[Note: I’m aware that Avengers: Age Of Ultron isn’t out in the US for a few more days, and has only just been released in other territories, so I’ll try as hard as possible to avoid spoilers here; however I will mention one or two things that have already appeared in the trailers, or that have been discussed extensively elsewhere during the past six months or so, as I think that’s fair game.]
When all is said and done, and whether you actually like it or not, one must at the very least admire Kevin Feige’s vision in creating the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), which I will grudgingly admit has just about delivered on its original premise of being this decade’s Police Academy; it’s interesting because of its (increasing) popularity with cinemagoers and cultural relevance, its financial returns, its mega-casts and the way it has made all other franchises seem insular and unambitious by way of comparison. If capital ‘b’ Big is your thing then Marvel is presumably an incredibly impressive force to study.
I said this yesterday in a belated review of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but I’ll repeat it here: while the creation of the MCU has resulted in a wearying conformity from one movie to the next, that is at least intentional and it’s something that has been executed in a clinically impressive fashion. Within producer Feige’s profitable, multi-phase series the two Avengers movies to date have served as crescendos of sorts, bringing together a gang of superheroes – Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Captain America / Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Black Widow / Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), Iron Man / Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr), Hawkeye / Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) and Hulk / Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), lest we forget – who are arguably more interesting and enjoyable to watch when calmly chatting as a group than when they are fighting loud, long battles with their nefarious opponents. And I guess for all the rigid conformity that we have seen to date Joss Whedon, the director working for Marvel Studios with both the toughest and the easiest job, has been the most successful in establishing a voice.
But let me cut to the chase: if you’re a fan you’ll be happy to know that you get everything you’re probably expecting from Whedon’s Avengers: Age Of Ultron; similarly if you’re not a fan you will be unsurprised to hear that you get everything you’re probably expecting from Whedon’s Avengers: Age Of Ultron. I’ll try and concentrate on the positives, as there are quite a few, but there will be a few gripes along the way. Please: no death threats.
Given how familiar these characters are by now (or the latest incarnations of one or two of these characters), Whedon is able to begin proceedings with the first of a series of action-packed sequences, which also introduces two new characters: Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s lightning-fast Quicksilver (different to the Quicksilver seen in last year’s X-Men: Days Of Future Past) and his telekinetic twin sister, Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch; both were seen briefly at the end of The Winter Soldier, but they are given prominent roles here. The film’s MacGuffin is quickly established as the Avengers secure old enemy Loki’s sceptre, which contains an ‘infinity stone’ (the multi-film plot device becoming increasingly familiar within the MCU); this magical object contains an alien form of artificial intelligence, eventually taking the shape of Ultron (James Spader), a sentient being occupying one of Tony Stark’s robotic exoskeletons. And thus with the enemy established the Avengers repeatedly do battle with Ultron and his army of robotic henchmen across a number of locations: the fictional Eastern European capital of Sokovia, New York, Seoul and South Africa (lazily referred to as ‘The African Coast’, which effectively translates as ‘I dunno…Africa somewhere…it’s all the same thing, right?’).
The film is indeed action-packed, though I’m aware that hardly needs saying; I went in with a slight headache and came out feeling like I’d been in David Cronenberg’s Scanners. However, as mentioned earlier, Whedon wrote some very good scenes for The Avengers (aka Avengers Assemble in the UK) that focused on the somewhat spiky relationships formed by the characters during downtime – the clash of egos was always a big part of the comics – and again here the writer capitalises on the work already done in other MCU films when the heroes go tête-à-tête in various locales (an early party scene being a highlight). Downey, Jr is at his snarky, cocky best and Stark’s gentle ribbing of the prissy Rogers turns into an amusing running joke. Thor’s fish-out-of-water grumblings are toned down this time, but still evident, and largely enjoyable.
More effort has gone into developing the relationships and backstories of the three main characters who do not currently have their ‘own’ films – Hulk, Black Widow and Hawkeye – with a sweetly-observed romance and the appearance of Freaks N’ Geeks’ Linda Cardellini (last seen repeatedly getting into lifts with Don Draper) as an Avenger housewife. It’s a welcome response to earlier criticisms, even though the injury-prone Hawkeye still seems like the first one that you’d put forward for redundancy if budget cuts had to be made. Age Of Ultron benefits from the increased confidence of the three actors playing these roles: the charismatic Downey, Jr remains the presence it’s impossible to ignore but Ruffalo, Johansson and Renner all make the most of their bigger parts, and the balance between the six main heroes is much better this time round.
The battles? Well, as I’ve said, they are loud, long and noisy. Motorbikes fall from the sky. Vibranium shields and uru hammers fly across the screen with their owners close by. Things that can explode do explode. Walls are smashed, cars are tossed, buildings collapse and the rubble stacks up (purely in terms of wanton destruction the battle between ‘Hulkbuster’ Iron Man and Hulk – it’s in the trailer – is the standout, while also containing the movie’s funniest moment). Once again you’re presumably expected to care about collateral damage as this version of our world gets smashed to smithereens, and once again the strict adherence to certain formulaic ticks and tropes makes it nigh-on impossible for you to do so. At least in wrecking districts of cities across North America, Europe, Asia and Africa the Avengers show that discrimination is not an issue; South Americans and Australasians can presumably expect to have a couple of their metropolises duffed up in the future.
In terms of the new additions, Spader’s voicing of the sarcastic and duplicitous Ultron is a decent variation on the Tony Stark template, but I’m ambivalent about the character overall. One or two bad guys have stood out in Marvel’s recent films – Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, most notably – but more have disappointed, and I’m torn with this one; Ultron initially appears to be more than a match for the six Avengers (and those who join in later) but the threat gradually peters out. Paul Bettany – usually the voice of Stark’s computer J.A.R.V.I.S. – fares well as The Vision, and the appearance of this character will most likely excite Marvel fans and intrigue casual viewers the most. Olsen is OK as the Scarlet Witch, her toned-down costume far different from the ones I remember in the comics, and her presence at least helps to redress the male-female imbalance in the MCU. Some actresses – Gwyneth Paltrow, Natalie Portman, neither of whom feature here – have to make do with weak love interest roles in related films, so it’s good to see a woman other than Johansson who can actually do something and affect the plot significantly (yes lots of the supporting scientist and agent characters are female, but are they actually important?).
As with the X-Men franchise, if a new character is lucky enough to make it to a second film then that’s where you begin to see improvements; Johansson’s Black Widow is a perfect example: less of an immediate hit initially than others, she has gradually grown in importance thanks to enhanced roles in The Winter Soldier and this film, and the final scene here, effectively setting up the next wave of Marvel Studios films, is telling. Perhaps the biggest problem for both Olsen and Taylor-Johnson is that they’re having to compete with a number of actors who are now well-established in their roles, and naturally they are both forgettable when compared with the likes of Downey Jr or the torso that functions as a base for Chris Hemsworth’s head. The new pair grasp their respective opportunities as well as you can expect, but their movie this ain’t.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment is the unnecessary reappearance of numerous minor characters that have featured in the other films. I’m sure there are fans out there who will be delighted by the brief glimpses of characters played by Samuel L. Jackson, Don Cheadle (please, Don, make it stop), Idris Elba, Anthony Mackie, Cobie Smulders, Hayley Atwell and Stellan Skarsgård, but by the end it just seems to tip a movie that is satisfyingly over-the-top and packed with characters into a movie that is irritatingly over-the-top and over-stuffed with characters. The appearances of several for a mere scene or two are largely pointless – most of them just get in the way and I’d rather watch more Tony Stark than a spot of old ‘Rhodey’ Rhodes doing the same thing – but then this is a film that actually casts Julie Delpy for a flashback sequence that lasts all of 15 seconds, so there you go.
Ultimately, despite the negatives, it’s clear that Whedon has fulfilled his brief. Avengers: Age Of Ultron is exactly the film you expect it to be, for better or for worse, and there’s more than enough to delight fans here; obviously it will be a record-breaking success in financial terms, too. I enjoyed it, and I’m glad that the studio has improved its output during the past year or so, even if the films still steer clear of alarms and surprises (you really have to question any action thriller when you’re sitting through the end credits waiting for something unanticipated to finally happen). Is it better or worse than The Avengers? Hmm: same same – a nice mix of humour and grandstanding CGI-filled set pieces, but if you don’t have that gnawing sense of ‘there must be something more’ 11 films into the MCU then I’m afraid I can’t help you.
Directed by: Joss Whedon.
Written by: Joss Whedon. Based on The Avengers by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.
Starring: Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Robert Downey, Jr, Jeremy Renner, James Spader, Elizabeth Olsen, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Samuel L. Jackson.
Cinematography: Ben Davis
Editing: Jeffrey Ford, Lisa Lassek.
Music: Brian Tyler, Danny Elfman.
Running Time: 141 minutes.