The Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
After a mission to storm a Hydra stronghold proves a little more traumatic than he had bargained for, Tony Stark decides to re-active a dormant peace-keeping programme called Ultron, which would keep the world safe whilst allowing the Avengers to take a back seat to fighting the bad guys. The problem is, this involves the use of artificial intelligence, and Tony Stark obviously hasn't seen the Terminator movies.....
With 2012's The Avengers ensconced in third place in the chart of highest grossing films (although, somewhat inexplicably, Fast and Furious 7 is not too far behind), a sequel was as certain as death and taxes. However, in the three years since the release of the original movie, phase two of the Marvel landscape has set a couple of high (MCU) standards to follow in the formidable shape of Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy. The former is not only comfortably among the best that Marvel has served up thus far - Iron Man, GOTG and The Avengers are in that mix - but it also easily stands alone as one of the best action thrillers of recent years. Whilst the latter is pure fun and perfect summer blockbuster material. So how does The Avengers: Age of Ultron fare (and it has a difficult act to follow after the critical successes of the aforementioned movies)?
When the sequel's trailer was unleashed onto the general public all those months ago, it hinted at something really special (especially with that rebooted Pinnochio song playing over it) . However, the film itself is a bit of a mixed bag of Marvel flavoured candy - it's not in the top tier of their output, nor is it a disaster. The first Avengers movie was so good that the sequel was always going to be up against it from the word go (although there have since been confirmation of the dreaded studio interference from the horse's mouth, and rumours of possibly a longer original running time?).
Beginning with the most important aspect: the plot. Taking the now obligatory "darker" route, it seems a little convoluted and unfocused. There is a feeling of too many characters vying for attention, and it is a bit of a chore to follow occasionally. It has the impression of trying to cram a lot of story into the running time (in preparation for the future instalments), whereas the first movie was a lot more streamlined with just the main ensemble of Avengers coming together as a team for the first time, and taking on Loki and co. For example, the genesis of The Vision character should be an integral part of the story, but it feels as if he has been shoehorned into the film.
Sadly (on first impressions at least), Age of Ultron is guilty of samey looking action set pieces, with nothing particularly memorable - the exception being the Hulk Buster/"Veronica" vs Hulk mega smack-down. All the action sequences kind of interweave together and are also a bit "destruction porney." The Ultron bots are interchangeable with the Chitauri foot soldiers, and they are disposed of in pretty much the same way. Captain America: The Winter Soldier has set a high benchmark for action in a Marvel release, and Age of Ultron fails to match up to that level of intensity. Unlike the latter, There is never a sense that any of the Avengers are really in danger of death (despite Tony Stark's fears which kick off the whole thing). Again, it's another example of the trailer having a lot to answer, leaving little room for surprises in the finished film by showing more than is necessary.
The sub-titular big bad, Ultron, is perhaps not quite as intimidating as he could have been. More scenes like his encounter with Andy Serkis' character would have forcefully demonstrated the extreme threat he posed to our band of heroes (and heroine). Although brilliantly brought to life by James Spader, Ultron's tendency for constant quipping - I'm well aware he is supposed to be a twisted mirror image of Tony Stark - has a touch of "pantomime villain about it, and a little akin to Arnie's Mr. Freeze without the terrible puns (ok that's maybe a gross over-exaggeration). Personally, The Hydra/Winter Soldier, as seen in the Captain America sequel, are a much more menacing and malicious presence. As are Ronan The Accuser, Obadiah Stane and Ivan Vanko to name a few.
So far, it would appear that Age of Ultron has drowned in a sea of negativity. Its not all doom and gloom though. The tender romantic sub-plot between Bruce Banner/Hulk and Black Widow is a welcome distraction to the Ultron shaped mayhem brought upon by Tony Stark's misguided good intentions, and there is a believable chemistry between the beauty and the beast (within). Whedon also makes up for relegating Jeremy Renner's Hawkeye to token Avenger status in the first film, by considerably beefing up his role, and making his character Clint Barton the heart of the story.
Ultimately, there is one very significant factor that saves Age of Ultron from the danger of being perceived as a comparatively outright disappointment, and that is Joss Whedon's trademark panache with dialogue and flair for creating humorous scenarios. Possibly surpassing the original for wit and tongue-in-cheek humour, Whedon is a supreme master of punctuating an apparently serious scene with a laugh seamlessly. In this respect, almost every character (even the peripheral ones) is afforded their own "moment" - whether it's a dialogue punchline or via a visual gag. Whilst the action may be a little lacking in inspiration, this is more than compensated by Whedon's writing, consolidated by the undeniable spark between all the cast. In a movie which has a bunch of adults dressed in costumes, the tone of the film is perfectly judged.
As a whole, The Avengers: Age of Ultron doesn't quite reach the heights of the original, or it's aforementioned Marvel Phase Two pacesetters. The plot is a little disjointed, with just a bit too much going on, and the action set pieces lack a proper "wow" factor. Despite this - buoyed by Joss Whedon's aptitude with the written word that is only matched by Tarantino in contemporary Hollywood - it's still a serviceable piece of summer entertainment.