Understandably, then, there’s a lot of expectation and pressure surrounding its follow-up, Age of Ultron. For the most part returning director Joss Whedon succeeds in his mission, crafting a more complex and emotionally fulfilling sequel that, despite its increasingly mechanical action beats and overstuffed cast, manages to dramatically raise the stakes for the franchise as a whole.
Clearly not over-awed by the size of his challenge, Whedon launches straight into the action with a dizzying, free-flowing pre-credits sequence that sees the team pay a surprise visit to the East European castle hideout of evil Hydra operative Baron von Stucker in order to retrieve an item of immense value: Loki’s sceptre from the first movie.
With SHIELD destroyed and the Avengers needing a hiatus from fighting fires, Tony Stark (Downey Jr) repurposes the advanced tech within the sceptre to jump-start dormant peacekeeping program Ultron – a self-aware and, as it turns out, highly volatile AI who decides that humans are the main enemy to world peace and sets out to eradicate them from the earth (as is the want of psychotic movie robots that are a few circuits short of a full motherboard.)
It is the nature of the Avengers that the roster is ridiculously unstable. As Ultron at one point remarks, their personalities are discordant and that makes them vulnerable. So while The Avengers dealt with bringing the superhero team together, Age of Ultron aims to blow them apart.
To do this, Ultron enlists the help of twin Romanian orphans Pietro and Wanda Maximoff (Taylor-Johnson and Olsen respectively), the latter of whom uses her telekinetic powers to invade the team’s psyches, playing on the story’s Frankenstein influences by exposing the monstrous personalities each hero fears lurks within them and using this fear to turn them against one another.
As a sequel, it’s inevitably larger in scope and darker than the first movie, but it’s also a much more personal film in many ways, exploring the troubled pasts and underlying pains that motivate the principal cast. What’s pleasantly surprising about this angle is that, aside from paying lip-service to the on-going events of their solo franchises, Whedon spends less time with the big name heroes in order to focus on the ever-present sidekicks who have previously been left unexplored.
This means we finally get a glimpse into Natasha Romanoff’s (Scarlett Johansson) shadowy origins while she also enters into an unexpected romance with Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner. Johansson and Ruffalo display a charming chemistry as their characters bond over a shared anxiety of failing to contain the violent monsters they hide within themselves.
The main beneficiary of this tactic, however, is Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye. Once an unsympathetic enigma whose presence barely registered, a second act detour into his private life reveals an engaging vulnerable side to Hawkeye that encourages the audience to be more emotionally invested in his survival, a feeling that Whedon exploits to the maximum during the devastating finale.
Whedon’s talent for wrangling large ensembles also extends to introducing the movie’s new characters. Olssen’s Scarlet Witch and Blade Runner-esque synthezoid The Vision (played by Paul Bettany, aka the voice of JARVIS) make for interesting additions as potential heroes who struggle to control their immeasurable powers and have conflicted thoughts about saving humanity. The former’s brotherly half, Quicksilver, on the other hand, is frustratingly sidelined throughout as an irritating speedster with a wobbly accent, which makes the moving pay-off of his final scene all the more surprising.
Yet it’s in the creation of the film’s primary villain that this devotion to characterization truly excels. Unlike most of the myriad genocidal robots in cinematic history, Ultron is disturbingly human and fallible in his demeanor, acting out of petulant rage because he’s pained by his mistaken creation and feeling the inescapable loneliness of being constantly misunderstood. And in James Spader, Whedon has found the perfect voice for his creation – those syrupy, malignant tones that are oh-so menacing also lend a certain gravitas to the franchise’s trademark snarky wit. It’s no surprise, therefore, that Ultron steals all the best lines.
Despite its many strengths though, Age of Ultron is far from a perfect film, with a bloated cast chief among its concerns. While Whedon does an admirable job weaving individual character moments in amongst the action, the sheer number of separate story arcs stretches the story out of shape and it loses focus as a result.
This is especially evident during a sluggish first half where the need to establish each character takes up so much screen time that it’s possible to forget about the immediate threat Ultron and his enhanced cohorts pose.
Far more worrying for the franchise as a whole, though, is how underwhelmingly formulaic the movie’s many action scenes feel. The battle sequences may still whizz by in an exuberant flurry of knowing quips and CGI explosions, but there’s a telling lack of invention in their execution that takes away some of the excitement, particularly the final act which once again takes to the skies as the Avengers swoop in to pummel some skyscrapers to rubble.
Perhaps I’ve grown greedy after so many summers spent gorging on the latest eye-popping spectacle Marvel serves up, but expecting a little more bang for my buck hardly seems a lot to ask when you consider the sizable budgets these films have to work with.
None of this is ruinous, though. Whedon delivers a well-executed climax with some emotionally wrenching send-offs, and the film goes out on an intriguing note that could potentially signal the beginning of the endgame for the current crop of superheroes.
It may be overloaded with characters and burdened with formulaic action beats, but Age of Ultron benefits from a focus on more personal stories and a bold, unsettling villain to make for a suitably satisfying sequel to the greatest superhero movie of our time.