Avengers-1Phase Two of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe has been a bit of a mixed bag. Proceedings kicked off well enough with some trademark subversive Shane Black wit with Iron Man 3 (which doesn’t quite hold up on repeat viewing), but that was quickly followed by Thor: The Dark World, which proved to be (for me, anyway) the weakest Marvel entry to date. Those woes were soon put to rest with the one-two release of Captain America: The Winter Solider and Guardians of the Galaxy, two of the studio’s smarter and more unique entries. Of course, all of this was working up to yet another end game, an Avengers 2.0. While there has been a great degree of anticipation, it would be far to say that the mood surrounding this one hasn’t been quite as giddy as it was back in 2012. Would writer/director Joss Whedon be able to pull off such an intimidating project yet again? It would seem he has struggled. What we have here is a film in which its director seems to be struggling to reconcile his own creative desires with the desires of the powers that be in the MCU, a tension which is more prevalent than you may expect.

With the HYDRA clean-up going smoothly following the disintegration of SHIELD, the members of The Avengers seem to be facing a time in which they may not have to be called upon quite as much. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jnr) seems adamant to fast-forward this process, and feels he may have found the answer hidden within Loki’s Sceptre, which conceals the secret to unlocking Artificial Intelligence. However, Tony’s meddling soon presents The Avengers with their biggest threat yet, as he unwittingly creates Ultron (James Spader) a malevolent A.I. who soon comes to the conclusion that the human race would be better served if they were all extinct. Teaming with two super power twins, Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) Maximoff, Ultron leads The Avengers in to a fight that puts the fate of the world, and their friendships, on the line.Avengers-2

Maintaining a Cinematic Universe can hardly be an easy task. With a number of different filmmakers being involved in both directing and writing capacities, it is the producer who holds the most significant creative power when it comes to what each individual feature should and should not contain. That figure for Marvel is Kevin Feige, a man who has done very well in regards to selecting his film-making talents, pleasing many fanboys when he managed to sign Whedon on for the first movie. But Age of Ultron marks the first time in which it is clearly noticeable that a creative voice as unique as Whedon’s has struggled against the weight of serving the movie universe as a whole.

Whedon has many plates to spin, even more so than last time, as he has to introduce his new antagonist, as well as firmly establish three new super-powered beings, all the while keeping the focus on the team that audiences fell in love with to the tune of $1.5 billion three years ago. Whedon’s strength, as was the case in the first one, lies within the quieter moments between the bombastic action scenes, moments which allow him to have the characters interact and test each other. These strengths are demonstrated in the early party scene in the Avengers Tower (I would quite happily have a whole movie of these characters mingling at a party) and in the scenes in which our heroes are forced to confront or reveal fears and facts about their lives (Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye benefits greatly from this). The visions invoked by Olsen’s Scarlett Witch also provide the film with strong character-driven moments, as well as allowing for a much more sinister tone.Not all of it pays off; the romance between Mark Ruffalo’s Banner and Scarlett Johannson’s Natasha is unconvincing, while more could be made of the friction between Stark and Captain America (Chris Evans). However, the Whedon wit remains, with most (if not all) of the one-liners landing very well, delivered by probably the most charismatic cast that Hollywood has to offer.

Avengers-3While Whedon clearly relishes the chance to write for these characters again, he demonstrates a great deal of affection for Ultron, giving James Spader plenty of opportunities to purr with charming malice. However, despite some brilliant lines of villainous dialogue and impressive performance capture, Ultron himself feels a little inconsequential, coming to stand as more a means of introducing Paul Bettany’s Vision than with providing The Avengers with an iconic antagonist. Bettany as Vision, though, is another success, exuding wisdom and grace, as well as delivering some of the best Whedon-isms that the script has to offer.

The action sequences on display benefit from the best effects that money can buy, but Whedon seems to have revealed all of his action tricks in the first instalment, as he once again relies on an unchained camera and whip pans to follow the action. Some of it becomes a bit incoherent as we become over-whelmed in rubble, and it does all just yet again amount to fighting a hoards of disposable henchmen sent out by the main villain, which our heroes have to contend with whilst ensuring the safety of a city. It does remain a joy, however, to see these characters fighting together in a much more fluid style, now that they have had time to coordinate each others strengths in to a strategy. It is also very refreshing to see these moments of spectacle taking place on a more international stage rather than on the avenues and corners of New York City.

I enjoyed Age of Ultron a great deal, it is a fun blockbuster which does hold character work in high regard, but there was something just a little off about the whole proceedings that can’t allow me to praise the film as highly as I would like to. The problem lies in the inconsistencies both within itself and in regards to its position within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Whedon does very little to convey much of an awareness of the preceding films which make up Phase Two of the MCU, the biggest issue being the fact that there is no acknowledgement of Tony’s apparent Avengers-4retirement at the end of Iron Man 3. It is also very clear that Whedon becomes frustrated when he has to sew in seeds for the future. A sub-plot involving Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and a search of a pool of visions feels rushed and tailored only to tease Thor: Ragnorok, while there seems to be a great deal of reluctance to address the upcoming Civil War. Whedon also doesn’t seem all that concerned about the future he is sending his characters into, and this may be because he doesn’t like the future that Marvel has planned for them (think about it, he does seem to be wanting to run away from MCU as soon as the Press Junket is complete).

What this all means for the future of these heroes remains to be seen, but Age of Ultron ultimately fails where the first film succeeded, and that was in creating a sense of palpable excitement for the future adventures of these characters. We are introduced to a new roaster of Avengers come the final moments, but the abrupt cut of the ending (as well as the lazy post-credits scene) seems to suggest that Whedon doesn’t care as much as he did at the beginning. He has made a perfectly enjoyable film, but it only stands as a fairly middling Marvel entry, a step back from the studio heights of Winter Soldier and Guardians. Thank you, though, Joss, it was fun while it lasted.

3/5- While perfectly enjoyable, Age of Ultron represents the work of a creative voice fighting against a pre-determined Cinematic Universe, something which invades the tone despite moments of excellent character work and comic-book excitement.

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