It was never going to be easy to top the last film, so perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised that Avengers: Age of Ultron is something of a letdown. In 2012’s The Avengers, Joss Whedon, writer and director, and lifelong fan of Marvel comics, shrewdly delivered a film that threw as many one-liners as punches. He basically follows the same blueprint for this sequel, but Age of Ultron feels surprisingly generic. The novelty of watching these larger-than-life superheroes with clashing personalities and egos trying to work as a team is wearing off now. And I don’t know about you, but I’m getting tired of every other action movie trying to compete with the Transformers films for longest climax ever.
This time the Avengers are pitted against Ultron, an artificial intelligence peacekeeping force, ironically created by Tony Stark aka Iron Man to protect the world. As invariably tends to happen in these scenarios, the sentient invention goes rogue and turns on his creator, becoming convinced that the only path to peace involves the elimination of the Avengers.
Expectedly this is a bigger, louder, and more action-packed sequel. There are more jokes and more set pieces. The stakes are certainly higher, but there’s very little tension. Entire cities are reduced to rubble, but you hardly care. It’s action without consequence, much like Man of Steel, which is a real shame. The one time I felt especially invested in the action was when Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) went up against the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), in a terrific sequence that finally reveals the Hulkbuster suit that Tony Stark has been building to protect himself for when the big green guy flips out and can’t be controlled.
Speaking of controlling the Hulk, one person certainly does make progress. As the trailers previously hinted, Whedon sets up an unexpectedly tender relationship between the Hulk and Black Widow, giving Scarlett Johansson’s character more screen-time and a chance to reveal her tragic back-story. Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), who was practically benched through most of the last film, also gets more room to explore his human side in a subplot that frankly feels gratuitous. In that sense, Age of Ultron provides more of a level playing field to characters that haven’t had stand-alone movies yet. Old favorites Captain America, Thor and particularly Iron Man have no shortage of big, shining moments and clever one-liners. With S.H.I.E.L.D. disbanded (following the events of last year’s excellent Captain America: The Winter Soldier), it’s Cap (Chris Evans) who leads the group now, with Stark bankrolling the Avengers.
As you’re probably aware, the new film also introduces us to Pietro and Wanda Maximoff – better known as Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor Johnson) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) – a set of evil-doing twins with powers of speed and magic respectively. The pair, who have a very personal bone to pick with Stark, gang up with Ultron initially to take down their common enemy, but switch over to the side of the Avengers when they become aware of Ultron’s nefarious plans to flatten out humanity. The twins are significant characters in the comic books, but in Whedon’s overcrowded sequel, only Scarlet Witch makes any impression, using her mind-manipulating skills to mess with our heroes’ heads.
As voiced by James Spader, Ultron is a snarky-mouthed villain who gets some nice verbal trade-offs with Stark. He can replicate himself and create an army of sub-Ultrons to take on our heroes, but I couldn’t help feeling he was less menacing and formidable than mischief-making Norse god Loki from the previous film.
To be fair, Avengers: Age of Ultron is a perfectly watchable film, and possibly better than a lot of action movies. The problem is, it doesn’t feel like a game-changer, or even particularly memorable in the manner that so many Marvel films tend to be. More importantly, it’s missing that sense of irreverent fun that oozed out of every pore of that other superhero ensemble – last year’s flat out brilliant Guardians of the Galaxy, which raised the bar pretty high.
I’m going with a generous three out of five for Avengers: Age of Ultron. Go in with modest expectations, and you won’t be too disappointed.