April 22, 2015 Leave a comment
While attempting to retrieve Loki’s sceptre from a Hydra stronghold, The Avengers encounter a pair of superpowered siblings (Elizabeth Olsen; Aaron Taylor-Johnson) seeking revenge on Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jnr) for the role his company inadvertently played in the death of their parents. Wanda — a woman with unusual influence over the minds of others — undermines Stark’s already fragile mental state, and compromised he returns to New York concerned that he has not yet done enough to secure the safety of all mankind. Together with Dr Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) he uses the sceptre and the mystical gem it contains to unlock the secrets of consciousness with the aim of improving the effectiveness of his drone army, inadvertently leading one of his suits to become self-aware. Named Ultron (James Spader), the nascent AI declares war on its creators, along with Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner), Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) and the rest of humanity.
A lot has changed since the release of Marvel’s Avengers Assemble in 2012; and although much of that change has been orchestrated on purpose some of the repercussions have proven to be beyond even Marvel’s (now Disney’s, of course) considerable control. Now eleven films into its unprecedented, pioneering and as yet unparalleled mega-franchise — the no longer burgeoning but rather burdened MCU — and five films on from the Battle of New York, the studio has issued returning director and overseer Joss Whedon with a very different task indeed. Already assembled, the titular super-team must now be developed, redeployed and ultimately divided ahead of the next cinematic season — a tertiary series of instalments known as Phase Three, and already set to kick off next year with Captain America: Civil War. Whereas once the idea of merging four individual franchises was audacious enough, the MCU has now grown to such a size — Marvel’s television division included — that with hindsight it suddenly seems like the simplest thing in the world.
Remarkably, Whedon once again pulls it off — using his experience on the previous film in addition to his time as showrunner on programmes such as Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Firefly to duly focus on the monster-of-the-year while simultaneously furthering the overarching arcs of his various heroes — albeit without quite the same sense of enthusiasm or effortlessness. While offscreen the director has been lamenting the shoot, talking at length about how the process has not just exhausted but damn near ended him too, onscreen the spectacle has lost some of its box-fresh sparkle. The intention was always to go deeper rather than larger, but while Iron Man and co. are indeed subjected to increased scrutiny the stakes have arguably never been higher. Since Tom Hiddlestone’s Loki’s failed bid for world domination, Miami, London, Washington and the planet of Xandar have all gone the way of New York, leaving audiences fatigued and Age Of Ultron with fewer places in the known (or even unknown) universe left to blow up. The relationships have never been more compelling, the characters never more engaging and the witticisms never more entertaining, but the set pieces aren’t what they once were. A battle between Hulk and Hulkbuster is as interminable as it is unnecessary, while the finale is simply a variation on an overly familiar theme.
That Marvel’s Avengers: Age Of Ultron is underwhelming, however, is inevitable — in many ways it’s a victim of its own success. Phase Two has never quite lived up to Phase One, with each film struggling to find its place in Marvel’s ever-expanding cinematic and televisual universe. Some like Iron Man 3 have pushed for auteurial autonomy over studio synergy at the expense of a comprehensive experience, while Thor: The Dark World and Captain America: The Winter Solider have taken a more utilitarian and cohesive approach to storytelling, leaving Agents of SHIELD to fill in the gaps. Already on uneven footing, Whedon was never going to replicate his previous success with its firmer foundations and novel ambitions, but it’s to the director’s credit that he at least succeeds in expanding on it. New additions Vision, Wanda and Pietro steal the show, as does Ultron, the saga’s best villain by far, while expanded roles for supporting characters such as Black Widow, Hawkeye and War Machine are very welcome indeed — Don Cheadle in particular is a delight. It’s an unexpected inversion; the key question coming out of Avengers Assemble was whether anyone would be interested in the composite series after the first crossover, so it’s a little surprising that secondary or even tertiary characters should be missed in the latest team-up. Nevertheless, you still find yourself asking what Pepper Potts, Darcy Lewis or Daredevil‘s Wilson Fisk might be making of Ultron’s actions.
Although it may seem that every successful film is spawning a shared universe these days, the truth is that the MCU remains unique — and as such the usual rules don’t really apply. As with much of Phase Two Marvel’s Avengers: Age Of Ultron is a flawed film, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is part of a failed experiment. Regardless of what becomes of Ultron or any of the other characters, the story is not over yet, and it may well be that with repeated viewings or subsequent instalments audiences’ perceptions of Age Of Ultron may change. For now, though, the disappointment is undeniable, if perfectly understandable.