Joss Whedon certainly likes a challenge. If agreeing to helm the most-anticipated superhero team-up movie in history – and taking on a global army of fanboys – wasn’t enough, he then agrees to return to the director’s chair for a sequel to a film that grossed over $1billion. But accept the challenge he did, and return he has. Bringing back the original cast, and adding some new faces along the way, Whedon’s return – and last assignment, for the time being – to the Marvel Cinematic Universe sees an increasingly-intelligent and even more increasingly-evil Ultron wage war against Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.
Director: Joss Whedon
Staring: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, James Spader, Samuel L. Jackson, Don Cheadle, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany
Run Time: 141 Minutes
Release Date: 1 May 2015 (US)/Out Now (Europe)
After previously spending plenty of time assembling a team of superheroes, Joss Whedon kicks things off in Age of Ultron with his band of gods, playboy billionaire philanthropists and enormous green rage monsters already in the heat of battle. And as well as giving us that glorious trailer shot of the Avengers in action, we are also treated to a team in sync; co-op attacks straight out of a video game, cutting witty banter and a comfortable feeling of being settled. We also avoid the lengthy exposition we got in the first film and straight into the story.
Inevitably, a film with a main cast as large as this is going to see one or two ignored or not given their fair share. In this case, it’s the proclaimed team leader Captain America who spends the majority of the on the outside looking in. With The Winter Soldier providing a sufficient spotlight for Cap’s struggles with the modern world following The Avengers, he falls behind the pack here. Other stories need to be told, or more specifically, stories still to come need to be set up. By film’s end, it’s Cap’s next solo Civil War, Thor: Ragnarok and the two-part Avengers: Infinity Wars titles that have groundwork laid for them.
You also get the feeling that this film gave Whedon a chance to right a few wrongs from the previous outing, namely Hawkeye. Relegated to Loki-controlled zombie, to the frustration of fans and Renner himself, Barton finally gets the spotlight and genuinely warm side story he deserves. His tale adds a layer of heart and emotion that, in all honesty, no other character could have added. Conversely, Natasha Romanoff’s close relationship with Bruce Banner just doesn’t seem beneficial to the plot. The characters’ destinations come film’s end could have been reached without the preceding story, making you wonder why the scenario was included at all. Thankfully, this is the only major misstep and allows Whedon to work on introducing the story’s new faces.
So what of the new recruits? Much had been said of the decision to draft in Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch, especially following the effective use of the former in X-Men: Days of Future Past. It’s pleasing to report, then, that Whedon pulls off what many thought impossible and not only matches what Bryan Singer did with the character in DOFP, but quite possibly also surpasses it. It also makes it all the more frustrating that when all is said and done, there feels far too much left on the table for him. Too little of his backstory is explored and, rather inevitably, he suffers from the large cast that Whedon has to find time for. Additionally, something feels missing, almost that while we quickly learn what he can do and the effects of such, there is still so much more that could have been done. Thankfully, his sibling does not suffer the same problems. While it’s clear that Whedon likes the Scarlet Witch character and writes some powerful material for her that establishes her place in the picture, it is Olsen that really brings the character to life with a polished and determined performance. Her chemistry with Johnson, so disappointing in Godzilla, thankfully improves here and brings a believability to the physical and mental battles that they encounter as the film goes on.
The other major addition to an ever-burgeoning roster is Vision, finally bringing MCU veteran Paul Bettany to the screen. A part of the team since 2008’s Iron Man as J.A.R.V.I.S., it is refreshing and quite the moment to see him finally appear. The lack of pre-release exposure now makes perfect sense, Marvel knowing exactly what they had. He is handled magnificently by Whedon and played to perfection by Bettany; in Vision, Marvel have an immediately-likeable character that can be deployed many times in future outings, as well as – and apologies for the cynicism – the obvious marketing opportunities that Disney can surely not have failed to realise exist with the colourful character. He also gets not only the film’s best moment, but quite possibly the moment of the MCU so far. Yes, it’s that good.
Every great film needs a great villain of course, and Whedon hits the home run of all home runs with James Spader as the devious Ultron. Originally devised as a way to bring peace to Earth by Stark and Banner, things go more than a little awry and a monster is born. Spader is spectacular here and the superior motion capture in use allows him to pour everything into the character. The mannerisms, the humour, the personality; it is all so perfect and makes you hope that more can be found for Spader to do in future Marvel projects. His on-screen dynamic and rivalry with Bettany is a joy to behold and every scene they are in captivating. In an all-star cast of Hollywood’s best and superhero veterans, these two newcomers steal the show with already-iconic performances.
Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a perfect film. Age of Ultron does have faults. In defense of Whedon, the aforementioned issue of a large cast leading to some being overlooked is a sacrifice that comes with an ensemble movie such as this, a problem that Warner Bros. will likely encounter when Justice League finally goes before the cameras. Honestly though, you cannot fail to recognise and appreciate how ambitious this film is, and he comes very close to pulling it off to perfection.
One thing that again has to be said, at risk of being a constantly broken record, is concerning Marvel’s frustrating insistence on third act sky battles. Since The First Avenger, Marvel have fed us a steady staple of heroes and villains battling to the end on an aircraft of some description. And while some credit should be given for trying to put a different twist on the tried and tested formula, new scenarios have to be devised for how to end a Marvel film heading into Phase 3. Ant-Man doesn’t appear to lend itself to the usual fare and therefore should be okay, but I really don’t want to be repeating this paragraph for Civil War next March…
Speaking of Civil War, an ongoing theme here was to lay groundwork for the start of the fabled comic book storyline. And you have to feel that Whedon has carried out a decent handover to Cap directors – and newly-crowned Avengers inheritors – Joe and Anthony Russo. To use a well-worn analogy, the chess board has been set and the pieces have been placed.
Much larger than the first Avengers outing, with a darker tone and a more settled and comfortable cast, this is Whedon at his most ambitious and most successful. The future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe will be debated back and forth leading into Civil War and Ragnarok, in particular, and the mid-credit scene – of course it isn’t the ‘leak’ – builds anticipation for what is going to come.