One of the biggest questions on everyone's mind after the game-changing, record-shattering, audience-wowing original was "How do you follow THAT up?"
Well, if the original movie was geek icon Joss Whedon finally showing the full oceanic expanse of the potential in bringing everything lovably loopy and dense and fantastic from the pages of comic books to blockbuster cinema, then Age of Ultron is Whedon diving into those waters head-first and seeing just how deep he can go.
And in doing so, he makes it impossible for the next guy(s) to do the same thing.
Part of what made the first Avengers so broadly appealing was...well, how broadly appealing it was. It was approachable, with lots of shortcuts and quick strokes used to establish or re-establish characters, dialogue that was both snappy/entertaining and informative, and action that gave insight into the team that otherwise would take a long time to convey. Lots of function on display, but it came at the expense of a deeper look at those involved. There wasn't a whole lot of time for smaller character beats and quiet introspection because the film had to lead in as wide an audience as possible as easily as possible.
The sequel has the benefit of following the single biggest hit (and arguably the most well-liked film) of this decade, along with a string of successive blockbusters, that have already firmly cemented countless details of the ongoing Marvel Cinematic Universe (or MCU) in the broader popular culture. After audiences turned out in droves to see a movie about a previously nigh unheard-of team featuring a talking racoon and a walking tree, Marvel has an understandable swagger in their step when it comes to approaching the dense and silly world of interconnected comic narrative. And Age of Ultron is proof of that.
Picking up where Captain America: The Winter Soldier left off, with Hydra exposed and squarely in our heroes' cross-hairs, Avengers: Age of Ultron begins with the introduction of a returning MacGuffin in the form of Loki's mind-controlling scepter, and the characters of "enhanced" humans Pietro Maximoff and his twin, Wanda (Quicksilver and Scarlett Witch, respectively), who have bad blood with Stark. They find they have an enemy in common with the titular Ultron, an A.I. that Stark develops as a way to supplant/succeed the Avengers in protecting the world (Ultron, of course, has his own ideas about what it takes to protect the world). The theme of legacy and parents and their children runs strongly throughout this film, with Ultron himself giving birth to a Vision that's beyond even his considerable control. Along the way, the team that rose in the streets of New York comes crashing down in their first attempt to stop the A.I. menace, when their own diverging goals and personalities and psychological baggage come to light.
This is where Age of Ultron is strongest, in providing the richer, more personal character moments and personal scenes that serve to anchor (and, in fact, drive) the action of the film. And Marvel is finished leading the audience by the hand - major character decisions are tethered to other movies in the MCU, and while they make perfect sense as presented (thanks to Whedon's skill at paying off early references and recapping plot in a way that feels like character banter instead of exposition), it's almost like Ultron has the sort of required reading that the first film didn't. Stark may not be suffering the anxiety attacks he had in Iron Man 3, but he's still fixating on the alien portal that necessitated the Avengers in the first place to the point of obsession, and that's what drives him to create "a suit of armor around the world." Cap is accused of being unable to "live without war" and finds it hard to argue this fact, as he's been so unable to find his way home since coming out of the ice. Natasha just spent the first Avengers movie wondering what she was doing in the company of gods, only to find out in Winter Soldier that she also doesn't belong at S.H.I.E.L.D. either, so she chases a romantic connection to Banner.
Rather than being quickly sketched as they were last time, these elements get much more room to grow, particularly in a standout middle section where the Avengers are forced to go to ground and Clint Barton/Hawkeye (yes, the guy with the bow and arrow) actually emerges as one of the film's MVPs, both in function and in thematic subtext. But the film never feels lacking for action either, packing in more (and better and more complex) set pieces than the first film, while always keeping the stakes grounded in the team, their wants, their needs, and Ultron's opposition thereto.
Speaking of Ultron, he's a hoot. The MCU has only had a couple notable villains (namely Loki and Red Skull) who served to be memorable outside of the fact that they were in enjoyable movies, but Ultron manages to give a fresh, fun, and surprisingly (but also wholly appropriately) human spin on the "A.I. becomes aware and starts making evil robots" routine that we've become so accustomed to. And the acerbic personality he inherits from his "father" Tony also makes him prone to illogical outbursts that play well off of his coldly calculating solution to humanity's need to evolve.
Whedon packs these characters and contradictions and plays-on-opposites so densely into Age of Ultron that the film is full-to-bursting, so much so that you can really see the seams a lot more than you could in the first outing. But somehow, miraculously, it still works, with each character and cameo and winking "You know this will be important for Future Marvel Movie X" moment also serving a wholly functional purpose in this film (unlike, say, the unwieldy Iron Man 2), and even uses "fluffy" comedic scenes that most films would forget about as integral set-up for a major payoff three acts later in the film. Whedon also slyly subverts your expectations for a finale that manages to be as heart-breaking as it is high-flying, and while there's nothing as fist-pumpingly iconic as that shot of the Avengers finally assembled on the streets of New York, this second film delivers on a deeper look at those personalities while still letting them cut lose in gloriously heroic spectacle.
Marvel bet the farm on Whedon's ability to balance team dynamics and genre storytelling with the first Avengers, and with Age of Ultron he makes it abundantly clear that they picked absolutely the right man for the job. But Whedon makes one other thing clear: this can't be replicated. This is the last time the "team of heroes fights a charismatic villain and his army of CGI mooks" blueprint can truly sing the way it did in the first two films. Something's gotta give next time, something major has to change.
Whedon himself actually acknowledges this in the context of the movie, with a final sequence that is as bittersweet as it is an exciting resetting of the table for what's to come (and still manages to pay off a series of smaller moments earlier in the film - seriously, this guy is magic). Age of Ultron is the end of an era, not just in that it's the culmination of Phase 2 of the MCU, Whedon's last time in the director's chair and ostensibly the end of his run as "caretaker" of these characters' interwoven stories. It's the last time this structure can work without really being shaken up.
The mold has been broken.
But like the man said, "a thing isn't beautiful because it lasts."