The MCU has entered Phase 4 in 2021, and many of its movies and shows have spent time fixing mistakes made in Avengers: Age of Ultron. 2015’s Age of Ultron served as the partial conclusion to the MCU’s Phase 2, and though the film was a financial success, it was a somewhat polarizing installment in the Avengers franchise, with many viewers and critics feeling that its choices in characterization and story were questionable. The following films, Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame had far better reception, leaving Age of Ultron the closest thing the MCU had to an audience failure and the subject of in-universe maintenance for years to come.
For a film franchise that began in 2008, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been remarkably well-received. Supervised by Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige, the MCU films are spiritually faithful adaptations of their Marvel comic source material and simultaneously crowd-pleasing blockbusters. 2012’s The Avengers changed the pop culture landscape almost instantly by proving the marketability and success of comic book-style shared universe crossovers. Since then, the franchise has grown in recognition and prestige, with Black Panther even winning multiple Academy Awards. The MCU has dominated pop culture for years, but not all of its installments are complete successes.
Some MCU films are considered adequate, at best, especially during Phase 1, where the franchise was trying to find its footing and experiment in making shared universe superhero films. The Incredible Hulk is considered forgettable by some, and the larger MCU has rarely referenced Incredible Hulk in canon until recently. Iron Man 2 had a similarly lukewarm reception, with many seeing its overabundance of characters and storylines as the result of focusing too much on setting up The Avengers and not focusing enough on its title character. 2011’s Thor, while a success, ended with the destruction of the Bifrost Rainbow Bridge, which audiences had little interest in exploring further, so the plotline was quickly resolved offscreen with few mentions afterward. Age of Ultron, however, had many farther-reaching missteps, which 2021’s Phase 4 has recently begun to clean up.
Age of Ultron was not strictly a failure, and could hardly be considered the worst film in the MCU, but it was nevertheless underwhelming compared to its predecessor. In both financial success and critical reception, Age of Ultron couldn’t beat 2012’s The Avengers, and the film was plagued by behind-the-scenes conflicts between writer-director Joss Whedon and the Marvel Studios executives regarding its story decisions. Many of Whedon’s choices were criticized by viewers, ultimately resulting in Age of Ultron being one of the MCU’s weaker installments and the departure of Joss Whedon from future MCU projects.
Some of the key points of criticism among viewers were Thor’s Infinity Stone premonition scene (which many felt was out of place), Hawkeye secretly having a shoehorned in family on a Midwestern farm (a departure from the comic source material), and the romance between Black Widow and Bruce Banner (which was seen as forced by many). Moreover, Black Widow describing herself as “a monster” for her unwilling sterilization by the Red Room was understandably seen by man as a line and overall characterization that disrespected Natasha while being in poor taste. In subtle and overt ways, the MCU has gradually worked to rectify Age of Ultron’s shortcomings and controversies, especially in Phase 4.
The two Phase 4 properties that have done the most cleanup work for Age of Ultron are the Disney+ miniseries WandaVision and the feature film Black Widow. For example, Hydra, the Nazi-affiliated terrorist group from the Captain America films, was seen as lacking in menace in Age of Ultron, but WandaVision succinctly fixed this via flashbacks of Wanda Maximoff’s torturous experiences as their test subject, having her latent magical abilities awakened by exposure to the Mind Stone.
Age of Ultron also glossed over the death of Pietro Maximoff, a devastating loss for his twin sister, by hurriedly moving Wanda into her role as a new member of the Avengers. WandaVision took time to go back and highlight Wanda’s anguish over her brother’s Age of Ultron death, showing that, while she found some semblance of comfort in her Avengers teammates, she didn’t have time to properly work through her grief. Black Widow, correctly, fixes Natasha’s controversial “monster” line in regard to her unwilling hysterectomy. While Age of Ultron framed Natasha as feeling shame for her sterilization, Black Widow reframes the situation to highlight the horrors inflicted on Natasha and all of the other Red Room Widows in training. Ultimately, the only real monster was General Dreykov.
Another criticism of Age of Ultron was that its titular villain was lacking in threat level, especially when compared to other MCU villains and Ultron’s comic counterpart. Ultron was one of the greatest threats to the Avengers in the comics, and adaptations like Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes properly reflected this. The MCU’s Ultron was by no means weak, but his doomsday plot in Age of Ultron was thwarted by the Avengers within a week. Marvel’s What If…? fixes this mistake by introducing a new iteration of Ultron who successfully inhabits his vibranium Vision body, acquires the Infinity Stones, kills Thanos with ease, and threatens the entire multiverse to the shock and horror of the cosmic being known as The Watcher. What If…? creates a far more threatening version of Ultron than the second Avengers film.
Age of Ultron is one of the rare instances of a problematic MCU film, and while future properties mitigated much of the damage it did, the fixes only affect the MCU as a franchise. Retroactive changes, while more than welcome for fixing Marvel’s MCU movie mistakes, won’t change the original films themselves. Age of Ultron still failed to properly make a mainstream MCU Ultron a superlative threat, it still rushed through important characterization for Wanda, and it still mischaracterized Black Widow on multiple levels. 2021’s MCU movies and shows have been enjoyable installments that have repaired much of Avengers: Age of Ultron’s shortcomings, but they ultimately don’t make it a better movie.