Sequels to smash-hit movies are a notoriously tricky beast to get right, tantamount to catching lightning in a bottle twice. But with Avengers: Age of Ultron, writer-director Joss Whedon faces an even steeper challenge: not only does he have to exceed the ludicrously high audience expectations he set with the first box-office-breaking Avengers flick, but he also has to tell a satisfying standalone story that simultaneously moves the overarching Marvel Cinematic Universe narrative forward.
To be honest, these are challenges Whedon doesn’t quite overcome. Unlike its predecessor, Age of Ultron often struggles to effectively juggle its unwieldy character roster or balance the needs of its own story with its obligations to Marvel Studios’ forthcoming slate of features. What’s more, it lacks a memorable villain to rival The Avengers‘ Loki.
Still, Whedon does well to weave a coherent story out of the mess of plot threads handed to him, and this – together with an on-form cast and dazzling action set pieces – ultimately ensures that Age of Ultron is a mostly satisfying new entry in the MCU canon.
Age of Ultron reintroduces us to a superhero team who’ve evolved from reluctant allies to fast friends. Everyone has a set role now: Captain America (Chris Evans) is the leader, Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) is the brains (and the money!), Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is the muscle, the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) is the walking weapon of mass destruction, and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) are the precision strike units (with the Widow doubling as resident Hulk wrangler).
While this well-oiled outfit has the world’s baddies on the run, trouble is looming once more in the form of Ultron (James Spader), an artificial intelligence program created by Iron Man and Hulk’s alter-ego, Bruce Banner. Designed to safeguard the world from future threats, Ultron decides that the best way to save humanity is to wipe us out (makes sense), and it’s up to Earth’s Mightiest Heroes to uncover him before it’s too late.
There’s just one added hitch…or rather, two hitches: superpowered twin siblings Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) Maximoff, who’ve allied themselves with Ultron. The traumatised survivors of cruel experimentation, Pietro is superhumanly fast, whereas Wanda’s ill-defined abilities include inducing visions and hallucinations in others.
This dubious gift is put to good (or should that be “bad”?) use against the Avengers, playing on the supergroup’s greatest fears to cripple them with self-doubt and even pit them against each other. As Ultron’s terrifying plan gathers momentum, our heroes will have to come together if they have any hope of stopping it, or dealing with yet another potential enemy, enigmatic newcomer Vision (Paul Bettany)…
If the above synopsis doesn’t make it abundantly clear, there’s a lot going on in Avengers: Age of Ultron – too much, in fact. With six lead or core supporting characters in play, Whedon already has his work cut out for him trying to balance out plot and emotional beats. Throw in three new villains, and that gets even harder; add in studio-mandated subplots intended to foreshadow other MCU outings, and it becomes borderline impossible.
It’s because of this that Age of Ultron’s middle act is bogged down with clunky asides – one of which amounts to Chris Hemsworth splashing around in a rock pool because reasons – and exposition-heavy scenes beyond what’s typically acceptable, even in a popcorn blockbuster. Indeed, as the film meanders towards its third act, it’s dangerously close to running off the rails.
To his credit, Whedon gets everything on track for the finale, though.
True, he occasionally overindulges his love of witty dialogue exchanges, which undercuts the gravity of the literally earth-shattering events in motion – a common shortcoming of the otherwise delightfully upbeat MCU catalogue, it must be said. Even so, the stakes are clear, the threat credible, and our emotional connection to the Avengers strong, which means that the showdown with Ultron and his minions boasts more than merely top-notch CGI and stunt choreography.
However, Age of Ultron’s success ultimately has less to do with Whedon, the digital effects wizards at ILM, or stunt coordinator Greg Powell, and more to do with its stellar cast. All of the returning players work overtime to carry the film through committed performances and sheer A-list charisma. Although Downey Jr, Evans, and Ruffalo leave the biggest impression, Johansson and Renner do good work here, and a criminally underused Hemsworth flexes his increasingly recognised comedic chops to good effect.
The franchises newbies are more of a mixed bag, however. For their part, Taylor-Johnson and Olsen are decent if unremarkable as the Maximoff twins, hindered somewhat by the broadest Eastern European accents heard this side of Star Trek’s Chekov. Meanwhile, Paul Bettany – finally present on screen, after several years spent in the JARVIS voiceover role – is likewise good without being great, although much of this can be chalked up to him playing a character who’s intentionally a bit of a blank slate.
This brings me to the only outright disappointment among the Age of Ultron cast: James Spader as computer-generated villain Ultron. Don’t get me wrong: this has nothing to do with Spader’s serviceable mo-cap spandex-clad onset efforts or his dependably strong vocal performance. It’s more down to Whedon’s scripting, which reduces Ultron to an underwhelming mix of cliched “Destroy all humans” killbot and quirky sociopath, leaving Spader little to work with.
Fortunately, neither an uneven screenplay nor a lacklustre antagonist are enough to sink Age of Ultron. And while it may not reach the same triumphant heights as the 2012 original, this Avengers follow-up is entertaining enough that fans will leave theatres eagerly anticipating Earth’s Mightiest Heroes’ next big screen adventure.