Considering the roll Marvel have been on lately, it’s surprising how worried I was walking into Avengers: Age of Ultron. Sure the trailers were great, the cast is incredible and it was the sequel to the movie that elevated Marvel Studios to the biggest thing on Earth, but the hurdles it had to jump were undeniable.
Aside from the impossible level of hype, Age of Ultron is in the tough position of needing to juggle one of the biggest casts out there, tie together the scattered concepts of Marvel’s phase two movies, lay the foundation for their upcoming films and provide the definitive take on this incarnation of the Avengers functioning as a team. I’d be lying if I said this doesn’t get in the way of the story, but it’s still the Avengers and it’s still Joss Whedon sitting in the director’s chair.
So, yes, it’s a blast. While it was never going to match the awe of seeing these characters all in one place for the first time, nor is it quite as inspired as Marvel’s last two films (I expect Guardians to remain my favourite for some time), it’s another highly polished, character-driven superhero adventure from the studio that does it best.
Age of Ultron picks up some time after the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Following the fall of S.H.I.E.L.D., Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Black Widow, Hawkeye and The Hulk (played by Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner and Mark Ruffalo respectively, like you didn’t already know) have been working together to keep the world safe, knocking over Hydra outposts and searching for the sceptre Loki brandished in the previous Avengers movie. In a bid to find something that could one day replace the Avengers in keeping the world safe, Tony Stark begins experimenting with artificial intelligence and unwittingly gives birth to the genocidal android Ultron (played by a perfectly cast James Spader).
That’s really just scratching the surface of what’s going on in this film, but I really don’t want give away any more than Marvel already have in their marketing. I really hate to talk about external factors in a review, but between all the footage Marvel has released online, everything they have said in interviews (both about this and future instalments), and a pinch of speculation, you can pretty well piece together the entire plot of the film. Now this isn’t going to matter to a lot of people, but if you’ve been following the film’s marketing prepare to be disappointed if you’re expecting to be surprised.
You also might be a little soured if you’re hoping Marvel are upping the scale on their previous movies. The first Avengers was an exclamation point on what came before, but Age of Ultron is more about showing the team at the height of their comradery. Think “the adventures of…” not “…in their toughest battle yet”.
The team we are introduced to here are weathered, operationally lethal and very familiar with each other’s eccentricities. This is a world of superheroes and these guys are The Beatles (I’ll leave it to you to try and match them up…Stark’s gotta be Lennon though, right?). At a party celebrating their latest victory over Hydra, Stark and Thor bicker over whose girlfriend is better, Cap slaps Banner on the back over Black Widow trying to get into his unbreakable purple shorts and everyone sits around trying to convince Thor that “worthiness” isn’t a pre-requisite to lifting an exquisitely decorated hunk of metal. Watching the Avengers enjoy their downtime was always plenty of fun in the comics, so I’m thrilled to see it finally brought to the big screen.
Though not quite as much as Earth’s mightiest heroes, the villains are also given a bit more of a chance to interact this time around. Newcomer Avengers Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver or “The Twins” (Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson), are introduced as villains eager to rebel against our cocksure American heroes. Unlike with Loki, who only had his enemies to mingle with in the first film, this gives us a chance to see Ultron without all the bluster as he collects his thoughts after battles and attempts to sympathise with his teammates. For whatever his thoughts about humanity, Ultron believed he had found a kinship and his arc reactor-powered heart is broken when the Avengers take what little family he had.
As you may have gathered, Ultron isn’t quite the all-powerful evil overlord he appears to be in the trailers. Spader creates what could very well be (ironically) the most human villain we have seen in any of Marvel’s movies so far. A twisted mirror of his creator, Ultron shares Stark’s snarky humour, insecurities and need to fix things. While his plan to save the world is to replace humanity with something less cruel and fragile, Ultron is resolute in his belief that he is the hero. More than anything, he is desperate for someone to see the world the same way.
This time round the Avengers get a little less time in the sun individually, and instead the film tries to explore the character of the team as a whole. There is an undercurrent throughout the story of whether or not these people could ever make normal lives for themselves, and what it means if they can’t. This is a lot more successful with some characters than others. Iron Man and Captain America have already been exploring some of these themes in their own films, and Hulk has always had this as his core conflict, but others like Black Widow, whose dreams of normality are now inexplicably tied to her contrived romance with Banner, land with a bit of a thud. Thor’s solo conflict is also probably the weakest and most distracting part of the film, especially with him going on some unexplained vision quest and coming back with a degree in Marvel comic mythology he uses to explain some of the more complex aspects of the story.
As much as I was impressed by how Whedon was able to tie the setup for Marvel’s upcoming flicks (four of them by my count) with a fairly linear story about the Avengers chasing Ultron around the globe, these little dead ends suggest there are a bunch of much-needed scenes that got lost on the cutting room floor. This is especially the case with Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury, who really doesn’t have any place in the movie, seemingly only introduced so he can provide a Fury Ex Machina when the heroes need help saving some civilians.
Yes, there are some problems with the plot, and I’ll freely admit that it’s not the slam-dunk the original was. But I honestly think the film’s biggest problem is the baggage fans will bring to it. Having spent ten movies building this world, Age of Ultron is an essential piece of reflection for the MCU, celebrating the heroes currently leading the charge before the next few films start tearing them down one by one. If you go in expecting Marvel’s biggest movie yet, and for the Avengers to be pushed to some really dark places, you’re going to be disappointed. All that stuff is coming, but before Marvel starts putting all their heroes through the ringer, Avengers: Age of Ultron gives us a rollicking international adventure with Marvel’s premier heroes in the prime of their careers. If you’ve made it this far you probably don’t need much convincing to watch it, but rest assured, you are indeed in for a good time.
THE REEL SCORE: 8/10