How do you follow a mega smash hit like Avengers Assemble, with the film being so far the third most successful at the worldwide box office behind Titanic and Avatar? Any other studios would have just safely served us a rehash of the first film and counted the dollars, but not Marvel. The studio has been taking several risks and gambles since Iron Man, at once respecting the fans while playing with their expectations too, and it has paid off big time, with the most incredible run of commercial hits which have made them the envy of all the other studios in Hollywood, who are all busy trying to launch their own universe (rather pathetically in some cases).
In Marvel's Avengers: Age of Ultron, Tony Starck's attempt to create artificial intelligence to protect the world against further threats cruelly backfires when his creation, Ultron, turns against its creator and humanity! It is up to the Avengers to team up once again to defeat this formidable foe.
While Marvel gently introduced their audience to their universe and characters in the early years, since Captain America : The Winter Soldier (with whom this Avengers' sequel has a lot in common), they now waste no time thrusting viewers into the thick of the action, with no flashbacks and exposition, here with a fantastic opening scene that sees the team going after Loki's sceptre. And as enjoyable as the film is, you will get a lot more out of it if you have seen all of the recent Marvel films.
Yet for all the familiarity and joy of seeing all our favourite characters back together, it would have been impossible for them to have remained unchanged after the events of the previous films, and a certain innocence is long gone. The tone here is sombre, darker (which in some critics' quarters have unfairly become swear words), and there is a complex plot that is at times almost difficult to follow, but one that is much richer and deeper than the previous Avengers, a great film but whose storyline was the weakest aspect. Moral conflicts are tackled, relationships explored and expanded... Not a minute is lost, and the film allows itself some impressively slow-paced scenes of dialogues for what is supposed to be the biggest blockbuster of the year. If anything, you almost wish the film would have been a bit longer to allow you take it all in, and it will give you the urge to see it again right away!
It is interesting how the notion of collateral damage is integral to the plot. It is often a criticism that has been levied against superheroes film that little care is given to innocent civilians annihilated when cities become battlegrounds (with Man of Steel being the worth culprit according to some, so this could well be a dig at DC Comics!). And right from the start the notion of responsibility is put on the spotlight, and how the end can justify the means. In the wrong hands, this kind of scenario can have a nasty whiff of conservatism (just look at the language being used by politicians to justify recent wars) but Joss Whedon is much smarter than that, offering us a more grown up exploration of this concept, and he plants the seeds of many storylines and conflicts to come, including from within the team (the films seems to lead a natural path to Captain America: Civil War). He also anchors the plot in reality, with the now obligatory final act of destruction taking place in an unnamed Eastern European country ravaged by war, with America's interfering of foreign conflicts and the consequences being evoked.
They are some who have already lamented the lack of fun of this sequel but I strongly disagree with this criticism for two reasons. First of all, the set pieces are breathtaking and exhilarating, with a chase on the ground and in the air in Seoul being a particular highlight, and a completely mental final act. And while obviously CGI heavy, those scenes still feel very physical and easy to follow (unlike that mess that is the Transformers franchise). And while we might lack some of the the banter of the first film, that is not to say Age of Ultron does not have its fair share of funny moments and great lines.
Despite being pivotal to the plot development, you get the feeling that Captain America and Iron America (and somehow Thor too) are kept in the background for bigger things to come. Instead, Black Widow, Hawkeye and Bruce Banner/The Hulk are given a chance to shine this time round. And what of the newcomers, the Maximoff siblings, aka the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Quicksilver (Aarton Taylor-Johnson)? They are both excellent, perfectly finding their place in the team, and with a powerful and moving story arc. Same with Vision, with Paul Bettany finally giving a physical form with this great new character. As for Ultron, while villains are usually the weakest link of Marvel films (except for Loki!), he is fantastic, a threatening and complex character given much depth thanks to James Spader's inspired and commanding voiceover. Fans will also be pleased to see that the vast majority of the characters seen in all the previous films are present in one capacity or another.
One has to wonder if a certain part of the audience that came on board with the first Avengers and who is expecting some Loki shenanigans and the same level of humour will react (and be ready for thousands of already written think pieces about Marvel losing its touch, should this sequel not perform as well as its predecessor). But the studio has gone yet one step further in its ambition (a quality so cruelly lacking from modern cinema) and it is to be applauded for such an entertaining, powerful and satisfying blockbuster.
Rating: 5 stars out of 5
Marvel's Avengers: Age of Ultron. USA 2015. Directed by Joss Whedon. Starring Scarlett Johansson, Elizabeth Olsen, Chris Evans, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Chris Hemsworth, Robert Downey Junior, Jeremy Renner, Mark Ruffalo, James Spader, Paul Bettany...
Out in the UK on the 23rd of April and in the US on the 1st of May.