This is the sequel to a film everyone loved (to the tune of $1.5 billion) but that alone is not enough to get us excited. We’ve been here before; this is not our first rodeo. For every Dark Knight there is a Blues Brothers 2000, for every Empire Strikes Back an Attack of the Clones.
This isn’t just another ‘part two’ though; it is part of a cinematic and cultural phenomenon. What Marvel Studios has done here is astounding. Yes, there have been incredible multi-film series before; notably Harry Potter and the six Hobbit movies, but nothing that quite compares. Not even James Bond. The Marvel characters have appeared in eleven films now, with one more in the can, and there have been three television shows. There are also a further ten features in the planning stage along with another three 13 episode TV seasons and a miniseries. That’s around ninety hours of story so far and about another sixty five to come, James Bond has not yet clocked up fifty. The closest thing to all of this is probably Star Trek, with its multiple multi season TV shows, but even that seems less ambitious compared to what we’ve got going on here.
What is most impressive is that they’ve done all of this without dropping the ball. The first season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D took a while to get going but they turned it around (or rather the writers of The Winter Soldier did when the events of that movie forced them to change the whole premise of the show).
Inevitably other studios are now trying to follow the same model but they need to know what and who they are taking on; it isn’t as easy as Marvel have made it look. Sony wisely seems to have abandoned their plans to build up a series of different films around the world of Spider Man. They had commissioned a Sinister Six movie featuring a group of the Super Villains that would connect with the Andrew Garfield Spidey films but then Marvel made them a deal to bring the web slinger back into their universe so Garfield won’t wear the mask anymore. DC and Warner Brothers, on the other hand, are moving forward with their Justice League project incorporating, among others, Superman, Batman and Wonder Women. This kicks off properly next Summer with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice but they have to work against the mixed expectations generated by the first Supes film which was pretty bad and their last incarnation of Batman which, under the direction of Christopher Nolan, was excellent.
Clearly other films in this genre have collapsed under the weight of their ensemble casts (Batman and Robin, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3) and getting this bit right is the main trick. Marvel’s real life hero here is Joss Whedon, a writer/director who has always worked best with groups. The question then is have the man and the studio pulled it off again? Have they made something worthy of the reputation and the hype they have created? Is this film featuring Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, Hulk, Black Widow, Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver, Nick Fury, Maria Hill, Hawkeye, The Vision, Falcon, War Machine and of course Ultron any good?
Well yes, it’s excellent. A more enjoyable two hours and twenty minutes of cinema you will be hard pressed to find this year (no matter what is awakening in December). It isn’t any better or worse than the first film, it is just as good. Where that movie showed a team assembling, this one has those same people working together as a highly efficient team and it is just as rewarding. The main reason for this is the same as the reason why all of the Marvel films have worked and the reason why the film is able to successfully juggle such a mammoth principal cast; everything is built around character not set action pieces.
There may not be anything here as jaw dropping as some of the stunts in the last Fast & Furious film but this is an eminently more satisfying movie. That isn’t to say there aren’t some great moments, there’s a superb opening sequence, some beautiful battle shots near the end and one particularly good fight in the middle, but more important than any of this are the people. Let’s discuss them then, one at a time:
Unlike many film series the characters here have developed. Last time we saw Tony Stark he was done being Iron Man, choosing instead to settle down in his relationship with Pepper. By the start of Age of Ultron though this seems to have been forgotten. He has built himself a couple of new suits and put together yet another cool way of getting into them. This clearly hasn’t just happened either as he and the other Avengers have been going round for some time busting up Hydra bases. Pepper apparently is away on business but considering how he has clearly reneged on his promise to her I wonder if there is more behind that.
With SHIELD gone Tony is bankrolling and equipping the Avengers now and everyone seems happy with that arrangement. It is his hubris that, to some extent, gets them all into a big mess this time round but he is still very much a hero. There was some suggestion in the nerd press that Stark might become a bit of a bad guy, particularly in light of the fact that, if they follow the story in the comic books, he’ll be fighting against Captain America in Captain America part 3: Civil War next year. For now though they haven’t quite gone that way.
Steve Rogers himself remains the heart of the franchise. He seems much more at terms with living in a time different to the one he was born in but has retained plenty of his wholesomeness (which clearly harks back to Marvel’s romantic idea of the 1940s rather than any real version of history). There is a nice running joke about this in the film which doesn’t get tired.
Cap probably has the smallest character arc here but he remains integral to everything and, with his Frisbee, he is one of the most interesting heroes to watch in battle.
Thor’s characterisation is also fairly static but like Captain America he is no less present. Actually his best moments are when he is out of his cape and in his civvies and humour continues to be drawn from his situation as an alien being among humans. He clearly also has other things going on at an extraterrestrial level that will come heavily into play in later films.
There have been calls from the fans for Marvel to make another stand alone Hulk movie but it doesn’t seem as though that’s going to happen which, I think, is the right decision. He and his alter ego Bruce Banner are really good characters, particular essayed by Mark Ruffalo, but he works well with people around him, people that he, and we, care about and that he is scared of hurting.
I hope it isn’t giving too much away that to say that in this movie the green one does go on a bit of a rampage. (This part of the film featured prominently in the trailers.) From an action point of view this is one of the highlights of the film but the way Banner interacts with others is also a strength.
Natasha Romanoff is also a fan favourite that works best as part of an ensemble. It is also good to see her playing off the boys. It has been said that ideally strong feminist role models do not exhibit typically masculine traits such as kick ass fighting skills but in the context of superheroes Black Widow is like Elizabeth Bennett. She is confident, she gets what she wants, she holds her own in a male dominated world earning respect from those around her and she falls in love with someone who can be a little unapproachable.
Scarlett Johansson’s portrayal of Natasha has become more interesting with each of the four films she has appeared in and she is a tough but flawed woman. Age of Ultron draws nice parallels between her and the Hulk as she struggles with the monster inside. She has red in her ledger and this remains a key part of the character.
In the last Avengers film Black Widow was a classic example of the Smurfette Principle, surrounded by males and apparently included as a token gesture. She had Maria Hill but Hill wasn’t an Avenger. Hill is in this film too and continues to be a good female character but this time round we also meet Scarlet Witch.
In the comics Wanda Maximoff is the most prominent woman on this particular team and it is nice to see her join the group on screen. Initially Maximoff is not on the side of the angels but it is absolutely no surprise to see her allegiances shift and no surprise to see why. Nonetheless she is a very welcome name on the roster.
Like Thor, Scarlet Witch has potentially awesome powers but, like Thor, they manage to put her in situations where you can believe she is up against it. Sometimes she is easily capable of wiping out a crowd of assailants but other times she is a little overwhelmed.
There are actually five significant women in the film and all of them have the Ripley Factor to some degree or another. None of them are there just to define or motivate the men, they are not objectified (okay, there are some tight clothes involved but this is the same with both genders) and now that there are a few of them their inclusion does not feel like tokenism.
Quicksilver is Scarlet Witch’s twin brother and for those people who saw the last X-Men film he might seem a little familiar. Before they started making films for themselves Marvel Studios had sold the film rights to some of their big names to other companies. 20th Century Fox then have the rights to the X-Men and all their associated characters and Marvel have the Avengers. (Sony had Spider Man hence the need for the aforementioned deal.) In the comics Quicksilver is both an X-Man and an Avenger hence the guy being allowed to turn up in both franchises in different incarnations.
I have to say that the character is not as cool here as he was in X-Men: Days of Future Past but Whedon does get to play him against his sister which Bryan Singer couldn’t (Scarlet Witch, definitely just an Avenger). The dynamic between the two is good and thankfully actor Aaron Taylor-Johnson shows the charisma he demonstrated in Kick Ass rather than the total lack of it he had in Godzilla. Interestingly his wife in that film was played by Elizabeth Olsen who plays Scarlet Witch here. Their chemistry is a lot better this time round.
Nick Fury does in this film what he has done in all of the films and TV shows; he turns up at opportune moments to deliver inspirational speeches and rally the team. It is little more than an extended cameo this time round but it is nice to see him.
Joss Whedon has a reputation for killing off key characters in his stories. He insists the death of Agent Coulson was not down to him last time but he took out Wash, Doyle and Tara so the glove fits. This led to some speculation that potentially dispensable Hawkeye might bite the big one at some point during this film. Now I’m certainly not going to discuss who might or might not die in Avengers: Age of Ultron but Whedon does make sure that Hawkeye is more key to the plot in this second film.
I do have to say though that there is not actually a great sense of peril for any of the characters. You no more expect them to die than you do James Bond, so significant are they to the ongoing films.
The Vision is another significant player in the Avengers comics and the nerds have been excited to see him realised on the big screen. If you do know the back story then The Vision’s part in the film is all quite predictable but it is still nice to see how they work him in. There is no way this character would have worked in this cinematic universe a couple of years ago but after Guardians of the Galaxy we will swallow anything. I don’t think the nature of the man and his powers are properly explained but it is no more nonsensical than a talking tree so we can go with it.
Falcon is in this film but he is very much waiting in the wings. (See what I did there?)
With all of these heroes to juggle it was inevitable that some of them would be marginalised for the bulk of the running time. War Machine and Falcon do show up to the party though and it is nice to see them.
One of the best things about the first Avengers film was Loki and there was no way that this film was not going to be lacking without him as the bad guy. In Ultron though they have found a close second and again this is largely down the actor playing him. This time it is a motion capture performance but hearing James Spader’s voice come out of a fully articulated robot mouth is a treat.
Like Loki, Ultron is deliciously cold, acerbic and sarcastic but it a quite different way. This could have been awkward as robots don’t normally have these emotions but fortunately we don’t get a psychotic version of Marvin the Paranoid Android as the ultimate suggestion is that there is an alien being of some description pulling the strings.
Part of Ultron’s characterisation also comes from Tony Stark, born as he was from Stark’s computer systems. This means that once again like Loki he has significant father issues but somehow they have managed to take all these elements of the previous villain and present them in a different, and almost equally successful, way.
Joss, you’ve openly said in interviews that making this film was quite hard but thank you, it was worth it; Avengers: Age of Ultron is another triumph.