Writer: Joss Whedon, Stan Lee & Jack Kirby (characters)
Cast: Robert Downey, Jr, Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, James Spader, Elisabeth Olsen, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Andy Serkis, Samuel L. Jackson, Don Cheadle, Paul Bettany, Anthony Mackie, Thomas Kretschmann, Stellan Skarsgaard, Hayley Atwell, Idris Elba
Running time: 141mins
The lowdown: The gang reassemble in this sequel to the 3rd biggest box office movie of all time. Warped A.I. in the form of tyrannical tin man Ultron is the big bad here, joined by other fan favourites, the mind-meddling Scarlet Witch and her brother, human lightning bolt Quicksilver. Director Joss Whedon doesn’t skimp on the spectacle, delivering half a dozen knockout set-pieces, and the cast are wearing their characters effortlessly by now. But, formula fatigue is beginning to set in and while there is a lot of flying, this Avengers rarely soars.
The full verdict: While beloved, Guardians of the Galaxy cemented the mould for the Marvel superhero movie. Lots of quirky characters played by interesting actors. Lots of banter. Lots of bleeding edge FX action. One MacGuffin. A peril in the sky climax. And a dwindling sense of real emotion.
Unfortunately, Avenger’s: Age of Ultron cannot break out this cast. The déjà vu is not helped by a denouement that echoes the original movie, pitting Earth’s mightiest heroes against a robot army, while a levitated land mass set piece was done in X-Men: Days of Future Past not 12 months ago.
And that film’s Quicksilver also crops up here (now played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, not Evan Peters), and Tony Stark’s internal turmoil formed the crux of, and seemed to be resolved in, Iron Man 3.
Not that all involved aren’t out to thoroughly entertain. Whedon starts with a bang as the team launch an assault on Hydra baddie Baron von Strucker’s mountain lair. That single impossible shot from Avengers Assemble’s climax featuring the whole team battling various foe is reprised as a mere opener here. And the director has not lost his eye for staging imaginative, visually coherent action.
Once in Strucker’s lair, Tony Stark recovers Loki’s sceptre. But, not before orphaned Wanda Maximoff aka Scarlet Witch (Olsen) puts dark mojo on his mind. This leads him on the path to creating Ultron, an all-powerful artificial intelligence intended to protect the Earth. Naturally, Ultron regards humankind the biggest threat, particularly those heroes residing in Stark Tower.
Hobbling the film is an absence of genuine peril; one look at IMdb’s Captain America: Civil War or Thor: Ragnarok pages confirms the major players are coming back to Marvel’s Multi Character Universe.
Meaning those half dozen set-pieces delight the eye but only intermittently tingle the spine. Although Iron Man in Hulkbuster armour vs. a Scarlet Witch’d Hulk does allow for an apocalyptic smackdown, climaxing with on-the-nose 9/11 imagery.
Raising a second issue. Avengers: Age of Ultron goes down the traditional sequel dark tunnel. Even the colour palette is dingier and murkier than the brighter world of the first instalment. And thanks to Scarlet Witch, most Avengers must face their own worst fears to show it’s not just Tony Stark who battles demons.
On paper Ultron is the perfect villain for this age, an intractable maniac intent of bringing destruction in the name of peace. But, the overly-sensitive robot falls short of Loki’s mischievous malice, despite James Spader’s excellent voice work blending rage, snark and confusion and the now-expected flawless CGI.
Yet, unlike the plot, it’s not all doom and gloom. A chase through the streets of South Korea for Ultron’s ultimate weapon is a masterclass in choreographing a mutli-character, multiple transport pursuit, rivalling the assault of Nick Fury’s armoured SUV in Captain America: The Winter Soldier for sheer excitement.
Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow and Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye are allowed more character time, demonstrating why they (particularly Hawkeye) are integral to the team.
Taylor-Johnson and Olsen slip perfectly into the established universe as the troubled, destructive siblings. Although inevitably none of Quicksilver’s fleet-footedness here can rival that scene from Days of Future Past.
And take a look at the cast list. How can a film with that many big screen friendly personalities not be diverting for a couple of hours?
Amidst all the fury and dust, arguably the best moment comes when the gang take turns attempting to lift Mjolnir (Thor’s big hammer). Breezy, goofy and with genuine heart, the scene is a nice island in the storm.
It is with trepidation and curiosity that we wait to see how, or indeed if, Marvel will freshen the formula.