In the lead-up to the highly anticipated conclusion to the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s epic “Infinity Saga”: Avengers: Endgame, we’re taking a look back at the decade-long road it took to get to this point. It’s time to dissect Avengers: Age of Ultron and its role as the “halfway point” in the MCU.
As discussed yesterday, the general consensus on most of the second installments in MCU franchises is that they tend not to live up to their predecessors. Age of Ultron has been hit with this type of criticism ever since it came out back in 2015, with two of the main complaints being that it wasn’t dark enough after the advertising indicated that it would be and did some weird things with the characters like the Bruce/Natasha romance out of nowhere (seriously, when I first watched this movie I thought I missed a film where they got together) Steve Rogers reverting back to the semi-caricature of himself we saw in The Avengers, Thor being basically useless, and Tony’s infamous rape joke (seriously, Joss Whedon?).
The only original Avenger who saw a significant improvement in characterization in Age of Ultron was Clint, but even his arc got criticism by being set up to die by the filmmakers throughout the movie only for them to kill off a character that had just been introduced and hadn’t had much screentime in his place in order to help set up his sister as part of the team going forward.
And that’s probably the biggest criticism of all with Age of Ultron: that it basically exists to set up future movies, and when it’s not doing that it’s pretty much just filler. When the Avengers aren’t adding new recruits to the team or questioning the morality of playing God, they’re going on typical missions, having parties at the tower, and hanging out at a farm. Unfortunately, that made it seem slightly disappointing as a follow-up to one of the biggest and most impactful blockbusters of all time, but the silver lining is that it makes it an interesting re-watch as more and more subsequent installments are released.
First of all, despite the MCU being notorious for having so many movies, there are only a few in which we actually get to see all of the Avengers together. (To date, this and The Avengers are actually the only two movies that have achieved this, meaning Avengers: Endgame will bring the grand total to just 3/22.) A few others have had a few or most of them, but the majority of these movies are still solo outings. So when we do get to see the gang all together, the stakes are usually high. For all the talk of the Avengers being a “family” (which is actually debatable, but we’ll get to that another day) we rarely get to see their dynamic when they’re not in the middle of a life-or-death situation for the entire world.
However, in Age of Ultron, the Avengers have been “assembled” for a longer period of time than the first film, which ended with them going their separate ways. This gives us the chance to see how they interact off-duty, and makes it more meaningful when things go south for the team’s unity in the future. Make no mistake, this film doesn’t do nearly as good a job at setting up future emotional stakes as The First Avenger did for The Winter Soldier, but it does do a serviceable one; quite the feat for a movie that had a lot of plot and characters to juggle in a limited amount of time.
Even more importantly, Age of Ultron was the eleventh MCU film to be released, and will therefore serve as the halfway mark of the Infinity Saga when Avengers: Endgame comes out as movie #22 next week. Coincidentally (or maybe not) it was also made during a time when Phase 3 was being mapped out by the studio. It was becoming clear that the next two Avengers movies (then known as the first and second part of Infinity War) would be the last for several cast members. Now that they had a defining “end point” in some respects, the overall story they wanted to tell became much more of a focus beginning with this film (though there may be an argument for this starting as far back as The Winter Soldier). With a limited number of guaranteed films on the actors’s contracts, they had to fit a lot into the time they had left, so unfortunately this became the “set-up” movie and suffered as its own thing because of it.
But as I said before, watching it back now probably makes for a better experience than seeing it on the big screen four years ago. Now that we’ve experienced a lot of the payoff, the setup becomes more fun to see. And if looking back and revisiting things like Thor’s vision of Ragnarok and the first mention of Wakanda in the MCU make us giddy now, we can only imagine what kind of experience Age of Ultron will be after seeing the end of the Infinity Saga arc in Avengers: Endgame.