With Joss Whedon’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, cinema’s most exclusive blockbuster club has its latest entry, and it’s the biggest yet. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has ballooned to the point where this film essentially has 10 prequels. Luckily, Age of Ultron is a thoroughly enjoyable romp, even if franchise newcomers may be left slightly baffled.
For a film which reportedly cost a quarter of a billion dollars to produce, you’d expect Age of Ultron to be spectacular, and it is. Whedon opens with the Avengers (Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Black Widow, Hulk, Hawkeye – do we even need to go over the members now?) attacking a stronghold in a snowy forest, and almost immediately gives us a nod to ‘that’ tracking shot from Avengers Assemble. It’s a thrill ride from the off, immediately putting us back in familiar territory.
The Avengers recover Loki’s staff from the stronghold, and Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) set about using its alien powers to supercharge an AI programme Stark has been working on – Ultron. Unfortunately, things go spectacularly wrong, and they end up inadvertently creating a machine (voiced by James Spader as an insane twist on Stark’s own persona) hell-bent on wiping humanity from the face of the planet.
There’s a great deal of plot in the film, but Whedon again demonstrates his knack for being able to hold story strands together, all while serving up the explosions that blockbusters now demand, but also, more crucially, the character moments and comic flourishes that made Avengers Assemble such good company. The amount of plates Whedon has to keep spinning inevitably means the film peaks and troughs in places, but in general he has such a tight grip on proceedings that the film rarely flags.
Ultimately, a massive ensemble piece like this will succeed or fail based on the strength of the cast and the script – action alone won’t do the job – and Marvel’s films benefit from having been extremely well cast in the early stages. There are a tremendous amount of charismatic actors in this series, and seeing them all together just works. That cast, combined with Whedon’s ability to flesh all the characters out in minimal time (while simultaneously giving them interesting things to do), is the series’ great strength.
Considering that Whedon has to introduce Ultron, as well as his super-powered allies Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver (Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson, respectively), while at the same time giving all his heroes screen time, the film hangs together well. Ultron is a fun bad guy, although the film’s need to get him established early does diminish his impact a little. What works is the fact that his presence, as a direct result of Stark’s meddling, creates a reason for the team to in-fight again. Even better is Scarlet Witch’s ability to force our heroes into debilitating visions, designed to leave them emotionally vulnerable. These scenes really work, and allow Whedon to add some more unexpected flavours to the mix, as well as offering glimpses of character development. In Thor’s case, his dream leads to an odd little scene involving Stellan Skarsgard, which comes across as a confusing and slightly lazy way of unravelling the plot strand to come in the two-part conclusion to this series in a few years’ time. Thankfully, it’s a small point.
Amidst all of this, there are some over-extended action sequences, and occasionally the abundance of plot bogs things down a little. To give the film some credit, though, it does at least do some new things with its heroes, and tries to conjure up some more diverse action set pieces, which the series needed. It also feels like things have moved on by the end – another bonus.
Whedon even squeezes in cameos for series veterans, and his brand of humour runs through the film, even when the stakes are high. It’s to his great credit that the film, for all its grandeur and ever-expanding cast of characters, feels like a Joss Whedon film. In other words, it has a character of its own, and after 11 films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, that’s something to enjoy and appreciate.