Even in an era of box office mega-franchises, the anticipation for "Avengers: Age of Ultron" soared to heights as stratospheric as a helicarrier's cruising altitude prior to its theatrical release. After all, it was the sequel to the near universally praised and revered "Avengers," the first Marvel Studios film to unite all of its stalwart comics-to-screen heroes in one movie, written and directed with style, wit, pathos and abundant action by Joss Whedon. And in the process, it became one of the highest grossing films of all time.
When "Ultron" bowed, those expectations didn't plummet precipitously and disastrously Sokovia-style, but amid a mostly positive response -- and over $1.4 billion in ticket sales -- the film didn't land quite as well as the filmmakers had hoped. The general consensus was that that, like Earth's Mightiest Heroes, it triumphed in the end, but it did so despite some inherent flaws.
Revisiting the film on Blu-ray, it's not likely many opinions about "Age of Ultron" will change dramatically -- it will always be thought of as no quite as strong as the first movie rather than an "Empire Strikes Back"-style sequel, filled with a maturing of story and character. But with those lofty expectations now in check, expect to discover a little softening in the evaluation of the film, which reveals its own distinct elegance upon a second look.
Despite a packed house full of Marvel characters, Whedon adroitly introduces and develops each of the Marvel Cinematic Universe's new arrivals -- Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver, the Vision and the villainous Ultron -- thoughtfully and cleverly, while providing great character service to each member of the returning cast. Even Nick Fury, highly visible in other Marvel films but largely absent from the proceedings here, gets a few terrific moments.
Special care was clearly devoted to Jeremy Renner's Hawkeye, who got a shorter shrift in the first "Avengers" adventure has yet to headline his own movie. In "Age of Ultron," he gets as many, if not more, great, quippy lines of dialogue as franchise centerpiece Tony Stark, and a unique character dimension all his own. On video, Hawkeye's one-liners play delightfully, and the groundedness of the character comes off even more warmly.
The visuals also benefit from the home video translation; beginning with the opening chock-full-o'-Marvel-team-action sequence, the effects are inarguably ambitious and artfully designed. But many audience members -- myself included -- complained that the computer visuals too often felt a bit video game-y, even rough around the edges. On digital video, however, they appear cleaner and smoother, and the occasionally comic-book-splash-page-style construction plays better in the smaller, more constrained setting of your big-screen television.
In fact, all of the film's subtler qualities are enhanced by home viewing. Whereas the big screen experience emphasized the bigger, bolder elements of the film's sound and fury, it's considerably easier to appreciate some of the sharp but lower-key moments crafted within the film, particularly within several of the actors' performances -- Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo and Renner excel in particular -- as well as the surprising intricacies of Whedon's storytelling. Plot elements and story threads that whisked by in the theater feel a tad more organically connected on the home screen (how Ultron, the Vision and the Infinity gem within Loki's scepter fit together, for one), and the writers' gift for selling dialogue both clever and authentic-to-comics-corny comes through loud and clear.
Some elements remain problematic, however. The romance between Bruce Banner and Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow still doesn't resonate quite in the way it was supposed to, and for those who found the implications behind Natasha's Red Room experiences off-putting, another viewing probably won't change opinions. And Thor's excursion into the underground pool still feels muddled, even with the inclusion of a deleted scene that expands on the whys and hows of what's happening.
A second look at "Age of Ultron" reveals a wildly entertaining and action-packed entry into the canon of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. one that really only suffers in comparison to the original (and perhaps the two terrific films that preceded it in theaters, "Captain America: Civil War" and "Guardians of the Galaxy"). Like those second generation Avengers assembled in the film's closing scenes, it had some pretty big, overshadowing boots to fill, but ultimately, the movie certainly has the right stuff -- flaws and all -- to win the day.
"Avengers: Age of Ultron" is available now on DVD, Blu-ray and digital download.