Imagine how exhausting it must be being a regular civilian living in any densely populated city in the Marvel universe. You live day-in day-out with the constant threat that, at any moment, a bunch of supernatural acrobatic crime fighters might descend on your bustling home, bringing with them a shitstorm of carnage as they do battle with whatever big meanie they’re up against this time. And, when that’s over, some gigantic vessel or something-or-other is almost undoubtedly about to fall out of the sky, crushing buildings, sending shattered glass flying, creating yet more of the rubble you’ve spent the best part of the last year sifting through for the bodies of the last set of innocent bystanders. I mean, really, why does this always seem to end the same way?
In the first Avengers movie New York got the shit kicked out of it. Rubble everywhere. Then in Thor: The Dark World it happened to Greenwich in London. Ruined. Okay, fair’s fair, Washington DC got a near-miss in Captain America The Winter Soldier and I can’t remember exactly what happened in the Iron Man films (they tend to blur into one, don’t they?) but I suspect some city’s populous got their ass handed to them. Rubble and ruins everywhere. And while DC’s Superman may have set the precedent for just how much architectural mayhem one movie can unleash with Man Of Steel, the trailer for Marvel’s latest looked likely to require more clean-up time than ever. No wonder Whedon’s already announced that this’ll mark his exit from the series. He’s gotta be as tired of this as I am.
In fairness, however, Avengers: Age Of Ultron does take great pains in its inevitably destructive finale to ensure that the civilians are not forgotten. It’s gratifying to see Captain America (Chris Evans) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) going out of their way to limit the collateral damage, along with pretty much everyone else. It’s one of those little elements that raise up what is a bit of a mixed report overall. Because guess what? SPOILER ALERT: By this late point in the movie shit is falling out of the sky AGAIN. Just how Whedon orchestrates the same carnage this time around could even be called innovative. Shame it’s all just a version of what we’ve already seen. Real innovation might’ve been to try a different ending altogether.
But I’m getting ahead of myself by some distance.
Age Of Ultron comes pelting out of the gate with an action sequence that swirls around all of our heroes in the process of trying to regain ownership of Loki’s sceptre from Hydra (hope you’ve rewatched The Winter Soldier recently; it’ll help if you have). They encounter a pair of new superhumans; twin siblings Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Wanda Maximoff (Elisabeth Olsen). Wanda has a special knack for getting inside of people’s heads. When she gets a hold of Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) she sets in motion a chain of events that brew the film’s titular menace; A.I. behemoth Ultron (voiced by James Spader). Stark and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo – listing all of these actors is getting like Adult Swim’s Too Many Cooks) create Ultron with dreams of making a shield for the world. Too bad Ultron makes a swift judgement that humanity needs to change. Mainly by being killed off altogether.
So instead of fighting aliens from another world, the Avengers are battling something of their own creation; something mirrored by the rise of their inner demons (helped in no small way by Wanda there). So yes, this second Avengers film is more introverted and therefore a shade darker. Though it’s worth noting, with extreme relief, that Whedon is Whedon. Though his script is notably overstuffed, it comes with plenty of the trademark humour he’s got a long proven track record with. The heroes trade witticisms just as readily as they did last time around, something which helps Age Of Ultron out in no small way. In fact, on occasion, Whedon’s wit gets the better of him. Ultron himself, for instance, is a peculiar mix of characteristics; part machine, part wise cracking joker. Sure, that’s better than a thankless one-note villain, but it makes for an odd juxtaposition. Has a machine ever been quite this sarcastic before?
At any rate he’s probably the most fleshed-out villain (pun totally intended) the series has had in Phase Two. Certainly he’s afforded more time than the forgettable antagonists of the last three Marvel titles. And juggling this ridiculously vast set of characters is no mean feat. Of the other newcomers, Olsen particularly sparkles as Wanda. Taylor-Johnson meanwhile… let’s be polite… is less awful than he was in Godzilla.
But what of the main team? It’s great to see Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye getting a healthy share of the load this time around, as he was so sidelined in Avenger’s Assemble. Elsewhere Downey Jr, Hemsworth and Evans are as dependable as ever batting the testosterone back and forth. Perhaps the series’ most unsung voice is Scarlett Johansson’s; an actor of no small talent (as last year especially showed), it’s a shame to see that, after a promising amount of spotlight including some revealing flashbacks, Natasha Romanoff is once again pushed back to the margins. With a Black Widow film up in the air and ongoing controversy over Marvel’s (and her co-stars’) attitude toward the character, it seems as though for now The Winter Soldier will remain her most involved instalment. She even winds up relegated to Damsel In Distress here. Too bad. It feels like there should be more for that character to do, especially in Whedon’s more than capable hands.
Then again, I suppose you can’t have your cake and eat it. And there’s so much cake here. Those who (somewhat justifiably) criticised Avengers Assemble for being an hour and a half of talking before one colossal, overlong action set-piece might take warning that Age Of Ultron is, well, the same again. Aside from a not-inconsequential fracas between Iron Man and Hulk in the middle, once the opening salvo is out the way, Whedon settles down just as before. And while overall Age Of Ultron is frequently better than it’s predecessor, this deja vu doesn’t help it feel as monumental. This is a rollicking good time. And I’m really, really thankful that it involves less navel-gazing those trailers suggested. But it’s also as generic as it is unstoppable.
Ultron calls out the Avengers, siting them as part of the problem, not the solution. Is this film Whedon’s judgement that the world doesn’t need any more of this shit? Are we finally reaching superhero critical mass? Is there really room for any more? Nevertheless, the fight will go on and the heroes will continue to be heroic. More and more superheroes at every turn. Fighting against it will only see you trampled down and mocked in the rubble. Or amalgamated. Made part of the team. Seeds are planted here for the next set of movies. The Marvel machine will roll forward. You… can’t… stop it.
But Marvel really can’t get away with doing this same story again, because now Whedon’s out, who’s going to clean up the mess?