darker parts of Stark's psyche, I appreciated having the role played by Robert Downey Jr's old “Less Than Zero” co-star.

As many others before me have noted, devoting so much of the climax to rescuing civilians felt like a direct response to the blithe carnage of “Man of Steel” – and a bit to the end of “Avengers” (though even there, we got the bit where Cap saved all the people in the bank) – and it was awfully welcome. Yes, these are all anonymous people, but too many of these films get caught up in depicting the epic battle that they forget to actually show the heroes being, you know, heroic, and I felt more affected by the various bits of derring-do here (like Thor flipping the woman up to Cap) then when they were just beating on the aliens last time around.

Again, it wasn't perfect – even if Whedon had no idea that Cap and Iron Man will be fighting each other in “Captain America: Civil War,” there needed to be more fallout between the two of them, or between anyone else and Stark, over him unleashing this nightmare in the first place – but ultimately, it's the rare sequel where more actually felt like more value, rather than just more distractions.

I can understand Whedon being exhausted by the whole endeavor at this point, and I look forward to seeing him do more personal work in the future. But he should feel proud about what he was able to do here, not just because of the high degree of difficulty that comes with being the keeper of the franchise, but because he made two terrific movies, and managed in many ways to make the second one better than the first.

Some other thoughts:

* I like the new configuration of the Avengers. It's a tradition of the team in the comics for the membership to change frequently, and War Machine and Falcon definitely earned their promotions from the work Cheadle and Anthony Mackie did in previous films.

* If the bit about the enchantment on Thor's hammer had been just there for the jokey party scene… dayeenu. But having it pay off at a crucial dramatic moment of the film – with Vision's ability to lift the thing answering everyone's questions about whether to trust their strange new friend – was wonderful, and completely unexpected. (That probably got the loudest response from the audience when I saw it today. Second-loudest? The cries of “That's some bulls–t!” from the people who stayed through the end credits, hoping Marvel was lying about there not being another bonus scene.)

* Hulk vs. Tony's Hulkbuster armor (or “Veronica,” which is perhaps a wink at Betty Ross?) was an impressive bit of action, but also effective because, like the climax, it remained aware of all the civilians in the area being injured and/or traumatized by this brawl between two godlike beings. That drives a lot of Banner's desire to disappear again, and the moment where Tony wonders if he can buy the building he's about to destroy before he destroys it was one of his more empathetic moments in a film where he's at times as much of a villain as Ultron.

* Earlier this week, I expressed concern that “Agents of SHIELD” had gone back to serving the needs of the movies, rather than getting to tell its own stories. I haven't seen the next “SHIELD” episode yet, so it's entirely possible that the extent of the interaction will be Coulson giving Maria Hill the tip about the whereabouts of Loki's scepter. But if this new Avengers facility in upstate New York is meant to be part of what Coulson has been working on without the knowledge of the rest of his team, then there could be some fallout soon. (And either way, a lot of this season's story arc involves setting things up for the eventual Inhumans movie.) I do wonder if, as this SHIELD vs. Real SHIELD feud goes on, someone is going to discuss the very public appearance of a helicarrier helping to save an entire city from Ultron.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com