Marvel Studios isn’t solely to blame for this, but the sheer conviction and prolificity with which they have attacked their shared-universe building (10 films since Iron Man proved the surprise hit of 2008) has certainly made them culpable role models for everyone else in Tinseltown with the power to green light a project.
Phase one of the MCU seemed to fall into place almost as though there was always a grand plan in their back pocket. Four individual films introducing the key members of the Avengers, before throwing them together for a high-stakes team-up…just like in the comic books. The instant love for Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark meant Iron Man got his own sequel along the way too, and everything came together rather wonderfully under the assured watch of Kevin Feige and fanboy Messiah Joss Whedon. The results, financially and otherwise, spoke for themselves, despite a couple of casting switch-a-roos along the way.
Phase Two has been a more wayward and bumpy ride, however. The series has certainly had its high-notes, with Captain America: The Winter Soldier proving for many to be the best of the bunch to-date, while Guardians of the Galaxy (thought to be the biggest gamble taken thus far) captured the imagination brilliantly with its goofball deep space antics. Elsewhere, however, things got a little rough.
Disney got into bed with China for Iron Man 3, resulting in different cuts of the film screening in different markets and swathes of unused footage left…well, nobody’s quite sure where. Thor 2 director Patty Jenkins left the project, was replaced by Alan Taylor, only for rumours to circulate that he didn’t make it to the finish line either. And then Edgar Wright jumped ship on the as-yet unreleased Ant-Man shortly before it went into production. Still, the films themselves seemed to keep the audiences entertained. All made over $200 million domestically, and Iron Man 3 proved a monster hit, grossing over $1.2 billion worldwide. In fact, only Thor: The Dark World failed to make the top five in its year of release.
In the meantime, Chris Nolan finished his Dark Knight trilogy, Zack Snyder gave us Man of Steel, the X-Men and Spider-Man franchises both kept going, hell, we even got Big Hero 6. Looking to the future, DC and Warners are promising a stream of titles over the next few years, and Marvel has already laid out all of Phase Three, escorting us to the end of the decade whether we like it or not. There is no denying that it has for the most part been an entertaining ride, but it has also proved an exhausting one.
And now here comes the official Avengers sequel, Age of Ultron, reuniting Marvel’s finest do-gooders for a second go-around, despite it feeling like they’ve never really left each other’s side, such are the myriad crossovers and cameo appearances in each and every offering. Suffice to say, going into this film I had every confidence it was in the best possible hands (with Whedon once again taking the reins), but my enthusiasm for seeing something genuinely fresh was flatlining.
It is with no small sense of relief, therefore, that Avengers: Age of Ultron is an absolute blast from start to finish. Whedon has somehow charmed a basket full of snakes into a coherent, rigidly paced rip-roaring adventure that carries its well-worn narrative of global domination and imminent extermination on the robust shoulders of six sympathetic, vulnerable, heroic and (mostly) human characters, for whom we actually give a rather large shit.
It is almost an impossible task to create legitimate danger, peril and tension in a film like this, in which for the most part, your heroes are invincible, or at the very least unexpendable. Before the lights even go down, we know that Stark, Thor, Cap, Hulk, Widow and Hawkeye aren’t going to die. Sure they’ll get slapped about a bit, and have to break a sweat now and again, but their lives are never really at stake – and the world isn’t going to end. But that’s not how these films work.
That said, suspension of disbelief is not a given, it must be earned. And Whedon knows damn well how to make his audience get on board. If his bombastic action sequences are only going to awe and thrill us to a finite degree, he really needs to humanise his superhumans for us to get invested and care what happens to them. And this is why Age of Ultron works. Because the characters feel real. They joke around, they struggle with their emotions, they question their loyalties, but then they come to the right decision in a totally believable way.
SHIELD has been disbanded after learning that it has been infiltrated all along by HYDRA. The Avengers are doing their best to keep their enemy at bay, but after retrieving Loki’s staff, Stark (Robert Downey, Jr) and a somewhat reluctant Banner (Mark Ruffalo) can’t help but use its power to kickstart Ultron, an AI project they’ve been toying with. Needless to say it backfires, Ultron becomes sentient and takes control of Stark’s “iron legion” of battle bots. Ultron sees humanity as the problem with the Earth. By destroying us, he can save the planet.
Into the mix come the Maximoff twins, Pietro (Aaron Taylor Johnson) and Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) – orphaned by Stark tech and long-time Hydra test subjects, they have now been unleashed and are looking for vengeance. As if that wasn’t enough, Ultron seizes the world’s supply of Vibranium, and plans to upgrade himself with the help of the ultimate South Korean cosmetic surgeon (Claudia Kim). Things are looking bleak for Earth and the Avengers.
But this far-reaching arc is the least interesting part of the film. Age of Ultron wins us over with how the individual team members interact with each other. How their fractious relationships are constantly tested, their strength and leadership challenged. There is a burgeoning romance between Natasha (Scarlett Johansson) and Bruce, but he can’t commit because of “the other guy”. Stark takes responsibility for Ultron, yet can’t resist pushing his AI tech as the final solution regardless. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), now the unquestioned leader of the team, is pumped for a fight, while Thor (Chris Hemsworth) understands that the other-worldly power at the root of this impending disaster remains his responsibility.
Remember Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner)? the guy on the sidelines with the bow and arrow and no special powers whatsoever. Whedon trains the film’s focus onto him – his motivations, backstory, personality and wit – perhaps more than any other character. And all of it serves the larger narrative. All of it keeps the film moving forward and makes the audience increasingly invested in the characters and their plight.
To cherry pick favourite scenes from the film would be a lengthy, exhausting and ultimately counter-productive exercise. Whedon and all concerned have done a great job with this sequel, creating something that is absolutely of a piece with all 10 films that have come before it, but which also feels fresh and energised, at a time when the very idea of another go-around with these guys was beginning to sound like anything but.
There are unnecessary elements in the film – the sojourn to Seoul is completely arbitrary – but there is also groundwork being laid out for future escapades (Wakanda!) in an unobtrusive, yet tantalising manner. After the impossibly high stakes of The Avengers, any threat to Earth or the various species that inhabit it was going to be a let-down, and as slyly amusing as James Spader’s Ultron is at times, his babblings never really threaten to destabilise society, whereas an unchecked Hulk-out just might.
But the one-liners, the camaraderie, the flirtations, the tragedies, the banter and the bravado are the real muscle on this monster of a movie. Rather than a jaw-dropping spectacle or breathless rollercoaster ride, this plays as a spirited, high-energy reunion, where not enough time has passed for old wounds to heal, and every attempt to kick back and enjoy themselves is interupted by having to go save the world again. What the future holds, both for the characters and the MCU itself, is left tantalisingly unclear at the end of the film, and there’s every possibility this is the last time we will see all these characters on screen together. So yes, revels.