Joss Whedon’s highly anticipated sequel to The Avengers continues the world of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. How good is it? Ryan Pollard finds out…
After the massive success of the first Avengers movie (currently the third highest-grossing movie of all time), this was always going to one of the most, if not the most, anticipated movie of 2015 with pretty much everything going for it. Joss Whedon returning, an expanded worldview, new characters being introduced, as well as introducing one of the most iconic Marvel villains in history with Ultron. It was never going to recapture the surprise and magic of the first film, but Avengers: Age of Ultron is, without a doubt, The Empire Strikes Back of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Continuing on from the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Earth’s Mightiest Heroes initiate an assault on HYDRA’s main facility (led by Strucker) to retrieve Loki’s sceptre, only to come face-to-face with Strucker’s main experiment: the super-powered twins Wanda and Pietro Maximoff, better known as Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver. The encounter with the twins prompts Iron Man/Tony Stark to use the sceptre to complete and implement the A.I. initiative he and the Hulk/Bruce Banner have been working on: the Ultron program. Ultron is created with success, but even though it was designed to save the world, it believes that the only way to achieve universal peace is through human extinction and allow machines to dominate. In the end, it’s up to the Avengers to stop Ultron and his robot army, even if it involves going through ordeals that will haunt them both physically and mentally.
Despite faults along the way, it’s a miracle that Whedon doesn’t allow the entire film to collapse under its own weight and fall into the Spider-Man 3 syndrome of having so many unnecessary storylines and characters colliding in on themselves, resulting in one big mess. This does feel like a true sequel, as there are so many call backs and references to past movies in the MCU, which makes you realise just how big this world that Marvel has built is. It cleverly expands on the core characters’ story arcs and like the first film, allows each of them their moments to shine. The action scenes are incredible, well choreographed and full of kinetic energy that’ll leave even the most casual viewer speechless. The CGI has never looked better, and the characters of both Hulk and Ultron have never been more brilliantly realised for the big screen, giving them real weight and depth despite how fantastical they may be. It’s also memorably funny and quippy in places, and even Ultron himself gets a few snarky one-liners thrown in for good measure.
With it being The Empire Strikes Back of the series, it had the potential for being darker, and it certainly is, while also being bleaker and more emotional than before. Ultron succeeds where Loki failed to do, which is to break the Avengers apart from the inside. With help from the twins, particularly Scarlet Witch, we get to witness the heroes’ worst nightmares, with Black Widow standing out as we finally get to see her intense and grim origin story. It’s also the platform set for the filmmakers to do very big and dramatic things, which includes killing off a character and demonstrating, like they did with Captain America 2, that they unafraid of making big changes in the MCU.
The main cast still have great chemistry and they bring their A-game as always, with Mark Ruffalo, Scarlet Johansson and Jeremy Renner giving outstanding performances in particular. Having been heavily underused in the first film as Loki’s hypnotised zombie-henchman for the most part, Renner’s Hawkeye gets so much more to do this time around, and his character gets a much-needed bit of expansion. It’s almost an apology for the way he was treated first time around, and he finally becomes as iconic as his co-stars. As for the twins themselves, Elizabeth Olsen is absolutely sublime as Scarlet Witch, making the most from a nice little story-arc that’ll hopefully be expanded upon in future films. Quicksilver on the other hand feels as though he’s just along for the ride and doesn’t hold a candle to the more inspired and creative version from X-Men: Days of Future Past.
Despite being introduced later on, Paul Bettany completely nails the Vision; his performance is brilliantly restrained and dignified while his abilities are beautifully realised. You’ll probably come out of the film wanting more Vision, which is a good thing. For the film to work, the central villain needed to work, and James Spader is superbly chilling as Ultron. Thanks to both Whedon’s writing and Spader’s performance, Ultron is given much more of a personality than his comic-book counterpart, being the complete doppelganger of his creator, and whenever he’s on screen, he certainly makes an impact.
However, whilst Age of Ultron is steady, it’s not completely spectacular. Firstly, and more importantly, the pacing of this movie is far too quick and zips about all over the place faster than Quicksilver on super-speed. The film could’ve benefited from being a bit longer, allowing the major plot-strands and revelations to be explained much more slowly and carefully. That would’ve also let Ultron, the new heroes and secondary characters to make much more of an impact instead of just popping up every now and then, and would’ve given the story on its own some time to breathe. Its frantic stuff, and you can practically sense that Whedon was scrambling around behind the scenes trying to get everything together, and has even stated in interviews how making this movie was frankly a nightmare for him.
Also, when doing an Avengers movie, it should be the culmination of a Phase, wrapping up all the loose storylines and plot points in a neat and precise way, just like the first film did for Phase 1. This does do that, yet also works to build Phase 3 by cramming in so much set-up, with Andy Serkis’ Ulysses Klaw being shoehorned in to set up Black Panther, Thor learning of Ragnarok and yes, we get it, Civil War is right around the corner! Secondary characters are just thrown in there just to set up their new roles in future films such as Don Cheadle’s War Machine and Anthony Mackie’s Falcon. Plus, the Eastern-European accents treaded dangerously towards Rocky & Bullwinkle/The Muppets territory.
In the end, Avengers: Age of Ultron is not quite as fresh or as exciting as the first film (or even Guardians of the Galaxy), and personally, perhaps it’s a good thing that this is Whedon’s last take on the Avengers, as the Russo brothers will bring a much needed breath of fresh air and realism to the franchise as they did in Cap 2. But even so, the film gets a lot more right than wrong, being hugely entertaining. However, fans should get more enjoyment out of it than the average viewer. The pacing may be frantic to the point that it misses the mark, but not too much so as to miss the target entirely.