Written and Directed by Joss Whedon
Avengers: Age of Ultron represents the zenith of Marvel Studios’ Phase 2, the culmination of all the films and television shows that represent the Marvel Cinematic Universe over the last two years. Like the first film, this superhero team up pulls out all the stops to astound, taking the audience on a thrill ride of almost unrelenting action. All the main players return including some new faces and due to the sheer amount of characters, action set pieces and Marvel references on display, all lamentations over any lack of subtext are eclipsed by the sheer magnitude of superheroic action. Writer/director Joss Whedon keeps things moving quickly and with a wit that shines through the comic book livery to deliver what is essentially pure pop spectacle. Perhaps those who are a little tired of what Marvel is doing should steer clear but fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe or fans of action movies in general should love this superhero extravaganza.
After the Battle of New York and the fall of SHIELD, The Avengers have been scouring the globe searching for Loki’s sceptre. When Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jnr) retrieves it amongst some other salvaged alien tech, they discover that HYDRA agent Baron von Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann) had been using it to alter twin siblings Wanda and Pietro Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson respectively) into super-powered beings who prove more than a match for the team. Back at Avengers tower, Stark and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) try to use an artificial intelligence framework discovered at Strucker’s compound to create Ultron, a new defence system which Stark hopes will protect the world and thereby make the Avengers obsolete. Needless-to-say, Ultron gains sentience and misinterprets Stark’s good intentions to mean that the world can only be saved by destroying it. The Avengers must once again assemble to fight this new threat while dealing with their own inner demons made manifest by Wanda’s psychic powers.
In the writer/director’s chair for his second (and reportedly last) time out with the Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, Joss Whedon proves once again that all his years working in television has honed his craft to a fine point. Not only that, but even in collaboration with such heavyweights as Marvel , Whedon manages to not only be a perfect fit for their sensibilities but his voice is so strong it still feels like his own work. This individual voice contributes to what is probably the film’s strongest point; it is just so very funny. The humour comes so naturally to Whedon and by extension to the characters. Each line is funnier than the last but every single one comes from a very well judged character moment because Whedon has nailed each individual’s personalities. He knows exactly how to give them the space they need to define themselves separately as well as in a team, just like in The Avengers, each hero gets their arc, their motivation and their moment in the sun.
What is especially notable about this approach and the way it has been refined in this sequel is the way Whedon showcases the members of the team that do not currently have their own solo films. Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Bruce Banner grow closer together as she sympathises with his desire to pull away from the world and the memories of past sins that plague them both. While Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) gets some of the most fittingly human moments as Whedon delineates his role in relation to Captain America (Chris Evans). Cap is most definitely the team’s heart keeping all the heroes on the path of the right and the just, but Hawkeye is the team’s soul. He is the ordinary guy at the centre of a maelstrom of superhero madness and the Avengers are reminded, through Hawkeye, of why they fight in the first place.
However this well-drawn characterisation only goes so far. The film introduces a few new characters who are given short shrift when compared to the main players. Primarily, the Maximoff twins are used mainly as a plot device to drive a wedge between the Avengers and while their motivations are clear and make sense there is really not much more to their characters beyond that. The Vision (Paul Bettany) also debuts in the MCU here and again there is only enough time to draw him in broad strokes. In his case though, it works well as he is as mysterious to the Avengers themselves as he is to the audience. Apart from this his presence is justified as a weapon the team can use against Ultron (James Spader) and his nefarious plan. Speaking of Ultron; here is a villain who, while not as nuanced a character as Tom Hiddleston’s Loki in the first film, is still somewhat more complicated than most of Marvel’s cinematic antagonists. Ultron doesn’t have many more shades than “evil robot who wants to destroy the world” but when brought to life by that incomparable ham James Spader he takes on a whole new dimension. With a voice like butter on velvet, Spader gives Ultron a low, scratchy growl with a real mean streak but the actor also has charisma to burn which punches through the motion capture and CGI to create a memorable villain.
As with all blockbuster action sequels, the numerous battles and fight scenes are designed to top all that came before, so Whedon has the task of juggling multiple action beats and does a great job of showing the chaos of a mega-superhero beat down without getting too lost in the thick of the action. The highlight of course is seeing Iron Man in his intimidating Hulkbuster armour take on the jolly green giant in spectacularly destructive style as they have a knock down drag out fight through the city streets. Yet while there are improvements in the style and scope of the action in Avengers: Age of Ultron there is sometimes a little too much familiarity. Again, like in the first film, they must battle with wave upon wave of disposable enemy combatants and also once again contend with a giant sky borne threat that almost destroys the world. But this kind of thing can be forgiven for just the sheer amount of spectacle on display; it is a pure hand-rubbing, giggle-inducing smorgasbord of insane fun.
Fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and fans of the comic books are going to find plenty to enjoy here. Not only are most of the past films and the TV series’ referenced, there is considerable set up for Phase 3 and unlike the misjudged shoehorning that all but railroaded Iron Man 2, Marvel has got the balance right here. Perhaps those who are new to the franchise or are casual fans might need a refresher but everything trucks along at such a pace that this is probably not essential. The characters, the humour, the colour and the spectacle is, at the same time what we have come to expect from these movies but still honed and refined to the point where there is still something new that can be explored. The film may not go too deep into subtext or metaphor but it doesn’t want to and nor does it need to. This is blockbuster cinema done well by a filmmaker and a studio at the top of their game. Avengers: Age of Ultron is brash, bold, hilarious shiny fun. ‘Nuff said.