You’d need a unique kind of bleeding heart to sympathise with the sharks that run Tinseltown’s studios, but it’s hard to deny that 2014 was disappointing for many of the poor tykes. There were reasons to be cheerful – Lucy was a surprise sleeper smash, Transformers: Age of Extinction displayed an inexplicable ability of to scare up a fortune, and the X-Men, Hunger Games and Hobbit franchises retained their cash-cow reliability – but these returns couldn’t mask the seasons of discontent for box office bean counters. Returns were down throughout the biz, but genre fare arguably suffered the most pointedly; the financial performance of would-be juggernauts such as Transcendence, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, Edge of Tomorrow and RoboCop teetered between disappointing and disastrous, and blood was scented in the water. Enter the usual hysterical voices, who gleefully declared cinematic SF spectacle to be a dying artform.
Of course, one increasingly key player managed to avert such disquiet. One can only assume that Disney’s auditors spend their days diving into a pool of cold, hard cash a la Scrooge McDuck following the success of 2013’s Frozen and it’s associated merchandising, but the Mouse House’s acquisition of Marvel ensured that Maleficent was joined by Guardians of the Galaxy, Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Big Hero 6 in last year’s Top Ten. One look at their slate for the coming months suggests that 2015 should be even more successful, with some particularly notable jewels in the crown. Remove the self-proclaimed King of the World from proceedings and Avengers Assemble is the most successful movie of all time, ensuring that this sequel must surely rank as the most anticipated release of the year (yes, Abrams, that’s right; we went there). Is it actually possible for Joss Whedon to live up to the frankly unreasonable levels of hyperbole and expectation?
Well, of course. Was it really in any doubt?
It’s refreshing to report that Avengers: Age of Ultron is a fantastic follow-up, and one that neatly side-steps the usual pratfalls associated with overstuffed superhero sequels. Granted, a working knowledge of the MCU is essential to follow the flick as there is a lot of storytelling to get through with no time for tourists, and there is no shortage of Phase III foreshadowing. This is no Iron Man 2-style extended trailer though; the welcome returns of veterans from the Iron Man, Cap and Thor franchises largely serve a suitable purpose, and new characters and locations are introduced without jarring too much – with Andy Serkis memorably portraying the pick of the bunch.
That said, with so many speaking parts it’s inevitable that some characters enjoy more substantial screen time than others. Everybody gets at least one moment in the sun – be it a killer one-liner or a barnstorming action hero moment – but
worshippers of the Thunder God in particular should be warned that the Odinson is largely used for exposition and light relief. On the other hand, those who decried Hawkeye’s largely pointless presence in the original have their bellyaching soothed; this is largely Jeremy Renner’s movie, which provides a welcome human POV amidst the clashes between gods and monsters. Renner shines as the audacious arrow-flinger, quipping, fighting and emoting his way through proceedings, and successfully setting the tone for the rest of the movie in the process. The two-and-a-half hour run time is stuffed with pulse-pounding set piece excitement, there’s also plenty of character drama to go around as the script neatly sidesteps and subverts tropes and expectations throughout (indeed, anybody familiar with Whedon’s work will raise a wry smile on any number of occasions). This is a movie about Tony Stark, Bruce Banner, Natasha Romanov just as much as Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk and Black Widow. Don’t fear, though, this isn’t a sequel defined by cliched and overwhelming darkness – while not quite the Stark-centric zingfest of the original, there is plenty of breezy stardust sprinkled throughout.
Never mind the Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, though; what of the titular titanium terror? It was always a gamble utilizing a mechanical character as a major player, but Ultron is no mere robo-’roid enhanced killing machine. Bestowing the dastardly droid with the essence of Stark ensures that James Spader has plenty of snarky dialogue to play with, and the quick-witted Ultron is actually a disarmingly charming synthetic sociopath who clearly sees himself as the hero of his own story. Like some kind of hybrid of Gort, Patrick Bateman and the Iron Giant, Spader bestows Ultron with silky, fluid movements and a honey-and-cyanide vocal delivery that’s to die for and ensures that, against your better judgment, you may even find yourself sympathising with his plight. If there’s a criticism it’s that Ultron’s intelligence doesn’t tally up with such his black-and-white motivations to destroy the world, but with so much plot density something had to give. Hopefully we haven’t seen the last of the character, as there is plenty of scope for future development.
Naturally though, many will be purchasing their ticket on the promise of eyeball-saucering action scenes, and Age of Ultron delivers them in spades. Whedon has clearly grown in confidence since Avengers Assemble, and while that concluded with an astonishing team-up, this sequel opens at full throttle. The opening onslaught upon a Sokovian castle (a Latveria by any other, non-copyright infringing name if every we saw one) is packed with slo-mo set pieces and freeze frames glorious enough to make a grown man weep, and the introduction of new major players Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver is handled deftly. Fortunately Whedon is skilled enough not to peak in the opening twenty minutes and, despite a breathless pre-credits scene that would have Bond crying into his martini, glorious combat choreography punctuates the entire movie – in particular, a certain hero vs. hero face-off is every bit as special as the trailer promised.
Age of Ultron isn’t a genre game-changer like the original, but it was never destined to be. Three years is a long time in cinema, and where the idea of teaming such a sizable and disparate cast was once seen as a risk-laden act of lunacy, franchise universe building is now the norm. What Whedon has crafted is, once again, a festival of fun; a celebration of all things spandex that shakes up the MCU’s status quo once again and concludes Phase II with panache. By the time the credits roll over a glorious closing moment, you’ll be clearing your schedule for Ant-Man’s opening date.