Three years after blasting its way through every box office record with Avengers Assemble (as it was known in the UK), the stars of Marvel Studios’ plethora of movie series’ came together again for an eagerly awaited sequel, complete with a returning Joss Whedon.
The results were mixed to say the least.
Make no mistakes, this is another highly ambitious instalment from the studio, complete with epic action sequences, visuals that feel as if they have been ripped from the panels of a comic book and the joy of once again seeing its increasingly large cast of characters sharing the screen. It doesn’t negate the fact that Avengers: Age of Ultron is also a strangely messy film.
The intent on trying to top the first film is clearly evident, and it feels as if there’s a genuine attempt at trying to counteract the frequent criticism levelled at Marvel Studios’ output by trying to create an incredibly great villain. After all, the first movie featured Tom Hiddleston as Loki, who chewed up the scenery like nobody’s business and won the hearts of an adoring fan base as a result.
There is no doubt that James Spader is a wonderful actor, whether its playing one of his plethora of charming weirdos, or simply stealing every scene in NBC’s The Blacklist, but strangely he feels somewhat charismatically neutered as Ultron, a sentient AI villain who is crafted as a means to protect the world, but who believes to do so he must erase humanity, a character that promises so much and yet delivers so little.
In fact, like Iron Man 2, there are times that Avengers: Age of Ultron felt as if it was simply a stop-gap to set up other movies; we get an appearance from Andy Serkis as Ulysses Klaue, complete with references to Vibranium, that feels like a small set-up for elements to come into play again in Black Panther; we get a trip to a some sort of magical cave with Thor that sets up… well… something; we get an introduction to Vision (Paul Bettany) a character that gets created somewhat chaotically in the middle of everything, all the while the film also throws in a romance between Bruce Banner and Black Widow that feels as if it’s come out of nowhere, complete with a controversial sequence that everyone felt was promoting an anti-abortion theme.
The romance is played well by Johansson and Ruffalo, and Whedon has a great hand at writing doomed romances, but it sometimes feels as if you’ve missed the movie that set up their developing feelings and in the basis of this movie almost feels as if it’s been thrown in for the sake of it.
In the interim between first two Avengers movies, Marvel hit a home run with some superb movies that not only got a massive box office boost because of the first Avengers movie, but allowed the movies to run in some risky directions; Iron Man 3 is so much better than its reputation would have you suggest, but gets criticised because of a wonderful twist involving The Mandarin, complete with a scene stealing Ben Kingsley performance.
Guardians of the Galaxy was a chance to bring a lesser known property to the screen, and was a wonderful blast with superb James Gunn-direction, a killer soundtrack and a wonderful ensemble with an emotional undercurrent that got audiences everywhere crying over a talking tree and a talking raccoon; there was also Thor:The Dark World, which wasn’t great, but not exactly a dud either, it’s crime being that it was enjoyable but somewhat forgettable also.
Then there was Captain America:The Winter Soldier. A literal game changer for the franchise, the film boasted superb direction, surprisingly from television comedy directors Joe and Anthony Russo (Community, Arrested Development), magnificent action set-pieces, superb performances from Chris Evans and Scarlett Johansson, not to mention a massive twist whereby it was revealed that SHIELD, the government agency at the heart of the entire MCU, had in fact been subverted and corrupted by villainous overlord HYDRA for decades, all of which was delivered by a computerised Toby Jones. A magnificent movie, it made one truly excited for where the MCU would go next, especially since it was effectively regarded as Avengers 1.5 by many behind the scenes and Age of Ultron was set to pick up many of the bigger threads left dangling by Winter Soldier’s climax.
It’s probably because of this that Age of Ultron felt somewhat stale in comparison. It didn’t feel as fresh as either the first Avengers movie or the second Captain America thriller. It feels large-scale and epic for sure, but the story never engages as strongly in its bigger moments. Amazingly, it’s when the film stops, slows down and explores its characters that the film feels more fluid, natural and fun.
A party sequence after the first action set piece and the subsequent visit to Hawkeye’s farm is actually where the film fires on cylinders. Whedon was very vocal about how tired and exhausted making the movie was, and at times it does feel like a movie that feels exhausted and only relaxes and gets better when there’s less action and more focus on the characters.
Seeing the characters simply hanging out and having fun at the start is, for the most part, good fun, complete with some semi-drunken banter where each character tries to lift Thor’s hammer (although it somewhat ruined by a mis-judged joke involving the term prima nocta), but it’s when the film slows down and pays a visit to Hawkeye’s home and visits his wife (Linda Cardellini) and his kids that the film really flows the best, complete with lovely character driven moments between nearly every character.
Surprisingly for a comic book inspired movie, it’s when it has to deliver action set pieces involving car chases and epic battles that it feels uninspired and sluggish. There is some wonderful visual dazzle at points, but it’s really hard to care at times, and it’s only going forward in future instalments when this movie’s collateral damage is dealt with in the next Captain America movie, Civil War, that this film in retrospect becomes more interesting.
The only set piece of note is when Hulk, manipulated by visions from the recently introduced Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), and on the rampage, has to be subdued by Iron Man, in his newly built Hulkbuster. It’s over the top, and has a scale of damage equal to anything delivered by Zack Snyder in Man of Steel, but it is a wonderfully fun sequence that much of the rest of the movie’s action fails to match. After the release of the movie, Whedon would step down from future Marvel movies, at least for the time being, but in the end would end up crossing over to direct re-shoots on Warner Bros’. Justice League movie.
Going forward, the Marvel Cinematic Universe would use the next Captain America movie to tell the next big chapter in its ongoing arc, albeit one filtered through the Steve’s friendship with Bucky, still missing here after the events of The Winter Soldier. That film would be, for the most part, a brilliant blast of fun and heightened drama, and would simply point out more of the flaws here.
While not a disaster by any stretch of the imagination, after all Avengers:Age of Ultron did gain positive reviews and a very high box office, it can’t help but feel like a lesser installment in the franchise, a big bloated action movie with small burst of ingenuity and wonderful character interaction, but mostly, for a film featuring a sentient AI villain intent on destroying humanity to save the world, it never flies highly the way you want it to.
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