In light of more visually dazzling and weirder movies that have come since, it’s easy to forget just how efficient the storytelling is in Avengers. It literally begins with an Infinity Stone (the Tesseract) and the back of Thanos’ throne: from there, we’re quickly introduced to everyone in scenes that reveal their core: Black Widow/Natasha plays the victim and then the ass-kicker with Russian arms dealers; Captain America/Steve hits a punching bag while having conveniently expository flashbacks; Iron Man/Tony flies around in his suit, then acts like a charming jerk to his girlfriend, who gives as good as she gets; and Thor and Loki have a quick conversation that explains the entire plot of the first Thor movie in two minutes. By the end of this first cinematic act, we reveal Thanos as the big bad for the series.
Skipping directly to Age of Ultron requires being slightly more engaged than one who’s seen every plot point in between; sometimes the line that fills in the gap is a throwaway. Yes, they just had Loki’s scepter and now they’re going to get it again from different bad guys, but a quick reference to “the fall of SHIELD” is the only explanation needed. Both Cap and Tony suddenly have new best friends they bring to a party, but Rhodey/War Machine pays off later. Falcon/Sam does not– he isn’t useful until Infinity War. Age of Ultron has aged well, and its connective-tissue, so frustrating at the time, is now essential. It’s where we first hear about Wakanda, and it explains the Infinity Stones. And Thor’s vision of Asgard and Heimdall being destroyed better matches Infinity War‘s opening without the comedy of Ragnarok in between.
One thing Age of Ultron doesn’t do is explain the Thanos connection to Ultron. Why does he say “Fine, I’ll do it myself” unless he were somehow pulling the strings on Ultron as well as Loki? Ultron’s origins remain vague: Hydra was trying to build this robot first, and Tony wanted a planetary defense legion? Somehow a combination of the two makes the bad guy. But if the artificial brain that comes from the Mind Stone was somehow a Thanos poison pill to clear away opposition from the Earth, that’s unclear. Though Infinity War‘s extras (not the movie itself, though) repeatedly state that Thanos was manipulating everything the whole time. Viewing the other Marvel movies doesn’t really answer that, and you wonder why the Avengers fall for the same villain trick two movies in a row: manipulation by the Mind Stone to turn them against each other, and induce a maximum-damage Hulk-out.
Age of Ultron establishes that new superheroes can basically just show up in the Avengers story, with the introduction of Wanda/Scarlet Witch and Pietro/Quicksilver. This is essential before Infinity War, where Dr. Stephen Strange and Spider-Man are added to the mix. Strange tells Tony all the audience needs to know about himself, and Spider-Man…well, it’s safe enough to assume people know already. Black Panther and his supporting cast are obviously the leaders of the country, but once again, Cap suddenly has a new teammate in Bucky. Thor and Hulk went their own way at the end of Ultron, so they might as well both be on an Asgardian ship with Loki. By Infinity War the Guardians of the Galaxy aren’t as weird an insertion as you’d think. Hey, a wacky space crew–why not? Once Gamora’s history is explained, the full connection is clear
Infinity War plays like a bonkers third act, full of action and constantly switching locations. It also shifts the storytelling dynamic: the tension between Cap and Tony’s different approaches was the driving force in the first two films, with the good soldier going steadily more rogue, and the libertine becoming an authoritarian. Obviously Civil War was the payoff to that, and while its plot points aren’t essential, it’s evident Cap and Tony haven’t stayed friends. Now, Thor is the primary hero and has his first real arc in an Avengers movie, one that also brings closure to Loki’s storyline from our first film.
Thanos is one here of a character to wait to properly introduce in a story’s third act, but realistically, Age of Ultron is already a really long and stuffed movie. Again, some actual plot information connecting Ultron and Thanos would help, but it’s not like that’s in any other Marvel movie; it’s more a general omission. Infinity War, particularly in Josh Brolin’s performance, gives us as much as we need to know for the final battle to take place.
Since this sub-series began with the agents of SHIELD, it’s fitting that the final scene comes back to them. We know it’s not final-final, as an onscreen title has told us Thanos will return. But if it did end here, it would conclude the Avengers trilogy just as it has the larger Marvel arc, as the tale of a team who ultimately met their match, a villain’s plan that succeeded on the third try, and a Nick Fury dream (assembling a super-team to protect from space threats) that just didn’t work. The story, on the other had, works just fine.
Images: Marvel Studios