Review: “Avengers: Age of Ultron”

More polished, but less cohesive as a whole, “Avengers: Age of Ultron” is ultimately a respectable and easily enjoyable sequel that maintains the quality of its predecessor just enough that many a debate will be had about which is the superior effort. Though advertised as a darker and more brooding follow-up, the real surprise of ‘Ultron’ is how much in line with the first film’s tone and structural beats this is.

An opening action set piece around a secret base? Check. Plenty of Joss Whedon-style witticisms? Even more here than the original and some a bit more daring. Some friction between the group members? You bet. The entire third act being one giant action sequence in which a city is in danger and we cut between our heroes trying to save it and stop hordes of mute enemy soldiers that are essentially cannon fodder? Absolutely.

One can’t quite escape the been there, done that feeling to the film which means it doesn’t have the soaring highs of the first’s big crowd-pleasing moments. Part of the problem is that in trying to do so much more within the confines of the same runtime, you have a film so stuffed with characters, story arcs and references that it often doesn’t have time to fully develop some of these people – especially the newer characters introduced in this outing.

The scale on offer is more impressive than the first, ranging from some truly gigantic action that is often astonishing to witness (albeit more CG-laden than ever), to smaller scenes that ultimately give the film plenty of heart and humanity. Key to that is the film doesn’t bother with having to explain the need to bring these characters together, and so it can focus on both this particular entry’s plot shenanigans along with the interpersonal relationships of the members of the team.

By far the film’s best scenes belong to the tentative relationship between Black Widow and Hulk, both characters afraid to let go and get close to someone. The pair have found a fascinating and carefully blooming relationship with each other, and full credit goes to both Scarlett Johansson and Mark Ruffalo who deliver committed performances that have you believing in this odd yet welcome pairing.

Similarly one character given short shrift last time, Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye, gets not only some good lines but a welcome subplot in this that offers a respite from all the noise and bombast throughout the rest of the movie. Downey, Evans, Hemsworth, Jackson, etc. are so comfortable in these roles that there’s little to say other than that they play them along familiar lines. Aside from Downey though, they all take a back seat in this film and so don’t go in expecting a lot from each beyond driving the plot forward, offering some fun banter, or dealing with some induced nightmares involving the well-worn trope of facing your fears.

As Ultron, James Spader’s voice work is as delicious as you’d expect. However, the character itself is frustratingly under developed – only teasing us with interesting threads which we never get to see develop as he’s too busy acting snarky and evil due to motivations that lack any real conviction or serious development. Paul Bettany’s work as The Vision is similarly excellent and limited by the writing. However, the enigmatic nature of the character is a big part of his appeal and he is certainly the most intriguing new addition that the film brings to the screen.

Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen don’t leave much of an impression, this Quicksilver far less engaging than Evan Peters’ cheekier and more energetic take in last year’s “X-Men: Days of Future Past”. The power of Olsen’s Scarlet Witch is also decidedly vague and seems to change from scene to scene. Both characters are given an interesting motive for their hatred of the Avengers, but don’t have much more to them beyond that.

The humor of the film overall feels more natural, the barbs more character driven and frequent this time out though they admittedly don’t always land despite some valiant attempts. When they do though, there’s some great belly laughs – including a couple of double entendres in the second half that’ll have people howling. Don Cheadle and Andy Serkis also pop in for some fun cameos.

The pacing is fast, hoping from one foot to the other every minute and trying all sorts of different things with much of it landing quite well. Yet it rarely sits still enough to explore these themes, and some scenes have obviously been truncated enough to feel compromised – such as a sequence with Thor going to the UK to visit a cave.

The squeezing in of references to the bigger events of the MCU, not to mention the stage setting for Phase Three at times, feels nearly as jarring as the attempts to do the same in the pre-Avengers Phase One films. There’s the definite feeling that a couple of key character moments and greater MCU setup scenes have been excised from this to keep the film rushing along at rocket speed, a shame really and hopefully it will be something that will be rectified with the home video release.

It’s certainly a more ambitious film with attempts to dive a bit deeper into the characters this time out. Yet even Whedon, who is such a master with balancing large ensemble casts, is juggling so many balls in the air with this that he can’t help but drop a few even as he impresses so well with what ones he can keep up.

Most won’t mind the overstuffing a bit – in terms of satisfying a crowd the movie does exactly what it says and should please the multitude of Marvel fans for some time to come. ‘Ultron’ avoids the sophomore slump of some other big franchises of late, but it also doesn’t soar beyond what you’d expect despite an obvious desire to. It’s also loads of fun and never dull.