Marvel's Avengers Assemble burst onto our cinemas screens as a remarkable Victory Lap for "Phase 1" of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. These days, with "universes" being quite the thing for big franchises, it's easy to forget that it was a really astounding achievement - a series of stand-alone movies with different characters that build to a giant cross-over incorporating elements from each of them. Not only did all these films get made - but they were all pretty good, and all pretty successful, and Avengers Assemble went on be a enormous smash hit, a rowdy, crowd-pleasing smash hit. A fews year on the MCU has become a seemingly unstoppable juggernaut; it's last two films, The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy, are amongst it best, and most successful, and now "Phase 2" is rounded out with another great big crossover - Avengers: Age of Ultron. (warning: light spoilers)
Is this best viewed as the second Avengers movie, or the eleventh Marvel one? I mean, what is it, at heart? A sequel to Avengers Assemble? A prelude to Captain America 3 and The Infinity War, both coming in the next few years? It is carrying it's own story, that of a rogue AI peacekeeper and a crisis at the heart of The Avengers themselves, or is it merely a waypost, from here, to there. Are these characters reaching conclusions, or merely forks in their road, driving off into the sunset but to a new starting line, for the next film they'll be in? The answer of course is that Age of Ultron wants to be all of these things, desperately tries to be all of these things, and to be fair to it, very nearly is.
So to keep to the main story of the film; the Avengers are in action, rooting out Hydra bases left over from The Winter Soldier and aiding Thor in finding Loki's Scepter left over from Avengers Assemble. The two are helpfully linked, and after a big action opening "science bros" Tony Stark and Bruce Banner use the technology of the Scepter to boost their automated defence program - Ultron - into a fully working protocol. Inevitably, it goes a bit wrong, and soon we have a James Spader-voiced Murderbot trying to tear the team apart with the aid of troubled twins Pietro and Wanda Maximoff, who have speed powers and telepathy/telekinesis/other powers respectively. This crisis causes a mass outbreak of introspection in between a bunch of big action sequences. Every keeping up so far?
There is a lazy criticism of these sorts of films that they're just to overstuffed with esoteric knowledge that you need to be a "fan" to understand. In some senses, yes, Age of Ultron is dense, but at the same time I think you pick your own level of involvement - most of this stuff is explained within the film, albeit fairly breezily, and if you want to dig in and get all the other links and tie-ins then they're there for you too. Loki's Scepter can be a relic of an earlier movie, an Infinity Stone, and a bunch of other stuff, or it can just be a magic techno-stick that has an alien computer in it. I think you can gain a benefit from knowing and seeing these characters exist in a wider world without encyclopedic knowledge of the world, and for a "fan" like me it's nice to see Rhodey and Sam and the like drop in.
Amongst all these complexity too, there is a nice thematic through-line to the movie that works pretty well, and that is the idea of change, and succession. Ultron, clearly, is Frankenstein's Monster, turning on his father. Clint has his (unexpected!) family, Bruce and Natasha both stand in a family home lamenting how that possible future has been taken from them forever. Steve fears he had it, and them let it go. Thor sees a future in which his power has destroyed everyone he cares about. The Maximoffs, representing the threat and promise of the next generation, ultimately have to chose which of things they will be. The threat to the Avengers, ultimately, isn't an army of killer robots, it's themselves.
Which sounds pretty deep, but this is compressed and short-handed into about 40 minutes of the movie, so there is plenty of time to marvel at how cool that Hulk vs VERONICA fight is, or how the snappy dialogue remains a total treat, and the vital of question of "if you put Thors hammer in an elevator, and it goes up, is that elevator worthy to Rule Asgard?"
Age of Ultron isn't perfect, by any stretch of the imagination. It's just trying to do too much, and so nothing quite gets the time to breathe. A couple of big beats - especially the strange, final loop of the main incarnation of Ultron, up down, and flying around - feel like they got messy because they needed characters to exit the movie in the right place. A lot of the familiarity is comfortable, and joyous, but the faint, early warnings of over-familiarity are starting to show, but that said, at the end of the movie The Avengers themselves have evolved, changed, and moved on. The MCU now moves onto Phase 3, promising new characters and new conflicts (and New Avengers) with Thanos and the Infinity War firmly on the horizon.
Oh, and finally, because it's seemingly obligatory, by personal list of MCU films, in order:
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Guardians of the Galaxy
Captain America; The First Avenger
Avengers: Age of Ultron
Iron Man 3
Thor: The Dark World
Iron Man 2
The Incredible Hulk