The superhero team known as The Avengers are in the midst of battle, seeking to claim a sceptre with incredible power that has fallen into the wrong hands, those hands belonging to a team of dangerous East European scientists who have been conducting experiments to create enhanced human beings. Their proudest achievements have been the Maximoff twins, codenamed Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), the former who can move at incredible speed and the latter who can manipulate matter with her mind – and cause her victims to be seriously mentally disrupted with psychic visions. So it is when Avenger Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) finally breaks into the castle stronghold, the Witch shocks him with the sight of all his allies lying dead…
The need to change the world either makes you a do-gooder or a megalomaniac, at least according to your average superhero movie, and this sequel to the first Avengers entry was no different, only writer and director Joss Whedon chose to blur the lines between the two in the characters of Downey’s Tony Stark and his invention, the machine entity Ultron (James Spader making with the motion capture). Ultron in this incarnation could really have done with more “Fools! I shall destroy them all!” dialogue, yet Whedon conjured up a far more reasonable-sounding villain, if his goal of wiping out humanity sounded reasonable. What was crucial was it was perfectly sensible to him, for he had been manufactured to create peace, and since humankind were the ones making the most war, we needed to be gotten rid of.
It’s the sort of machine logic that many a science fiction creation has followed, from HAL-9000 to WOPR and far beyond, but perhaps it was more sadly relevant than ever to the world this follow-up was released to, so this was an improvement when Whedon made an issue of saving lives for his heroes to participate in. In the twenty-first century there were tales of mass destruction in the news every day, and that was the atmosphere our Avengers were battling in, real events bleeding into the fiction in a manner that suggested even if you had superpowers there was no guarantee you would be able to stop the worst aspects of Planet Earth’s population set at each other’s throats for reasons they could barely articulate most of the time. In Ultron, you had every fanatic rolled into one robot body, and he had his own army too, proof that the wrong ideas had a way of spreading like a virus.
Well, he was a presence on the internet, so that was understandable, if not excusable. Otherwise, it was CGI combat galore, so much so that even with the highest possible stakes – the prevention of the end of the human race – the fact that we were watching the impossible every five minutes did tend to take away the novelty factor with increasing regularity. Whedon’s ace in the pack was his approach to character, emphasising the Avengers were a family of sorts, prone to falling out but also to acts of great affection and support for their comrades, with the camaraderie pulled into place with greater ease than the shallow first instalment, as if he was getting the hang of what he’d been requested to carry out and was allowing more distinct personalities. Not that the passages of character building were integrated entirely smoothly, but that sense of overcoming a modern terror papered over certain cracks.
Nevertheless, there were still places where the film could have thought up better developments than what it offered, with Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) very much the token woman once again, and to prove it she suffered the fate of every female lead in every action flick ever: she was kidnapped by the baddie. Olsen, while a supporting role, had a more interesting arc though that was the basic redemption one, so it was yet another case of Marvel movies as a boy’s club reluctantly allowing the girls a go on their toys, unless you were Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) in which case you always came across as the gooseberry, but you wouldn’t want Johansson as the female Renner, would you? In better news, Chris Hemsworth finally had dialogue worthy of him when Whedon had a handle on the Thor character, and The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) was a more interesting interpretation of nerd rage than ever before; that said, Chris Evans as Captain America looked a little at sea when he wasn’t headlining his own feature. But it was that drive to be saviours that aptly saved Age of Ultron itself, if we had any decency ourselves we could cheer them on in that while accepting as in comics, as in life, “The End” doesn’t apply. Music by Danny Elfman.