The Avengers have re-assembled, making another almighty assault on the early summer box office but Age Of Ultron turns out to be a very choppy and unwieldy affair. The problem here, one writer-director Joss Whedon never quite solves, is how to ensure all the Marvel superheroes get their fair share of screen time while also coming up with an antagonist who presents a plausible challenge to their combined might.
The film begins promisingly enough with a rip-roaring action scene. The team is pitted against Baron Wolfgang von Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann) in the remote eastern European city of Sokovia. Strucker, who sports a monocle and has the gimlet-eyed fanaticism of the best Nazi-type villains, promises to send the American “circus freaks” back home in bags.
The sequence plays like a relay race with the baton being passed from hero to hero, each getting a chance to wreak some mayhem. Even in the heat of battle, Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man is joshing away in his usual wiseacre fashion. There are jokes about Captain America’s bad language and Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) can’t hide her obvious affection for The Hulk.
We also get a first introduction to the terrible twins, the Adidas-wearing Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), so fast he makes Usain Bolt seem like a caterpillar, and his very glamorous sister Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), a Morgan le Fay-like sorceress with long flowing hair who can twist her enemies’ minds, distort their dreams and turn them against one another. From long ago in their war-torn eastern European childhood, the twins have a seemingly very justifiable grudge against Tony Stark/Iron Man.
After the first burst of action, the Avengers hold a party and this is when the film first begins to creak. While the others are relaxing, and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is sharing his own brand of lethal alcohol with some old GI’s, Stark convinces Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) to use artificial intelligence to create a “suit of armour” around the world, thereby inadvertently bring Ultron (voiced by James Spader) to life.
Ultron makes a strangely unsatisfactory villain because he is such an abstract figure: an idea of cosmic evil rather than its physical embodiment. Like the Avengers himself, we can never quite get a handle on him. Whenever one of his metallic suits is smashed up, he simply inhabits another. Ultron is the all powerful ghost in the machine, bearing some strange Oedipal grudge against Stark and bent on the destruction of the world. Having accessed all their most intimate data, he knows more about the heroes than they do themselves. Whedon’s screenplay has a strong philosophical undertow. There is much musing here on humanity’s will to violence and the nature of artificial intelligence.
The best moments in the film tend to be the more character-driven ones. The cast is tremendous. Whedon deals in a humorous but affecting way with the burgeoning romance between Natasha and Banner. There are very evocative dream sequences as Scarlet Witch’s spells make the Avengers confront demons in their past. Robert Downey Jr is as sardonic as ever as Iron Man and Jeremy Renner registers strongly as master archer Hawkeye, an all-American family man when he is not on superhero duty.
Whedon brings a depth and wit to his storytelling that you will never find in a Transformers movie. Even so, the final showdown is a little anti-climactic. That isn’t because of the special effects, which are truly spectacular in their own earth-juddering way, just as you would expect them to be given the film’s reported $250 million budget. It’s simply that Ultron and his vast army of robots aren’t “real” enough to make worthy adversaries for the Avengers.
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