It’s only slightly accurate to call Avengers: Age of Ultron a “sequel.” After all, the original Avengers spun off from three different solo franchises—and Incredible Hulk!—and the new film incorporates story elements from all the ensuing Marvel sequels and TV spinoffs. But the 11 films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe are separated into different franchises, with introductory Part Ones that lead into expansionary Part Twos. What is the Marvel sequel style? Let’s take a look at some key tropes, which are on display in Age of Ultron.
How all occasions do inform against our heroes! Fresh from defeating the Iron Monger in Iron Man 1, Tony Stark has to face off against vengeful crazy Russian Whiplash, heartless corporate poltroon Justin Hammer, and even the US Government—personified in James Rhodes, who initially puts on the War Machine outfit for an Iron Frenemy showdown. The first Thor barely even had a bad guy, until Loki’s Act 2 heel turn. By Thor: The Dark World, the chumpy Frost Giants have been replaced by the vengeful Dark Elves—but Loki’s still the unquestioned Big Bad, even if he spends part of the movie in an uneasy alliance with his brother.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier weaves together all its disparate baddies: Traitorous Alexander Pierce, vengeful cameo-hologram Arnim Zola, and proto-Crossbones are all working for HYDRA. But Avengers: Age of Ultron opts for the kitchen-sink approach: Fan-service baddies like Strucker and Ulysses Klaue; misled proto-heroes Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver; pontificating AI Ultron; heck, you could argue that the Infinity Stones themselves are becoming “bad guys,” insofar as Loki’s scepter causes mischief whenever somebody new gets ahold of it.
The Villains Have a Grudge
So you’ve established a superhero: Time to plumb the depths of his family’s past to discover hidden resentments that boil over into super-fights! Ivan Vanko in Iron Man 2 has a family grudge against the Starks. That’s also true of the Dark Elves in The Dark World—lead Dark Elf Malekith has a bone to pick with Thor’s grandpa. In Winter Soldier, Cap’s HYDRA enemies reappear in the present day, more dangerous than ever. And in Age of Ultron, Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver seek an alliance with Ultron because of bad memories from their youth—a traumatic few days in their ruined house, waiting for a missile to explode—a missile with “Stark Industries” written on the side.
At The Beginning, Things Have Never Been Better…
Iron Man 2 begins with Tony Stark in a mood of triumphant celebration. He used to be a beloved playboy cad; now he’s a beloved playboy cad who’s also everyone’s favorite superhero. The opening of Stark Expo is an Act One victory lap for a man who’s riding high. That’s about where Thor’s at in the early scenes of Dark World: The opening battle scene marks the end of a long war, and grants Thor the opportunity to return to Earth for a reunion with his lady love.
Cap isn’t necessarily happy at the start of Winter Soldier—he did just wake up from a seventy-five year nap—and so the initial freighter action sequence plays like an inversion of Dark World‘s opening scene, with Cap’s successful hostage-rescue mission revealed as a cover for Black Widow’s slightly-less-humane stealth mission. Conversely, the first scene of Avengers: Age of Ultron feels like the climax of an entirely different Avengers movie—The Hunt for HYDRA—followed by a rousing celebration scene that’s just a couple dancing Ewoks away from Return of the Jedi.
…But Almost Immediately, Everything Falls Apart
Tony’s dying in Iron Man 2, poisoned by the palladium that’s supposed to keep him alive. The center cannot hold: That’s the subtext of every Marvel sequel so far. When Captain America discovers that SHIELD is a HYDRA long-con, he has to go on the run. Thor goes on the run in Dark World, too: Disobeying his father’s orders by breaking Loki out of prison. And in Age of Ultron, the entire team has to go on the run. (Thanks, Hulk.)
In Iron Man 2, Tony Stark resigns as CEO, handing his company over to former assistant Pepper Potts. In Dark World, Thor tells Odin that he doesn’t want to be King. (Odin by that point has been replaced by Loki, something Thor apparently won’t notice for at least four years.) In Winter Soldier, Captain America officially leaves the government’s service for the first time since World War II. And Age of Ultron forces several Avengers to confront just how long they’re willing to keep on Avenging.
Old Supporting Cast, Meet New Supporting Cast
Were you in the the first movie? Good news: You’re in the second movie! Bad news: You might have to jockey for screentime alongside a bunch of new characters. Iron Man 2 finds room for deep supporting actors like Leslie Bibb (that one reporter) and Clark Gregg’s franchise-knitting Phil Coulson, not to mention promoting Nick Fury out of post-credits purgatory—even as it adds in new support like Black Widow and John Slattery’s extended flashback turn as Howard Stark. Dark World brings back two worlds of supporting cast from Thor 1, and gives Darcy the intern a love interest.
Winter Soldier is set decades after the first Captain America, which makes it an impressive feat that the movie finds time for the first film’s sidekick, love interest, and secondary villain. Marvel has a keen eye for continuity—a fact confirmed by Age of Ultron, which features appearances by several solo-franchise supporting characters alongside a raft of new heroes, villains, and support staff.
Black Widow Is Present
With the exception of Dark World, where Sif fills the role of Resident Warrior Woman/Vague Love Interest.
A Minor Character Dies
Nobody important, of course. Marvel Studios doesn’t really do “dark.” But the Marvel Studios sequel is the moment for, say, the sad passing of Thor’s mom (farewell, Rene Russo!) Her sad fate is to stay dead—unlike Nick Fury, who expires midway through Winter Soldier before a not-too-surprising resurrection. We’ll have to see how the events in Age of Ultron shake out. Spoiler Alert: All the really important people already have sequels scheduled.