To call Avengers: Age of Ultron one of the year’s most anticipated films is perhaps a bit of an understatement. Since pulling off the impossible in his first outing with The Avengers three years ago, writer/director Joss Whedon has had his hands full building towards this equally ambitious follow-up, which marks the end of “Phase II” of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Crafting a sequel to one of the biggest superhero films of all time is no easy task, and Whedon – a veteran comic book writer himself – almost makes it look easy, weaving together a plot that reunites our favourite team of misfits alongside some new faces, as they bicker, joke and try to smash each other into tiny pieces before eventually uniting to save the world from total destruction. With Marvel continually raising the bar for itself with each new film, it’s becoming harder and harder to blow our collective minds as viewers, and Age of Ultron is a film that both understands this and sets out to prove us wrong, delivering an explosive spectacle event that lives up to its predecessor in equal measure, while also pushing the MCU in an exciting new direction.
One of the things I love most about Whedon’s storytelling in Age of Ultron is the way he treats the whole thing like a giant-sized special edition comic book instead of just a big-budget action film. Make no mistake by the massive box office numbers that are sure to follow, this is primarily a film made for geeks by one of the world’s leading experts in everything geek, and his passion for these characters and their rich and colourful source material shines through in every single frame. The opening sequence, for example, contains a spectacular raid on a remote Hydra fortress that throws us right back into the full team ensemble without wasting even a second of screen time to address the uncertainties that arose for some characters in Phase II (ahem…Iron Man). As it is, there is so much going on in this film that anything even remotely superfluous has been chopped by necessity, admittedly leaving less time for everything to breathe, but nevertheless ensuring that the whole thing remains its own memorable, self-contained story, paced quickly and efficiently like a well-oiled machine.
Speaking of which, this time around the stakes are far more personal as the Avengers face off against the volatile robot A.I. known as Ultron, born out of Tony Stark’s misguided experiment to “cover the world in a suit of armour,” which inevitably backfires in the worst way imaginable, leaving humanity on the brink of destruction at the hand of his own monstrous creation. The notion of creating monsters is explored more than once in this film, with Stark even going so far as to label himself and Bruce Banner as “mad scientists,” and a later moment offering a homage to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in depicting the bizarre birth of the MCU’s newest creation, Vision. Ultron himself is a much more enjoyable villain than the Loki/Chitauri combo that spearheaded the first film, embodying a twisted reflection of his “father” Iron Man, right down to the massive ego and dark sense of humour. You’d swear at times that he just keeps humans around so that he has someone to talk to. Despite the fact that he is less frightening than he perhaps could have been, he serves his role well, bringing along a massive robot army as cannon fodder for the Earth’s mightiest heroes to mow down in the final act.
The Avengers themselves, though still occasionally prone to internal conflict, have evolved as a team since we last saw them, and have grown closer both on the battlefield and when the armour comes off. A half-baked romantic relationship has formed between the Hulk and Black Widow, while a bit of a battlefield bromance has developed between Captain America and Thor, who have gotten really good at working together to take out dozens of enemies in a single move. One of the clear highlights though is without a doubt the well-advertised street brawl between the Hulk and Iron Man in his Hulkbuster armour, which contains a couple of surprises that you aren’t likely to see coming. The two rookies Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch injected some welcomed new abilities into the mix to fuel added action set-pieces or connect necessary plot points, but they ultimately felt a bit under-developed and overly convenient in their character motivations. The true show stealers this time around ended up being Hawkeye – who is more than redeemed from his reduced role in the previous film – and newcomer Vision – a classic comic character who has been brought to stunning life through a perfect blend of performance and innovative visual design, and who ends up taking home the film’s best moralistic speech as well as one of its biggest laughs.
Miraculously, Age of Ultron packs in all of the elements that both hardcore fans and casual filmgoers will expect without sinking under the weight of its own immensity – even if it doesn’t float quite as gracefully as its predecessor. There really is the sense that Joss Whedon gave it absolutely everything he had to ensure there was twice as much action, humour, characters and visual splash pages than last time around, paying particular attention to the bits that fans loved most about the first film and delivering an exponential payoff that will be hard to top. It’s no surprise that he’s decided to take a break from the MCU following this film, handing off the directing duties for the two-part follow-up Avengers: Infinity War to the Russo brothers (Captain America: The Winter Soldier). While it will inevitably come across as redundant or formulaic to some – an unfortunate result of being born second to a little film called The Avengers – the fact remains that Avengers: Age of Ultron is summer blockbuster filmmaking that delivers, offering more action than you can possibly stomach while staying true to the heart of these characters and their collective mythology.
R A T I N G : 4 / 5 S T A R S