For better or worse, in many ways the film industry radically metamorphosed in the year 2012, no radiation or secret serums required. Sequels and franchises were nothing new, nor were superhero films, but it was the release of The Avengers which solidified that genre as a reliable cash generator for the major studios who had previously experienced variable returns on their investment and it was also the first onscreen equivalent of the comic book stalwart, the superhero team-up, setting a precedent which echoed within Marvel and beyond.
Having previously established the onscreen presence of Iron Man, the Hulk, Thor and Captain America as the leads of their own films, Phase One of the Marvel Cinematic Universe concluded by bringing them together alongside Black Widow, Hawkeye and Nick Fury under the direction of Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon, helming only his second feature film after the disappointing box office performance of 2006’s Serenity which only just recouped its modest budget on cinema release.
That Marvel entrusted such a crucial project upon which their entire future cinematic vision depended with a television writer and director spoke of the regard in which Whedon is held by his peers within the industry and fandom, his history of balancing large ensemble casts within complex ongoing storylines, his knowledge of comic books and enthusiasm for every project he is associated with.
The success of The Avengers guaranteed the second more ambitious phase of Marvel’s master plan: further solo outings for Iron Man, Thor and Captain America, the launch of the Guardians of the Galaxy and, concluding phase two, Ant-Man, and the expansion to television with S.H.I.E.L.D. represented in two time periods by Agent Phil Coulson and Agent Peggy Carter while Daredevil protects the streets of New York in the wake of the devastation wrought by the Chitauri.
The penultimate film of Phase Two, Age of Ultron reunites Whedon with his expansive cast with the bar of expectation raised considerably not only by the near universal acclaim of their first collaboration but also by the release of The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxyin the intervening years, arguably the strongest of the Marvel films because they stood almost in defiant contrast to the framework which supported the others, one driven by an atypical quirky humour with only peripheral connection to Earth, the other a cold war thriller in the guise of a superhero movie which served to knock down so much of what the other films had worked to build up.
In some ways it’s unfair to compare Age of Ultron to those films which served a different purpose, expanding the range of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and so granted leeway to to explore different areas, to be provocative. As the lynchpin of the overall franchise upon whom the heaviest financial expectation is placed, the Avengers serve a greater master and must in some ways play it safe, guaranteeing audience satisfaction to the widest number of people even if that in some ways means playing for the cheap seats rather than asking them to rise to a more challenging narrative or perhaps facing an unexpected twist, and many of the hallmarks for which Whedon’s work is known are conspicuously absent.
Instead, with The Avengers the number one global box office hit of 2012 it is more relevant to compare this sequel with a selection of films which have achieved that ranking in their own years of release, and while it may not match the audacity and originality of The Winter Soldier or Guardians of the Galaxy it is certainly a better film than Transformers: Age of Extinction, Avatar, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest or the current top grossing film of 2015 (though possibly soon to be displaced), Furious 7.
Opening with an attack on a castle in Sokovia, stronghold of Baron Wolfgang von Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann of Dario Argento’s Dracula), the Avengers face a new challenge in the “enhanced” Maximoff siblings Pietro and Wanda (Kick-Ass himself, Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen, previously seen together in Godzilla), their powers almost a match for the Avengers’ own skills, but they are able to defeat them and recover their objective, the sceptre of Thor’s adopted brother Loki.
Returning to Avengers Tower (a vast an encompassing set typical of Whedon’s work; recall the Hyperion Hotel of Angel or the titular underground complex of Dollhouse), Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr, dependably cocky in his fifth outing in the role) attempts to use the power of the sceptre to accelerate work on the global defence programme he has created; instead, Ultron (voiced by Boston Legal‘s James Spader) takes on a life of its own, unstable, intelligent, aggressive and with a deep grudge against its creator.
“I really miss the days when the weirdest thing science created was me,” Steve Rogers comments, understandably disappointed that Stark’s irresponsible and unsanctioned actions have put lives in danger.
With ten leads and a bevy of supporting roles for new and established characters as well as a veritable parade of cameos, some predictable, some unexpected, Whedon’s principal achievement in Age of Ultron is demonstrating he has not forgotten the juggling act he learned while operating as showrunner for three separate Mutant Enemy productions simultaneously.
Unlike Serenity which was a compact film driven by a complex plot with little time to recapture the warmth which made Firefly such a personal viewing experience for so many, the first act of Age of Ultron specifically makes room for downtime with the gang, the audience allowed to just hang with them off duty as though they were friends invited into their lives, and it’s wonderful. Fundamentally, these films would not work were it not for the actors who are utterly believable in what are, frankly, unbelievable roles.
Whedon knows these characters and the actors who give them life are the greatest asset he has; he lets them be, he lets them breathe, he lets them brood and grieve and agonise and laugh together. While Tony Stark is ostensibly the leading man, in many ways it is Chris Hemsworth’s noble Asgardian god Thor and Chris Evans’ time displaced supersoldier Steve Rogers who are the harder parts to convincingly portray.
Like Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord in Guardians of the Galaxy, Iron Man is always in on the joke and can wink at the audience any time he feels it appropriate, but both Thor and Captain America are almost defiantly earnest, loyal and upstanding in their devotion to what they believe to be right; to play those parts with the utter conviction without slipping into parody is as challenging as any of the physical aspects of the superheroics they display so effortlessly.
While Iron Man, Captain America and Thor are most prominent, all the characters are well represented both in terms of screen time, their contribution to the plot and in how they develop, Academy Award nominee Jeremy Renner the most overdue this boon in his third cinematic appearance as Clint “Hawkeye” Barton.
Black Widow Natasha Romanoff (Under the Skin‘s Scarlett Johansson) may be relegated to driving a jeep for the boys in the opening scenes but having proven she’s capable of standing firm beside the gents in The Winter Soldier she’s given more opportunity later in the film, but more significantly she is shown to have developed a strong friendship with Doctor Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), the only person who can reach him when he transforms into the Hulk.
Aaron Taylor-Johnson is a very different Pietro Maximoff from Evan Peters’ version of Quicksilver in X-Men: Days of Future Past, and crucially neither he nor sister Wanda “Scarlet Witch” Maximoff can be referred to as mutants due to the restrictions of the contract which allowed the participation of the characters.
Instead they are “enhanced,” he with superspeed, she with a mind control ability that reminds that nobody does a horrible, disturbing dream sequence quite like Joss Whedon, as previously demonstrated by Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s fourth season finale Restless.
Skipping from Eastern Europe to America to Africa and back to Eastern Europe, other than some truly shoddy compositing in the opening shots the film is technically flawless, the action stunningly choreographed, the borders between the real and the digital as indistinguishable as the line between Stark’s noble intentions and the untempered arrogance which created Ultron.
Facing an almost unstoppable machine army controlled by Ultron, Stark’s actions lead to friction within the team, but when Tony expresses his doubts of their victory, Steve remains unphased or possibly resigned; even if they lose, they’ll do that together too, because they are a team. Having learned the lessons of New York (and possibly having read the criticisms of Man of Steel), when entering the final showdown, their first priority is to clear civilians out of the battlefield; that’s why they’re heroes, even when facing what could be their last battle.
Avengers: Age of Ultron is now on general release in 2D, 3D and 3D IMAX