Ever since the jaw dropping success of the first Avengers film in 2012, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has not only become of the highest-grossing franchises of all time, but also essentially created its own genre. Combining snarky humour, stunning visuals, and fantastic, if slightly formulaic, action sequences, we’ve seen everything from conventional superheroics in the Iron Man franchise, a war drama and spy thriller with Captain America, and the wonderful sci-fi comedy Guardians of the Galaxy. All of this has been building to a grand climax; Age of Ultron, the final film of ‘Phase 2’ of the MCU. It had a huge amount of hype to live up to, and has actually managed to top all my expectations of it. As per sequel conventions, it does go darker, but never loses sight of what made it so successful in the first place, managing to be uproariously entertaining throughout. Avengers: Age of Ultron is everything a comic book film and summer blockbuster should be.
Bringing the original gang back together from the first film, Age of Ultron introduces a new threat to earth’s safety in the form of the eponymous AI. Ultron (voiced by James Spader) is quite possibly the best comic book movie villain this side of the Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy, clearly motivated and genuinely threatening. He’s less dour in the film than presented in the trailers, but still manages to be credibly dangerous whenever he appears. Whoever thought of Spader as the voice of the dastardly robot deserves some sort of medal. He brings both a gravitas and sense of fun to the role that makes it impossible to imagine anyone else in his place. Designed as a peacekeeping/world protection program by Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr, giving his best performance yet as Iron Man) and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), Ultron decides that the only path to peace is human extinction. The scientists’ hand in creating a near-invulnerable killbot naturally causes some tension within the team, especially between Stark and Captain America (Chris Evans), setting up the next major instalment of the franchise, Civil War.
However, this isn’t just a stepping stone for the next slate of films, and actually stands incredibly strongly as its own film. Very little of the nearly two and a half hour run time is devoted to teasing future movies, instead giving Whedon room to breathe with his enormous cast. I don’t think any film since the Lord of the Rings trilogy has had so many people of import to juggle around, and Whedon manages to make sure every one of the roughly 20 characters gets, if not a full arc, at least a proper moment to remember them by. The stories of the original characters are expanded upon – the Hulk/Black Widow relationship is given more screen time, and Hawkeye gets his deserved reward after spending much of the Avengers under mind control – and we get an insight into the minds of the main team.
This is provided by Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), one of two genetically enhanced twins (alongside Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Pietro), with the power to manipulate minds. She forces the Avengers to confront their deepest fears, and in doing so gives them all an extra depth, as we learn more about Black Widow’s (Scarlett Johansson) tragic past and get a glimpse into Thor’s (Chris Hemsworth) future. Whilst Pietro isn’t given much to do besides run very fast, Wanda gets some of the strongest character beats in the film, and it’s a huge testament to Whedon that this doesn’t feel like it’s at the expense of the rest of the cast. So many big names must have been a nightmare to corral, but they lend the film a constant variety and stop it from ever feeling like a drag. Not only that, but by this point, an Avengers sitcom where the entire team just re-enact Friends plots would probably break a billion at the box office, proof of how much these characters, especially under Whedon’s guidance, have connected with audiences.
Out of all the new faces, the one that made the biggest impact was that of Paul Bettany. We’ve heard his voice in this universe before, as Stark’s cyber-butler JARVIS, but here he actually gets to appear on screen as the Vision, the latest addition to the heroic team. Even in a film with James Spader’s Ultron and the beloved original cast, the Vision completely steals the show, getting two of the film’s most gleeful moments and adding a religious depth to the action. The spirituality is not particularly subtle (he’s born from a coffin and has yellow light emanating from his head), but it absolutely works with the character, and his introduction may well end up as the summer movie season’s most stirring sequence.
That isn’t to say that the action scenes in Age of Ultron aren’t also ridiculously good though. Opening with a joyous three-minute fight, constantly moving and with no visible edits, I never found action fatigue setting in, with even the final showdown between Ultron’s robot army and our heroes putting a refreshing spin on the usual Marvel finale. The much-feted Hulk/Iron Man fight brings some of the biggest laughs whilst simultaneously amazing with state of the art effects work. The $250 million plus budget absolutely shows in what will most likely end up being the year’s second biggest film.
If you enjoy blockbuster fare of any sort, Age of Ultron is truly essential viewing. Whilst it may not out-gross the new Star Wars, I doubt any other action/sci-fi film of 2015 will be as purely enjoyable as Whedon’s farewell to the Marvel universe. Combining all of the talents of its writer-director and using them to full force alongside a cracking cast with impactful new additions, event cinema doesn’t come any bigger or better than this. There may be a worry that the MCU has peaked, and that only diminishing returns can follow, but for now, just enjoy the culmination of a franchise at the absolute height of its powers.