The strength of the first Avengers film is that all the real conflicts are psychological. Yes, there's a thing about Loki running around with a sceptre, and he brings some scary alien fish to conquer the Earth, but the conflict that drives the movie is whether the Avengers can function as a team. Can Thor fight his brother with the help of strangers? Can Tony Stark and Steve Rogers get along? Will Clint get his mind back, and will Natasha get her partner back? Can Bruce Banner keep his personal demons under control, or will Loki use them to turn the Avengers against one another? These conflicts mean that the movie is really about people, and our attachment to the characters propels us through the film. We aren't just rooting for Loki to be defeated; we're rooting for these complicated, flawed characters to learn how to get along. Because these type of conflicts are not well-developd in the second Avengers film, the movie is not as compelling.
This film starts with an action scene that shows all the characters working together as a team, which immediately felt unsatisfying. The previous film ended with all the characters going their separate ways, so what brought them all back together and made them BFFs? Then Tony goes home and makes the Ultron, which seems to take away from the character growth we've seen in previous movies. Then the Scarlet Witch comes and makes everyone hallucinate all their worst fears -- except Clint, who's done letting people mess with his head. This is where I thought the movie was going to get awesome. Everyone cares about each other, everyone is a team, and suddenly they fall apart because they're all lost in their worst memories of their past and their worst fears for the future. Thor was going back to Asgard to make sure it wasn't taken over by hellspawn. Bruce was leaving and he was going to convince Natasha to leave with him because she didn't believe she was a good person. Steve and Tony were going to get into a fight, because that's what Steve and Tony do. Then Clint, the only one whose mind is fully intact, would have to figure out how to reel everyone back in. But that's not what happened. The psychological conflict disappeared, and the rest of the movie was about vibranium and robots and Tony somehow turning Jarvis into...I don't even know what that was. Technology Jesus with a Thor cape?
I know relationships are on everyone's mind, so I suppose I might as well talk about those too. Over the past three years, I think my Clint/Natasha obsession has run its course, so I'm okay with letting go of that one. That said, I think the other films hinted at it a bit too heavily, so Clint's secret wife felt more like an awkward attempt to surprise the audience than an organic development for his character. There was too much going on in this film, so his wife ends up being a stock character even though I think the woman who would marry Clint Barton is probably a pretty interesting person.
I wanted to like Bruce/Natasha more than I did. I loved the lullaby and their flirtation at the party, but shit got real weird real fast. Suggesting that she get in the shower with Bruce seemed a little extreme. Nat's pretty perceptive about people, and I don't think LET'S DO IT IN THE SHOWER is a appropriate seduction tactic for someone as skittish as Bruce. And Bruce's answer to that is by the way, I'm not having kids with you? WHOA THERE BUDDY. I don't recall Nat saying she wanted to have your baby. When I think about it, I maybe understand what's happening in that scene. Natasha saw her worst memories from her past and feels like a monster, so she seeks out someone who can understand. Bruce just destroyed a city and now he's surrounded by the Barton Family White Picket Fence (TM), and he's thinking HOLY SHITBALLS I CANNOT EVER DO THIS. Both of them are feeling terrible about themselves, and they react to it in completely opposite ways. Unfortunately, I don't think that's what came through in the scene.
So tht was a lot of bitching, but here's some things I really liked about the movie.
1. Clint as a dad, which is also my new headcanon for why he spared Natasha's life. In the scene where he saves the boy at the end of the film, you can see how personal his mission is. He's preparing to sacrifice his life for this stranger's kid because he's thinking what if that were my son? Suppose his oldest kid were about ten years old, and that's also about how long Nat's been with SHIELD. Clint is sent to kill her, and instead of this fearsome assassin, he finds a teenage girl. He automatically thinks what if that were my daughter? What if his daughter were taken away from him somehow and raised by someone who didn't guide her a didn't love her? And he thinks about his own life, how he's done terrible things but got a second chance to have a home and a family. He would want to give that to Nat, and it seems like he did. His home is a place of normalcy and stability for her, and her redemption comes partly from his faith in her. This is also part of why I can let go of Clint/Natasha -- I feel like I got someting else interesting and satisfying in its place.
2. Nat is infertile. Although I thought the scene was poorly executed, Natasha's infertility resonated with me (infertile ladies of the world unite!) Even if you don't think you want to have kids, having that ability taken from you by an outside force hurts, and it makes you feel like an outsider in surprising ways. It makes you feel flawed. There's such a huge feeling of relief when you meet someone else who cannot have children. It's all the more heartbreaking because Natasha didn't want to give up the chance to have kids. She tried to fail her training in order to keep her fertility, and it's obviously weighed on her for the rest of her life.
3. Bruce leaving. This may be an unpopular fannish opinion, but I like the way Bruce's story played out. I read him as a very depressed person, and although other people love him, he's not yet able to love himself. He's not really processing how much other people care about him, and he sees himself as very isolated even though Tony and Natasha both understand what it's like to be a monster. These things feel like a very realistic portrayal of depression to me.
4. Steve staying, and Natasha staying with him. Steve felt like the only character who developed in the film, even though it was mostly peripheral and happened at the end of the movie. Since he woke up, he's been trying to get his old life back. Today he finally accepted that life is gone, and that person has changed. He's not trying to get the Barton family picket fence. He's a soldier, and he's a good one. He's sticking around to fight the good fight -- and so is Natasha. She thought she had a relationship, and now she doesn't, so she's going back to her true family: the Avengers.
5. All scenes involving worthiness and the hammer. There is nothing else I need to say about this.