And so, Earth’s mightiest heroes have come together again in Avengers: Age of Ultron, much to the excitement of the viewing public around the world. The Avengers teaming up is event cinema at its most renowned, and with the closing statement of Marvel’s Phase Two coming on the back of 2012’s Avengers Assemble, the question on everyone’s lips is whether writer and director Joss Whedon can make lightning strike twice? The answer is sort-of, but not quite.
The film begins with the team on the trail of Loki’s sceptre, retrieving it from Baron von Strucker’s castle and encountering enhanced humans Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) along the way. On analysing the sceptre, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) discover an artificial intelligence, and choose to use it to complete Stark’s global defence program, “Ultron”. However, the sentient Ultron (James Spader) believes that he must eradicate humankind in order to bring peace to the world, and the team must stop him.
If you’re a Marvel fan, you probably know what to expect from the film, and you will not be disappointed. The film is an excellent blockbuster, mixing superb action sequences that will have you on the edge of your seat with some nice team dynamics – in particular, the interplay between Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Banner would not be out of place in a serious drama film, and the two of them together produce some of the better moments. Some of the slower, more dialogue-heavy scenes could risk feeling dull, but nothing seems out of place or unneeded. No matter who your favourite Avenger is, they all get a good amount of screen time and action, and although the film fails to properly flesh out some of the newer arrivals, it provides us with more of a backstory for both Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and the Black Widow, making them feel more like real people rather than just a guy with a quiver and a woman who looks good in lycra.
Avengers: Age of Ultron is really captivating, and whereas a film of this length (just shy of two and a half hours) can feel agonising to sit through, the opposite is true here – you’re amazed that they managed to fit it all in, and it feels refreshing even when finished. I was worried that the sheer quantity of CGI would detract somewhat by drawing attention to itself and making the film solely about special effects, but it manages instead to enhance the story and help engross you in the reality of the film’s world. Marvel have shown us that they can do wonders with CGI characters (Groot and Rocket Raccoon leap to mind) and Ultron himself is no exception – voiced to perfection by James Spader, with charisma and a certain world-weariness that made me root for him to succeed at some points.
Touches of Marvel humour are ever-present, with Downey Jr. (who else?) getting most of the best lines, and though some of the dialogue and the jokes seem a bit forced at times, it can be a nice relief from some of the action. Of course, we also have the obligatory Stan Lee cameo, a nice little treat for the fans which shows Lee has still got it at the ripe old age of 92; his appearance eliciting cheers from the audience in my screening.
However, there are some negative aspects to note. Whereas the first film felt like the culmination of several different film worlds, this sequel feels a touch almost perfunctory – the first film was an event, but this film simply feels like a necessity in Marvel’s ever-continuing output. And for Marvel fans, there is a definite feeling that the film is something of a stopgap which, in the grand terms of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, simply doesn’t matter. Avengers: Age of Ultron makes baby steps forwards (there are notes of tension between Stark and Captain America, which may be important come Civil War, and the introduction of Andy Serkis’ Ulysses Klaue, who will have a bigger role in Black Panther), its most pivotal in-universe plot point being the team learning what the Infinity Stones are in a heft dose of exposition – which feels shoe-horned in afterwards, partly because of the nonsense method through which the team acquires this knowledge (Thor somehow garners this intel by entering a magic pond).
Some criticisms of the first film were heard and answered in Avengers: Age of Ultron – it hits the ground running straight away, rather than milling about a bit to bring the team together, for instance – but some issues are upsettingly still present. The Chitauri army felt like cannon fodder to give the team something to deal with Avengers: Assemble – and sadly, we have the same case here with the Ultron army. Additionally, when the team were fighting the enemy , they kept being all preachy about not letting any civilians die, and I got a bit fed up. That town can’t have had more than 1000 people in it, and in relation to the end of the world, that doesn’t seem too high a price to neglect the enemy for.
The Avengers is good fun, an excellent way to spend a couple of hours and no fan of the franchise will come away disappointed. This film’s problem, however, is the films that it must live up to – some fairly top-quality comic book movies that it is simply not in the same league as (last year, Marvel released Captain America: The Winter Solider and Guardians of the Galaxy, two movies that were much more enjoyable). In the cinema, I bumped into a lady who told me she was going to watch the film for the second time that day – I enjoyed it, but I didn’t think it was quite worth a second viewing. On its own, we could see Age of Ultron as a top-notch superhero film, but in relation to the films that have come before it, it is simply satisfactory, and that’s a bit of a shame.