Starring: Robert Downey Jr (The Judge), Chris Evans (Scott Pilgrim vs The World), Chris Hemsworth (Rush), Scarlett Johansson (Under the Skin), Mark Ruffalo (The Kids Are All Right), Jeremy Renner (The Hurt Locker), Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Kick-Ass), Elizabeth Olsen (Godzilla), Paul Bettany (Priest), James Spader (Secretary), Samuel L. Jackson (Pulp Fiction)
Writer/Director: Joss Whedon (Serenity)
Runtime: 2 hours 21 minutes
Release Date: 23 April (UK), 1 May (US)
It’s hard to believe that the concept of an Avengers movie was absurd only a few years ago. Now, it’s a benchmark that all other Hollywood movies use as an example; everybody now wants their own shared universe franchise, but still nobody does it quite like Marvel. Topping the first movie is a daunting but certainly achievable task, especially now that the groundwork has been effectively laid, and so Earth’s Mightiest Heroes have reassembled to fight the good fight once more in Age of Ultron. Does it push the Marvel Cinematic Universe to new heights, or is it merely a placeholder as they bide time for their other plans?
Picking up right where Captain America: The Winter Soldier left off, Avengers: Age of Ultron jumps right into the action and doesn’t let up from there. The film’s plot is a bit more complex and personal than the first Avengers film, giving all the main characters their own personal stakes and arcs in the narrative, but it’s still primarily an old-fashioned “stop the bad guy from the destroying the world” story. There’s definitely some interesting thoughts regarding the automating of world security and man’s own destructive nature possibly being our downfall, but it doesn’t go political with it the way The Winter Soldier did. The story’s pacing feels a little rushed in the first act, a symptom of starting the film mid-action sequence, and leaves an uneasy feeling like we’ve missed something; perhaps a slightly more relaxed opening to ease us back into this world would have felt a little less jarring. However, once Ultron (Spader) makes himself known and the plot gets fully rolling, the breakneck pace feels far more natural and makes that two-hour-plus runtime blow by real fast. Joss Whedon’s sharp writing skills are on top form here, with plenty of his classic witty banter but also some really strong character moments and a few really nice surprises. The film’s ending is also strong, setting up the future of the MCU neatly but without resorting to a “to be continued” style cliffhanger, and that future is looking as bright as always.
I think after so many films, you’re all pretty familiar with the quality of the acting amongst these heroes, and everyone is as reliable as you’d expect. Downey’s smugness, Evans’ optimism, Hemsworth’s theatricality and Johansson’s allure are all in check and provide plenty of great moments of drama and humour. Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk gets some much needed screen time after disappearing since the last Avengers film, with his scenes with Johansson being among the film’s best emotional moments, whilst Jeremy Renner finally gets a chance to shine as Hawkeye after getting short shrift last time around. In terms of new faces, Taylor-Johnson’s Quicksilver and Olsen’s Scarlet Witch are welcome additions; their development at the start is limited, but what is there shines through and they fit in well with the rest of the cast. Paul Bettany’s Vision is similarly limited in screen time, but in very little time he leaves a strong impression and there’s certainly plenty of room for more in the future. But it’s James Spader as Ultron that is ultimately the real standout newcomer, effortlessly pulling off a villain that balances superiority and determination with empathy and wit. He’s far from a simple bad guy who wants to destroy the world because he can. He’s deluded, yes, but his actions come from an understandable place, and his personality is also a far cry from the typical “emotionless automaton who sees humanity as weak” character. He’s a fitting villain for The Avengers and easily among the best villains in the MCU so far.
As great as the first Avengers film was, its staging was a little flat at times in regards to cinematography and production design. In Age of Ultron, the ante has certainly been raised and this sequel’s technical presentation is far more impressive than its predecessor. The camerawork is far more engaging and frenetic this time around, and the film’s good mix of international locales also creates for a far more varied picture. The action sequences are also far more inventively choreographed, with characters interacting with each other more frequently in battle to create some wonderful little action beats; the Hulk vs. Hulkbuster sequence in particular is a standout scene that really shows off how far these fight scenes can go. The visual effects are very strong, especially in regards to Iron Man, Vision and Ultron, and Brian Tyler’s score does a good job of mixing themes from previous MCU films with new compositions.
I wouldn’t say Avengers: Age of Ultron tops the first film, but it certainly matches its quality, which still means it’s pretty damn fantastic. The story is fun and takes some interesting turns, the character interactions are wickedly funny and engaging, and the action scenes have been pumped up immensely for maximum popcorn entertainment. Whedon has certainly become more comfortable with blockbuster filmmaking since the first film, resulting in a far more fluid and visually engaging movie, but the first act’s impatience leaves a somewhat troubling first impression. Once past that initial stumble though, Age of Ultron delivers exactly what you want from a Marvel film and then some. We’ve still got a hectic summer movie season ahead of us, but the bar has certainly been set high already.
FINAL VERDICT: 9.5/10