Its time to suit up and prepare yourself for the epic superhero onslaught that is Marvels Avengers: Age of Ultron.
The Avengers: Age of Ultron is yet another smash hit for the Marvel Cinematic Universe that is almost guaranteed to net them yet another billion dollars at the box office. This is a movie that is confident that it knows its audience and what they expect and delivers it in spades. There are more superheroes on screen at any one time than you can shake a stick at, plus dozens of subtle references to subplots and secondary characters that have been brought in from all ends of the MCU. This is something that in hands less competent than master writer and director Joss Wheedon’s could easily become blurred, overly complicated and above all, boring. Somehow he has managed to create a film that, whilst unlikely to stand completely on its own due to its place in the huge overall story that Marvel are busy creating, is tight, compact and very entertaining. Spoilers could be avoided in this review, but I don’t want to avoid them because that cuts out some of the bits that I really want to discuss! So, go and watch the film before going further, trust me, you’ll like it! Don’t worry, I’ll wait…
Ok, everyone’s seen the film now? Good! On we go.
From the trailers and market saturating advertising that has been released in the last few weeks its fair to say that most people will have picked up that this is not meant to be another “happily ever after” type of superhero movie. The world that they inhabit has moved on from the initial shock and awe of these colourful characters having come out of the woodwork to have such a profound effect on everything around them and is now a place where super-heroics are accepted as part of the norm. As such the standard story of a hero, or in this case; team of heroes, showing up to solve everyone’s problems and then riding off into the sunset doesn’t quite fit anymore. That being said, the Avengers themselves are still doing their best to keep the world safe and they are obviously more comfortable working together as a team. The banter between them all whilst they battle their way through their initial mission, which makes for a blistering opening for the film, shows without overly long exposition that they have been out doing this sort of thing together for some time since last we saw them together on our screens. Said banter is also the highlight of the movie, as it provides not only some much needed humour to break up the action, but also just enough self-awareness to prevent the film from taking itself too seriously and descending into parody. This is where Wheedon’s hand can be felt most keenly, as his trade mark razor edged wit positively oozes out of the taut script. Every character gets several moments which raise a genuine laugh from the audience, all of them playing on the traits that we have come to know and love over the past ten movies without becoming stale or repetitive.
The film follows the team as they try to figure out who or what the titular Ultron is and what exactly he is up to. As you start to see that perhaps, under the surface of the humorous interplay everything is not exactly perfectly harmonious in Avengers Tower. Tensions in the team lie just under the surface as the habits of so many alpha-individuals start to rub one another up the wrong way. The main culprit on this front is Tony Stark, who has finally come full circle from being the main hero in the MCU to now setting himself up to become one of its main, albeit somewhat inadvertent, trouble-makers. His need to protect the world from the intergalactic dangers he faced in the last Avengers movie actually leads to the accidental creation of Ultron, a fact which he doesn’t share with his team until after everything goes spectacularly wrong. Ultron (David Spader) himself is a magnetic personality who grabs every scene he is in by the scruff of the neck and refuses to let go. He manages to project a feeling of instability and menace that will have many people squirming whilst also conveying a relaxed and almost laconic screen presence that rivals that of Tony Stark, which, given where he comes from, is a perfect fit. His introduction to the Avengers is hands-down one of the best scenes in the MCU so far, creepy, foreshadowing and thoroughly engaging, you immediately buy him as a credible threat to the Avengers.
So once Ultron is off doing his world-threatening thing the team is left to try and chase him down. Most films would find that to be more than enough to fill their run-time, but in this case there are many other character-arcs and sub-plots that are surprisingly engaging given the time constraints that this film suffers from. My favourite revolves around Clint Barton, AKA Hawkeye (played by Jeremy Renner). The arrow-flinging, dead-eyed, caricature from the previous Avengers movie is filled out and made the slightly dead-pan, very funny, emotional centre of the team. Out of everything that this movie adds to the MCU, which is a lot, I would have to say that this is probably my favourite. Not something I expected when I walked into the cinema! Finally the team feels filled out and not a group of interesting superheroes and an archer with no personality who comes along for the ride. However, even after this welcome addition, the tensions within the team grow to a breaking point, and you can’t help but get the feeling that interpersonal conflicts that will propel the MCU from here onwards are set up in the background of this film. Another point of particular interest is the growing rift between Tony Stark and Steve Rogers, who are both beginning to see that they are not only incompatible on a personal level, but also on a ideological one. Captain America’s 1940’s black and white view of the world is set at odds with Iron Man’s shades of grey and you suspect that soon we will not just be watching them argue the point with just words. That is not to suggest that this movie is just sequel-bait, but there are a lot of hints, clues and seeds of things to come planted throughout its run time. Luckily most of them are woven into the tapestry of the story Joss Wheedon is trying to tell so that they are in the main not painfully obvious.
Three things that are much more than just hints or seeds are the new heroes that have been added to this film. Joining the Avengers at this point is a fairly daunting proposition, given that most of them have had at least three or four movies under their belts to get to know their characters and how they interact. The first two are the twins, Wanda and Pietro Maximoff, two young revolutionaries who have a personal grudge against Tony Stark and have managed to survive HYDRA’s experiments to become newly enhanced villains at the start of the film. Their journey from being Ultron’s tools to eventual reluctant heroes is one of the most intriguing in the film. Aaron Taylor-Johnson brings Pietro, AKA Quicksilver, to life as an arrogant super-fast speedster who loves to taunt his foes whilst running past them as though they are standing still. However, it is his sister, Wanda, played by Elizabeth Olsen, that is particularly interesting because of her awareness of what is going on in the heads of those around her and her ability to manipulate and bring to life the worst fears of her enemies. Without giving too much away she is actually the catalyst for the whole story. The fears that she plays with are a nice way of giving back-story and depth to the entire cast, as well as giving them more than just robots to fight. Her vindictive smile and evident enjoyment of using this insidious power is something that really adds impact to what comes next. Finally we come to Paul Bettany’s reveal on the big screen. He has provided the calm and comfortingly, in-control voice of JARVIS, Tony Stark’s personal AI helper, since the first Iron Man movie, but now he gets to become a physical presence in the form of The Vision. He is the most striking visual character on screen and provides an intriguing level of quiet contemplation in the normally fairly testosterone fuelled Avengers tower. Also his intimate involvement with the growing threat of the Infinity Stones is bound to come to some interesting crescendos in future instalments of the MCU. There is also one solid bad-guy who is introduced in the form of Andy Serkis’ hilariously over-confident South African arms-dealer, the wonderfully named Ulysses Klaw. He is only a cameo appearance, but is entertaining enough for me to already be looking forward to seeing what he has up his sleeve for his next villainous outing (which is likely to be in 2018’s “Black Panther” movie).
Now we come to the bit of the movie that everyone looks forward to; the action. What we have on show here is much and varied, not to mention globe-hopping. Whereas the previous Avengers film was quite New York-centric, this film bounces around the world as our heroes try to figure out how they are going to stop Ultron’s nefarious plans for the world. All of this necessitates a huge amount of action and there certainly is the industry-standard focus on the sheer amounts of carnage that a team of super powered beings can cause. But it is also worth mentioning that Marvel have taken the time to re-state their position on civilian casualties in these scenes, every time a one of them is threatened the team go out of their way and put themselves at risk to make sure that no one dies. There is a particular moment where Iron Man takes a moment to scan a building prior to destroying it to make sure that there is no-one in it, although I have no proof I suspect this is a direct dig at DC’s wanton destruction and lack of concern shown for the civilian population throughout their superpowered beat down of a movie that was “Man of Steel”. Inter-comic politics aside though the action in this film is generally impressive and often brilliantly choreographed and entertaining.
The only real disappointments that this movie provided are, firstly that it suffers from having quite so much going on throughout the run-time. There are several times where you can feel the touch of the editor’s scissors and Wheedon has said that his initial cut of the film was the best part of an hour longer! This does mean that some of the subplots can feel a little rushed, Thor specifically gets a story that feels as though it’s missing about three scenes, which is a pity, as there is more than enough action to have carried the movie through an extra few moments to make it feel a slightly more complete narrative. Secondly, there was the fact that the ending did not seem to carry the weight that it seemed to have been building towards. After the best part of two and a half hours of promising a darker, grittier and more weighty side of the Marvel Cinematic Universe the film ends up wrapping up in a surprisingly neat and relatively unconcerned fashion. This does make the rest of the film feel as though it has ended up being somewhat consequence-free, but I suspect that may well change after further movies have come out and followed up on the plot points that this film introduced.
Overall this film is a fun and entertaining romp through the Marvel Cinematic Universe that provides a huge amount of action and intrigue as well as character development. It is almost a new sort of film in that it fits perfectly into the larger picture, but also manages to keep the audience interested without forcing them to consider other entries into the MCU. I can only hope that as we enter the third phase of Marvel Studios plans that we continue to get movies of this calibre.
Three Moons out of Five. Entertaining.