A Year of Unlimited #18 – Avengers: Age of Ultron

This is the latest in a series of blogs I’ve called “A Year of Unlimited”, which isn’t perhaps the catchiest way to put it, but encapsulates my attempts to blog about every film I see while I’m signed up to the Unlimited service. I’m not linking to every one, so go and find them yourselves!

Superhero movies: love them or hate them, they dominate the cinema and will continue to until the end of the decade at least. Ironically, this is the first superhero film I’ve reviewed on this blog – and it’s the latest in Marvel’s never-ending, interconnected movie and TV universe of superhero stories. However, Age of Ultron loses many of the thrills, enjoyment and wow-factor of the first Avengers, because it’s forced to set up everything else Marvel has planned (until 2019!) in two-and-a-half hours – while trying to be its own thing.

It features eight superheroes, a megalomaniacal artificial intelligence, Andy Serkis (with a Sewth Effrican accent), scores of minor character cameos, lots of humour, flashbacks and visions, a mid-credits scene hyping up its two (!) sequels due in 2017 and 2018, and literally earth-shattering action. It’s no surprise that when it’s good, it’s near-excellent, but it starts to struggle under its own weight towards the end (the concluding action sequence is, ironically, a metaphor for the film itself).

Director and writer Joss Whedon throws us straight in with Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Hulk/Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), Black Widow (Scarlett Johanssen) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) as they try to retrieve the mind-controlling staff from the first Avengers film, tampered with by evil organisation Hydra to gift Eastern European twins Pietro and Wanda Maximoff (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen) with super-speed and psychic powers respectively. Stark and Banner retrieve and work on the device in the hope of creating a robot police force, but accidentally create rogue AI Ultron (James Spader), who sees the only way to protect the planet is to destroy humanity.

No introduction or summary is provided – you really do have to be up with all the films to get what’s going on. As with other Marvel films, the best scenes feature character interaction instead of action, when characters argue, bicker, mock and fight each other. The whole point of superheroes is that they’re better than everyone else, but they’re still flawed people as well, and this film gives a lot of time (surprisingly) to the idea of personal doubts and loved ones. This is where the film, and Whedon’s writing, excel – a party scene towards the start is brilliant because it grounds the heroes, and relies only on wit and humour.

10869325_591589580977275_2778898650041679518_oIn terms of the actors, nobody is really doing amazing work here (they’re hardly Oscar-baiting movies), though Renner is pretty great, having been given a backstory, a purpose and most of the good lines instead of Downey Jr., who I feel is a bit absent here (Iron Man 3 was so good I think it might have ruined the character). Hemsworth and Evans provide humour and some pathos respectively (as well the muscle), while Johanssen is probably glad to see Olsen arrive as a superwoman at last. Even though the gender split is more balanced out however, Johanssen is no longer as bad-ass, serving mainly as a love interest to Banner – Ruffalo is great in these small doses, and is still the best actor of the lot with so few scenes. Olsen is, like Taylor-Johnson, not given enough time to create a character, and has to battle with a terrible “in Soviet Russia, car drive you” accent. I don’t rate Taylor-Johnson much (other than in Kick-Ass), but he doesn’t really get a chance to prove me wrong here. Spader lends his creepy voice to Ultron, who is unfortunately a casualty of the film’s many spinning plates. Tom Hiddleston’s Loki was quotable, evil but likeable – Ultron flirts with being all of these, but in the end isn’t given enough time or attention to really excel as an antagonist.

The music was a letdown compared to the first (which created a great theme that this film interweaves with others and ruins), while the special effects aren’t anything too amazing until the end. Even then, they’re a bit blah – maybe too many films overload us with CGI, but after a while you just don’t feel peril. Some fight scenes are quite good though – and wouldn’t you know it, it’s when there are actual people in them, and you can see what’s going on.

The comedy peppered throughout is very good at times – but not as good as the first’s outbursts of hilarity, sometimes overplaying the joke here. In essence, this film feels like a dilution of the first – it has all the right elements, everything should work as before AND there are awesome things added (a certain “vision” towards the end in particular is great, if weird to non-comic readers/non-film nerds who knew it was coming). But this, like Iron Man 2 before it, begins to crumble under the weight of foreshadowing, set-ups for future films and continuity (a whole subplot with Thor is just setting up the next two Avengers films, which have already been set up before – why do it again?)

All of this being said, it’s still a great film. It just suffers from sequelitis with an extra diagnosis of middle-film syndrome. It’s not as good as the first, and the third and fourth films it sets up promise a lot more, but it’s still worth seeing (if you aren’t sick of superhero movies).

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