There is no denying that Avengers: Age of Ultron, directed as was the first The Avengers film (2012) by the superlatively-talented Joss Whedon, is a big, booming, city-destroying blockbuster of a movie.
It’s clearly meant to be that way, uniting once again the team of Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), who begin as they clearly mean to go on with a full-on, CGI-heavy, one-take bonanza of an opening sequence which sees the team go in guns (and arrows, hammers and shields) blazing in an attack on a Hydra base in the fictional Eastern European country of Sokovia.
A mix between the fairytale 18th century daintiness of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang‘s Vulgaria, and any one of a number of European ski resorts, Sokovia is the hiding place of Loki’s sceptre within which nestles one of the six powerful Infinity Stones, four of which have turned up in the last few years in what Thor observes is a worrying pattern (cue the inevitable further adventures in the Marvel Cinematic Universe).
But secreting itself away in this picturesque European wonderland doesn’t guarantee Hydra, or later, the film’s big baddy A.I. powerhouse Ultron (voiced and motion captured by the always superb James Spader) any real protection against the united, determined forces of the Avengers who have built for themselves a shiny, pretty, skyline-dominating HQ in New York City.
Largely funded by Tony Stark, who despite his journey to existential hell-and-back in Iron Man 3 is as quip-inclined and snarkily jocular as ever – it suggests either that he has a brilliant shrink or that the film’s writer, also Josh Whedon, masterful though he is, isn’t paying as much attention to character continuity as you’d have hoped – HQ is where the team hang out, kick back, share some drinks, oh and begin their fight against Ultron who is accidentally birthed in secret by Stark and Hulk’s Bruce Banner.
Yes, they neglect to tell the rest of their buddies that they’re creating a brand new artificial intelligence – clearly J.A.R.V.I.S. (voiced by Paul Bettany), Stark’s existing interface, isn’t enough for him – and as is the way of things done in the shadows on the q.t. it comes back to bite them, and everyone else, royally on their superhero behinds.
So far, so pleasingly, bombastically Marvel – team together in soul and spirit and fighting body, big baddy let loose to wreak destruction upon an unsuspecting world (seriously do The Avengers have great third party insurance? Cause they’ll need it once the damage bills come in from all the mayhem they unleash), heroism ready to be writ large on a global scale.
Only a funny happens on the way to the expectedly neat and tidy, world saved once more finale.
Everything goes rather uncharacteristically limp and flat.
This is not to say that Avengers: Age of Ultron is anything other than a fine specimen of the new breed of character-driven, angst-laden, CGI-bristling Marvel films; it is all that and more.
The problem is it feels like a re-tread, a been-there-done-that narrative that not only pays scant attention to the character development of some of the stand alone films – Captain America is another man fresh from a soul-eviscerating solo experience who seems to have no demonstrable scars or lessons to show for it – but delivers up a faintly comical baddy in Ultron who postures and lectures in menacing fashion but only succeeds in coming perilously close to a leering, preening, ineffective Bond villain.
Granted we are given some richly-wrought insights into the hearts and souls and tortured minds of characters like Thor, Black Widow and Captain America, and a tender believable romance is set up between Banner and Romanoff who clearly are meant for each other, but beyond that and a surprise revelation about Barton, there is precious little here to surprise, even if we are mostly delighted.
Perhaps following in the footsteps of Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy, both of which had some fun playing around with the well-used Marvel template to great success, hasn’t done the second Avengers film any favours.
Or perhaps Whedon, talented though he undoubtedly is, found himself too constrained by the source material or the overall Marvel mythos to which a great deal of obsessive-compulsive attention has been paid to date.
Whatever the cause of the ennui, Avengers: Age of Ultron lands with more of a whimper than a bang, an odd result given how large and loud it often, though not exclusively, is in many scenes.
And while the character-revelatory scenes are highly welcome, a trademark of Whedon who shows consummate skills in once more adding necessary humanity to the often solely action-centric comic book movie genre, they don’t sit easily against the big climactic scene where naturally Much Is At Stake, nor with some of the secret squirrel stuff that Stark and Banner get up to behind everyone’s backs.
While the film is never less than thoroughly enjoyable – Whedon is after all even on his bad days (does he even have them I wonder?) a far superior writer and director than many who take a trip into the Marvel Cinematic Universe – and a rich addition to the canon introducing us to new characters the Vision (Paul Bettany), Wanda Maximoff / Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and her twin brother Pietro Maximoff / Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), it fails to really counter the sense that we’ve seen it all before.
Grand, blockbuster-y, and often quite engagingly funny – Thor, Hawkeye and Iron Man clearly need to look at doing some stand up comedy sometime – and lot of fun to watch much of the time, it nevertheless is underwhelming, a less than gloriously full colour Xerox copy of the usual Marvel brilliance.