Age of Ultron is a movie burdened by its creators with the need to fix the flaws of previous Marvel Cinematic Universe entries, and it is nearly crushed under this weight. Director Joss Whedon has taken on a huge job, creating one of the most dense and complex films in a mid-point in the series. The film attempts to be a pivot upon which the other films in the series can move around, while also being a complete and satisfying entry in its own right. Perhaps the best analogy for this film is found in the film itself, with the new character Ultron.
Ultron, portrayed by James Spader in a role completely unencumbered by the computer generated artistry we see onscreen, is the latest mechanical creation of Tony Stark. An AI designed to protect the world from extraterrestrial threats, Ultron decides mere seconds after activating that the Avengers are standing in the way of humanity's progress, and must be destroyed utterly. As he learns more and has more experiences, this merciless outlook extends itself to the rest of humanity, as he plans to destroy human civilization and replace it with a race of superior AIs, in human/machine hybrid synthetic bodies.
The duality of Ultron's plan is mirrored in the movie's split goals: To retain everything we love about previous Marvel films while trying to satisfy the demands of its critics. Of course a house divided can not stand, and the cracks in the foundation begin to show as the movie goes on to check all the boxes that most film critics cite as problems with previous Marvel films.
No characters die in Marvel films? Well this time, one does. The series is cheap looking and sterile? This one is incredible in scope and theatricality. The villains of the series and simple and forgettable? Ultron is complex and intense, perhaps the best role in the film. Secondary Avengers aren't getting their due? We get so much time spent with Hawkeye, the Hulk, and Black Widow, it feels like core members Captain America, Iron Man, and Thor don't have enough room to breathe.
Age of Ultron does an admirable job trying to fix all the problems of previous entries in series, and does manage to tackle them without drowning out the things that have kept series fans coming back to the theater. However the question needs to be asked: Did some of these flaws really need fixing? There is character death sure, but it is unsatisfying, and feels more like we're losing an awesome character before he has a chance to really shine. The action is more cinematic and complex, but has simultaneously become harder to follow. Add to these weaknesses a pointless subplot starring Thor, and a little bit too much time spent on cameos of other beloved MCU characters.
The things that fans have loved and critics have cited as strengths in the series are still here though. The characters we have come to know so well are here in full force, everyone gets snappy one-liners and fulfilling character interactions that make these people a joy to watch together. The new characters step perfectly into place in this world as well, keeping pace with their more-established counterparts and leaving this fan wishing for more. The brisk pace of the film is its own salvation, keeping the movie's less solid elements from crumbling under more time spent load-bearing.
The simultaneous failures and successes of this film left this fan feeling somewhat unsatisfied coming out of the theater. Yes, the movie was a great time, and never felt slow or boring, but as some people have pointed out, it manages to feel too long and not long enough simultaneously. This strange feeling is the result of a movie that is just barely able to pull the disparate strings of its own goals together into a complete web. I feel sorry for all the friends and family of True Believers who get dragged to see this though. If you aren't already on-board for the ride, this film does little to entice you to change your mind or catch you up.
Like a superhero lifting a bus over his head, the sight of a film that is strong enough to carry all this and balance it all is impressive, but one has to wonder if future entries in the series will be able to do the same. The cracks are starting to show, and hopefully future "course-corrections" and balancing acts won't destroy future films as they attempt to build to new heights on this cracked but ultimately stable foundation.