Sure, the ‘Avengers’ movies are an ensemble enterprise, but we all know who the real front man is: Tony Stark aka Iron Man, played with a twinkle, a quip and a dodgy goatee by the great Robert Downey Jr.
After ‘Iron Man 3’, the star was threatening to leave the Marvel franchise altogether, announcing that ‘Age of Ultron’ would be his final outing in the big metal suit. But following fan outrage – and, we can only imagine, some favourable back room negotations – he has agreed to hang around for 2016’s ‘Captain America: Civil War’, which is set to see Stark and the Captain go head-to-head, and implied in interviews that he'll also be around for the epic, galaxy-spanning ‘Infinity War’ two-parter due in 2018 and 2019.
One of the great things about the first ‘Avengers’ was how much of writer-director Joss Whedon’s unique voice managed to make the transition from beloved TV shows like ‘Buffy’ and ‘Firefly’ to the biggest blockbuster imaginable. That’s also true of ‘Age of Ultron’, which retains the pomposity-puncturing banter from the first movie (there’s a great macho-bonding joke about lifting Thor’s hammer, Mjollnir) and adds a psychotic robot with a fine line in fiendishly clever one-liners.
Whedon knows how to balance action and comedy – but he also finds time for a spot of pathos amid all the fire and brimstone. There’s a bittersweet workplace romance developing between a certain large green gentleman and…well, there’s only one woman on the team, so you figure it out. (We’re not implying that other inter-Avengers romances aren’t taking place off screen, by the way. Given the amount of Lycra and testosterone flying around, it’s almost inevitable. But the movie-going public might not be ready for that quite yet).
Voicing an evil robot would seem to be a step down for such a fine actor as James Spader, even if it is in the summer’s biggest blockbuster. But he brings real weight to this potentially silly character, giving villainous kiss-offs like ‘there is only one path to peace – your extermination!’ a sense of sly wit and gravitas. If robots could grow moustaches, Ultron would be twirling away like crazy…
Too often dismissed as the red-headed stepchild of the Avengers family, Jeremy Renner’s long-suffering bowman Clint Barton aka Hawkeye didn’t have much to do in the first movie besides get turned evil, then get turned good again. But in a classic case of Whedon-ish wrong-footing he’s been shoved centrestage this time around, given a chance to show his mettle with some top-flight heroics, the script’s most memorable line and a rather sweet backstory that we won’t spoil here.
For once wearing his actual face, motion-capture king Andy Serkis has a small but memorable role in ‘Age of Ultron’, playing a shifty South African smuggler who might have come straight from the set of a Neill Blomkamp movie. Tackling an Afrikaans accent so phlegmy and guttural that his co-stars must have needed heavy-weather gear just to stand face to face with him, Serkis reminds us why he’s not merely the man behind the bluescreen, but a phenomenal actor in his own right.
Among the many new characters introduced this time around, perhaps the most notable are a pair of mysterious siblings with ‘enhanced abilities’: Wanda Maximoff aka Scarlet Witch, played with Gothic ethereality by Elizabeth Olsen, and her twin brother Pietro aka Quicksilver, played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson in bleach-blond hair and a dodgy Russian accent. But while Olsen holds her own against the established Avengers ensemble, Taylor-Johnson sort of waves from the sidelines, trying to get the audience’s attention with his speed-racing antics but never quite making an impression.
Perhaps we’re not being fair on ATJ: this movie is so ridiculously crowded, it’s hardly surprising he got shoved to the side. And he’s not alone: with Iron Man and Hulk hogging the limelight with their Ultron-inventing mishaps and Hawkeye getting his very own plotline, it’s Thor and Captain America who really lose out, seeming to pop in, do something heroic, and then disappear again for the next half hour. And that’s before we even get to supporting players like War Machine (Don Cheadle), Falcon (Anthony Mackie) and a mysterious newcomer named The Vision…
If you’ve not had time to read our review, we’ll give it to you straight: despite many fine qualities, ‘Age of Ultron’ is not as exciting or memorable as the first ‘Avengers’. Part of the problem is that it feels like we’ve seen a lot of this before.
For example: without giving too much away, the film’s climax involves our heroes going up against a whole army of Stark-created battle robots. Wasn’t that also the climax of ‘Iron Man 3’? And how much do we care if some scrap-metal automatons get squashed? This occasional sense of wheel-spinning serves to undermine an otherwise enjoyable movie.
Perhaps the biggest issue we had with ‘Age of Ultron’ is that, unlike the first, rewardingly complete ‘Avengers’ instalment, it feels like just another episode in a much bigger series. We know that ‘Captain America: Civil War’ is due in 2016, with the two-part ‘Avengers: Infinity War’ following in 2018 and 2019.
Of course it’s thrilling to see this none-more-epic franchise unfold before our eyes, growing more massive and complex with each new movie. But the larger strategy shouldn’t be allowed to impact and weaken individual episodes the way it does here. There’s no denying that ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’ is a smart, entertaining blockbuster. But Marvel’s machinations appear to have prevented it from being a wholly satisfying one.
Read our ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’ review
‘Age of Ultron’ is still a Joss Whedon film, packed with all the pathos, snappy action sequences and pomposity-puncturing one-liners we expect. But with Marvel’s eyes on the ultimate prize, is their long game threatening to short change viewers, and constrain fiercely independent filmmmakers like Whedon?