When Joss Whedon was first announced as the director of the original The Avengers, the fans delighted at the appointment of someone with such a glittering geek-friendly background. But with no commercial success’ in his filmography, it was a big gamble by Marvel Studios and one that reaped success to the tune of $1.5b at the box office. The second time around the man behind Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly had even bigger expectations on his shoulders and an even bigger cast to try and blend into a coherent story. Fortunately he does it with trademark flair and style in Avengers: Age of Ultron.
Following the invasion of New York, The Avengers are on the trail of Baron Von Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann) and his ‘miracles’ Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen). While they escape, the team are successful in destroying another HYDRA base and recovering Loki’s sceptre. While tinkering with the device Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) create an artificial intelligence known as Ultron (James Spader), who immediately goes rogue and plans to destroy the Avengers and then the human race.
The first thing to note about this super-sequel is that Whedon has clearly been listening to his detractors. The big complaint was that the first lacked a credible villain and enough peril. Age of Ultron does not have this problem. The eponymous villain drips with snarky dread and is as unhinged as anyone in the MArvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). James Spader saunters around the screen like a Tony Stark clone with his negative characteristics turned up to the max. Much like in the comics, which Whedon references throughout,Ultron has huge daddy issues and his temper is only matched by his failure to grasp some subtleties of humanity. There are some moments where you’re not sure if the team or your favourite characters will survive their clash with him, and fans of Whedon will know that happy endings always come at a price.
Aside form the villain, newcomers Olsen, Taylor-Johnson and Bettany (now more than a voice) all have their moments to shine, including the latter getting the biggest laugh of the film. But it is in the old favourites where the real dramatic and physical punches lay. Chris Evans and Downey Jr. Continue their bickering relationship from previous films and Chris Hemsworth Thor brings the muscles and the inadvertently funny dialogue as you would expect. But Whedon makes up for his mediocre treatment of the human characters this time around, and with them the meat of the story is to be found.
Scarlett Johansson and Jeremy Renner were somewhat sidelined in the original by the story driving that narrative. Not so this time, and Whedon gives both actors a chance to shine. They bring the element of humanity that can be lost in films about Gods and monsters, and the cost is to the detriment of Thor, but with an almost trilogy of films to himself already, it proves a masterstroke of management. Their characters have both developed off-screen and continue to do so in the mammoth running time of Age of Ultron, with Renner especially providing a hugely, and somewhat suddenly developed backstory. As the grizzled veteran and almost father figure of the group, he gets some cracking one-liners and plenty of strong supporting moments. Ruffalo’s Hulk too provides further development of his character, and for once we get to see him enter full-on berserker rage mode, which is one of a huge number of nods to the comic book source materials. If ever there was a character deserving of his own film, it’s the ‘green guy.’
With a Universe as ever-expanding as the MCU, there are always characters who’ll be overlooked, so the real thrill of this patchwork masterpiece is that Whedon seamlessly blends the mini-threads of supporting characters into one cohesive hole. Like all great blockbusters it has drama, action, comedy and thrill factor. There are misteps, like the sidelining of Thor to further the Thanos story, but the real big issue is the Casino Royale-level of bad product placement of a certain four ringed car. It immediately takes you out of the action, and you have to wonder how much they paid to be so obviously advertised in what could well become the biggest blockbuster of all time.
This quibble aside, there’s much to love here. The patented dolly shot returns again only somehow Whedon has upped the stakes here too, which is a theme that runs through the whole film. He has time to delve briefly into the politics of war, and the reasons each of us fight as well as seeds of Tony Stark’s need to prove his worth by saving the world versus Steve Rogers cleaner than clean views. This wraps up the stories that have weaved their way through Phase 2 and does a pretty good job of setting up the soon to arrive Phase 3. There’s just so much to take in with so many blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moments that it deserves and will no doubt receive multiple viewings.
The big question will be, is Avengers: Age of Ultron better than the original? That’s a very difficult question to answer, but it should be noted that the obvious flaws of the original have all been fixed and despite a slightly baggy middle it does very little wrong. He even has time to address the criticisms of the final act of Man of Steel and the devastation of a city. Is there nothing he can’t solve?