Although it is highly considered one of the worst movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Avengers: Age of Ultron is one of the best. Not only is it one of the best, but it is the most important. Ultron was released in 2015, and was written and directed by Joss Whedon. Whedon, best known for television shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly, was also the writer and director of the first Avengers movie a few years prior. This is interesting to note because most films in the MCU do not have a writer/director at the helm. The only other person to do this is James Gunn in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. While teams often work well together in films, especially in bigger budget and multi-faceted productions like Avengers films, with one person serving as both writer and director of a picture there is an easier time finding the vision of the movie. Finding what the one point of the movie is. And it is that one point in Avengers: Age of Ultron that seemed to resonate in the rest of the movies that followed. It forever changed what the Marvel franchise was saying to the audience.
Before we get into Ultron, let’s take a brief look at what came before. Phase One of the MCU culminated in 2012’s Marvel’s The Avengers. The main purpose of Phase One was to introduce the players separately- the heroes, the villains, and what Earth-616 (the primary continuity/reality of the MCU) is like in the films. By the end of the film, the Avengers go their separate ways thinking their job as a team is over. The only promise for a return is in the foreshadowing words of Nick Fury saying they will return, “Because we’ll need them to.” So most of Phase Two, like Phase One, is spent separated with few of the crossovers that become a staple in later movies. Meaning, any of these films can be taken out of context, watched, and understood. One does not rely heavily on another. This changes after Phase Two.
After Ultron, the entire MCU is different. Although technically Ant-Man is the conclusion of Phase Two, it was originally intended for Phase Three, and in spirit fits that phase more closely, making Age of Ultron the true conclusion to Phase Two. After Ultron, every film is connected to it. Unlike how Phase Two seems separate from Phase One, Phase Three relies heavily on the Sokovia storyline of Ultron. The film sets off a chain of events that lead directly to Avengers: Endgame. Even the title of that movie (Endgame) comes from a line said by Tony Stark in Ultron. Without Age of Ultron, the rest of the MCU does not exist. They find their anchor in the substance of Ultron.
The most significant reason for this is because Avengers: Age of Ultron changed the game. It changed both MCU and the superhero movie genre forever. It is common in story analysis to look for the “so what factor” of the medium. A consumer must be able to take away the point, the moral, the purpose of whatever it is you’re giving them. Marvel has always been great at finding their so what factor. Just think of Peter Parker’s motto, “With great power comes great responsibility.” That sentiment is echoed throughout, not just Spider-Man, but a majority of Marvel media. The so what factor of Phase One as a whole is that you are stronger as a team than you are individually. A classic theme that is definitely an important message, but one that would not be able to span three phases of twenty-two films. So Ultron had to change it up halfway through.
Superheroes have side effects. That’s the so what factor. Like any drug prescribed from a doctor, superheroes are meant to have a positive result. They are meant to take away the pain, sickness, and evil; from the world, and fix the body that is the universe. But also like medicine, superheroes have side effects. And true, side effects may wear off, but they can still pack a punch when they first hit. By trying to save the world, the heroes also have the potential to destroy the world. If with great power comes great responsibility, what happens when heroes take that responsibility too far? In the movie, Ultron and Vision are the two personifications of everything the heroes could be. With that much power, the Avengers could take over the world. They could give up on humanity, blasphemously declare themselves evolved gods, and wipe away all life from earth to start over. Or they could take a back seat and watch as humanity slowly destroys themselves. But the Avengers are neither Ultron nor Vision. They are human (mostly).
This brings us to Joss Whedon’s thesis of the film. Towards the end, Vision and Ultron have a conversation about humanity. Vision says that humans are odd, but there is grace in their failings. Ultron tells Vision that they (the Avengers, humanity, the universe) are doomed; to which Vision replies, “Yes. But a thing isn’t beautiful because it lasts.” And there it is. The difference between Avengers: Age of Ultron and every other movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. A succinct line that means more than two hours and twenty-two minutes could ever hope to say. The Avengers are successful not because they are the best, not because they are the most powerful, and not because they want it more. The Avengers are successful because they are people. People that will show empathy- that will fight for those in danger; the Avengers are people who will avenge those that were wronged. Even if they were wronged by the Avengers themselves.
Whether it be in Captain America: Civil War, Avengers: Endgame, or any of the other movies that come after Ultron, they never forget this idea- this “so what”. Phase Three is all about dealing with the side effects of superheroes. Dealing with what happens after only some people were killed instead of all of the people. Because superheroes can’t save everyone. Sokovia influenced the rest of the story, and Sokovia never would have happened without the second Avengers film. So you don’t have to love it, you don’t even have to like it, but you have to respect Avengers: Age of Ultron for what it is: the most important movie in the franchise. It changed the game in the MCU, and made every writer, director, and audience member consider the full results of what a universe with superheroes looks like. It made everyone think about the so what factor of the entire franchise. It made everyone ponder what the point of movies, of love, of life itself; is if it one day must end. But we’re comforted in knowing that, “a thing isn’t beautiful because it lasts.” Protect what you love, chase what’s beautiful, and cherish everything while it lasts.
(Cover Photo: Empire)