It was Tim Burton’s dark take on the Batman mythology in the late 80’s that gave us the first glimpse into the dramatic potential for comic book/super hero tales that had long been seen as kryptonite by the Hollywood power-players.
Yet it wasn’t until Marvel announced itself as the studio with the magic touch in the late 00’s that this potential really exploded. Since then of course, there has been a market saturation of movies that have been adapted from comic books and graphic novels with a slew of remakes, sequels, prequels, reboots, re-imaginings, spin-offs - and various other marketing terms that seem to be trotted out ad infinitum – proving that there is a great desire amongst audiences for this type of fare.
With their 2012 release of Avengers: Assemble, Marvel hit the jackpot and raked in over $1.5billion in box office returns with what was the studios biggest success to date. However, as difficult as finding success can be, repeating that success can prove even more problematic - a fact I’m sure isn’t lost on returning director Joss Whedon with this follow-up Avengers: Age of Ultron.
Reuniting the entire principle cast of the first Avengers film, Whedon is faced with the somewhat poisoned chalice of attempting to create an original piece whilst also ensuring familiarity with the rest of the ‘Marvel Universe’. Whilst Whedon makes an impressive attempt, ultimately, there is more than a lingering feeling that Age of Ultron is nothing more than a chapter in a much bigger anthology rather than existing as a story in it’s own right. By mapping out their next phase of development with it’s ‘Marvel Phase 3’ template - already including a planned third and fourth Avengers movie -Marvel has unwittingly removed any element of intrigue and has instead crippled many of it’s releases with the feeling that they are nothing more than volumes in a larger set.
Armed with a minimal plot - things go awry when Tony Stark/Iron Man’s (Robert Downey Jr.) attempts to create a sentient A.I. machine that will protect the world in the Avengers absence - Age of Ultron suffers without the novelty that greatly aided it’s younger sibling. Whilst the first Avengers movie carried the initial wow-factor of seeing perhaps the most anticipated collection of iconic screen characters in recent cinema history at the same time - unquestionably helping paper over the narrative cracks - there is no such luck here as Age of Ultron has nothing to shield it from the fact that it at times feels stretched too thin in both plot and narrative drive. Added to the blatant lack of stand-alone intrigue, you may be left feeling a little short-changed whilst also walking away with an unshakeable notion that you’ve seen all this before.
Despite all this though there is plenty here to get excited about and if Age of Ultron’s only real negative is that it doesn’t compare to some of it’s more illustrious stable-mates then that’s hardly a reason to condemn it. The spectacular visuals, crisp CGI and planet-shattering action are all stand-outs whilst it is an interesting central theme that lies at it’s heart. Ensuring a linear path from the first Avengers movie - which focused on the formation of this super-hero team - Age of Ultron studies it’s conflict and near-collapse. The many layered sub-plots and side-stories seek to address the notions of team ethics and dynamics and all the while express the importance of standing together against adversity.
It is a noble - if somewhat clichéd - approach and it seems that the maxim of us all being stronger together than we are apart was prominent in the minds of the Marvel creative team throughout the production of the movie. This is none more so apparent than the amazingly choreographed opening that provides a dizzying - almost gymnastic - display of knock-out action and impeccable team dynamics which perfectly accentuates what a well-oiled machine the Avengers have become since we first met them.
Whilst the lack or originality could be used as a stick to beat Whedon’s second film with, one positive by-product of visiting old ground stems from the chemistry amongst the film’s leads. Downey Jr., Chris Evans (Captain America), Chris Hemsworth (Thor) and an excellent Mark Ruffalo (Hulk) are now so comfortable in their characters skins that it is hard to see them as being separate from the superheroes they portray. Whilst Ruffalo steals the acting plaudits - with what is a measured performance containing just the right amount of angst and emotional turmoil - it is left to Downey Jr. and his mile-a-minute delivery to steal the film in a comedic sense. It is both a testament to the writers - and the actor’s ability itself - that his one-liners never become dull or annoying and always ensures a light-hearted moment in the most extreme of circumstances.
Comedy and humour are running themes throughout and this is at least one area in which Age of Ultron has the beating of its predecessor, this is a much wittier sojourn with various levels of locker-room banter - mostly as a result of the testosterone and ego that exists amongst the alpha-males of the group. Refusing to allow this to be an all-male gathering however, Scarlett Johansson provides a superb turn as Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff and her relationship with Ruffalo is one of the most interesting of the whole narrative - evoking images of King Kong and Ann Darrow from cinemas golden age. Of those fresh to the Marvel world, James Spider’s performance as Ultron is the pick of the bunch, at turns intimidating and calculating whilst also appearing to gravitate above the two-dimensional, maniacal villain that he could so easily have become. This is a nemesis who provides both a cerebral and physical threat to our heroes and proves a more than worthy adversary.
With so many characters it’s not easy to give them all the required amount of screen-time but it’s credit to Whedon that only Hemsworth really appears to have been under-used and at least the final conflict allows all of the main cast the opportunity to show what they can do. For any director this is a mammoth juggling act but Whedon handles it superbly and despite the gripes about not matching his original super-hero piece this is a slam-dunk in it’s own right.
In summary, and perhaps understandably, Age of Ultron suffers from a lack of ground-breaking originality that places it behind Avengers: Assemble in terms of pure cinematic spectacle, yet - whilst the dramatic tension seems wanting when compared to some of the studio’s previous stand-alone spin-offs - this is still an impressive entry into the Marvel canon.
The trouble for Marvel is that they have raised the bar so high in the past that they are now struggling to reach it themselves and have almost become victims of their own success. Whilst here they have produced a good, at times great, movie - it’s just not quite as ‘super’ as the heroes that feature within it.