Well, the only real story here is Joss Whedon trying his best to inject some life and character development into the Marvel formula, which everyone somehow, silently, seems to have decided has somehow reached a tipping point of becoming very, VERY formulaic. Here he has more main characters than most films have to deal with, introduces new characters, has a bunch of peripheral characters, and multiple storylines from the past that have to be woven into the present, while also setting up multiple storylines for agreed-upon plot points in future films. All the while providing MIND!!! BLOWING!!! ACTION!!! So, that he succeeded at all in making a semi-coherent film is amazing, and that he delivered one that is funny and involving and has good action and is not entirely stupid is essentially a miracle. Still, eh.
The movie is, you know, fine. I mean, quite good for this kind of thing, but somehow not as good as the first, and my God, they really are starting to get all the same. Anyway, we start in a fictional Eastern European city, where the Avengers spring into action to get Loki’s scepter from the last agent of HYDRA, or some such. We have a long unbroken tracking shot that introduces all the characters, although, as another critic put it, at this point, what do the words “unbroken” “tracking” and “shot” even mean? But I liked it, because whereas the last movie was all about bringing together the team, this shot shows us that now they are all operating together as a unit. Furthermore, there are numerous occasions throughout where they combine their powers in ways they hadn’t before. To no greater apparent effect, really, but they do, nevertheless. Anyway, a new character, Scarlet Witch, makes Tony Stark have a vision from the end of the first Avengers, with all the avengers dead, and aliens making their way to destroy Earth. He grabs the scepter and—title!
He discovers that there’s a massive artificial intelligence inside the stone, and he and Banner use it to complete Ultron, his idea of a bunch of robotic Iron Men to protect the Earth, so the Avengers aren’t completely on the hook. While they’re upstairs doing the “pick up Thor’s hammer” thing we’ve seen in previews [I wish it hadn’t been spoiled], Ultron pops right up, steals the scepter and takes off. He takes Stark’s stated objective of “Peace in our time” as his mission, and interprets that as having to destroy humanity. We are to understand that the phrase “peace in our time” is ironic, as it was historically hopefully spoken at an accord a year before World War II broke out [the actual quote is “peace FOR our time,” fun fact].
Now, Whedon stated that the original cut ran three hours, and it’s noticeable that several things get short shrift. First, Tony’s inner life [and fear] is always unconvincing, especially with his whole “Ha, ha, quip, quip, ha, ha” manner of speaking. Second, Ultron happens immediately, no gestation or development, but what I thought was especially lacking was the leap in logic that saving the world means destroying humanity. I mean, obviously the villain in this movie wants to destroy humanity, but I think it could have been much more powerful if we followed the thought process. Third, Scarlet Witch [SW] is supposed to be pissed at Tony because his weapons killed her family, but I missed any mention of this. There are just a lot of things that go by so fast or aren’t developed to have the strength they’re supposed to have.
There are spoilers scattered throughout like zesty bacon bits from now on, so be warned.
They have to go to Africa to stop Ultron from buying this super-powerful metal, which, honestly, I still don’t know why he wanted. There are also multiple Ultrons now, and one touch I did like is that you kill one, the next one is still Ultron. In here SW makes all the Avengers have nightmare visions, some of which are more effective than others. Black Widow is a ballerina assassin with a sad childhood? The rest are fairly rote, but Thor’s is key to the story [and a future movie] and honestly, all I saw was a bunch of drinking and partying. Even after he later descends into the mystical waters to explain it: still clueless. SW makes Hulk go, you know, Hulk, and he rampages through a city [offscreen], then Tony has to put on special armor to have a big fight with him, which perhaps pleases the comic fans, but pretty much stopped the film’s momentum. Then there is supposedly a worldwide outcry, which goes by in a blip and has no impact, and they all repair to Hawkeye’s farm, while a helpful title at bottom of frame reads: “Need to use the bathroom? Now’s the time.”
Turns out Hawkeye has a wife and kids, surprise. He’s kind of in the Avengers reserve program, I guess. Here Black Widow makes a play for the love of Bruce Banner, which I was frankly unconvinced by. This is your quiet character development, by the way, and it is quite noticeable that the film is purposely forcing it in. Whedon is saying “You WILL have character development,” although I’m not totally convinced it amounts to more than window dressing in the end, but I do appreciate that he tried. Captain America and Stark have a talk about the morality of creating AI and pre-emptive strikes and… I don’t know, I just find that the issues just don’t go very deep in Marvel movies. A big disappointment of the last Captain America, the one everyone said was so brilliant, was that it was supposed to make a big statement about the US involved in pre-emptive war, but not really… it was HYDRA all along! So they just dropped the conversation. Here, no discussion about the morality of Stark’s mindset goes very deep, and Stark himself seems to be incapable of self-doubt [or maybe he just won’t show it in public, but then can’t we have one, just one, scene of him privately racked by doubt? It would do wonders]. Anyway, I can’t even remember how this ends, but they go back into battle.
Oh I know… first they create the Vision, which was Ultron apparently creating his perfect body, but it got taken over by JARVIS [Stark’s Iron Man AI], and got the infinity stone from Loki’s scepter, and got an electrical charge from Thor, because of his vision, and—gosh, sure knew I had any idea what that vision was about! Some Asgardian bacchanalia, yup, but what does it have to do with anything? No matter, the Vision is quite awesome, and seems to be some kind of super-wise, ultra-powerful figure, sort of like the blue guy in Watchmen was supposed to be [said as a non-comics reader]. He’s a definite highlight of the film. There's a great moment involving Thor’s hammer which pays off from the earlier scene of everyone trying to pick it up.
In here, SW and her brother [there’s a brother] turn against Ultron because he wants to destroy humanity. He’s going to raise the fictional Eastern European city and drop it like a meteor, which I thought was a fairly creative way to destroy humanity. One thing they do, which I really liked—and which sets these movies in direct opposition to Man of Steel—is that the movie makes a HUGE deal out of saving the innocent local population. Anyway, big fight, they save the world. The Avengers go their separate ways, and the last shot is of a new set of Avengers, which… well, I don’t know what it means.
As for Ultron, he has good lines and is well-voiced by James Spader [and looks great], but ultimately he’s a bit boring. As noted, his plan doesn’t have much depth, and neither does he… the movie just doesn’t have time to let us get to know him, or how he feels about his sudden life, or any depth to his feelings toward Stark or the other Avengers. And I think it ultimately does a disservice to him as a villain that there is no ONE Ultron, because it inherently makes him a bit generic. He’s just kind of the rote bad guy, which is too bad, as what with Spader and other elements, he was supposed to stand out and be quite a character. But this may be one of the things the movie just doesn’t have time for.
So ultimately, I would have to support them releasing the three-hour version [if it DOES in fact go into some of the stuff that’s missing here]. First, I don’t get why they don’t have that version playing in one theater in each market, and sell it as some kind of super-deluxe experience? Or, if these films are the big epic ones amongst all the solo films, why not let them be three hours? The end credits show the Avengers in battle in the form of a complicated baroque sculpture, which I think gives a clue as to what Whedon intends with these films… grand, epic, world-shaking battles… but I can see where opening this up a bit more and filling in some of the things that are given short shrift would help us FEEL what’s at stake more, and what it means to these characters, and make the whole thing a much more powerful experience.
So in short: decent enough, gives you what you expect, will not disappoint. Could have been better, at the same time, it’s a miracle it’s as good as it is. And if you saw the last one, you could pretty much skip it.
You know you'll do what you want anyway.