The ‘Marvel Cinematic Universe’ is a massive, money-spinning juggernaut that has taken franchise filmmaking to another level. Marvel Studios maybe didn’t invent the idea of a shared universe for its characters but it’s certainly set the gold standard that every other studio is currently flailing to replicate. So confident are they in their product, they’ve announced a release slate of films for the next five years, throwing more characters into a stew that’s already bubbling over with comic book heavy hitters.
But amidst all of the five-year plans and release schedules, the multi-verses and brand synergy, the teaser trailers and TV spots, there are actually films, and most of them are very good. The most recent example is Avengers: Age of Ultron, the eleventh film in the series that began with Iron Man back in 2008 and the massive culmination of Marvel’s ‘phase 2′. To call it a sequel to 2012’s box office behemoth The Avengers wouldn’t be accurate: if you haven’t seen Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, this one won’t make much sense. In fact, even if you have, it takes a while to get your bearings here.
As with almost all superhero sequels, Age of Ultron skews darker than the last time the super group of Iron Man, Captain America, The Hulk, Thor, Black Widow and Hawkeye got together. It’s always a joy to watch these characters, played respectively by Robert Downey Jr, Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson and Jeremy Renner, bounce off each other and banter back and forth, but here writer/director Joss Whedon digs deeper into their characters and their fears and anxieties, which ultimately fuel the central conflict of the film.
Much of the fear and anxiety stems from an early throwdown with the superfast Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor Johnson) and his sullen twin sister Scarlett Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), who has the ability to control minds. She gets inside the head of Iron Man aka Tony Stark and shows him a grim future where the Avengers are dead and the world is in ruins. Unbeknownst to his team mates, this puts Tony on the path to creating an artificially intelligent peacekeeper to protect the world from all threats and allow the Avengers to retire. Things don’t go according to plan and Stark inadvertently creates the film’s big bad, a hyper-intelligent, ever-evolving AI named Ultron (James Spader), who plans to build a drone army to help him wipe out humanity and pave the way for evolution to occur.
Naturally, this causes some tension in the group but they have to band together and find Ultron, while each one wrestles with their own demons, particularly Bruce Banner, who is eaten up with guilt over the damage he has caused as his big green alter-ego the Hulk. He finds somewhat of a kindred spirit in Black Widow, who has dealt her fair share of death in the past, and the pair strike up a sweet, tentative romance. The revelation though is Hawkeye, painfully underserved in this universe so far, he finally gets the screen time and character arc that he deserves, providing the heart of the film and grounding some of the grand-scale, world-ending action with more relatable, human stakes.
While none of the key players here are short changed – other than maybe Thor, who mainly provides comic relief – there is still a general feeling throughout that the film is just too overstuffed. As well as the six main characters, they’re joined by friends from other films (Don Cheadle’s War Machine and Anthony Mackie’s Facon) and series regulars (Samuel L Jackson’s Nick Fury and Cobie Smulders’ Maria Hill), as well as the newly introduced twins. The film is also hampered by the demands of the shared universe, with side plots and sojourns that really only exist to service upcoming films. A trip to the fictional African nation of Wakanda is surely only there to introduce both the country and the shady arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), who will both feature when Black Panther makes his big screen bow a couple of years from now.
There’s also a point halfway through where Thor decides to go off and investigate something he saw in a Scarlett Witch-fueled vision. Everything essentially happens off screen until he comes back and drops some exposition about Infinity Stones, which will be crucial the epic conclusion of the whole thing: The Infinty Wars, due to drop as a two-parter in 2018 and 2019. For once the decision to divide that story into two seems like a wise one as, even at almost two-and-a-half hours, Age of Ultron feels like it needs some room to breathe.
Those gripes, combined with an over-familiar third act that includes one of Whedon’s more unfortunate trademarks and a couple of incoherent action scenes, prevent Age of Ultron from topping it’s less-bloated predecessor, but Whedon has still managed to craft a thrilling and funny superhero mash-up with characters and stakes that feel like they actually matter. That focus on humanity amongst these super-sized heroes is what elevates Marvel’s cinematic output above the competition.