Have you ever seen a Marvel Studios movie with a little kid? If not, you really should. In my case, that has been my nephew, who is now 7-years-old. I took him and his father to Guardians of the Galaxy last year. He didn’t care that Thanos came off as pathetically incompetent or that it contained yet another example of a Marvel movie maguffin and third-act aerial battle. Instead, as the credits rolled he re-enacted all of Groot’s best moments, flashing a big smile the whole time. As we walked out of the theater, he kept quoting his favorite scenes, raving in a manner not dissimilar to Chris Farley’s old SNL bit of hounding celebrities with “Remember that one time you [did that famous thing you’re known for]? That was cool!”
I just saw Avengers: Age of Ultron with my nephew and his father yesterday, their first time seeing it, my second. In the two days which had passed since my initial viewing, I had been unable to talk myself into believing Age of Ultron was anything more than an enjoyable mess, proving that not even Joss Whedon could pull off the impossible two times in a row. “Wait, what if…” one side of my brain would say while the other would coldly reply “The movie’s has way too much going on, but you liked it. Just leave it at that and stop trying to make it out to be something better than it is.” As The Wall Street Journal put it, Age of Ultron comes off like “five movies in one — a Globe-trotting action adventure, Disaster movie, Revenge film, Domestic drama, and Mad scientist movie” leaving precious little room for its many emotional and story arcs to completely land. By the end, the status quo of the MCU is significantly altered, yet you’re left asking, “Wait, why exactly did everything just change? I get the gist of it, but there are some lower case t’s they forgot to cross.”
SPOILER ALERT: I’m going to spoil the first 15-20 minutes of the film, but only discuss the basic plot in vague terms beyond that point
The globe-trotting adventure starts in the snow-packed woods of the fictional Eastern European country Sokovia, the Avengers already assembled and descending upon the last remaining Hydra stronghold in the world which also happens to be in possession of Loki’s scepter from the first Avengers. The entire first minute+ of the film is actually one long uninterrupted take (suck it, Birdman!), Joss Whedon and cinematographer Ben Davis (Guardians of the Galaxy, The Debt, Kick-Ass) tracking from Iron Man in the air to Captain America in transit on motorcycle to Thor letting loose on Hydra agents in the woods to Black Widow being slinky and covert to Hawkeye being their sniper and The Hulk their muscle. Just like the first movie, everyone appear to be communicating via invisible mics/earpieces, and just like the first movie you probably won’t care because it’s all just so cool.
At this point, my nephew and I were likely operating on the same level, giving into the childlike glee of seeing all the heroes together and fighting bad guys, laughing at all the one-liners, the best of which come from Tony Stark, as per usual. Multiple times I looked over to see my nephew perched on the edge of his seat. He was among the many kids at this Sunday matinee showing to let out a loud cheer the first time Hulk graced the screen.
Then the questions came. As Captain America effortlessly dispatches the team’s nominal foe, Thomas Kretschmann‘s comically overmatched Baron Von Strucker, Tony exits his Iron Man suit and explores a secret passageway in the Hydra castle revealing an underground robotics laboratory. From behind, Elisabeth Olsen’s Wanda “Scarlet Witch” Maximoff waves her hands, red energy sparks flow into Tony’s head, and suddenly Tony’s looking down on some outerspace altar littered with the corpses of the Avengers. In the background, an alien army is invading Earth through newly created inter-dimensional holes. “Are those just replicas?” my nephew nervously asked before assuming the worst, “Are the Avengers really dead?” I could merely muster, “Don’t worry. They’ll be okay,” suddenly worrying we were violating the theater code of conduct by talking, even at a whisper.
This, coming immediately before the title card of the film, is an absolutely crucial moment of the story. Everything Tony Stark does from this point forward is tied to Wanda magnifying his fear of someday failing to protect the Earth and his friends because he didn’t do everything he could. Moreover, this is also when we first really meet Wanda and her twin brother Pietro, aka, Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). They have a legitimate beef with Tony Stark, as they explain later, yet they allow him to peacefully take Loki’s scepter in one of those, “Yeah, but if they didn’t do that there’s no movie, is there?” moments. They couldn’t have predicted Tony and Bruce Banner would use the scepter to create an artificial intelligence, the titular Ultron (voiced rather recognizably by James Spader), which turns into a maniacal murder-bot within a minute of its activation.
But, hold on. Is Wanda giving Tony a glimpse of the future? Will Thanos kill all of them? Or is she simply playing on his fears and anxieties? That’s an important point because she ends up using her power on dang near everyone to differing results. Moreover, does she actually see his vision too? And how exactly does she have her powers? Strucker experimented upon her using Loki’s scepter, and it gave her telepathic powers while also giving her brother super speed.
Wait, what? I thought Loki’s scepter could only turn people into brainwashed slaves. Plus, doesn’t all of this actively undo Tony Stark’s character growth from Iron Man 3, where he amassed a legion of robots in a PTSD-induced obsession before self-destructing them as a gesture of love and sign of his re-commitment to Pepper Potts (who’s mentioned but conspicuously absent in Ultron)? Has Tony actually learned nothing, simply moving on from robot army to basically creating Skynet which will in turn create its own robot army? And, while we’re at it, why the heck is Loki’s scepter even still around? Why didn’t Thor take that with him back to Asgard along with the tesseract and Loki at the end of the first Avengers?
Pish-posh to such nitpicking. Have we forgotten how much the first Avengers struggles to hang together? There’s an opening action scene which falls flat. It takes forever to get everyone on that hellicarier. Even when that happens, there’s a long sequence devoted to Iron Man and Captain America fixing a freaking engine together. Loki and Thor’s dual arrivals are thinly explained since neither should really be there based off the ending of the first Thor. It’s not completely clear if Loki’s staff is exerting some magical effect on the team while they’re arguing and that was his plan, or if his plan was simply to bring them together and let them fall apart as they naturally would, his staff having nothing to do it. We have no idea how Thor actually finds out that the final battle is going down at Stark Tower in New York since he’s not actually around when Iron Man and Captain America figure that out. The “Wait, I built in a failsafe even though I was brainwashed” solution is pretty hackneyed, and the “cut the head off, all the foot soldiers instantly die” conclusion a slightly too familiar sci-fi trope.
But none of that really matters because The Avengers is so unique and fun, “a summer event movie that felt playful and idiosyncratic, even as it skillfully delivered on its mandate to be just one part of a larger whole.” It’s more of an experience than a movie, something you feel rather than intellectualize. I have lost count of the number of times I have seen my nephew use the downstairs couch to mimic Captain America jumping down from the roof of a car during the Battle of New York. History is already repeating itself since on the drive home from Age of Ultron I saw him re-enacting one particularly first-pumping Age of Ultron scene. So, for a 7-year-old the sequel was able to work on the same level as the predecessor.
In one way, they are similar films. Avengers is essentially about the team coming together to help clean up Thor’s mess (in the form of Loki), and Age of Ultron is about using teamwork to clean up Tony Stark’s mess (in the form of Ultron, who is very cool but underdeveloped, scaring my nephew for maybe a minute before he adjusted). However, whereas Avengers was the culmination of four years worth of solo films Age of Ultron feels very much so like an oddly weightless transitional piece, as Forbes put it, “It hits all the marks, providing big-scale action and the required witty banter, but there is an air of artifice and irrelevance to the whole affair. The situations that occur in this fantastical sequel are theoretically world-changing and should be game-changing to the Marvel universe, yet the implications are either ignored or tossed off as if it were just another episode of Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.”
Age of Ultron feels like the movie we had to get before we get Captain America: Civil War, Thor: Ragnarok, Avengers: Infinity War and even Black Panther. The moments when it doesn’t feel like that, such as the early party scene with everyone trying to lift Thor’s hammer, are when it feels most distinctly Joss Whedon. In fact, I could have done with one fewer action scene in favor of more of the characters actually in the same room together and hanging out. Yet that’s exactly where I would differ with my nephew, who audibly sighed in boredom during one lengthy Black Widow/Bruce Banner flirtation/conversation. That’s that what reminded me of the insane balancing act Joss Whedon tried to walk with Age of Ultron:
- Reintroduce the team as a happy unit before tearing them apart and then reassembling them
- Weave in multiple surprise cameos from MCU characters we’ve never seen in an Avengers movie
- Introduce one new hero (won’t spoil who), two quasi-villains/quasi-heroes (Wanda and Pietro), a completely CGI main villain (Ultron), an arch nemesis for a hero we haven’t met yet (won’t spoil who)
- Depict a condensed origin story for Black Widow via dream/flashback
- Grant Thor a truly inexplicable mid-movie subplot that becomes extremely important without warning
- Tease out a Black Widow/Bruce Banner romance
- Try to work in themes surrounding evolution, the consequences of our actions and fractured father-son dynamics
On top of all that, he had to figure out how to top all of the action in the first Avengers, one of the biggest films of all time, and he had to do it all without boring all of the little kids who would be in attendance (for the record, it is a PG-13 movie).
The first time I saw Age of Ultron, I yo-yo’ed from moments of pure elation to consistent questions like, “Wait, that’s seriously what Ultron’s master plan is?” However, as the heroes fought the bad guys in the climactic action scene, devoting an inordinate amount of time to evacuation and civilian safety, I was acutely aware of how the years of pre-movie hype was culminating in one of the most extensive realizations of every facet of the MCU to this point. The second time I saw it I noticed my nephew jumping up and down in joy during the final battle, and we practically high-fived each other during the money shot which starts overhead before swooping down and around the room as all of the Avengers make a last stand. On the drive home, my nephew wanted to know everything I could tell him about Captain America: Civil War. This was unadulterated joy, unburdened by nitpicking and questions of why certain things happened in the movie. This was a kid watching and loving a comic book movie, and in its best moments that’s exactly how Age of Ultron made me feel, too. There just weren’t quite as many of those moments as I would have liked.
The Bottom Line
Marve’s The Avengers is one of the most purely enjoyable films I have ever seen in a theater; Marvel’s Avengers: Age of Ultron is one of the more vexing, trying very hard to cram too much into 141 minutes. It plays best to those who really know their MCU as well as the truly superhero-obsessed since Age of Ultron takes things to new levels of comic book geekery (e.g., fictional countries like Sokovia and Wakanda, new, massively powerful characters with oddly ill-defined powers, etc.). Joss Whedon isn’t quite able to pull it all together as he did before, burdened by the sheer weight of his MCU commitments. However, when Whedon’s truly in his element Age of Ultron shines.
YouTube’s OnlyLeigh pretty much nailed it:
AVClub: There’s a wonderful scene, for example, of everyone kicking back in civilian gear, downing cold ones while trying to lift Thor’s great hammer. Whedon, for a hot minute, feels back in his element. Or maybe he can just relate, struggling as he is to make something very heavy look light.
BadAssDigest: Age of Ultron is a better movie than The Avengers. From beginning to end Age of Ultron works, is tightly plotted (despite being long and incredibly packed with incident) and has wonderful character moments. The first film took almost a half hour to begin pulling its shambling pieces together, and it was at almost an hour that the movie truly hits its stride. But once it does, The Avengers, shaggy as it is, has something Age of Ultron doesn’t: a bunch of absolute fist pump stratospheric high moments. Age of Ultron quite simply doesn’t have a “Hulk… smash” moment.
Is This Really An Appropriate Movie for a 7-Year Old?
Depends on the 7-year-old. Afterward, I asked my nephew if there were any parts that scared him, and he claimed there weren’t. He hasn’t been keeping his parents up all night due to Age of Ultron-related nightmares. According to him, the most jarring part of the film was simply the way it opens right in the middle of a huge action scene. However, since he’d already seen Guardians of the Galaxy and the first Avengers he was used to that kind of action. He’d also already seen movies in which characters died meaning Age of Ultron‘s big character death didn’t traumatize him. There was some audible weeping from the other kids in the audience during that scene, though.