Director: Joss Whedon
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Mark Ruffalo, Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, James Spader, Cobie Smulders and Samuel L. Jackson
Running Time: 141 minutes
Release Date: April 23rd
This year marks the 15th anniversary of the release of Bryan Singer’s X-Men, a movie which kickstarted the commercial and cultural success — sorry, Blade — of Marvel properties on the big screen. At the time of its release and Sam Raimi’s Spiderman, which followed two years later, there was an undoubted sense of wonder and (ahem) marvel at what you were seeing on screen. The first time Wolverine unsheathed his claws, an optical blast from Cyclops and Spidey web-slinging through New York for the first time were an intravenous hit of dog-earred comics and Saturday morning cartoon nostalgia. Their success revolutionised blockbusters, bringing terms like franchise and shared cinematic universes into the Hollywood lexicon and gave increased demand for bigger budgets, casts and sense of epic. 2012’s The Avengers became the bacchanalian apex of it, teaming up a glut of heroes fastidiously introduced through their own movies. By default, its sequel Age of Ultron is now the largest to date. (For now, anyway.)
With a cast approaching The Wire size scale and plots that traverse solo movies and two TV shows, if ever there was a case for a ‘Previously On…’ at the beginning of a movie, it’s Age of Ultron. After the Battle of New York (The Avengers), the disintegration of S.H.I.E.L.D. (Captain America: The Winter Soldier), Tony Stark’s PTSD and obsessive creation of multiple Iron Man suits (Iron Man 3) and whatever happened in Thor: The Dark World, the Avengers are back together attacking H.Y.D.R.A. base in Sokovia, attempting to retrieve Loki’s scepter from the gloriously monikered Baron von Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann). (It’s a incredibly entertaining way to open as Ben Davis’ camera glides in one take through each member showcasing their talents before ending in them all leaping into battle in slow motion. It’s a great sight to see them actually acting as a team too, notably Thor and Captain America’s shield and Mjonir combos.) Stark, fearing for another Chitauri invasion, seeks to put a bouncer at the door of club Earth and creates the Ultron programme, a robot army that goes horribly wrong when it becomes sentient and bloviates in the tone of James Spader, hell bent on human extinction.
Ultron is probably a good jumping off point for what doesn’t hit its marks. The MCU has thus far been pretty light on memorable villains outside of Tom Hiddleston’s outstanding Loki and Ultron can be added to the pretty underwhelming heap along with Whiplash, Abomination, The Winter Soldier and Elf Christopher Eccleston from Thor 2. On face value, having Spader play a pompous, arrogant murderbot seems like gangbusters but when his voice is vocoded through the blockbuster standard of this-is-what-robots-sound-like, it could be anyone, he sounds more like Paul Giamatti for most part. And then there’s his design, that rips out any tangible attachment and evokes The Terminator and those god-awful Transformer movies. The addition of the Maximoff twins, Pietro and Wanda, doesn’t amount to much outside of hokey Eastern European accents and Aaron Taylor-Johnson looking like the love child of a surfer bro and a Taken villain.
With Cap, Iron Man and Thor all afforded their own outings, Whedon shines the focus on the characters who share the same poster space but were left with not a lot to do last time out. In the case of Black Widow and Bruce Banner’s growing relationship, it’s the movie at its finest. Johansson and Ruffalo’s range and nuance is galaxies beyond this but they add real emotion and depth, like Black Widow has to subdue the Hulk with a lullaby to coax Banner out of his feral rage. On the other hand, Whedon brings back Falcon and War Machine to show that black superheroes matter but can’t find them anything to do except attend a cocktail party. Then there’s a sub-plot that continues Hollywood’s obsession with mid-movie acts in dusty country houses that tries to create feelings for Hawkeye that really just kicks the can around before a final battle.
And of that final battle, Whedon makes some welcome tweaks to make it moderately more palatable. But really, it’s just adding a little more seasoning to a meal you’ve eaten a thousand times. The MCU third act by committee has been wanton annihilation of a major metropolitan landscape or a robots by the boat load, Age of Ultron gives you both. It doesn’t want to just pummel a city from above, it wants to pummel the earth from above with a city. That said, it’s refreshing to see the Avengers actually spend some time actively looking to save civilians but outside of that, it doesn’t half drag on. Another major Marvel property, Daredevil, debuted on the small screen a couple of weeks back and its approach to fight scenes, people socking each other in the kisser repeatedly and feeling the effects, was more personal and suspenseful, perhaps the movies will take note.
In an interview with Vulture, Whedon claimed that making Age of Ultron almost killed him, so that he’s moving on makes sense from a creative and health standpoint. Making movies for Marvel is like a bigger budget TV world, there’s no room for auteurs when future projects demand your script includes trips to Wakanda, creating fissures for a Civil War and crowbarring in an Infinity Gauntlet. It’s a hell of a farewell though that’s ripe with a humour missing from other super-properties — in particular, a running joke about Captain America’s aversion to bad language is fantastic. Studio notes and scale of scope might mean the sense of wonder might be gone, but that doesn’t mean you still can’t have fun.