It’s strange to think that it’s nearly been a year since we last visited the main Marvel Cinematic Universe. Sure, we had the awesome cosmic sidestep of “Guardians Of The Galaxy” but (for now) that remains distanced from the main action, here on Earth. Last time we met (some) of our heroes in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”, they had just brought down a Hydra-compromised S.H.I.E.L.D. and were setting up on their own.
Clearly, the Avengers have been busy since we last saw them; we join them mid-mission chasing down the remnants of Hydra and trying to locate and retrieve Loki’s staff. The mission is a success despite the intervention of two ‘enhanced’ individuals and the sceptre is returned to Avengers Tower where Bruce Banner and Tony Stark work to unlock its secrets in the hope of bringing their long-theorised Ultron programme into being. But when Ultron’s consciousness asserts itself, the Avengers find themselves pitted against an adversary who knows them better than they know themselves.
Like “Iron Man 3” and the recent Netflix “Daredevil” series, this is a world and a group of characters still dealing with the repercussions and implications of the ‘Battle Of New York’. It’s the detritus of the invasions that drives the plot and particularly Tony Stark’s survivor guilt which shapes the choices which are made. For Iron Man, the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.
Eleven films in, it’s no mean feat that the script manages to bring the threads of the various sub-franchises together and weave them into an exciting, satisfying story that picks up long running plots and moves them along before skilfully unravelling the threads to leave them in interesting places for the next chapters. Hawkeye’s absence during “The Winter Soldier” is obliquely addressed as we learn more about his background and we get more insight into Black Widow too. Stark’s legacy from being his Afghan cave epiphany continues to haunt him, tying in team members old and new.
One thing “Age Of Ultron” makes abundantly clear is that we’re no longer dealing with various franchises which, once in a while, club together for a big crossover; we’re now into one ongoing franchise which interlinks directly into one another. “Captain America: Civil War” not only makes much more sense now from a story point of view but from a real-world perspective it does too. It’s Avengers 3 in all but name, and that’s a good thing. This is grand, serialised storytelling across multiple ‘franchises’ but it’s all feeding one overarching tale. It really is an epic comic book saga brought to life and the implicit endgame is made explicit in this instalment.
More serious than the first film, writer/ director Joss Whedon manages to deliver a story with bigger scale and higher stakes without needing to go gritty or grim. Instead, there’s a richer feel to the world of the Avengers. Not darker, but more textured and nuanced than before. The trademark witty banter is still there of course (as well as a handful of mild swears), and there’s a real sense that the Avengers have bonded over the course of several previous (unseen) adventures, including a (likely divisive) potential hook up between two team members (hint: Not the Science Bros). If the script has a fault, it’s that it sometimes can’t resist going for the quip instead of staying silent and as a result there are a couple of times where Ultron drops a glib Whedonism which only just about works thanks to James Spader’s excellent voice work.
Strong villains have long been seen as an Achilles heel of the Marvel movies. With the exception of Loki, they’ve tended to be underdeveloped or one dimensional. Ultron’s motivations, being a twisted reflection of Stark’s lofty aims, aren’t explored to any great depth either but his goal is clear and thanks to a clever twist on the trope of fighting an army of minions, he provides an enemy that’s anything but one dimensional. Spader does great work here, infusing Ultron with a louche ruthlessness and casual air of supremacy that jars with his fearsome appearance, making him all the more unnerving. There’s little more that needs to be said about the returning cast, who own their roles so completely now it’s near impossible to see anyone else playing them. Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson slip seamlessly into the dynamic, finding both a credible place and motivation in the world as well as a place in the team. And yes, Whedon has a response to those questions about how he’s going to use Quicksilver differently after “X-Men: Days Of Future Past”.
Whedon’s eye for a scene is more cinematic here than last time out and the film is much more kinetic, with the fight scenes showing creativity and cleverness (the trailers have really only teased you with what’s to come), although sometimes the action is so fast-paced that the 3D post conversion becomes a hindrance rather than a bonus, so maybe one best to see in 2D. There are those who will grumble, and have already done so, about Marvel’s films being formulaic and that “Age Of Ultron” shares many of the same story beats with its predecessor. While it’s true that there is a Marvel way of telling the story, I don’t find it any more formulaic than most other movies. Virtually all genres adhere to a formula or defined structure and the sneering seems to me to have more to do with the fact Marvel are now on a run of 11 movies in a franchise which have consistently maintained a level of ‘good’ to ‘great’, almost unprecedented in movie history.
Ultimately, does it matter there’s a formula at work if you enjoy the end product? When watching the film, I was enjoying the ride so much, I actually forgot things I knew would happen so, for example, when The Vision (a superb Paul Bettany) is introduced, it was a momentary surprise. Packed with incident and spectacle but never feeling overstuffed or bloated, this is a fine addition to the Marvel pantheon and a worthy follow-up to both “Avengers Assemble” and “The Winter Soldier”. ‘Best Marvel Movie Yet’ is a bit redundant by this point and anyway I can’t bring myself to say it for one reason, and one reason alone: Thor doesn’t say the line. You know: the line!