Note: This reviews contains some spoilers for the previous Marvel movies but no spoilers for Age of Ultron.
It’s hard to believe that it was only as recently as 2008 that were first invited into the Marvel Cinematic Universe on the big-screen. Iron Man and nine other movies later and here we are at the second big team up movie for our eclectic group of human and not-so-human heroes. They say that sequels should try to do everything bigger and better or else, what’s the point? Well Age of Ultron is certainly the former but it will depend solely on what you want out of a superhero blockbuster whether you think it achieves the latter.
The last time we saw The Avengers teaming up together it was to save New York (and in Hollywood blockbuster terms, by extension that means the world) from Thor’s mischievous brother Loki and his army of aliens. This time the stakes are inevitably even higher, with the world coming under threat from a previously dormant and thought-peaceful artificial intelligence program known as Ultron who is awoken by Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) in a misguided attempt to protect the world. It’s then up to Iron Man, Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and the rest of The Avengers to team up once more and stop Ultron from exacting his terrible plans.
The brilliance of the first Avengers film was how it paid off all the build-up of introductions and explorations of the individual characters in single movies, making it truly mean something when we finally saw them battling enemies together. Age of Ultron doesn’t quite have that, and plays more like another monumentally bombastic sequel more than a culmination of what’s preceded it. But while it may not be as burdened with glorious purpose, to quote a certain God of Mischief, it’s a heck of a lot of fun.
It’s directed with an energetic, visual inventive bravura by the one and only Joss Whedon who, while this is certainly a much darker outing for the team, still brings that same lightness of touch in the sense of humour and interplay between the characters, whether it’s the gang trying but sublimely failing to lift Thor’s hammer at the newly appointed Avengers home base (formerly Stark Tower) or during one of the film’s many city-wide action set-pieces that give the Man of Steel finale battle a run for its money in terms of sheer on-screen destruction.
One of the things Age of Ultron does very well is how it uses the previous mythology and personal quandaries of the characters to further the plot, as well as giving time for certain “lesser” characters to feel like they are a definitive, indispensable part of the team (namely Hawkeye). The entire plot is quite literally jumpstarted by Stark’s views about the direction the world should take in terms of protecting itself from new galactic threats, planting the seeds of discord particularly between Stark and Chris Evans’ Steve Rogers which will no doubt have an impact on the forthcoming Captain America: Civil War and beyond. There’s also a very clever scene that, not to give too much away, involves the team delving back into their past in their minds that helps deepen their motivations and explain why they are the way they are.
While it’s mostly the same faces brought back for a bigger, globetrotting adventure, there are some new cast members to help freshen things up. Firstly there’s James Spader who menacingly provides the voice for the formidable Ultron who really makes sure we sit up and pay attention to whatever he’s saying. At the same time, one of the biggest pleasant surprises of the film is just how funny he is, spouting sarcastic putdowns as much as he threatens everyone with his cold, calculated plan for humanity’s extinction. He is truly a worthy foe for The Avengers.
The other big additions are Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen (pictured above), playing wonder twins Pietro and Wanda Maximoff AKA Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch whose powers of super speed and telekinetic/energy manipulation powers, respectively – “He’s fast and she’s weird,” as Cobie Smulders’ Agent Maria Hill quips – provide some unique and beguiling visuals to counterpoint the ones we already know and love. The film also ties them into the mythology in a way that, without giving too much away, comes back around to Stark’s questionable past behaviour. There’s also another big new addition that will impact on the films to come but I won’t go into that here for spoiler avoidance purposes.
There’s a lot going on in Avengers: Age of Ultron, probably more than most blockbusters in recent memory and Whedon does an impressive job of weaving the wildly differing tapestry of characters and plot threads together across its fairly hefty 141 minute runtime, one that pays dividends to those who have stuck with the Marvel saga thus far. It’s not quite as streamlined as the last one or many of the individual movies, taking a more scattershot approach, but nonetheless this darker, more menacing and visually spectacular sequel delivers the goods when it comes to the all-important action sequences – a couple in particular are fan joy personified – as well as the character interactions in the various calms before the storms. It’s pure, unadulterated mega blockbuster fun with a healthy dose of self-awareness about its own ridiculousness and plenty of heart and soul.