The first word spoken in Avengers: Age of Ultron is “shit”, flung out of Tony ‘Iron Man’ Stark’s (Robert Downey Jr.) mouth as his heroic pals hurtle through a forest below him.“Language!” barks Captain America (Chris Evans) via intercom, berating his airborne comrade for his totally understandable outburst; a choice the captain instantly regrets as Stark adds “Cap doesn’t like swearing” to his arsenal of quip fodder. In this committing to a not particularly clever, or even funny joke (it is recalled repeatedly by numerous characters throughout) lies a clue to what makes this sequel so enjoyable and heartfelt. There is something about the relentlessness of the inane ball-busting that is really quite lovely.
Following the success of Avengers Assemble, Joss Whedon returns as writer/director and seems even more comfortable in the Age of Ultron. He takes more liberties with characters, has more fun with dialogue and walks us down a darker, more relatable path. Each and every one of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes has a satisfying arc and Whedon orchestrates the various – and particularly weighty – narrative through-lines superbly. Clocking in at two-and-a-half hours, this is the longest MCU film to date, but it certainly doesn’t feel that way. Sure, the mind-blowing, CGI-heavy action set-pieces form a sizeable chunk of the runtime, but it is the character interplay (performed with aplomb in every instance) that keeps us hooked and invested.
Of course, the team are nothing without a worthy adversary and this is delivered in spades. Loki – brother of Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and a previous foe – was pure fantasy; an arch baddy from another world, hell bent on enslaving humanity. In contrast, Ultron (unforgettably voiced by a snarky James Spader) comes from within; a product of an experiment in artificial intelligence by Stark and Bruce ‘The Hulk’ Banner (Mark Ruffalo) which was meant to bring peace on earth but instead sets in motion its possible destruction. Once again, The Avengers – all of the above plus Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) – are called upon to fight for our survival.
And fight they do. We are thrown right into it in the opening forest fight. It’s a stunning sequence; a barrage of god, archer, assassin, mutant and supersoldier (that’s just the good guys) dispatching henchmen with style, ease and what looks like glee. Having saved New York from the Chitauri – and practiced their hammer throwing, motorcycle riding and assorted badassery in standalone character editions – The Avengers are on fine form. The film’s most memorable image comes just minutes in; a slow-mo tableau that suspends our heroes in mid-action for a split second; a comic book panel come to life. The action throughout is mounted expertly and Whedon pays particular attention to how their powers and abilities compliment one another, allowing us to gawp at the more intricate choreography through a well judged use of slow motion. It makes you want to go back to school, just so you can swoon over your favourite moments in the playground.
With such an array of butt-kicking prowess, there is the initial worry that the film may descend into a relentless video game-esque battering of Ultron until he is beaten. However, in another sly bit of scripting, Whedon demolishes these concerns by adding two new mutants – Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) – who become allies of Ultron due to their hatred of Tony Stark. Blessed with lightening speed and telekinetic powers respectively, their run-ins with the team are fresh and exciting, their attacks unexpected and intangible. Scarlet Witch in particular gives rise to some truly haunting imagery as she penetrates the psyches of our heroes causing them to hallucinate, recalling Scorsese’s Shutter Island. What’s more, these are anything but throwaway moments; Whedon uses them as a way into in the murky minds of a team cursed with dark histories and suppressed anxieties.
The more serious tone – at this point a compulsory requirement of any second film in a series – is consistently effective and never feels dark for darks sake. With a more grounded villain, a less bombastic tone feels appropriate and compliments the material beautifully. For the initial reveal of Ultron, for instance, violence feels like an afterthought and the air of the scene is thick with dread and anxiety. A humanoid figure, comprised of mangled bits and pieces of Stark’s robots, stumbles into a party at Avengers HQ, mumbling in confusion and anger; closer in tone to Gothic horror than a tent-pole blockbuster.
Their are laughs to be had of course – the most uproarious of which involves little more than a character picking up a particularly heavy hammer – but they are rarely throwaway, and always deeply routed in character. The most admirable achievement of Age of Ultron can be found in the handling of it’s characters and their relationships, be it the fragile romance between The Hulk and Black Widow, the safely guarded secrets of the mysterious Hawkeye, and even the misguided but ostensibly altruistic desires of the metallic villain. The climax manages to be yet more uproarious and explosive than the first film whilst remaining grounded in character drama and a sense of true, genuine love.
Avengers: Age of Ultron is out in UK cinemas 23rd April
Words> Andrew Wilson