Joss Whedon‘s latest and last entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Avengers: Age of Ultron, is ultimately everything one might expect it to be and less than one might hope. Following up on his critically and publicly lauded previous film, Avengers Assemble, it delivers everything it promises – a series of wholly enjoyable scenes and sequences that, unfortunately, just doesn’t quite manage to pull together into as satisfying a film. The premise is sound, if not faultless; after acquiring experimental technology during a raid on an unusually well-defended HYDRA facility, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) begins work on an artificial intelligence intended to replace the Avengers in order to achieve his goal of “Peace in our time”. The fruit of his labours is less than perfect, with the new AI – christened “Ultron” – being driven mad by over-exposure to too much information in too short a timespan. The result is that Ultron grows deeply misanthropic and contemptuous of his creator, and sets about realising a vision of rendering the Avengers redundant – by ensuring there is nothing left for them to protect.
Herein, however, lies Age of Ultron‘s greatest flaw: characterisation. Ultron (James Spader) himself is an interesting villain; he’s a madman in possession of a vision, and bears the conviction and intellect to see it through. He’s charming, albeit in a grim and ever-so-slightly sadistic manner, much like the dark reflection of his creator he’s clearly intended to be, and genuinely believes that what he is doing is the right thing. These all make him a genuinely fascinating character to watch, but he falls short as a “good” villain – Ultron never feels like a legitimate threat. Throughout the film, one is constantly aware of the fact that he won’t win and the Avengers will stop him. The knowledge that his plan is doomed to failure burns like a beacon fire from the moment he first steps into the frame, and it’s difficult to deny that this undermines his presence in the film.
What he lacks is well made up for in what he represents, though: the threat of division between the Avengers themselves. In refusing to inform the rest of the team as to what he was attempting, Tony Stark crosses a line of arrogance and self importance that reflects extremely poorly on himself; not only has it damaged his reputation, but it has threatened the existence of everyone on Earth. His team-mates grow to harbour a deep mistrust of him for good reason, and two superpowered newcomers – Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) and Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) Maximoff, known better as the Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver – are swiftly introduced as victims of Stark’s weapons manufacturing days, serving to call into question precisely how much good he has really done for the world. Witnessing these events as they unfold in person feels remarkably natural and intriguing, looking like the perfect set-up for Marvel’s next ensemble piece, Captain America: Civil War, the source material for which has Tony Stark co-operating with the US government to regulate superhero activity in a practically Orwellian fashion. This, too, unfortunately falls apart at the film’s conclusion – the entire affair is neatly concluded with no soured relations or hard feelings between any of our intrepid heroes.
One thing that the film cannot be criticised for, of course, is the quality of its performances. Each character is delivered with perfect believability and conviction, all courtesy of their respective actors. Despite some issues with the way the characters are portrayed in the script (a problem that seems endemic to Mr. Whedon’s own particular style of writing), they are still portrayed commendably. In this, Age of Ultron almost entirely justifies the price of admission. Of particular note is Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), first introduced in Thor and sorely underdeveloped through to Avengers Assemble, who not only receives much-needed character development in his second outing as a central figure but becomes one of the most noteworthy instances of it. As previously mentioned, however, the details of how the players are characterised within the script lets them down somewhat. While each character bears the standard template established by their own namesake films (Tony Stark is cocky, self-righteous and perturbed by newfound senses of moral doubt, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is clean-cut and self-assured in always doing the right thing, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is proud, arrogant and amused by the quirks of humanity, and so on), Whedon’s fixation upon ensuring that every character has a witty sarcastic aside at the ready like an off-hand snowball severely blurs the intriguing distinctions between each character. Moments that are otherwise dramatic and poignant are often hampered at the last minute by the writer-director’s compulsion to close the scene with a snappy retort or cutting remark, especially when delivered by people like Steve Rogers. The effect this has would be better localised to Stark and Ultron alone; as it stands, each character ends up feeling uncomfortably homogenised into Stark’s own personality profile.
All said and done, however, Avengers: Age of Ultron is entirely enjoyable if approached with a certain caution and, perhaps, a knowledge of what will be received in the viewing. It’s certainly packed with incredibly well-designed set pieces and a brilliant tone-setting visual style, which results in every last frame of the film – even those which portray grime, filth and ruination – looking positively gorgeous. The film works best as a series of “moments” in which the aesthetics and performances combine to create joyously memorable segments: it’s just something of a shame that they don’t quite unite to form anything that feels of consequence.
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