They’re back. The first ‘Avengers’ was an unparalleled triumph, but can ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’ live up to the franchise’s potential?
The details are all so very well-known by now, so I can safely summarise elements of the plot without fear of spoiling you. The film opens with the Avengers taking the war to Hydra, and there’s some quick dialogue that establishes why this is a logical continuation of ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’. Strucker's base has been found...
As part of this, the Avengers regain possession of Loki’s sceptre, and that’s when things seriously kick off.
Next thing you know, Tony Stark is conspiring to create the next generation of the world’s saviours – an artificial intelligence that he calls Ultron. It’s an interesting flip on the comic-book version of the character, an android created by Hank Pym, and this incarnation of Ultron is rather effectively done. Ultron finds allies in the Maximoff twins, Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch, who we all know will turn out good in the end. But not until after they’ve seriously messed with the Avengers’ minds.
Where this film is stronger than the first, is that it does justice to all the characters. Each one has an arc; courtesy of the Scarlet Witch, every one of them faces their own demons.
It’s Robert Downey Jr. who takes the central role, acting as the catalyst for so much that goes wrong; it’s done in such a way as to celebrate everything that makes the character of Tony Stark so very conflicted. And yet, at the same time, it’s done in a careful enough way to keep him as a hero. Ultron is a creation born, not of risky curiosity, but of fear. When Joss Whedon saw ‘Iron Man 3’, he reportedly asked the Marvel bosses how he could possibly take Tony Stark from that. He evidently worked it out, because there’s a clear chain of characterisation running from ‘The Avengers’, through ‘Iron Man 3’, and into ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’. Oh, and the Hulkbuster fight is superb and terrifying.
Chris Evans continues to shine as Captain America, and puts in what felt like his most confident performance to date as the shield-slinging Avenger. All the way through the film you see subtle nods to his leadership; there’s a brilliant voice-over piece that emphasises his role as the Avengers’ soul. Let’s just say his mission isn’t to take down Ultron, and you really see the Avengers shine. The much-touted conflict between Captain America and Tony Stark builds up nicely, but Whedon avoids bringing it to boil too soon (let’s face it, ‘Captain America: Civil War’ is on the horizon, and the boiling point has to be saved for that).
Scarlett Johansson is brilliant as Black Widow. Her vulnerability in certain scenes is frankly startling, but you gradually get used to seeing that side of her; and then, she cuts loose. Interviews have teased a romance plot between Black Widow and Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner, and that’s done in a wonderful, gently revealing manner for both of them. Both are left shaken by the reality of the monsters they believe themselves to be, not least Banner after the Hulk / Iron Man battle that’s been much teased.
As always, Chris Hemsworth brings real gravitas to the role of Thor. Initially his character seems a tad too cocky, as though he’s un-learned the lessons of his solo films, but he settles back into a more consistent role as the story goes on. For Thor, the visions of the Scarlet Witch are a hint, a clue that will set him up for a key role in the ongoing story of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as well as for ‘Thor: Ragnarok’. I’m seriously beginning to speculate that ‘Thor: Ragnarok’ will be the story of Thanos’ onslaught on Asgard.
And then we come to the unexpected beating heart of this movie. Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye is suddenly fleshed out in a way I never saw coming, and in a single moment the Cinematic Universe swept away from the comics forever. I can’t see Marvel even attempting to replicate this development in the comics, and so much the better. Let’s just say that I loved the unexpected revelations for Clint Barton, and the fact that Black Widow – uniquely – was in the know about them.
Of course, we have our three new Avengers. First off, we have Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch, who I actually felt was pretty much the key character of ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’. She’s wonderfully done, sinister at the outset, heroic at the end; there’s a moment when her decision is made, and she makes her stand, and you just want to cheer. She’s an absolute highlight of the film, her performance is excellent, and she’s confirmed to crop up in ‘Captain America: Civil War’. Aaron Taylor-Johnson plays her brother Quicksilver, and there’s no doubt the internet will soon be flooded with articles comparing his take to that of Evan Peters in ‘X-Men: Days of Future Past’.
Finally, we have Paul Bettany’s confident and assured performance as the uncanny android Vision. Now, I admit that I’m still not sold on this; to me, we saw enough of his character, but we were left with absolutely no idea what he can do. His power-set appears similar to that of the comics, but it’s hard to say. And that makes it hard to feel a real sense of risk or empathy for the character. That said, certain elements are clearly set up for a central role in ‘Avengers: Infinity War’, so we’re certain to come to understand Vison better.
In supporting cast we have a fair few major names, not least Samuel Lee Jackson’s Nick Fury, who gets possibly one of the best moments in the whole film. Nick Fury’s actions here contrast his vision of S.H.I.E.L.D. perfectly with the Hydra-influenced S.H.I.E.L.D. we saw in ‘The Avengers’, and I frankly loved it.
And on the villains’ corner, central role is taken – of course – by James Spader’s Ultron. He pulls off a strange performance; it’s only when we realise that Ultron’s hooked into the web that his off-note cultural references make more sense. Yes, there’s more than just Pinocchio. I like the growing confidence of the villain as ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’ continues, and I really like the truly menacing aspect to him. There are moments that are chilling; Tony Stark’s realising Ultron's emotions, Ultron’s menacing of Black Widow… Bar Loki and the Kingpin, Ultron is easily the most three-dimensional villain to date.
That being said, there are problems with ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’. Some viewers may find Hawkeye’s sudden flip of characterisation to be a trifle unbelievable (I didn’t, but I heard the criticism). A more real problem for me, though, was the fact that I felt some aspects of the movie amounted to little more than ensuring the chess pieces were in the right place for the next movie. With Marvel’s films advertised through to 2019, it’s no surprise I can now easily see where characters and concepts are going. And that lessened the drama, and at times felt vaguely artificial.
The other problem was actually the scale; first off, Avengers Tower just made the heroes feel distant and remote, particularly immediately after the battle against Hydra. And Ultron’s plan felt unbelievable even by comic standards, with aspects of the resolution that just didn't quite satisfy me. I guess the problem is that the pressure is always on to make the sequel ‘bigger than the first’.
All in all, though, this was everything a summer blockbuster super-hero team-up film should be: fun adventure, action, special effects galore, cool cast, and a hint of romance.
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