Film review: Is Avengers Age of Ultron Marvel-ous?

The sequel to the 2012 hit is one of the summer’s most anticipated blockbusters. But does the comic book epic live up to the hype? Critic Nicholas Barber has an answer.

There is an abundance of good jokes in Avengers: Age of Ultron, but the best of them is in the dynamic opening action sequence. Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and the rest are hurtling through a forest on their way to the hilltop stronghold of an evil secret society, Hydra. Taking turns to showcase each of their signature abilities, they lay waste to hordes of uniformed baddies, but Hydra’s monocled commander, Baron Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann), rallies his troops with a cry of, “Never surrender!” A second later, he turns to his right-hand man and mutters, “I’m going to surrender.”

Who can blame him? Billed in the original 1960s Marvel comics as ‘Earth’s Mightiest Heroes’, the Avengers seem even mightier onscreen. One of the team is a Norse god; another has more weaponry in his armoured gloves than the average army; another is, well, the Hulk. And even their supposedly human colleagues aren’t exactly lightweights. In one dazzling set piece, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) races her motorbike the wrong way down a major road, scoops Captain America’s shield off the asphalt, skids underneath a lorry, and throws the shield into Cap’s waiting hand at the very moment he needs it to bash an opponent on the head. Maybe it’s not surprising then that the Avengers spend so much time fighting among themselves. Who else would stand a chance against them?

The two sequences mentioned above sum up what makes Avengers: Age of Ultron so impressive, but also so uninvolving. The film’s writer-director, Joss Whedon, isn’t interested in showing his characters solving puzzles or overcoming obstacles; he simply wants to show them beating up wrongdoers and cracking jokes in the coolest imaginable way. Distributing snappy one-liners and elaborate stunts to every member of the team, as well as their various sidekicks and assistants, he has them saving the day with all of the frictionless ease that comic-book logic and computer-generated imagery allow. 

If they need to hop from the US to Africa, they do it in an instant. If they need an indestructible cage to rocket down from space and land on the earth with pinpoint accuracy, it happens without a glitch. And if they need to destroy a city-centre skyscraper without harming any civilians, not only can they do it, they can improvise a string of wisecracks in the process. Perverse as it may seem to complain that a superhero blockbuster is a little on the far-fetched side, the result of all this effortless awesomeness is that you never feel as if the Avengers are fighting for their lives. You feel as if they’re putting on a gymnastics display or an extremely high-tech tap-dance routine. As much as you admire the polished, expertly choreographed entertainment, you don’t get the adrenaline buzz of seeing a vulnerable protagonist labouring against the odds.

  • Robotic thrills

It doesn’t help that, as in the first Avengers instalment three years ago, their principal foe is so much less powerful than they are. And, in general, Age of Ultron has almost the same plot as 2012’s film. The Avengers sit around and chat; now and then they spar with each other; a psychopathic arch-villain threatens them without actually doing anything; and there is a final, city-levelling clash with a swarm of faceless, CGI foot-soldiers. To be specific, what happens is that Tony Stark (aka Iron Man) uses some alien technology (I think) to create an artificially intelligent computer program called Ultron (voiced by James Spader) in the Avengers’ Manhattan HQ. Unfortunately, Ultron doesn’t have a very high opinion of his creator’s species, and so, once he has knocked together a metallic body in which to house his virtual brain, he decides to wipe humanity off the face of the planet, aided by two super-powered Eastern European twins with a grudge against Stark: the speedy Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and the mind-altering Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen). And then the Avengers have a big punch-up with Ultron and his robo-lackeys. The end.

But where are the dangers that might make our heroes break a sweat? We are told that Ultron is getting up to all sorts of mischief around the globe, but the film rarely shows him doing anything except skulking in the shadows, so he comes across as a grumpy Transformers toy rather than an urgent threat. He’s certainly not enough of a threat to stop the Avengers hanging out with Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) in his farmhouse at the film’s halfway point. Thanks to Whedon’s gift for likeable characters and screwball banter, this bucolic interlude is quite enjoyable. But how can we worry about humanity’s imminent extinction when its greatest champions are relaxing in the countryside, chopping firewood and tinkering with tractors?

Mind you, it’s while they’re on their rural mini-break that the Avengers’ omnipotence faces its only significant challenge. In one touching scene, the lovestruck Black Widow talks to the Hulk’s alter ego, Bruce Banner, about whether they could have a future together. Here, for once, is a question that might be tricky. It might not be resolved by some sparkling witticisms or by the swing of a magical hammer. For the first time, the viewer isn’t certain of how things are going to turn out. It’s the last time that happens, too.

-By Nicholas Barber

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