Reviews and entertainment articles by Dave Simpson
It’s been three years since the Avengers assembled to save the world from a Chitauri invasion led by the conniving Norse god of mischief, Loki. In that time, we’ve witnessed a lot change for the titular heroes. When last we saw Iron Man, he was busy telling his new best pal Bruce Banner the tale of how he’d seemingly hung up his suit of armour. Thor, meanwhile, was most recently spotted returning to our branch of the world tree to reunite with Jane Foster, while everybody’s favourite patriot Steve Rogers joined forces with master spy Natasha Romanoff to turn the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe on its head by tearing down SHIELD in order to expose HYDRA. And Hawkeye…well, nobody really knows for sure where the hell Hawkeye’s been! Although you might be able to draw your own conclusions about that after you’ve seen Marvel’s latest big screen epic.
As Avengers: Age of Ultron blasts off, Earth’s mightiest heroes have reunited to pick up the pieces left over from the explosive events of last year’s superlative comic book thriller, Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Those pesky HYDRA conspirators are still on the loose and even worse, they’ve managed to get their hands on some key technology from the Battle of New York. All of that is just a minor inconvenience compared to what’s on the horizon though. Arrogant android Ultron is coming and he’s developed a god complex that has left him none too fond of the human race. He and his machine army are hell bent on laying waste to the world and there are only six individuals that can stand in his way. At least at first anyway.
This movie does what all good sequels should. It takes what worked the first time around, adds in some new twists and turns, increases the drama and escalates the stakes. At a basic level, the Avengers have once again assembled to stop an over the top supervillain who threatens all life as we know it. Although, the destruction and fallout is a lot less localised and a lot more global than it was in the 2012 ensemble. And while Loki may have caused mayhem and devastation, his ultimate goal was to subjugate and conquer, whereas Ultron’s is to annihilate.
This brings a lot more tension to the table than the first Avengers movie did. There’s a much greater balance between the lighthearted tone and the serious side of things. It helps the narrative to remain consistently suspenseful. It’s also perfectly paced so that the rather substantial one hundred and forty one minute run time seems neither too long nor too short. The calmer periods complement the more chaotic ones, allowing for compelling character moments that feel just as natural to the plot as the adrenaline fuelled action scenes. And there is most certainly no shortage of the latter.
The set pieces loaded into Age of Ultron are both visually stunning and pulse pounding. Joss Whedon has somehow managed to outdo his last MCU outing on the action scale in spectacular fashion. The film’s opening sequence alone is more exhilarating than the final act of its predecessor. That’s not a criticism of the Avengers’ inaugural adventure, it’s just meant to emphasize how much this sequel ups the ante. There are plenty of riveting battles to keep viewers on the edge of their seats, culminating in a truly astonishing climactic confrontation that’s more unpredictable than you might expect.
It feels like the collateral damage actually matters here too and that it’s not simply limited to infrastructure. There’s a sense that lives are genuinely in danger of being lost, both in the heroes’ camp and among the general population. Part of the reason for this is the toll that events take on the Avengers themselves. Ultron’s emergence causes as much friction within the team as without for various reasons which add new levels of conflict to the proceedings. It differentiates the movie from what has come before it in intriguing ways. In fact, the repercussions of the main villain’s existence are in many respects more interesting and affecting than the character himself. It allows for a gripping multi-layered narrative.
That being said, the humour prevalent in previous MCU outings is still in no short supply here. One of the movie’s best and most absorbing aspects is the comfort and companionship that exists between the established characters. There’s a wonderful chemistry among the actors who portray the original six heroes. Their interactions are a delight to watch. There’s also a reasonable balance of screen time among the key characters, both old and new. Inevitably, some get the spotlight more than others, but everyone does get their time to shine before the credits roll.
Robert Downey Jr. is captivating as ever as Tony Stark. As always, he exudes charm and charisma by the bucket load. Thankfully though, this is not the Iron Man show. Stark is a major presence throughout, but he’s not consistently front and centre, which allows Age of Ultron to feel like a true ensemble.
It’s Chris Evans as man-out-of-time Steve Rogers who establishes himself as the true alpha male of the piece. Evans continues to own the role of Captain America, who by now is evidently more than confident in his place as the team’s leader and moral compass. Evans bestows Rogers with just the right amount of intensity and authoritarianism without him ever becoming egotistical or unsympathetic. His interpretation of the selfless super soldier is impossible not to like.
Chris Hemsworth is at the top of his game as the mighty son of Odin. Thor has clearly come a long way from being the pompous would-be king of Asgard who led an impromptu attack on Jotunheim and it really shows in his portrayal. He has a rather baffling subplot though that despite progressing a very significant plot point, ends up feeling fairly contrived and convenient.
Mark Ruffalo is given the chance to delve deeper into the inner turmoil of Bruce Banner, while the Hulk is still a force with which to be reckoned in battle. However, using an out of the blue relationship with Black Widow as a catalyst to explore the character’s psyche feels a tad unnatural. It doesn’t particularly harm the momentum, it just seems like an odd decision.
Speaking of Ms. Romanoff, Scarlett Johansson continues to convincingly hold her own among her super-powered peers. After three films of playing the mysterious, no-nonsense assassin, the actress gets to show a vulnerable side to Black Widow that makes her more human without compromising her tough demeanour.
Jeremy Renner seems to be relishing the opportunity to finally show the world who exactly Clint Barton is. The arc he’s given is an interesting way to go and it works for both the narrative and the character. Renner also gets to show off Barton’s dry wit, spouting out a couple of one liners and monologues that are genuinely funny.
Other returning familiar faces include Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury and Cobie Smulders’ Maria Hill. While Hill isn’t crucial to the goings on, Fury has clearly kept busy since SHIELD collapsed. Once again there’s more to him than meets the eye…no pun intended.
Aaron Taylor-Johnson makes an admirable franchise debut as super-speedster Quicksilver. Unfortunately the filmmakers struggle to make this version of Pietro Maximoff outshine Evan Peters’ scene stealing turn as the character in X-Men: Days of Future Past. The visual effects for his powers end up looking like an amalgamation of those used for his Twentieth Century Fox counterpart and Grant Gustin’s Barry Allen on The Flash. It plays as somewhat unoriginal but it still manages to be enjoyable. And Taylor-Johnson can at least explore attributes unique to this iteration of the male Maximoff sibling so that he does stand apart in other respects.
It’s Pietro’s twin sister, Wanda, who ends up being the most fascinating new addition to the cast. Elizabeth Olsen gives a performance that is equal parts intense and empathetic, while the Scarlet Witch’s abilities make her a very intriguing inclusion who has a lot of potential going forward.
When it comes to the chief antagonist, James Spader endows him with a sinister edge, while also exhibiting a dark sense of humour. Ultron acts as the catalyst for some engaging struggles, both mental and physical, but his voice and emotional state are a little too human, meaning that he runs the risk of being overly cartoony at times. He’s far from the worst supervillain ever to grace our screens though and it certainly doesn’t ruin the movie in any significant way.
Avengers: Age of Ultron is one of the better entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to date. It acts as an enthralling standalone story, while simultaneously progressing the franchise as a whole in ways that are both subtle and exciting. It’s a thoroughly entertaining and satisfying sequel that’s worthy of wielding Mjolnir itself.
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