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THE AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON Review: No Strings

It’s strange to think that superhero films were once considered “risky”. Brian Singer’s X-Men in 2000 arguably revitalised the genre after the commercial annihilation that Batman & Robin received. Looking back, it’s hard to believe that anyone ever thought that Marvel could fail to bring it’s printed giants to the silver screen. Then again, early attempts, such as The Hulk and Daredevil were absolutely terrible.

Now The Avengers franchise is a worldwide box office dominating behemoth, and Avengers: Age of Ultron hits at a time when love for Marvel is at an all-time high, following the excellent Captain America: The Winter Soldier and the also considered risky but ultimately incredible and hilarious Guardians of the Galaxy.

Joss Whedon returns to direct an ensemble cast that just keeps growing, adding Aaron Taylor Johnson as Quicksilver (which is slightly confusing, given the character’s appearance in X-Men: Days of Future Past) and Elizabeth Olson as Scarlet Witch. Add in James Spader as Ultron, Andy Serkis as an arms dealer, Paul Bettany as The Vision, and you’ve got a formula for confusion right off the bat. Fortunately, Whedon has never had  problem juggling a beefy cast before, and he doesn’t start now. Everyone gets their fair share of screen time, and Scarlet Witch’s mind bending powers are used to give each character room to explore their troubled pasts and thoughts, and show that while your body might be indestructible, your mind is not.

The plot follows Tony Stark’s (Robert Downey Junior) messing about with Loki’s staff, retrieved from the clean up of what’s left of Hydra scattered across the globe. Stark sees the staff as an opportunity to use the power of the alien beings against them, and he uses Loki’s staff to create Ultron, an idea concocted between him and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) to put “a shield around the world” and eliminate the need for heroes at all. Naturally, nothing goes according to plan, and the newly created A.I, the titular Ultron, soon realizes in a strange leap of logic that the only way to protect humanity is to destroy it.

The Avengers Assemble… Again

With the core Avengers team long since established, Whedon has a lot of room to play around here. He doesn’t even need to set up some sort of convoluted plot device for the team to come together, and from the start we see a unified Avengers force taking down the last of Hydra’s minions with Captain America at the helm. The blistering action scene at the opening is excellent not because of the punches and explosions, but because of the nuance on display. We see tension between Stark’s ideas and the rest of the team, we see a blossoming relationship between Black Widow (Scarlet Johannson) and Bruce Banner that both of them seem terrified of. We see the extreme cockiness of Thor tempered by the leadership of Captain America. We also see Thor hit his shield to make a super cool shock wave to dispatch half an army.

We’ve always found the fun of superhero movies to be in the down time, and Whedon clearly feels the same way. Strip away the explosions, the slow motion, and the superhero bombast, and what are you left with? A billionaire playboy philanthropist, a super soldier, a god, a monster, an assassin, and Robin Hood all having a casual drink in a giant tower daubed with an over sized A. While you’ll tire of the third act punch out as you often do in a Marvel movie, it’s just one bum note in a symphony of chaos that’ll keep you laughing hard the whole way through.

Ultron might be the biggest Marvel movie yet, but it’s also a strong contender for the funniest. Even the terrifying Ultron gets some choice lines, making this almost feel like an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer where a genie curses the Scooby Gang with superhuman powers.

Infinity Bore

That’s not to say that Ultron doesn’t take itself seriously either. There’s ample room to explore the tortured collective psyche of the Avengers team. While dream sequences are tired and trite, it’s played well here, and it turns out that perhaps the strongest Avenger of them all is also the most human.

While you can lose the team in the melee of combat, and yet again, there’s a misstep by providing faceless cannon fodder for the team to dispatch, it’s easy to relate to each of the heroes. They’re all super human, they all have very human faults and even Ultron himself is semi relatable, thanks in no small part to James Spader’s stellar voice acting, mo cap, and surprisingly adept comic timing.

The special effects are top-notch, and the locations the team visit rack them up some serious air miles and are thankfully not centered entirely on America this time around. There’s everything you’d expect from a Marvel flick in here, including the customary dropping of the ball in the third act. Every Marvel film goes down hill for the final show down, it’s like a law of the (Marvel) universe. The big M are notoriously bad at wrapping their films up, and every single one seems to end in some sort of protracted aerial battle involving explosions and airships and you kind of drifting off. Ultron tries to be novel with its finisher but still stings of following some sort of formula laid out in a dark boardroom by tanned men in Armani suits.

Avengers: Age of Ultron is a refresher in why Marvel films work, with new characters and new concepts adding extra layers to the fun. We see the fracturing of the relationship between Tony Stark and the rest of the group, especially as he is effectively the creator of this film’s big bad. This will need nicely into Captain America: Civil War, which is set to follow the comic and pit Cap’n and Iron Man against each other in a universe spanning mini war just in time for parts 1 and 2 of Infinity War. It’s all very high concept, provided that you’re still interested by that point.

Overall

Those who are tired of the Galactus sized behemoth that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe will find a handful of reasons here to get engaged again, and fans will absolutely adore it. With Whedon at the helm, Marvel know that bigger isn’t always better, and if the upcoming films take the room to show more heroes in mundane situations, stripped of their gadgets and trappings, then frankly, we’ll keep watching.

Let’s just hope that without Whedon tugging on the strings, Marvel can make their heroes dance the way that they need to and cut the slack in that third act. Nevertheless, Ultron might be the strongest Marvel film yet, and it dispels any lingering fears that their announcement of their long-term plan might have been a bit premature. With the funny bone more prominent than ever in Ultron, and a stronger focus on character over concussions, Marvel clearly knows where the strengths of their franchise lies, and it’s in the stark contrast between their tone, and the dead serious, deadpan DC ‘style’.

It remains to be seen if the very human elements of the super human heroes will carry forward with the stakes getting infinitely higher as we move forward into Marvel’s so-called Phase 3. When you’re juggling a cast of thousands, it’s hard to give everyone the screen time they deserve. Ultron‘s treatments of its bit part characters gives us hope for the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, even if Thanos is gearing up to destroy it.

4 out of 5 stars

4 out of 5 stars

 

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Categories: Movie Reviews

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