A rare thing: a film that delivers on all of its promises‘ – Fred O’Connor on sarcasm & explosion-fest Avengers: Age Of Ultron

Crash, bang, wallop! It’s the summer (almost) and Marvel has another blockbuster loaded into the cannon, ready to assault your senses with more characters, action sequences and super weapons than you thought could safely fit into one film. Yes, the franchise that gave us flying aircraft carriers and staying until after the credits has a new centre-piece. Avengers: Age of Ultron sees the team of heroes that defended the Earth in 2012’s Avengers Assemble reunite and face another dastardly foe, hell-bent on mincing the human race to make robot petrol.

In this outing, old friends Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Black Widow (Scarlet Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) battle Ultron (James Spader), a self-aware android they all kinda helped create. Still haunted by the Chitauri attack that almost leveled New York a few years ago, Tony Stark is determined to build a robot army with hyper-intelligent Ultron as it’s brain. This army, he hopes, will defend the Earth should the aliens and their gigantic armoured space worms ever return – which is puzzling considering he destroyed a few dozen perfectly good autonomous Iron Man suits on a whim in his last film.

But Ultron, like many self-aware military robots before him – see Terminator, iRobot, The Matrix – has plans of his own. He soon realises that rather than be humanity’s servant, he can just build his own robot army, wipe us all out and start a new civilization. Naturally the man in the iron mask, the demigod, the super soldier and their green friend have something to say about it, and they bring along the bloke with unlimited arrows and the girl with the PVC tattoo for the craic. Along the way the Avengers battle some new ‘enhanced’ enemies as well as a hornet’s nest of robotic minions. They also find time to include some of their respective sidekicks from the other movies – well except for the Hulk, whose friends and story lines have been deemed too crap to include ever again. Two notable absences from the love interest pool are Pepper Potts and Jane Foster, played respectively by Gwyneth Paltrow and Natalie Portman in previous films, but the story is chock full of characters and there really isn’t much room for the ones who can’t fly, do karate or shoot things with their hands.

Like it’s predecessor, this film has the daunting task of being the hub in an ever-growing universe of sub-franchises that includes Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, the Hulk, Guardians of the Galaxy and the soon to be released Ant Man. Don’t forget the spinoff TV shows Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD and Agent Carter as well as the new Netflix series Daredevil. The entire Marvel project remains an impressive experiment in shared cinematic narrative, begun way back in 2008 with the first Iron Man film. Rest assured, after Age of Ultron there are sequels and sequels of sequels in the planning as numerous as the dollars in Tony Stark’s bank account. Like the song says, “it doesn’t show signs of stoppin and I’ve brought some corn for poppin.” So in one sense just making an interesting and coherent film out of these interconnected franchises is itself an achievement.

To his credit, Joss Whedon (Avengers Assemble, Firefly, Buffy) does far more than that. Writing and directing once again, the science fiction veteran juggles more than a few plot lines and manages to give face time to an ever-growing list of heroes. Not unlike the eponymous Ultron, Whedon somehow coordinates the epic and often violent ballet, and not only gets the Avengers to work together but spend at least fifty percent of their scenes slagging each other off. Those who enjoyed the wise cracks and sarcastic rejoinders of Avengers Assemble will find plenty more in Age of Ultron. Several of the film’s action sequences run quite long and the comic relief tends to keep them light and helps keep the story somewhat grounded. So while some may find Whedon’s particular blend of sarcasm and explosions tiresome, it really saves the film from humourless Man of Steel territory.

The film also sees some new talent throw their hats in the ring. Super twins Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) bring super speed, mind control and telekinesis to the mix. They are repeatedly referred to in the script as ‘Enhanced’, presumably because calling them X-Men-style ‘mutants’ would trigger a legal battle of suitably epic proportions. Taylor-Johnson, no longer the gawky teen from Kickass, is still sporting the super hero physique he developed for shooting at Godzilla’s toenails, and hams out his best Mr Chekov accent throughout. Elizabeth Olsen is more accent-optional playing the sister with the slower-but-more-powerful powers. For similar brother-sister teams see Dash and Violet Parr in The Incredibles and Fantastic Four’s Susan and Johnny Storm (whose super power is fire, not showering people in condoms).

Chris Evans, who some may remember as a previous incarnation of Johnny Storm, and who probably gets showered with condoms wherever he goes in real life, returns for his fourth outing as Steve Rogers/Captain America. Fresh from 2014’s well-received Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Cap continues in his duel role as walking flag and America’s conscience. Deeply troubled by the double-dealing spies and secrets within secrets that continue to make up his world, Captain America yearns for a simpler time when enemies, allies and objectives were as clear cut as a new recruit’s hairline. It seems his main purpose in this film, apart from finding things to launch his motor bike at, is to push the concept that those who win without honour are really defeating themselves. In a world where Wikileaks and Edward Snowden have revealed the hidden agendas of many ‘good’ nations, Captain America’s misgivings about preemptive military action and universal surveillance are eerily relevant. About as relevant as a film of this kind can be anyway. And with the much-heralded Captain America: Civil War on the horizon, these themes are certain to be revisited in future installments.

To make a long story short, those who enjoyed Avengers Assemble will find a worthy sequel in Age of Ultron. It is not without it’s drawbacks. There is a love story embedded in the action that at times feels forced and awkward and was possibly added in to make up for the absence of the regular love interests (see above). James Spader – who, let’s face it, would probably wipe out humanity himself given the chance – provides the perfect voice for Ultron. But although he delivers his sarcastic one-liners with the appropriate amount of cynicism, his gags don’t always hit their mark and sometimes detract from an otherwise strong antagonist. In a more general sense, the presence of so many new and existing characters can make the film feel a bit watered down. Where Avengers Assemble impressively weaved the heroes together, Age of Ultron has turned the franchise into Marvel’s clearing house. As the roster becomes more crowded, the inevitable tendency is to focus on the characters’ super-human abilities, leaving less and less screen time for the human qualities that grounded the epicness in previous films.

Be that as it may, the action sequences in this film are amazing. The final battle scene is as epic as one can get and might even be a bridge too far for some. But if you didn’t mind the gigantic armoured space worms, then you won’t have a problem with this. Despite a little too much navel-gazing in the middle scenes, the pace rarely drops in Age of Ultron. Whedon has done the series proud yet again and in a cinematic landscape that is dominated by costumed heroes, has produced a rare thing: a film that delivers on all of its promises.

Avengers: Age of Ultron is at cinemas everywhere from April 23rd.

 

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