Director | Joss Whedon
Producer | Kevin Feige
Writer | Joss Whedon
Cast | Robert Downey Jnr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, James Spader, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, Don Cheadle, Samuel L. Jackson, Cobie Smulders, Anthony Mackie, Hayley Atwell, Idris Elba, Stellan Skarsgård, Thomas Kretschmann, Andy Serkis
Run Time | 141 mins
Certificate | 12a
**Warning – Spoilers**
Plot | In an attempt to recover Loki’s sceptre, the team assaults the base of Baron von Strucker (Kretschmann), one of HYDRA’s last remaining chieftains. During the attack, Wanda Maximoff (Olsen) – one of von Strucker’s experiments, along with brother Pietro (Taylor-Johnson) – uses her extraordinary abilities to show the team dark visions of both past and future. One such prophecy leads Tony Stark (Downey Jnr.) to rashly augment his latest venture with the stone found in Loki’s sceptre. The supposedly benevolent A.I. initiative he and Banner (Ruffalo) had been working on becomes corrupted, and the villainous Ultron (Spader) is born.
Review | It has been just shy of three years since Avengers Assemble bookended ‘Phase 1’ of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The record-breaking superhero team up was the culmination of years of painstaking work to get the MCU off the ground, and it deserved the plaudits and success it received. Now, as we are drawing close to the end of ‘Phase 2’ (July’s Ant-Man will be its final chapter), the super squad is ready for its second outing.
But how does Avengers: Age of Ultron fare? Is it better, worse, or more of the same? The short answer is yes, to all three.
The plot touches upon decades removed classic literature (aspects call forth memories of Frankenstein, as well as Asimov’s I, Robot), while retaining Joss Whedon’s flair for characterisation and varying forms of humour. It’s through this humour and characterisation at Whedon manages to carry a very bulky story across another two hours and twenty minutes plus change. There is a lot to take in. While hardcore fans should be pleased with the interconnected nature of Avengers: Age of Ultron, it could become a chore for casual viewers who may not be interested in watching every single feature in the MCU. Case in point, there are a number of cameos early in the film relating to the prophetic visions some of them receive. If you haven’t seen the Thor or Captain America films, you may well be a bit puzzled by it all. Still, I can’t knock Whedon for this. Too often are filmmakers chastised for pandering to the casual audience, often hurting a film’s potential. This does not happen here.
Age of Ultron is both darker and more humour laden than its predecessor. There are many humorous quips and dry one-liners throughout (many of which hit the mark), though there is the sense that this is a deliberate attempt to inject some levity into its dark, ominous core. At its heart, Avengers: Age of Ultron emits a foreboding shadow that is likely going to come to a head in Captain America: Civil War.
While Whedon does excellently to balance the lighter and darker sides to the story, as well as telegraphing a lot of future plotlines, he does leave a little in the film that feels a bit superfluous. There are a couple of scenes relating to Thor that seem to have two goals in mind: 1) Promote Thor: Ragnarok and 2) Give Whedon an excuse to shoehorn in Stellan Skarsgård. Please don’t misunderstand, these are not bad. But they do serve very little purpose here, and inflate the run time ever so slightly. Considering Whedon’s original cut ran to three and a half hours, it is slightly surprising this survived the cutting room floor. (As an aside, it will be fascinating to discover what exactly did get cut).
You know what was a nice inclusion? Marvel Ultimate Alliance style team up attacks, particularly between Thor and Captain America. They may have only been there for aesthetics, but they were a nice touch, showing that the team had grown since the first feature.
Speaking of the team, everyone gets at least one decent line/funny quip this time around, and we finally get some characterisation for Hawkeye (Renner). As probably the least developed character on the team, it was nice to see now only his role expanded, but his importance shown. At a few key points in the film, he keeps his cool more than the others, and even makes the save when they are all incapacitated by Wanda’s hexes. With the possible exception of Black Widow (whose fuller back story may be being saved for a spin-off), the audience now feels like it knows the whole team.
It was nice to see Fury (Jackson) back with the team, though his presence does lessen the impact of his going undercover at the end of Winter Soldier a little bit. Still, it makes sense that in dire events such as this that he’d pop back up to try and lend support to the heroes.
These dire events are perpetrated by the titular Ultron, an evolved A.I. created by Tony Stark to be the ultimate peacekeeper. Unfortunately, he has concluded that the best way to protect mankind is to force themselves to evolve, by creating an extinction level event. Sweet Christmas!
James Spader is rightfully getting much credit for his delivery of Ultron’s lines. With the A.I. using Stark for his base personality, it means we get an arrogant, petulant villain that punctuates his nefarious actions with dry quips. This is Tony Stark 2.0, minus the drinking. Spader nails his lines, and helps elevate Ultron from a potentially generic trope to something a little more interesting and entertaining.
After initially siding with Ultron, the Maximoffs make the switch to the good side (much like in the comics, where they have been found on both sides of the law). The pair get enough of a backstory to explain their disdain for the Avengers (and their hated of Tony Stark), though they do both seem slightly naive to Ultron’s endgame. As individuals, they get a little time to show off exactly what they can do. They fit in well enough, and Taylor-Johnson and Olsen do okay with a minimal lines they receive.
Ultron and the Maximoffs aren’t the only new players in town. Age of Ultron also sees the long awaited debut of The Vision (voiced by the returning Paul Bettany). Without wanting to spoil the entire film in this review, we’ll just let it be said that Bettany instantly commands the screen, as well as being the payoff to a scene earlier on that had previously been played for laughs. Seriously, the cinema reacted with gasps, whoops and applause.
The Vision is evidently going to be an integral part of the next installment in the team up franchise. To make space for him and other newcomers, some players were written out. While exact details will not be shared (go watch the film!), it can be confirmed that one character is bumped off, while others have a more ambiguous future in the franchise. For what its worth, the death is handled well, and with true Whedon-seque bleak humour.
It has been mentioned earlier that Whedon has done a great job pulling everything together into a cohesive structure. Age of Ultron has direct links with Black Panther, Thor: Ragnarok, Captain America: Civil War, and Avengers: Infinity War, and so has a lot to shoulder. Thankfully, the whole technical team does a great job with the shooting, editing and effects – particularly in the use of 3D. Every scene makes use of the technology subtly, with eye popping moments reserved for the epic fight sequences. This is definitely a film worth investing in IMAX for, if you have access to it. Like its predecessor, its pacing is generally pretty good (though similarly sagging a little in the middle third). In one final comparison to Avengers Assemble, the final fight sequence is again executed very well, though probably with less outright memorable moments (there’s no real “puny God!” moment here).
The Verdict | Avengers: Age of Ultron is worthy bookend to Phase 2 of the MCU. It handles some things better than its predecessor, though Assemble still owns the better final quarter. This is an entertaining, exhausting 140 minute ride that set things up nicely for Phase 3. The best yet? I think Captain America: Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy remain on top, but Avengers: Age of Ultron quite rightfully shares a spot with its ancestor, just half a step behind.