Avengers: Age Of Ultron was never going to have the same impact as Avengers Assemble, with that film now in the rear view mirror it’s easy to forget just how much of a big deal it was and how ambitious Marvel’s plans for a cinematic universe were. Now the Avengers are back with Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) Natasha Romanov/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) Thor (Chris Helmsworth) Bruce Banner/The Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) to face the threat of Ultron (voiced by James Spader) .
Succinctly put Age of Ultron does a lot of things well but others it fumbles with.
Marvel’s latest offering will probably leave those who haven’t seen Marvel’s previous films a little baffled, but given that Age Of Ultron is essentially the 11th film in a franchise then that’s a bit of a moot point really. The film starts bracingly in the midst of the group laying siege to the Hydra stronghold of Baron Von Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann) last seen in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. This serves several functions narratively, it demonstrates that this is just another day at the office for the Avengers, it puts major things in place for what follows and it introduces two new characters Pietro Maximoff/Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) referred to as “the twins”.
Here’s where things get messy, in Marvel’s comics X-Men’s Magneto is the Maximoff twins father, but due to a rather complicated situation involving his pregnant wife Magda running away to fictional country Transia and another character called the High Evolutionary they are raised by Romani couple Django and Marya Maximoff as their own. The twins featured in X-Men before then appearing in The Avengers about a year later. However due to a headache inducing rights issue none of this can actually feature or even be mentioned as Marvel don’t own the rights to the X-Men so can’t mention Magneto, as a result the Maximoff twins are instead reworked to be orphans whose parents died as a result of Tony Stark’s pre-Iron Man arms sales days and are picked up by Hydra and have been living for revenge against Stark ever since. This works in the context of the film, and it should be said that Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Quicksilver is a far more credible take on the character than the slacker played by Evan Peters in X-Men Days Of Future Past, but fans of Marvel’s comics might take umbrage at two of Marvel’s classic characters, both debuted in the 1960’s, being rehashed with completely different origins.
One of the best things about the Avengers films is the cast are not only excellent but have great chemistry so the scenes of them just hanging out at Avengers HQ have a vibrancy to them as well as being mined comedic beats like everyone trying to lift Thor’s hammer. Another aspect mined excellently for comedic effect is the juxtaposition between the mundanity of everyday life and the superheroic antics the Avengers find themselves in, one highlight being Renner’s Hawkeye deciding what he’s going to do regarding his home renovations whilst embroiled in a chase with Johansson’s Black Widow. This chemistry follows through into the action scenes with the team behaving as a believable cohesive unit combining their powers to impressive effect on several occasions.
The antagonist this time around is Ultron, a self aware A.I of Chitauri origin (a different origin to the comics Ultron) that runs amok after being programmed in secret by Tony Stark and Bruce Banner to be part of a defensive strategy to protect the Earth. Tony Stark’s ego and megalomania has been a recurring theme in Marvel’s films and really comes into play here convincing the more grounded Banner to work on the project without informing the rest of the team. One of the big hurdles that Ultron faces is following on from fan favourite Loki played by the immensely popular Tom Hiddleston , where Loki was charismatic despite being treacherous Ultron is another thing entirely. Spader’s delivery is more akin to a disappointed teacher than a genocidal maniac.
Ultron is an enemy who isn’t bound to a single physical form and this is something which is used to impressive effect and something the theam fail to grasp at first with Spader’s Ultron pointing out to one of the Avengers fighting him “I’m already there, you’ll catch on” in a droll manner. Spader is great as Ultron with an aloof and egotistical bent to his dialogue much like Tony Stark his progenitor.
Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver are summed up by SHIELD’s Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) with the phrase “He’s fast. She’s weird” and that really seems appropriate for Wanda’s somewhat ill defined powers. Taylor-Johnson and Olsen do a good job though as the naive twins that Ultron takes advantage of who slowly realise that the world isn’t the way they though it was and there’s some genuine pathos to the pair.
There are some impressive action pieces although occasionally it does become a case of Michael Bay style what the hell’s going on CG FX confusion but there’s still some classic old school action, a chase involving Black Widow tearing through the streets on a motorbike is particularly good, it’s frenetic and it’s always good to see it’s not just the guys that can kick ass and do the action stuff, which is something that’s been distinctly missing in Marvel’s output thus far on the whole.
Another big set piece which featured in trailers is the fight between Hulk and Iron Man. Banner’s been living with the nightmare of the carnage he could cause if he lost control to the point that he and Stark have designed a contingency plan codenamed Veronica, known to comic fans as Hulkbuster. The whole scenario is comic book hi-jinks writ large, it adds nothing to the on-going narrative but it’s an impressive spectacle and one of the best FX sequences.
It’s not all action though as Banner and Romanov have built up a believable raport with Romanov finding common ground with the haunted Banner due to her past as an assassin, it’s this that really makes gives Johansson and Ruffalo some great character work with both of them convincingly portraying how haunted and damaged they are, something which seperates them from the other members on the team. This also makes me wonder why Marvel isn’t doing a Black Widow solo film, there’s a big name attached, the character is already established, there’s plenty of potential story there but no apparently Marvel thinks nobody is interested in that.
Which is possibly connected to Disney/Marvel’s apparent indifference to a certain demographic of their fanbase when it comes to merchandise, prompting the hashtag #WheresNatasha on Twitter and even Mark Ruffalo speaking out on the subject. Which is apparently connected to Disney being perfectly happy hawking princess related merch to girls because that’s what girls are supposed to like and Marvel is for boys.
The rapport between Banner and Romanov is used as the basis of some pretty cheap jokes courtesy of Robert Downey Jr’s Stark, whilst it fits his character of being charismatic enough to get away with being a bit of a dick, it’s lazy writing and the sort of casual sexism you don’t really expect from Whedon.
One of the things that does seem apparent though is writer/director Joss Whedon seems to struggle at times with giving all the characters something to do, especially outside of the action. At one point Thor disappears to have a vision quest in a cave somewhere and the whole thing seems incredibly contrived (this however may be due to the editing with an extended edition apparently set to appear) and there’s a few “oh they’re busy” lines to explain away the absence of certain characters.
Sometimes Age Of Ultron does suffer from the classic comics problem of “just because you can feature a certain character it doesn’t mean you should” with appearances from several characters from the various Marvel films, this makes sense logically in a shared universe but not so much narratively.
If anyone is the real stand out it’s Paul Bettany’s The Vision, a corporeal manifestation of Tony Stark’s computer programme J.A.R.V.I.S powered by the Mind Stone one of the infinity gems. Bettany has voiced the A.I since Marvel’s Iron Man and whilst not on screen his voice has become as associated with Iron Man as Robert Downey Jr’s and the appearance of The Vision has been a point of discussion among fans for a long time. Bettany’s character stands out despite not having much screen time because of his mild mannered delivery and because his scenes have a real impact, one rendering the bickering team debating their next move speechless and a scene with Spader’s Ultron is particularly poignant.
Avengers: Age Of Ultron isn’t a bad film but it also inevitably fails to capture the energy and excitement of its predecessor and like many of Marvel’s films seems to follow a somewhat predictable narrative pattern, also it does leave one to wonder just how long Marvel can keep so many plates spinning before one falls to the floor and smashes.