28 April 2015

Avengers: Age of Ultron review

The run away success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe would have been difficult to predict back when 2008's Iron Man was released. This is the franchise that single handedly proved that a cohesive cinematic universe could work, a franchise that has made billions at the box office while gathering rave reviews, and a franchise that has entered the pop culture consciousness in a big way - there aren't many people who won't recognise the individual members of The Avengers, which is bizarre and awesome at the same time.

Eleven films and three TV shows in, Avengers: Age of Ultron may be Marvel Studios' most eagerly awaited property to date. We follow The Avengers as they attempt to clean up the remaining Hydra bases left after the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. In doing so, they run into Baron von Strucker, a Hydra boss who has been experimenting on humans and has successfully used Loki's Sceptre to "enhance" the Maximoff twins, Pietro and Wanda, who manipulate Tony Stark into creating an artificial intelligence hell bent on destroying the Avengers called Ultron.

I'm going to get this out of the way right now - Avengers: Age of Ultron is probably as good as (and in some respects, better than) Avengers Assemble, albeit in a very different way. Gone is the victorious, fist pumping feeling of Avengers Assemble, instead replaced by something a little more restrained and down to earth - victories come at a cost here, and any Joss Whedon fan will know that those costs are high.

That isn't to say that Marvel have gone "gritty" or "realistic" - there is certainly the feeling that Avengers: Age of Ultron is "darker" than it's predecessor, but we are still a long way from the joylessness of Man of Steel. Frankly, Avengers: Age of Ultron is hilarious, the same sense of humour that made Avengers Assemble and other Joss Whedon projects as instantly likeable as they are present throughout, never letting even the darkest moments go on for too long without alleviating the tension with a gag of some kind, often containing a nudge or a wink to the audience in the process.

And unlike the first one, it isn't Tony Stark hogging all the best lines. Despite carrying the weight of the plot, the "main" Avengers (Thor, Iron Man and Captain America) are kind of sidelined here when it comes to character development - the emotional moments all belong to the characters that don't have their own solo films, and as such most people will walk out of the cinema with a new found appreciation for Hawkeye, who really got the short end of the stick last time. It's also worth mentioning that the Black Widow/Bruce Banner relationship hinted at in the trailers is incredibly well done - I'm rarely one to care about the romantic side of a film, but some top-notch writing had be genuinely rooting for them as a couple, while at the same time truly understanding Banner's fear of his other side for the first time.

The additions to the cast are all great - all of the new characters have their moments to shine, in particular The Vision, who steals the show once he turns up and claims the most memorable scene in the entire film. If there are any complaints here, it's that Ultron isn't quite the villain that Loki was in Avengers Assemble - but that's a high bar to clear, and he is still one of the better villains that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has produced. That being said, his introduction to the film is very rushed, and his unclear motivation (and over-reliance on sci-fi tropes) means that he is a little more forgettable than the trailers would have led you to believe.

What's most impressive about Avengers: Age of Ultron is the confidence that it shows even as it introduces some of its stranger, more fantastical elements. The Vision is weird, even for comics, yet his introduction into the film isn't dumbed down or played for laughs, with a nudge and a wink. A lot of comic book films seem to be almost ashamed of the source material from which they are based (I'm looking at you, Fant4stic), but Marvel Studios have always been willing to test what an audience will accept, and it pays off wonders here - The Vision looks and acts like The Vision, and it just works as part of this universe thanks to that.

The only real problem with Avengers: Age of Ultron is the size and scale of the story being told, which the film occasionally allows itself to get lost in. Avengers: Age of Ultron is much more ambitious than it's predecessor, combining sub-plots with set up with foreshadowing with resolution, unfortunately resulting in the early signs of Iron Man 2 syndrome - that is, losing focus in order to help the franchise rather than the film itself (The Amazing Spiderman 2 had a terminal case of this). It never gets too bad thanks to some smart cuts in stories that I'm sure have plenty of deleted scenes (Thor's side plot in particular feels heavily cut), but it's noticeable and does take some of the momentum out during the end of the first act.

But ultimately, pacing issues are a small price to pay for a film as ambitious and inventive as Avengers: Age of Ultron. From the opening assault on Baron von Struckers base to the Hulk vs Hulkbuster fight in Africa to the finale that sees the Avengers primarily attempting to evacuate a city (take note, Man of Steel apologists), Avengers: Age of Ultron encompasses everything great about the Marvel Cinematic Universe, more than meeting any expectations I had about the film going in. No, it isn't perfect, and it probably won't be as universally liked as Avengers Assemble thanks to the aforementioned ambition, but it isn't afraid to be its own thing. Joss Whedon has said that he is done with Marvel Studios now thanks to the overwhelming workload, and while it'll be sad to see him go after just two films, Avengers: Age of Ultron is one hell of a high note to leave on, and I can't wait to see what's next.

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