Avengers: Age of Ultron is a comic book aficionado's dream come true; it's got a huge ensemble of kick-ass superheroes, a megalomaniacal villain, thousands of evil minions, adrenaline-on-speed action and cutting-edge digital wizardry. Did we mention Scarlett Johansson in spandex? Yes, it is every comic book geek's dream come true. Its biggest disappointment is that the franchise was ripe for a paradigm shift and the makers have failed to grasp the opportunity.
Writer and director Joss Whedon opens the film with a bang (literally) and drops the audience in the centre of an amazing action sequence as Iron Man
(Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America
(Chris Evans), The Hulk
(Mark Ruffalo), Thor
(Chris Hemsworth), Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) make paste out of a Hydra laboratory in Sokovia, an imaginary country, and retrieve Loki's sceptre. They briefly encounter two "enhanced" newbies, Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) who prove to be quite a handful later on.
An uncharacteristically jittery Iron Man convinces Dr. Banner to help him harness the power buried in Loki's sceptre to build the Iron Legion, an AI "iron armour" for Earth. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and our heroes unwittingly unleash Ultron (voiced by James Spader), a sentient AI program that believes mankind's survival depends on evolution preceded by annihilation. Yes, it makes no sense, but then you realize that Ultron is "stark", raving mad - he's a Stark Industries bot possessed by a malignant, alien power. Ultron swears human extinction, and the Avengers go after him.
The outstanding element of the film, straight up, is the action. The opening scene sets the bar high - it's a stunningly choreographed, pyrotechnic, 3D spectacle. Even the no-frills, brutal, Neanderthal slugfest between Iron Man and the Hulk is fantastic. In general, the grandeur of the cinematography is elevated to comic book levels of fantasy by a talented SFX team that fashions the Marvel universe convincingly and yanks you into the narrative by your 3D glasses. You'll wince at our heroes crashing into buildings, gasp at them plummeting from the sky, and cower at flying rubble.
However, the unoriginal and repetitive tropes of the franchise are a downer. To quote an example; the climax is 30 minutes of epic, cataclysmic action but it is strikingly similar to that of its predecessor, The Avengers
(2012) - a villain, his army, the threat of human extinction, Iron Man front and centre, and the other Avengers in containment mode. Perhaps the formula could have been tweaked a bit?
Avengers: Age of Ultron boasts of a huge ensemble but you wonder if it's actually just braggadocio. After all, the actors are required to portray comic book characters who already enjoy a devoted, sometimes rabid fan base. They need to deliver to clearly defined and set expectations in a plot that doesn't have the jostling space for character arcs. So, Robert Downey Jr.'s Iron Man is irreverent, Chris Evans's Captain America is righteous, and Hemsworth's Thor is, well, godlike (in a beefy, blonde way). Jeremy Renner finally gets to act since Hawkeye is finally given a story track of his own, but the only gem in this ensemble is Mark Ruffalo as The Hulk. When he's not turning a brilliant shade of green, he gives a brilliantly shaded and nuanced portrayal of angst and guilt.
The Hulk and Black Widow's romantic track endeavours to imbue the rough and tumble with emotional depth, but it ultimately peters out unsatisfactorily. Similarly, the slightly long interlude in the "bang, bang" action, when the Avengers seem to unspool and do individual soul-searching, also fails to add gravitas, and only serves to hiccup the pace of the film. The fact is that too many characters and hastily appendaged plot points seriously circumscribe the writing.
The villain of the piece, Ultron, is voiced by James Spader, and it's interesting how the robot's animation mimics the actor's body language, right down to his distinctive head tilt. Ultron is articulate, snarky, and, of course, like all good villains, totally mad. He dreams of destruction of Biblical proportions, references Noah, and hides his secret weapon in a church. At one point, he actually says "Boom! The end." while imagining the fruition of his plot. You gotta love a villain like that, but be warned - he doesn't have the haunting quality of The Joker
or the even the viciousness of Loki
. If only Whedon had used Spader the actor and not just his voice.
Humour is an important element of this franchise, and sure enough, the narrative is peppered with funny quips that have been almost democratically distributed among the many (too many?) characters. The recurring joke about Thor's hammer stands out due to its subtext about worthiness, an important theme for a superhero film.
Avengers: Age of Ultron is basically a fun ride. So all it requires from you is to sit back, put your mind on autopilot (your very own Jarvis moment), and let loose a few "woo hoos" now and then. This is uncomplicated viewing and perfect weekend fare if you're not in the mood for content-heavy cinema. So go ahead, unleash your inner nerd. You know you want to.