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Age of Ultron is not the first Avengers movie. It is its own animal. To compare them would do a disservice to the excellent work Joss Whedon and the rest of the Marvel team have put into this sequel. Avengers was lightning in a bottle. An unexpected fist pumping delight that had you cheering and grinning even after the credits finished rolling. Ultron can’t really sneak up on us with the same surprise. Wisely, it doesn’t try to. Avengers: Age of Ultron is not a pale retread of the first film, but an expansion that doesn’t just build on its universe, but on the relationships between the characters.

And that’s the key ingredient in the Marvel secret sauce that keeps us coming back for seconds (and thirds and fourths): Characters we like, root for, and want to spend time with. And that is where Age of Ultron excels.

Whilst out on a mission to retrieve Loki’s scepter the Avengers run into the Maximoff twins, Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) and Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). To borrow Maria Hill’s description “He’s fast and she’s weird.” The kind of weird that can mess with your head. Which is exactly what she does to Tony Stark, showing him a future where all of the Avengers are dead because he failed to help. This vision scares Stark into completing work on his Ultron project: an artificial intelligence that can protect the world from any and all outside threats. If you’ve seen the trailers, or have simply ever seen any film before ever, then you can probably guess that Tony’s plan doesn’t quite work out.

And so Ultron is born. And he is fantastic. As played with a delicious malevolence by James Spader (clearly having the most fun possible), Ultron can go from chilling to hilarious, sometimes in a single scene. He is insane and volatile and has some serious daddy issues with Tony. All of this adds up to a bad guy with personality, something many of the Marvel big bads have lacked. He is undoubtedly a physical threat to the Avengers, but it is the way he tears at the team from the inside that makes him their most dangerous foe.

Whedon uses Ultron’s presence and Wanda’s powers to reveal depths in the characters that even the central characters solo films failed to reach. Cap’s dream of a home, of a life for himself as Steve Rogers is laid to rest with a simple, beautiful shot of a doorway lifted directly out of John Ford’s The Searchers. Whedon’s script is full of simple yet effective characterisation like this. The way he tells the audience all they need to know about the Vision (the newest addition to the team) with one simple action is jaw dropping for in-story ramifications and the elegance of the writing. Almost every character gets such a moment.

Tony dreams of walking away. He is different from the other Avengers because he doesn’t see saving the world as a life long undertaking, but as a problem he will eventually fix and can then move on from. Hulk and Widow were the two characters who most benefited from Whedon’s pen last time out and they get some more great material this time. Their awkward yet tender relationship is something that came as a surprise and yet makes perfect sense for both characters. The scenes they share together (including when Banner gets a little greener) are the most emotionally engaging in the film. Hawkeye was the character that was given the least amount to do in the first film and that has been righted in Age of Ultron. He gets many of the best lines (the others being delivered by Ultron), numerous heroic moments, a couple of badass ones, and has a rich interior life that is revealed after the team’s lowest moment. The heart of the team will always be Cap, but the heart of the film is Clint Barton. So if it was Hawkeye who got the short shrift in Avengers, in Age of Ultron it is Thor who unfortunately has the least to do. He has a subplot that’s only purpose is to set up some of the pieces for the upcoming Thor: Ragnarok and Avengers Infinity War films. These scenes could be cut entirely and nothing of value would be lost, although they are thankfully not as bad as the Avengers set up scenes from Iron Man 2. Luckily, Thor is still played by Chris Hemsworth so he kicks ass and charms whilst doing it.

Speaking of kicking ass, the action in this film rivals anything seen before in the Marvel Universe. The opening attack on the fortified base is full of sweeping shots tying the characters together as they fight their way across the battlefield. It is reminiscent of the final battle in the first film and it is just as thrilling as it was then. What Whedon does here, perhaps better than any comic book movie before, is recreate the comic book splash page. The huge, full page images that would show dozens of heroes frozen in fantastical fight poses are magnificently brought to life on screen as the action slows to give us widescreen snapshots of superhero fisticuffs. It’s a technique that never gets old.

It’s easy to forget what a colossal undertaking this films must be as Whedon and Co make it look easy. A massive cast juggled expertly, each getting moments that remind us why we like them. Globe trotting action that is not only exciting but dramatic and revealing of character. Well defined stakes. Plenty of humour and heart, and a party scene that is so much fun if it took up the whole film I wouldn’t have complained. All that plus The Vision is the coolest looking live action version of a comic book character I’ve ever seen.

It’s a shame Whedon is parting ways with Marvel after this film as he has become such a sure hand with the material. But as a swan song, he couldn’t do much better than Avengers: Age of Ultron.

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  1. Dan

    Good review.

    I’ve only seen it once and it flew by in a blur so take these impressions with a pinch of salt. I didn’t think there was enough Ultron. They needed a few more scenes to introduce him and three dimensionalize him. Then maybe it would feel more like an age of Ultron and less like an afternoon of Ultron.

    Generally the film would have benefitted from a slower pace in the first half. They tried to fit too much film into 2h20m. They cut stuff they should have kept while keeping stuff they should have cut. The main two culprits being…

    The Thor subplot

    The Andy Serkis scenes.

    You’re right that the Thor subplot was pointless – but maybe, being charitable about it, the phase 3 movies will give it more meaning in hindsight. Still, I’d rather it was cut and we had 20 minutes more of the twins and of Stark vs Ultron as father vs son.

    Plus I’m not sure if Andy Serkis’ scenes shouldn’t have also been cut. The whole vibranium thing went nowhere. I literally care 0% what kind of metal Ultron is made from. Presumably they’re setting up Black Panther but it’s dead weight in this film.

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