Avengers: Age of Ultron (****)
Running Time: 141 minutes
Director: Joss Whedon
HANDS up if you’re bored of comic book movies yet; well if you’re one of the few with your arm in the air then you’re either lying to yourself, or just can’t escape the spells wielded by Marvel’s marketing machine. From post-credit stings to television spin-offs, the comic book giant have created an unparalleled movie universe that shows no signs of coming to a close anytime soon. And as it turns out, this multifaceted approach to film-making may be the one weakness that Earth’s Mightiest Heroes can’t overcome in Joss Whedon’s superhero epic sequel Avengers: Age of Ultron.
During a mission to retrieve Loki’s sceptre from the clutches of HYRDA, Tony Stark stumbles upon the key to unlocking the Ultron programme – an artificial intelligence-powered defence programme that could lead to peace in our time. However, Ultron’s warped sense of logic sets him on course for global destruction, determining that the Avengers, and the feeble human race they’ve sworn to protect, are in fact the greatest threat to the planet.
A whopper of an opening scene sets the pace for rest of the film, as Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, the Hulk, Hawkeye and Black Widow collectively leap from the toy box and into the first of many action packed sequences that act as checkpoints throughout. For the first of this year’s summer blockbusters, it’s sets the bar relatively high in terms of bombastic, Hulk-smashing battles which are a visually spectacular, intoxicating sugar rush for the eyes, absolutely mopping the floor with recent attempts made by the Transformers franchise or 2013’s Man of Steel.
The long-touted scene that pits a rampaging Incredible Hulk against a cocky, heavily-armoured Iron Man is full of bone-crunching hits and building-demolishing blows, even if you can’t help feel a little cynical that it’s sole purpose is to promote a new line of action figures. It’s the stuff normally reserved for comic book splash pages were made for, minus the kapow-ing onomatopoeia, and is an utter delight to see on the big screen.
When the Avengers aren’t battling an army of super-powered HYRDA agents or wave after wave of unrelenting robots, the team are at odds with one another’s egos and principles. Robert Downey Jr once again plays Tony Stark with effortless narcissism and vanity that the lines between character and actor are almost invisible. Meanwhile Chris Evans’ all-American virtue as Captain America and Chris Hemsworth’s brash and unapologetic Thor return to question the motives of their dubious, self-appointed leader.
But while the big three spend much of their screen time squabbling with one another, it’s surprising just how refreshing it is when the story ventures towards more grounded territory. Mark Ruffalo returns once again at the affable yet deeply disturbed Bruce Banner. His Jekyll-and-Hyde struggle with the green skinned rampaging Hulk is given a new dynamic thanks to a troublingly honest romantic engagement with Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow.
Stealing the show is Jeremy Renner, on this his second turn as expert marksman Hawkeye. Given much more attention this time around, his character is explored further thanks to a brilliantly executed revelation that’s both humbling and a welcome break from the larger-than-life superhuman heroics.
At the centre of it all is Joss Whedon’s smart and witty dialogue, meaning that everyone gets their fair share of snappy one-liners and clever comebacks even when the going gets tough. It’s the one light we have in a script that is tonally much darker than it’s predecessor. Not restricted to the heroes, even James Spader’s outing as the cunning menace Ultron is given plenty of laugh out loud quips as well as some meaty philosophical bones, peppered with biblical references, to chew on.
As Marvel’s take on the classic Frankenstein tale, Ultron’s presence becomes a cautionary one, with plenty of allusions to humanity’s over-reliance on technology. It doesn’t quite live up to the parable of surveillance and privacy that was Captain America: The Winter Soldier but for a film with so much going on, it still manages to raise a point of two.
But if juggling an already encumbered roster of characters and over-the-top set-pieces wasn’t enough, Age of Ultron also faces the difficult task of acting as somewhat of a mid-point for Marvel’s grand plan. Plot points gets lost somewhat amidst the falling rubble at times and motivation, particularly with regards to Ultron, comes across as understated. As strong a villain as he is, even equipped with all the arrogance and flaws of his creator Tony Stark, he doesn’t quite live up to the menacing lunacy of Tom Hiddleston’s Loki from previous outings.
The biggest problem of all is that despite this being a much darker film than the first, the stakes are significantly lowered, especially when you consider that Marvel have already unveiled their game plan for the foreseeable future. We know which member of this superhero super-group is embarking on a solo tour in the years to come, severely lowering any sense of dread and dispelling the stench of death before it has the chance to spread. Even the tried-and-tested “city in peril” climax lacks the same sort of danger that it had in the first.
Whedon has skilfully assembled a fun film, only to find he has a few pieces left over for someone else to worry about in the future. As perhaps the film’s weakest element, Age of Ultron suffers from some of the same box-set mentality that swatted the ill-fated Amazing Spider-Man 2 last summer, with so many plot threads glaringly left dangling that you could knit yourself a couple of new jumpers in no time with what’s left over.
Nods and winks to the back issues of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe mean that the film is littered with cameos. Don Cheadle, Anthony Mackie, Hayley Atwell and Stellan Skarsgard are all left with very little do other than remind us that there is indeed a bigger picture. The return of Marvel staple Samuel L Jackson and the introduction of Andy Serkis and Paul Bettany (for a second time) perhaps are the only cameos of note that have any worth in moving the story along.
With so much to take in, it’s perhaps unsurprising then that newcomers Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen aren’t given the same personality treatments as their forerunners. Dodgy accents and legal loopholes aside (both characters are rooted in the X-Men, a franchise that Fox well and truly have locked down the film rights to), the twins Pietro and Wanda Maximoff are narratively crucial characters, but struggle to get their share of character development they so desperately deserve.
But for all it’s faults, there’s still plenty to enjoy in this second trend-setting superhero epic. For the measly cost of your cinema ticket, it’s highly entertaining with plenty of character, humour and action to justify it’s 137 minute running time. If last year’s X-Men: Days of Future Past demonstrated how difficult it was to spin too many plates at the same time, then Avengers: Age of Ultron instead has much more fun by just kicking the china cabinet over and letting the pieces fall where they may.