There are no strings on Andy Markham.
Who didn't love The Avengers? The confident, clever and ultimately awe-inspiring execution of the first full-scale superhero team-up on the big screen made for a watershed moment in blockbuster cinema, and is the single great turning point of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, when the films turned from nerdy delights into great events on the movie calendar, and the Avengers in question transformed from B-list comic book characters to icons around the globe. What with the great success of some of the movies that followed The Avengers, it was understandably no mean feat to deliver the first direct Avengers sequel - or at least, one that would match up to the first and hopefully continue to raise the bar. But did Avengers: Age of Ultron succeed in this mission?
Undoubtedly, director Joss Whedon and everyone involved went for it full-throttle and valiantly attempted to re-capture the scale and impact of the movie that came before it. Every effort is made to raise the stakes - instead of a megalomaniac plotting to destroy Earth, we have an army of robot megalomaniacs all plotting to do the same. Instead of six Avengers, we now have no less than eleven of them by the film's climax.
And it's not just in the action and plotting that the stakes are raised - the character dynamics and areas of exploration that were identified in the first movie are emphasised and ramped up to eleven here. Tony Stark's arrogance as self-appointed leader of the group comes back to bite him in the backside when his latest invention goes awry - the sentient AI lifeform Ultron, who promptly decides to wipe out humanity. His rivalry with Captain America is ramped up a gear with the two openly arguing about how to react, this time with no clear answers.
As for the Hulk, who so memorably stole the show in the first Avengers film, this time his tendency to cause collateral damage with his rage-monster bouts is put into sharp focus with his accidental arrival in Hulk form in a crowded city, causing massive devastation and certain civilian deaths.
The key theme is clear - that despite the awesome power of The Avengers and their abilities, the fun and games can't last with such a volatile group of extraordinary people, and darker times are inevitable for them. Throughout the film, we watch these darker times arrive and as is stated at the film's climax, "nothing lasts forever".
Now, of course, all of this feeds directly and substantially into the imminent Captain America: Civil War, in which the responsibilities of The Avengers are set to rip the team into rival factions, led by Tony and Steve. Clearly, Whedon was under strict orders to set up this latest event in the Marvel universe throughout this earlier film - which, unfortunately is one of the key (and most inarguable) criticisms that can be thrown at Age of Ultron.
Age of Ultron happens to arrive at a point where the Marvel universe is in the midst of a major development into a new phase - SHIELD has been destroyed, Thanos is out and about hunting Infinity Stones, a few major storylines are about to begin in Civil War as well as Thor: Ragnarok and the already planned Avengers: Infinity War - in short, it's almost impossible for Age of Ultron to rest where it lies and have any hope of working as a stand-alone movie. It's unavoidable and necessary to use this rare get-together to form a catalyst for the past and future events that surround it. The extraordinary developments of Captain America: The Winter Soldier have to be acknowledged - a darker world with less control has to be depicted so as not to undermine the achievements of that film - and groundwork must be laid for future stories in order to maintain a flow of continuity rather than a disconnected mess of plots in Phase Three.
But this doesn't have to be a bad thing - indeed, the first Avengers film did exactly the same thing. The idea for The Avengers was to gather up the roster of heroes, put them through an extraordinary adventure, and then send them off again, using the following movies to show him they had been changed by The Avengers. It's a great idea, actually. But the second time around, things are just too damn complicated and there comes a point where Avengers: Age of Ultron occasionally crosses a line, ceasing to function as a movie in its own right and existing purely as a gathering point for other stories.
There's no more obvious example than the utterly bizarre scenes where Thor and a randomly appearing Erik Selvig go into a cave, learn all about the Infinity Stones, and then leave, with no connection at all to the story and only mentioned at the end, where it directly cues in Thor: Ragnarok. It's cynical and unsatisfying storytelling, brings the story to a screeching halt, and is the first ill-advised ingredient in a generally over-stuffed dish.
The other is the sheer enormity of the cast. I'm going to emphasise again that there are eleven Avengers in this movie, and that doesn't include Ultron, other villainous roles, minor roles, or the crowbarred-in appearances of Nick Fury, Maria Hill, and Erik Selvig. This feels like simply too much; a rather gratuitous indulgence of characters. Newcomers Scarlet Witch (Elisabeth Olsen) and especially Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) don't get much of a chance to shine as a result, and the extremely intriguing development that is the creation of the Vision (Paul Bettany) is left almost entirely unexplored.
And there are other aspects of this "throw it all in" attitude that seem totally indulgent and actively distract from the main thrust of the story. Was there really any need to include spooky visions of fan-favourite MCU characters Peggy Carter and Heimdall, other than to score some easy Brownie points? Did we really need to have Loki name-dropped and referenced quite so often in the first act of the movie? And did we really have to have a SHIELD helicarrier show up unannounced in the final battle with Ultron, without elaboration on the significance of this happening in the current climate of the MCU?
And there-in lies the problem - if you're not a Marvel whiz, you're going to be completely lost. No effort is made to explain who the hell anyone is supposed to be and why we should care about them. Very little effort is made to catch people up on the events of previous films, instead letting references and developments speak for themselves instead of necessarily pointing them out for casual fans. Right from the start, this is a problem - when no characters deign to tell the audience who HYDRA is supposed to be and why The Avengers are at war with them. Why is HYDRA even in this movie anyway, if they serve no purpose after the first 5 minutes and carry a lot of plot baggage with them?
So those are the key issues - the over-stuffed and almost gleefully unfocussed nature of the film threaten to completely envelop it. But fortunately, it is most certainly not all doom and gloom, and there are some really marvellous highlights that rescue the movie from implosion.
Chief amongst them is, as always, the cast. It almost goes without saying at this point, but it bears another reminder that the Avengers line-up is one of the strongest casts of any franchise, and always manage to keep things entertaining when other films would struggle. Robert Downey Jr. is as excellent as ever, and Chris Evans gets a bit more meat to chew on than usual. Breaking out from the mould once again, however, is Scarlett Johansson who is rather wonderful as Black Widow. Here she is given a controversial new storyline - a romance with Mark Ruffalo's Hulk (who gives another excellent performance). Some despise this development and think it cheapens both characters to have them fall in love so unexpectedly. Personally, I love it. I find their romance a breath of fresh air in such a high-octane, high-on-plot, high-on-talky-dialogue saga, and the two have such chemistry that I am more than onboard with the pairing.
Another controversial choice which I am in favour of is the casting of James Spader as the titular Ultron, the maniacal menace who seeks to destroy the world with a wry, sarcastic joke and a smirk on his face. It's an entirely different villain role from Loki and a refreshing change of pace from the generic humourless doom-mongerers which were such a relentless and dour feature of Phase Two of the MCU. Another thumbs-up.
And most of all, the action once again is a triumph on every level. The astonishing final battle in particular contains some truly breathtaking work from Whedon and the SFX team, truly raising the bar from the first film without doubt. Thankfully, the film manages to go out with an almighty and crowd-pleasing bang.
So Age of Ultron ends up as a highly flawed but ultimately acceptable follow-up to its seminal predecessor, but not much more than that, sadly. It stands as a warning against the excesses of shared universes for future films, and sacrifices itself for the benefit of other films to come - but just about delivers enough smiles and shocks to keep the mighty Avengers fire burning.
Oh, but I really do hate that last line, where Captain America teases us with "Avengers...." and cuts to credits before we hear "assemble!" That's just plain cruel. How would you like it if I ended this article without finishing my....
Andy is a writer, musician, graduate, and super-geek. Ginger
glasses-wearer. Star Wars obsessive and Doctor Who enthusiast.
Specialises in film music and currently writing his first book on the
subject. Follow Andy on Twitter.