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Marvel Studios is on a winning streak the likes of which I have rarely seen.  (The only recent comparison I can draw is Pixar’s incredible run from Ratatouille in 2007 through Toy Story 3 in 2010.)  Right before seeing The Avengers: Age of Ultron, one of my friends sent me a ranking of all of Marvel’s movies.  In response I created my own ranking (which I might publish on this site one of these days).  The bottom two films on my list were Iron Man 2 and The Incredible Hulk.  What’s astonishing is that each of the rest of the eight Marvel films on the list were all pretty great films that I loved a lot — and even those bottom two films were pretty enjoyable!  There really isn’t a true failure in the mix!  Over the past eight years, since 2008’s Iron Man, Marvel has done what had not only never been done before, but really never even conceived of before: they’ve created a vast cinematic universe of interlocking films, with characters and story-lines flowing from film to film in an epic continuing saga.  What’s even more incredible is that, at this point, they make the whole thing look so damn easy!  It’s astounding.  I know Marvel is going to stumble one of these days, but for now I am sitting back and loving every minute of this ride.

The Avengers: Age of Ultron is an amazing film.  I loved it.  Watching this film I had a huge grin on my face for the entire run time.  There are so many reasons this film could have been bad.  Sequels are hard and usually disappoint.  In addition to all of the main Avengers characters, this film introduced a number of new characters and we’ve all seen superhero films (particularly sequels — I’m looking at you, Spider-Man 3) collapse under the weight of too many characters.  Whereas The Avengers was the culmination of the first run of Marvel films, Age of Ultron needs to set up the next several years of story-lines, and that could easily have made the film feel unwieldy and unsatisfying (the fate that befell Iron Man 2).

But thanks to the incredible skill and talent of writer-director Joss Whedon and his astounding team of collaborators (overseen by Marvel Studios mastermind Kevin Feige, the guiding force behind all of these Marvel movies), Age of Ultron soars.  It’s a long-movie but it never drags, it is hugely enjoyable from start to finish.  It’s got enormous, staggeringly gigantic action sequences that astound, but it’s also deeply routed in character with some wonderful moments for every one of the film’s sprawling cast.  It’s serious and tense but it also has a great sense of humor.  It’s hugely entertaining on it’s own, and it’s deeply satisfying both as the payoff and continuation of these long-running characters and story-lines, while also managing to excite the audience with the promise of what is to come in future Marvel movies.  Can you tell that I loved this film?

If the first Avengers film had a weakness it’s that the first hour was a little clunky.  It took a while — and a lot of plot work — to assemble the Avengers.  Age of Ultron doesn’t have to do any of that hard work, and thankfully (even though the team parted ways at the end of the first film) it jumps right into a gloriously entertaining action sequence with the full team assembled and kicking ass.  They’re in a made-up Eastern European country, taking down Baron Strucker (a great character from the comics who appeared in the post-credits scene of Captain America: The Winter Soldier) and his hidden Hydra base (a nice piece of continuity with the revelation of Hydra at the end of The Winter Soldier).  One of the best moments in the first Avengers film was the incredible continuing shot during the Battle of New York in which the camera flowed from character to character, showing the entire team of Avengers in action in one continuous shot.  Age of Ultron gives us its new version of that shot, only a minute into the film!!  That’s a hell of a way to kick off the sequel!

The action in this film is just amazing.  It’s pretty astounding to consider how convincingly these latest Marvel films have been able to depict all sorts of crazy super-heroics, the types of things which comic book fans have dreamed of for decades but which, only a few years ago, seemed impossible to be convincingly conveyed on film in which real human actors with physical limitations always looks goofy and clumsy.  There is none of that in Age of Ultron (and there really hasn’t been in any of these Marvel films, though the degree to which the scale of these films has grown exponentially from that first Iron Man is truly impressive).  This film is jammed full of visual effects and incredible action, but it’s all so smooth and so convincing.  Even more impressive is the degree to which the action sequences have been choreographed with such incredible creativity, as we see all of the Avengers characters interact and fight together.  Just in that first opening sequence, I was laughing with glee watching Thor use his hammer to propel Cap’s shield, or watching Cap ride a motorcycle through bad guys and then throw said motorcycle into another group of Hydra goons.  I loved the action in the last hour of Man of Steel, but I can see where some people found all that action to be too repetitive, too much of the same flying and hitting.  There’s none of that sort of problem in Age of Ultron.  Each action sequence is marvelously choreographed, bursting at the scenes with creativity and ingenuity.  There are so many details I am sure I missed on a first viewing that I can’t wait to savor the next time I see this film (which will hopefully be soon).

As much as I loved the gloriously epic Battle for New York in the first film, what made me love The Avengers the most was the perfection of the characterizations, and the way that Joss Whedon and his collaborators brought each of the Avengers to life.  Each character had his/her own personality and worldview, and watching those personalities clash and bounce off of one another was amazing.  (The argument in Banner/Stark’s lab could be the best scene of that first movie.)  Thankfully, Mr. Whedon brings that same focus on character to this sequel.  Perhaps even more so, because he doesn’t have to waste time with the plot mechanics needed in the first film to bring the characters together.  The most joyous scene for me in Age of Ultron is the party scene, in which we get to see all of the characters hanging out with one another and having fun.  This scene is magnificent, a triumph of writing and performing.  It’s jammed full of tiny moments, each more wonderful than the next, and when each of the characters tries to lift Thor’s hammer?  So great.

It’s incredible seeing these characters together as a team, and of course it’s also great fun when they start to fracture.  Mr. Whedon’s script is very sharp in the way he finds true-too-the-character ways to start pulling the Avengers apart.  We get a glimpse into the secret fears of each of the characters in the film, as a result of the Scarlet Witch’s powers, and it’s fascinating.  (I feared Star Trek V “I need my pain!!” silliness, but thankfully that didn’t happen.)  As with the first film, the characters don’t come into conflict because of a trick of the super villain, but rather because of genuine differences in their approaches and personalities, and I thank heaven for that.  (I hate the false conflict of mind control.)  Well, OK, there is one instance of the characters fighting because of the super-villain’s manipulations, and that is the incredible Hulk-vs-Iron Man (in his Hulkbuster armor) fight, but that fight is so awesome that I don’t mind.

I love the continuing contentiousness between Tony Stark and Captain America, and also between Tony and Thor.  I love the continuing friendship between Tony and Bruce Banner, even as Mr. Whedon carefully highlights the ways in which they are different.  I adore the relationship that Mr. Whedon has created between Natasha and Bruce Banner.  What a surprising choice, and yet how perfect!  And then there is Hawkeye, who gets some much-needed attention in this film after having been the one who got the short end of the stick in the first Avengers film.  I was not expecting the look into this character’s life that this film gave us, but it was terrific.  (And how great was it to see Freaks and Geeks’ Linda Cardellini in an Avengers film??)

How good are all of these main Avengers actors at this point?  What a wonderful symbiosis between performer and character.  Is there any one of these actors who is not, at this point, absolutely note-perfect in their role?  There is not a weak link in the bunch.

This new film introduced a number of new characters and, somehow, due to the skill of Mr. Whedon, they all worked well and they each got a good amount of character development of their own.  Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch were the first characters added to the Avengers roster in the original comics all the way back in the sixties, and so I love that Mr. Whedon brought them into the sequel.  It’s interesting that Quicksilver appeared both here and in Bryan Singer’s X-Men: Days of Future Past film for Fox.  Those two films gave us wildly different versions of the characters and what’s amazing is that I don’t really have a preference!  Both characters worked in their respective films.  I liked the work of Kick-Ass Aaron Taylor-Johnson in the role here in Age of Ultron, though his fake accent was a little weak.  I loved the surprising ending given to the character, wow.  Elizabeth Olsen was also excellent as the Scarlet Witch (though she’s never called that in the film).  She also sported a spotty fake accent and the lack of definition to her super-powers was a rare off-note in the film.  (Rather than manipulating probability as she does in the comics, in the film Wanda has the power to make one feel one’s worst fears… and she also shoots red plasma from her hands?  Um, OK.)  But I loved the arc given to her character, and I loved that she and Pietro were both given a good reason to hate the Avengers.

James Spader was extraordinary as Ultron, taking his place as one of the great Marvel universe bad guys.  It makes sense to make Tony Stark Ultron’s creator in the movie (as opposed to Hank Pym from the comics), and I absolutely adored Mr. Spader’s hilarious-and-also-terrifying depiction of this character.  Ultron never did or said what I expected him to do.  This robotic killing machine wasn’t a boring Terminator, he was a wonderfully alive and idiosyncratic character.  Every scene with Mr. Spader killed.  And, again, it is so easy to take for granted the incredible visual effects magic that was necessary to bring this robotic super-villain to life.  Extraordinary.  I kept looking at Ultron’s lips when watching the film on a huge IMAX screen.  They were so life-like.  Amazing.

Then there is the Vision.  I cannot believe that the Vision is in this movie.  This is a character that I never ever in a million years thought I would ever see on screen.  He’s such an iconic Avengers character, but he’s far more obscure-to-the-general public than the other Avengers characters… and he’s also a character who is very comic-booky in a certain way, in terms of his backstory and his look, such that I never ever expected to see him on screen.  And yet, here he is.  And not only that, but I think the Vision is one of the film’s most central triumphs.  First off, what a genius idea to connect the Vision with Stark’s A.I. Jarvis, and what a genius idea to then cast Paul Bettany (who has been voicing Jarvis since Iron Man) in the role.  And then, wow, I can’t believe how perfect they got the look of the Vision.  He looks extraordinary!!  It’s an astounding practical make-up job, supplemented by some gorgeous CGI when we see the Vision float and fly and fight.  Mr. Bettany’s look and voice is perfection.  And when the Vision grabs Thor’s hammer??  Wow!!  What a perfect pay-off to the party scene from the beginning of the film!!  This is why Joss Whedon is amazing.  (I dearly hope the future Marvel films can maintain this degree of fun and character, now that Mr. Whedon seems to be exiting the Marvel fold.)

The continuity between these Marvel movies is a huge component of their fun, and it’s also something that can get tricky and will only get trickier as these films continue.  You want these films to connect and fit smoothly together, but you also don’t want them to be awash in exposition.  I feel that this film struck the right tone.  I didn’t need to see when and how the team re-assembled between the end of the last film and the start of this one — I was happy to just jump back in with the team in action against Strucker.  I liked hearing Cap and the Falcon make reference to their search for the missing Winter Soldier.  I liked that Tony and Thor talked about Pepper and Jane.  I liked that Cap says that he’s seen the Black Widow flirt.

As with the first Avengers film, I was surprised and delighted by how many supporting characters from the individual films also appeared.  I was expected to see Samuel L. Jackson back as Nick Fury (perfectly used in his Yoda-like role in this film, by the way), but I was pleasantly surprised to see Cobie Smulders back as Maria Hill.  I was thrilled to see Rhodey (Don Cheadle) from the Iron Man films and Sam Wilson/The Falcon (Anthony Mackie) from Captain America: The Winter Soldier.  That was great!  It’s fun seeing those characters, and it makes perfect sense that when shit is going down that all of these other super-heroes would be involved.  Also a fun surprise?  Forget Nick Fury — the real character who links together these films has turned out to be Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard)!!  Love that.

I was OK with not seeing Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) in this film — she got a good cameo in the first Avengers, after all — though I was bummed that Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) was again absent.  Hope she makes it into the next Avengers film.

Some other thoughts:

I loved that Loki’s scepter, from the first Avengers film, was a key plot point in this film.  I loved the revelation of what was within the scepter — suddenly the scepter’s ability to control minds, as seen in the first Avengers film, makes sense!!  (And I loved seeing Ultron use the scepter for the same purpose against Helen Cho in this film.)  Though, after learning the secret of the scepter, I do wonder why Thanos would have ever let it out of his sight.

Loved seeing the helicarrier again!

Loved the mention of Wakanda!  And I loved loved loved Andy Serkis’ short scene as Ulysses Klaue.  (“Klaw” has a robotic arm in the comics and, hey, guess what, in this movie Ultron blows his arm off!!)  I really hope that Mr. Serkis returns to the role for the upcoming Black Panther film.

So great to see Hayley Atwell back on screen as Peggy Carter.  And also so great to see Idris Elba back as Heimdall!!

Stan Lee’s cameo was perfection.  Excelsior!

I loved that one of the first reaction shots we see after the revelation of the Vision is from Wanda, and I love that we see the Vision rescue Wanda during the climax of the film.  (Comic-book fans know that the Vision and the Scarlet Witch have a thing!)

“Don’t touch my pile!”

I would have liked to have seen Tony struggle more without Jarvis as his constant companion.  I was glad to see Tony broken up when he discovers what happened to Jarvis, but I wanted to see the effects of Jarvis’ loss more during the film.  In a related note, I am uncertain what I think of Stark’s new gal Friday.  She worked in her short appearances, but she’s no Jarvis.

I would have liked to have seen a better introduction to Helen Cho.  She’s just dropped into the opening scenes, suddenly tight with the Avengers.  Who is she and where did she come from?  I seriously expected to find out she was a Stark-built android or something.

Loved the running gag about Cap’s dislike of bad language.

LOVED the quick joke about Tony asking how quickly he can buy a building he is seconds away from demolishing when fighting the Hulk.

Holy cow did I love the last line in the film before the credits.  Like many I was surprised that we didn’t get to hear Cap say “Avengers Assemble!” in the first Avengers flick.  So Joss Whedon, that jokester, decided to tease us brutally here in the sequel.  What a cad.  I loved it.

I believe this was the first Marvel movie since Iron Man with no end-credits scene.  That was a real bummer!  Those end credits scenes have been such fun, and they’ve become such an iconic aspect of all of these Marvel films.  I am surprised and a little disappointed that they didn’t include one here.  Especially since the mid-credits scene with Thanos was just OK.  I loved seeing the actual Infinity Gauntlet (albeit bereft of Infinity Stones) but the actual scene was sort of silly.  Thanos was so cool when we first glimpsed him in The Avengers, but he was underwhelming in Guardians of the Galaxy and underwhelming here.  We need to see Thanos kick some ass.  He needs to be built up better as a terrifying force of pure evil.

I liked the ending of the film, and I LOVED seeing the new group of Avengers assembled at the end.  I was a little surprised at Cap and Tony’s rapprochement at the end.  In the context of giving this film a satisfying ending it felt OK, but since I know that they will be again at odds in Captain America: Civil War, I fear it will fear weird for them to have gone from fighting in this film, to suddenly having made up at the end, to then again be fighting with one another in Civil War.  Since this film was ending with the heroes scattered, it might have been stronger to forgo the sudden Tony-Cap friends-again scene and have ended this film with the two of them still pissed at one another.

Speaking of continuity, the biggest gap in continuity I noticed with Age of Ultron is that Tony blew up all of his suits of armor at the end of Iron Man Three and yet, here, he’s back to having tons of different suits and other robotic projects that he’s working on.  It just emphasizes what I wrote in my original review of Iron Man Three, how that out-of-left-field ending of Tony blowing up all of his armors was dumb.  (A surprising flaw in an otherwise excellent film.)  I am glad Age of Ultron ignored that.

I could go on and on and on about this film, and I am sure there are a lot more aspects of it that deserve discussion.  That’s how jam-packed with greatness this film is.  I feel like I’ve written a novel already and I’ve barely scratched the surface.  I hope to see this film again very soon.  I bow in honor of the great Joss Whedon and his entire team in front of and behind the camera.  As I have written over and over again, it’s incredible how easy they make this look.  There is every reason why this film should have disappointed, coming after the enormous world-wide success of the first Avengers film.  But instead, Mr. Whedon and his team have produced an incredible sequel that is stuffed-to-overflowing with great humor, astounding action, and the type of super-hero versus super-villain throw-downs that I dreamed about as a kid and never ever believed would be realized with one one-hundredth of this degree of love and faithfulness on-screen as we see here.  To say that I am impressed is an understatement.  I am head over heels in love with the entire Marvel cinematic universe, and with Age of Ultron in specific.

Now, bring on Ant Man and Captain America: Civil War!

And Joss Whedon, while I am saddened to see you leave the Marvel universe (and while your exit does give me some trepidation for the future success of Marvel’s next phase of films), I thank you for your contributions to the success of this cinematic universe and I can’t wait to see what you’ll do next.  (Please let it be a Dr. Horrible sequel please let it be a Dr. Horrible sequel please let it be a Dr. Horrible sequel.)

“Avengers –!”

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