It's been almost a year since the release of Avengers: Age of Ultron; and in the months following its debut, the once loud roars of anticipation have since fallen to little more than a whisper. Despite being tracked to gross a then-record $217 million in opening weekend earnings, AoU settled in just behind its predecessor, with $191 million. Since that time, Age of Ultron has been passed twice on the all-time opening weekend list- first by Jurassic World, and then, of course, by Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
Now, obviously the box office is just one way to measure a film's success, and it's a limited way at that. Critically, Age of Ultron was a well-received film. It has a 74% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and most reviews are positive, though not necessarily glowing. Overall, it was a good film that made a lot of money, and that's fine. But, this film had glaring weaknesses throughout, and fell way short of expectations.
Admittedly, Age of Ultron had it rough. It was the direct sequel to arguably the best comic book movie of all-time, The Avengers, and also followed the releases of Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy, two of Marvel’s most acclaimed standalone films since the first Iron Man. Expectations were sky high, too high in fact, for any film to realistically reach.
And don't get me wrong. Age of Ultron was a film I enjoyed. It was fun, featured a great cast, and had a lot of truly special moments, both as a standalone film and within the context of the greater Marvel Cinematic Universe. But, even after all this time, I still remember that slightly underwhelmed feeling I carried with me, as I left the theater on opening night. There was just something missing from what was supposed to be the MCU's greatest film- a lack of cohesion, a lack of focus.
Looking back now, AoU's problems are easy to diagnose. The film was bloated, bursting at the seams with too many characters, and side plots that just weren't all that interesting. Despite increasingly lengthy runtimes, there is still a finite amount of screen time in any given film. In the case of Age of Ultron, there just wasn’t enough time to provide the necessary character development for six returning Avengers, three new ones, and a villain that (who?) felt the most shortchanged of all.
Joss Whedon made it known, fairly early on, that AoU would shift its focus from Iron Man, Cap, and Thor to the Hulk, Black Widow, and Hawkeye, essentially giving more screen time to the three less featured heroes from the first Avengers. In theory, this sounds like a pretty reasonable idea. But, as we've discussed, there's a limited amount of screen time to go around, and when you give more to some characters, you have to take some away from others.
For instance, I appreciated the backstory development that Hawkeye received, but he shouldn't have been the character I felt most invested in. Age of Ultron was very much a story about Tony Stark, and how his deeply rooted insecurities and insatiable need to tinker, led him to create the Avenger's greatest villain in Ultron. Unfortunately, this character arc was never fully realized. The film builds towards this through the first and second acts, but it's essentially dropped by the third, as Robert Downey Jr. falls off the face of the earth in terms of screen time. In his place are Mark Ruffalo and Scarlett Johansson, front and center in what's possibly the most out of left field romance in comic book movie history.
Prior to AoU, fan sentiment commonly paired the Avengers' lone female with either Hawkeye, Captain America, or simply no one at all. Comic book movie romances are tricky.
They can't feel forced:
Or draw away from the main story...
And unfortunately Banner-Romanoff (Bannanoff?) did both. There's a time and a place where this pairing could have worked (a Black Widow solo movie, perhaps?), but Age of Ultron lacked the means to fully delve into this relationship, and build the foundation it deserved.
And it isn’t fair to blame Joss Whedon, either (yes, I'm looking at you Twitter). He was crippled with unrealistic expectations, as AoU needed to function as a standalone film, a sequel to The Avengers, and a lead-in to Captain America: Civil War, Thor: Ragnarok, Black Panther, and Avengers: Infinity War. It's hard enough to execute one of those things, let alone all of them!
I believe Whedon did the best with what he had to work with and with the expectations he was handed. Directing a film is hard. The decisions are endless, they’re nuanced, and without the all-mighty benefit of hindsight, it's hard to know, at the time, which one is right. No one bats 1.000 when it comes to good ideas. One idea might seem great in the vacuum of a writer’s room, but once it's been churned through the filmmaking process, you can sometimes get a very different final result than what was originally intended. This is how you wind up with a Dr. Doom that looks like this:
Or a Juggernaut that sounds like this:
So, was Age of Ultron bad? I guess the answer hinges on how you define ‘bad.’ It did a poor job at meeting expectations, that's for sure. Although, expectations were so high, I doubt any movie could have realistically met them. I think it's fair to give AoU a pass on how crammed it felt, and for being so paper-thin in terms of plot and character development. However, the character development we did see just didn't drive the movie in the way it should have, and that's something that can be held against it. Overall, I'd say Age of Ultron wasn’t a bad movie, but it wasn't great, either. AoU exists somewhere in that above average to good range. The things it did well, it did really well, but the things it did poorly were done really poorly, and there was little in between these two extremes.
I have a feeling that as time passes, and more well-executed, more ambitious Marvel films are released, the public opinion on Age of Ultron will worsen. Films like Guardians of the Galaxy 2, Black Panther, and Captain Marvel all have the creative potential to make AoU look like Spider-Man 3. Hell, we might find our opinion changing even sooner than we think, when Captain America: Civil War debuts in April. Early focus group results have been extremely positive, and if that buzz holds up, Cap 3 would prove that you can still make a great movie with an Avengers-esque number of characters.
Written by A Play On Nerds Contributor, Garrett Yoshitomi