Avengers: Age Of Ultron reviewed

Has the original Avengers film has lost a bit of its sparkle in the years since its release? Maybe. Maybe the public has had enough time to finally digest it; to come to terms with what it meant for the superhero genre. To get bored with that.

Certainly it was the most massive film anyone had ever seen back in 2012, and a bona fide renaissance in geek culture. Finally, here was the film that dared to dream - X-Men style realism and Batman-style mawkishness be damned. Superheroes could suddenly be everything they should be; colourful and witty, reality-defying and ludicrously powerful. Most importantly of all, they could exist together in this brave new world; scientists, World War 2 super-soldiers and Nordic gods were treated equally earnestly - writer/director Joss Whedon had both the requisite respect for the material, and the scruples to treat the situation with the right amount of humour such an unprecedentedly crazy undertaking deserved.

After decades of Hollywood low-betting on hit and miss superhero franchises, Marvel Studios went all-in and won big. Post-Avengers, industry bigwigs began pouring investment into various dormant superheroes, particularly in the DC line through Warner studios. Characters who never seemed credible, or bankable, suddenly seemed like ripe fruit in an abandoned corner of the orchard. Warners, now on the back foot, immediately took inroads to a Justice League film, and work on various related properties including Aquaman and Suicide Squad.

The Avengers watershed shifted the landscape irrevocably, and Marvel studios have made the most of their figurative drilling rights. Now studios, for the first time, are making real comic book stories - on ridiculous, limitless-seeming budgets - and most importantly, they have an audience who gets them, and seemingly wants more and more. For a geek, these are golden years. Pinch yourself: it’s never been a better time to be a superhero fan.

So, when the time comes for Avengers 2, where do you go? Where can you go?
[Spoilers follow]

If you're Whedon, you go a little bigger. Ultron spreads the action a little further afield, adds to the team's roster significantly, and gives you spectacle on a scale at least as big as the gargantuan finale of the original. In between, it finds time for a love story between team members, some weak but not-unwarranted character development, and a truly gigantic bust-up between Iron Man and the Hulk that fans have been crying out for since the first Iron Man films. Indeed, a lot of the film is dictated by what the fans seem to want, and that, in a way, is troubling. Having given you bigger, having satiated the fan appetite for a meal that - on paper - should never have worked, Whedon's approach to a sequel is seemingly to pour on the gravy.

If the first signs of fatigue set in during the final act of the first Avengers, then its sequel shows obvious stress under the weight of its expanded army of players, their ludicrous powers and their increasingly mind-crippling inter-dimensional escapades. Not that it isn't fun. But is it a reasonable rate of return?

The Hulk gets a bad case of pink-eye

The most wearisome trope in modern hero films is the origin story, and unencumbered of such formalities, Age Of Ultron gives us a brand new glimpse of superheroics, and sets out into near-virgin territory: here is a film which begins with an established team of mythic heroes, where we're no longer guiding the audience by the hand and hoping they'll get it. Here, we are shown what it's like to step straight into the pages of a comic book. After a decade of Marvel films that laid the foundations carefully, here is your fully-furnished geek dream palace.

Within minutes we've seen brain-melting action of the kind we waited a whole film to see in the first Avengers film, of our ludicrous heroes battling hopelessly outgunned rent-a-foes, on a mission to retrieve Loki's sceptre (the macguffin from the last film) from some baddies. Starting in fifth gear may be the first mistake the film makes: it sets the stakes a little lower by giving you too much, too soon. Where's the drama for this bunch of demigods? The question seems to occur to Whedon at exactly the same point, and he conjures up a fly for the ointment. Luckily for them, the baddies have new players Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch on their team. Caught off-guard, the team takes their first knock at the hands of these 'enhanceds' (copyright issues with Fox studios forbid Marvel the use of the word 'mutant'), but nevertheless retrieve the plot-propelling staff.

The 'Hulkbuster' suit

Robert Downey Junior's star still powers the super-suit of these films, and the plot once again focuses on his Tony Stark. Stark has a mind to make his 'Iron Legion' of robot helpers sentient - and in doing so, hasten his own retirement, all with the help of the magic staff. It's testament to a decade of careful Marvel world-building that we aren't completely overwhelmed by the scale of the plot so early on. Soak it in: you are watching a comic book. Of course things don't go to plan, and malignant artificial intelligence Ultron is born.

The film is arguably everything you want to see: the pace is similar but faster; there are peppy one-liners aplenty, and all your favourite characters get their allotted screen time. But the trick that was so good the first time is always going to seem less special, even though all the stops are firmly pulled out in Age Of Ultron. It's funny, for example, but you begin to anticipate Whedon's humourous beats.

We have slightly more (but just as vague) backstory for Scarlett Johansson, and a bigger role for Jeremy Renner (who famously complained about his underwritten part on the last outing). Weirdly, Renner's Hawkeye character even acknowledges his comparative weakness as a superhero, reading the audience's mind but in no way dismissing the thought. His beefed-up role is quite welcome, nonetheless, and he's a winning character, but one wonders why no one's tried to come up with a super-serum for him yet.

Of course, Hawkeye spent half of Avengers 1 as a bad guy, under the spell of the maniacal Loki. And wouldn't you know it, they've used much the same idea here. Newbies Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch ('the twins', as they're referred to) are treated in the time-honoured fashion of many a Marvel villain: as an adversary until they start seeming cool, at which time all is forgiven pretty quickly and they join the heroes' side. One has super speed and the other is... a witch. For ease of clarification, Whedon has helpfully colour-coded their powers blue and red, respectively. It's a silly conceit, and made all the more so when you realise it's actually incredibly helpful in deciphering them in the miasma of ridiculous abilities, which, in the third act, is akin to watching a blender full of glowsticks.

The underwhelming Ultron

The real baddie of the piece is James Spader as Ultron, who possesses all the requisite villain credentials, except in being genuinely menacing. Ultron feels strangely impotent and underdeveloped, in fact, when compared to the threatening presence he displayed in the trailers. Having usurped Stark's virtual butler JARVIS, Ultron should theoretically have control of all of Tony's dangerous tech - but the heroes are never afraid he'll use it against them. He can travel using the internet, and be in any number of bodies at once, yet he's never really credibly established as the omnipotent force he's presented as. The whole plot has the makings of something quite appealingly dire - a dystopian, Matrix-like idea, in which the tables are satisfyingly turned on tech-wizard Stark - but Ultron never really seems much more than a man in a suit with big ambitions. In the absence of real character development, the plot overcompensates with spectacle, to the eye-popping extent of lifting an entire town into the sky in the final act.

Here again, just as the villain becomes interesting, he effectively becomes a hero. Ultron is driven to evolve, you see, and so seeks to make himself a human body. This plot point could have been much more poignant than it is - it seems more of an aside - and feels like a missed opportunity. Very little is made of the soul of the machine. The central question of artificial consciousness, of mechanical sentience, of ersatz humanness, is skipped over, with Whedon content to yet again treat all enemies as disposable in the name of a kid-friendly rating. It's this detachment that robs Age of Ultron of a heart - just as Ultron himself will eventually be robbed of his.

Bettany as The Vision

Ultron's screen baby - his vision - is eventually brought to life by the heroes, who have a similar, literal, vision of their own. This part of the film feels genuinely exciting, and cleverly staged, and the result is Paul Bettany as the most enigmatic superhero of the bunch. He has, of course, JARVIS' voice, and comes across much like Watchmen's Doctor Manhattan. Vision is very nearly an opportunity for some real philosophical depth, with his ponderous line of detched reasoning, but not for long. Having established his ability to transcend all earthly concerns, he quickly agrees that smashing up evil robots is the thinking man's choice, and we get back to the business of carnage-lite. Incidentally, that bothered me far less than the fact that, having put JARVIS into the Vision, Tony changes his A.I. butler's voice to that of an Irish woman. It's a strange choice.

Yet for all that feels undercooked, there's a lot that feels just right in its naivete. Chris Evans' Captain America, increasingly coming to the forefront, possesses a kind of depth by virtue of his very simplicity. If ever a character defines these films it's him: devoid of guile, and with an absurdly finely-tuned moral compass, Cap is the kind of character that is made likable by his very unbelievability. His aspirational nature, his boy scout pluck and sheer goodness should make him the weakest, blandest character of the lot, but in this setting, his two-dimensionality becomes a virtue, his perpetual optimism a superb foil for the jaded, never-short-of-a-comeback Stark. The Cap's arc is that he has no arc, and the man out of time discovers that while everyone else has a home to go back to, he's most at home fighting his endless moral crusade.

In Age Of Ultron, no one gets hurt, and (almost) no one dies, despite the apocalyptic carnage on display, while heroes are drafted in ad nauseam from other franchises in the Marvel stable, and disposable enemies mutilated until everything becomes a blur of superpowers, laserbeams, Asgardian hammers and flying fists. The feeling is one of oversaturation. By the end of the film you'll probably look back at the early Iron Man films wistfully, and remember all the times you wondered what an Avengers film would look like. Well, be careful what you wish for, geeks.

The Avengers will be back for Infinity War part I, which will, I'm sure, make Age Of Ultron look positively sedate.