Back in 2012 the first Avengers movie was considered a massive risk, bringing together characters from four several franchises and have them all occupy the same space for two hours could have been an absolute mess and failed miserably. Happily, and to the tune of $1.5 billion, it succeeded. The follow up, Age of Ultron, has perhaps an even harder task. Expectations are sky high now. Could director Joss Whedon pull off the same trick again? Could any film deliver what we want? Again, happily, Avengers 2 succeeds. Mostly.
After having their own separate adventures since the first Avengers, the team are back together again and their world is a different place than when they defeated Loki last time around. The organisation they worked for (SHIELD) is gone and they’re now freelance. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) envisions a world where the Avengers are no longer needed and creates an artificial intelligence – the Ultron of the title, voiced by James Spader – with the aim of ‘putting a suit of armour around the world,’ only for it to go awry and decide the best course of action for peace is to eradicate humanity, Stark and the superfriends must band together to stop the menace they’ve created.
Firstly, it’s an absolute joy to have the whole team back together again, after their separate movies of varying quality in between, and we’re effortlessly transported back into the action as if they were never away, with a Bond-esque pre-titles sequence setting the tone and getting us up to speed with minimal exposition. It’s a thrilling opening that echoes the end of the first film and as we know these characters so well (this is film 11 in the Marvel Cinematic Universe) we’re able to hit the ground running with very little introduction. Each of the team wears their character like a second skin; none more so than Downey Jr. who is practically indistinguishable from Tony Stark now, and the rest of the cast are equally comfortable in these roles so much so that they’re able to hit both the dramatic and comedic beats (of which there are many) with aplomb and still feel like Thor or Hulk, rather than just delivering drama or jokes for the sake of it. Cap’s ‘Language!’ complaint stands out as a shining example, as do two pitch perfect Mjonir gags.
With such a large cast, newcomers are unfortunately sidelined though the twins Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver are fun, if underwritten, additions. The villain of the piece, Ultron is a fascinating creation, one that acts like a man but with the coldness of a machine who gets a lot of the best lines. James Spader’s silky tones exude menace, however it’s a shame we never see any of his machinations outside of the scenes where he’s facing off with the Avengers. He’s supposedly everywhere, yet we only see his actions in relation to the Stark et al, and his motivation, though an admirable attempt at political commentary boils down to ‘because I’m evil, that’s why.’Interestingly, the one character that was much maligned for having little to do in the first film is the focus here, Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye/Clint Barton. A lot of the films key player’s decisions and desires revolve their relationship with the archer which come the close informs a lot of where the MCU goes from here. Renner is the real breakout star and beating heart of the film, and returning director Whedon has a lot of fun with the character and his own reputation though he neatly subverts it at almost every turn.
And then we have the action, which is the biggest, if not best, of Marvel’s output thus far. The aforementioned pre-titles sequence is probably the best the film has to offer with the hero shot that’s as ridiculous as it is smile inducing. And while several other big franchises simply try to distract you with big explosions and loud noises (I’m looking at you, Transformers) Age of Ultron is able to eek out character moments amidst the carnage. Though Marvel still need to find a new idea for their big climaxes.
Where the first Avengers was a culmination of everything that has happened so far, Age of Ultron feels more like a middle step, bringing various strands together but also spends a lot of it’s sizable runtime setting up future installments and as a result at times feels overstuffed with references and nods to other properties. Some feel organic; others shoehorned, especially the introduction of a completely new character which stops the film dead for a few minutes while the script brings the audience up to speed. And with said script bursting at the seams, various plots don’t get the room to breathe they deserve, Tony Stark’s hubris that leads to Ultron being born and his guilt at what his creation has done is glossed over in a few scenes when from the trailers it appeared it would be the main focus.
Yet despite a fractured narrative the film is still a hugely enjoyable superhero romp that continues the summer silly season nicely.
3 and a half stars
Review by Jonathan Cardwell.
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