The Avengers was the moment where Marvel Studios truly hit the big time. As I mentioned in my Daredevil article, a year prior to that I wasn’t too excited about the Marvel Cinematic Universe, their most recent effort Iron Man 2 hadn’t been up to much and I couldn’t care less about Captain America or Thor as comics characters. Their beyond-solid respective début movies changed all that though and everything came together wonderfully in the first Avengers movie. That film’s deserved giant success paved the way for Marvel to make bigger and bigger movies in their ‘Phase 2’ plan (an additional sequel for Iron Man, Cap and Thor plus the delightful Guardians of the Galaxy). If Avengers 2 could bring all the disparate elements and characters of the MCU coherently together once again, we might have something really special on our hands.
Alas, Avengers: Age of Ultron is not that movie. Rather than alleviating my growing concerns about the homogenizing Marvel movies, this has only compounded them. And I really thought returning writer/director Joss Whedon would be the man to shake things up. This is a sequel inferior to its predecessor in almost every way.
It doesn’t start off that way though, looking more than promising from its outset. Free from any worry that audiences might not be familiar with some its characters, Whedon doesn’t need to spend the first 20 minutes setting up who and where everyone is, instead bringing us in during an Avengers mission in a fictional Eastern European location. Considering the previous films intentionally avoided having everyone show up is everyone else’s movie, Age of Ultron needs to provide a reason for them all to suddenly be working together again, but it was a good time-saving choice to let us learn that during their quest. Unfortunately what it turns out they’re after is Loki’s spear, which at this point just seems like a leftover from the last movie, but seeing them all fighting together and playing off each other is great fun to see, particularly as this ably demonstrates how familiar they are with one another now.
The Avengers new-found camaraderie proves to be a double-edged sword though. A lot of what elevated the first to being a great superhero movie was in just how darn funny it was. A lot of this humour stemmed from the clashing egos of these mismatched superheroes being forced to work together in a manner reminiscent of the best buddy movies. Now that they’re all best mates, the banter has almost all vanished. Whedon comes closest to re-capturing that magic in a charming post party chat in which the mildly inebriated superhero team all jokingly discuss the mechanics of Thor’s hammer. It’s the kind of character-based scene which this film could have really benefited from more of. The film also gives us precious few moments of science-y Tony Stark/Bruce Banner dialogue which is left feeling like a missed opportunity.
What’s worse, several of the jokes that are there end up falling flat. It’s a bit unusual to say of a movie as huge as this but there were a couple of times that I felt that with another take or two the actor might have nailed the delivery but wasn’t quite there yet. There’s additionally a Cap-centric running gag that’s amusing at first but run into the ground by the end. It does surprise me how much better Chris Evans appears to be at playing Captain America in his solo movies than he does here. The only actor who consistently hits the mark in the comedy timing stakes is Chris Hemsworth, often by using only his facial expressions. I hope someone gives him a broad comedy lead role sometime soon as he’d likely excel in that. I recall gleefully roaring with laughter along with my entire packed cinema at the Hulk Smash! moment in Avengers, but there’s nothing even close to that here. As nice as it is to see moments mid-battle when Thor disables a bad guy by hitting his hammer on Cap’s shield, it would have been so much better if Whedon had managed to keep the humour up too.
One of the obstacles I’ve mentioned before that Marvel need to overcome is their lack of decent villains. All of their Phase 2 films have suffered from lacklustre bad guys (can you even remember who the bad guy in Thor: The Dark World was?) and this is no different. It’s not worth wasting time with details but Ultron is a program created by Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) with the aim of bringing peace to the world. Unfortunately for them it gains sentience to early and escapes into a robotic form (portrayed by James Spader) and becomes hell-bent on destroying The Avengers. There is at least some effort to make Ulton more of an offshoot of Stark than a big evil robot but here he lacks any of Downey Jr’s charisma and gives Stark all the best lines in their exchanges. Ultimately he just winds up being another one-note bad guy who just wants to destroy things.
With a cast this expansive, it’s tough to give each Avenger his due but Whedon makes a valiant effort. Everyone gets their moment to shine, but some do so much more brightly than others. There are even a series of fascinating fear-hallucination scenes for each Avenger, one of which features a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo from Julie Delpy. Most of the core team members are solid as ever, though I feel a lot of character material may have been edited out of this. Iron Man, Captain America and Thor continue confidently in the same vein as before. Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk, who was such a pleasant surprise last time around is now more brooding and given a romantic sub-plot which sees a budding romance form between him and Scarlett Johannsson’s Black Widow. Though it comes out of seemingly nowhere (she was after-all last seen co-starring in The Winter Soldier with no mention of the Hulk) it’s not unconvincing, but it also smacks of “we’ve only got one woman on the team, let’s hook her up with one of the male members”.
As I mentioned before, there is no glorious Hulk moment in this film, his big fight comes around halfway with not Ultron but Iron Man in his beefed up “Hulkbuster” suit of armour. The fight begins so interestingly, with us learning just which measures Stark has installed to deal with an out-of-control Hulk, but soon devolves into a messy CGI slugfest. The Avengers films have taken more care to avoid the massive civilian casualties other recent films like Man of Steel and Star Trek Into Darkness will have no-doubt caused, but this culminates in a bizarre moment in which Iron Man assesses that a building is empty and therefore fine to destroy without taking into account the many civilians we’ve seen on the ground beneath it.
Oddly enough, the Avenger emerging on the top of the pile is none-other that Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye. Poor Hawkeye had become a bit of a punchline following his last appearance and Whedon seems acutely aware of that. Here he goes out of his way to give Hawkeye character depth, humanising scenes, battle glory and memorable dialogue. Kids might well emerge from this with a new affinity for the character in a manner similar to Hulk in the last one. On the other hand, Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury ends up relegated to the sidelines.
New additions to the cast include twins Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). It’s a little confusing exactly what the telekinetic Scarlet Witch is capable of doing and she feels a little mishandled until she loses it and goes all-out with her powers in a moment reminiscent of Carrie towards the end. Age of Ulton was beaten to the punch in featuring Quicksilver by X-Men: Days of Future Past, where the super-fast character has arguably the best scene. He’s different enough here (costume, accent, attitude) that he’s unlikely to suffer by comparison but, despite playing an important role, is left feeling under-served by the script. Weirdly, one of the more memorable new characters is just a one-scene cameo from Andy Serkis as an Africa arms dealer.
The film does reveal a late-in-the-game secret weapon though; The Vision. The Vision might well be the strangest character in the entire film, maybe even universe (and I’m including Groot). A brightly coloured synthetic being partially created by Ultron then later completed by Stark, he’s a striking and instantly endearing creation. He plays a key role in the finale and gives actor Paul Bettany (who’s been with the MCU from the very beginning) a chance to finally appear on screen.
With The Avengers Whedon proved he could deliver on action scenes with the best of them, and the thinking from above here seems to have been “more of that please”. Aside from the, on reflection quite concise opening, and sloppy Hulkbuster fight there are other large-scale set pieces in the film. One of the better ones takes place in Seoul and is much more of a chase than a fight, involving a few different Avengers on different vehicles.
The shambling plot always feels secondary however, at times an excuse to shift between one action scene in one continent to another in another, Fast & Furious style. Around the third act, they find themselves back in Eastern Europe again. If you’ve seen all the Marvel movies, you probably know the gist of what’s to come; yes, that’s right, you guessed it; it’s a massive CGI and destruction-filled aerial battle sequence. The same thing they’ve done multiple times before. The primary difference this time is that is involves ascending rather than descending, but that’s hardly important. This sequence also begins early enough that I thought it might not turn out to be the grand finale, but that’s because it’s so flipping long that it feels like it takes us half the movie. It’s also surprisingly reminiscent of one of the more ridiculous set-ups in the unfairly derided Superman Returns, but what it boils down to is the Avengers facing off against endless waves of soulless robots that can be destroyed indiscriminately. There’s no weight or sophistication to the conflict (the way there was with the problematic Man of Steel), the team can just knock off each robot without concern. There are exciting moments sprinkled throughout the battle (including an improved concern for civilian well-being), but as a whole it’s so long, chaotic and repetitive that it becomes numbing. Please Marvel, bigger does not equal better, try and scale things down a bit.
As shambolic as Age of Ultron often is, it’s also clear that Whedon loves these characters and wants to do them justice, this film is not a heartless studio money-grab and that’s important. However, when you’ve spent hundreds of millions of dollars on gigantic, destructive, explosion and CGI-filled battles yet the best scene in your film consists of the core actors sitting around a table chatting to each other, your priorities might be in the wrong place.