The Marvel Comics money printing machine rolls on with the release of Avengers: Age of Ultron, the headlining act in “phase two” of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). It’s predictably big, slick and entertaining, though the lavishly produced film shows some signs of fatigue and complacency around its edges. What was once fresh now has something of a stale air about it.
The Avengers director Joss Whedon is back for a film which once again sends superheroes Hulk, Captain America, Iron Man, Thor and various hangers-on into battle with a foe who threatens to end the world. It draws together plot strands from Thor: The Dark World, Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Iron Man 3 with the aim of sending phase two off with a rousing climax.
This time, it’s a war-weary Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) who places the planet in peril when an artificial intelligence he creates to protect humanity turns malignant. The AI Ultron (voiced with malevolent glee by James Spader) decides that the best way to ensure universal harmony would be to extinguish the human race in its entirety.
Two and a bit hours of relentless comic book mayhem ensues. Though the tone is slightly (but only slightly) darker than the other phase two films, Age of Ultron doesn’t tamper much with the Marvel house style or with the light-footed feel of the first Avengers film. It’s a film that settles for diminishing returns by trying to amplify everything that fans liked about its predecessor.
Once again, much of the charm lies in the interplay between four very different superheroes: billionaire genius and all-round smartarse Iron Man; the straitlaced super-soldier Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans); the mild-mannered Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) and his rage monster alter-ego, Hulk; and the demigod Thor (Chris Hemsworth).
The zingers come thick and fast — some of them very funny — although there are also some moments where Age of Ultron’s sense of humour feels as self-satisfied as did Whedon’s adaptation of Much Ado about Nothing. Beneath the breezy verbal jousting, ideological cracks are appearing in the team’s unity; under their resolve, each of them is haunted by what may come to pass if they fail to safeguard the world from the gods and aliens they battled in the past.
Each of the actors has grown into his part, though Downey Jr’s occasionally looks a bit bored by the whole affair and Hemsworth hams up Thor’s theatrics a bit too much. As it turns out, less powerful allies Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) — both given widely expanded roles in this film — are less emotionally fragile than their mighty companions.
The archer Hawkeye is the human heart of the film, and gets one of the film’s best jokes, while Age of Ultron offers some intriguing back story for the sultry and haunted Black Widow. They’re the glue that holds the Avengers together as Ultron goes on a rampage that shakes the firmament. And they’re desperately needed as Ultron tears the Avengers apart.
Ultron, more so than the aliens the team fought in The Avengers, is a worthy enemy who shreds their emotions and pushes them to their physical limits. He’s also more than able to trade snarky barbs with Tony Stark and come out on top. Aside from Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, Spader’s Ultron might be the best villain in a Marvel film and the single best thing about Age of Ultron. Ultron is aided by dangerous twins Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), cramming even more characters into an already overstuffed roster.
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Whedon has matured as an action director since The Avengers, with many sequences that look like they leapt straight from the pages of one of Marvel’s comic books. If anything there’s too much action, with the film struggling throughout to outdo the fist-pumping rush of its excellent opening scene. Also look out for a sequence where the Hulk goes on a rampage in downtown Johannesburg and does battle with the South African Police Service.
The final act — which once again sees a city reduced to rubble in a contest between god-like beings — has a well-weathered feel about it. Yip, Marvel has managed to make destruction on a planetary scale feel banal after doing it to raise the emotional and physical stakes for its heroes in just about every one of its movies. In all, Age of Ultron does little that we haven’t seen in a Marvel film before and lacks the confident pacing of The Avengers.
Perhaps the biggest drawback of Age of Ultron is that it feels it’s just marking time until phase three in the grand plan for the MCU. That’s when we’ll see Marvel bring the fabled Civil War and Infinity War story arcs from the comics to the movies. Yet knowing what lies in Marvel’s future up to 2019 robs its films of surprise — and that’s something they need now more than the spectacle we’ve come to take for granted. — © 2015 NewsCentral Media