When the first Avengers hit cinemas back in 2012, there really was no film quite like it at the time. Combining comedy, all-out action, episodic TV sensibilities and an A-list cast, Joss Whedon crafted one of the films of our generation. Unquestionably, the follow-up is going to have to do better.
Age of Ultron opens with Iron Man, Black Widow, Hulk, Thor, Captain America and Hawkeye battling the remnants of HYDRA, the evil organisation that infiltrated SHIELD in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. In an extended opening sequence, they encounter two 'enhanced humans' - the Maximoff twins, Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen). As described by one of the secondary characters, one's fast and the other's weird - she can get into people's minds. During said battle, she warps Iron Man's mind, revealing what he believes to be a vision of the future. This fuels him with a desire to accelerate an all-knowing AI program that will see humanity safe forever. As he puts it himself, he wants to "build a suit of armour around the world."
Thus, he creates Ultron - voiced by the inimitable James Spader. In what could be described as one of the darkest moments in Marvel's canon, Ultron comes to life and begins to gain sentience over himself. He announces himself to the Avengers, in a rotten armoured robot that looks closer to a zombie, and his plan for "peace in our time." He enlists Wanda and Pietro in his nefarious scheme, but not before replicating himself a couple of hundred times and accessing the entire Internet to gain further knowledge.
The action is breathless and almost non-stop. The opening sequence is joined by another, which is joined by another and so on and so on. Yet, thankfully, Whedon's direction is clever enough that each action setpiece feel and look different in some shape or form. While they may not have the down-and-dirty charm that, say, The Dark Knight has, they're still a lot of fun to watch. Age of Ultron is the first unashamed comic-book movie. Think about it - The Winter Soldier was a spy-thriller. The Dark Knight was Michael Mann's Heat with a rubber suit. Man of Steel was the story of a Messiah come to Earth. With Age of Ultron, there's no pretence or aping. It is what it is.
Performances are, in the main, very solid and dependable. With ten movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the characters and those playing them are lived in and well-worn. The usual Marvel caveat of a ropey third-half and non-existent villain are, thankfully, missing from Age of Ultron. James Spader's voice and characteristics are perfectly suited to Ultron. The character is set up as a sort of mirror image of Iron Man. He's cocksure, he knows what's best and he has no problem in being devious or ruthless to get it. There's one particular scene where this is highlighted to Ultron, sending him into a rage that perfectly displays him as the unhinged, homicidal maniac we know him to be. Another nice surprise to the proceedings is Jeremy Renner's Hawkeye, who's finally given something to do. Playing the emotional centre of The Avengers, as well taking on the role of comic relief, Renner is much more likeable this time around.
However, there are some issues. There's a half-baked romance between Hulk and Black Widow that takes up far too much time, which leads right up to exactly where you knew it was going. Why bother? Aaron Taylor-Johnson's accent is spotty at best, whilst the introduction of a new character in the final act seems a little Deus Ex Machina. Likewise, the motivations behind the Twins' anger at Iron Man is explained in one monologue and then never referenced again. Granted, these are small complaints in a film that's got a running time twenty minutes shy of three hours and, according to recent reports, not been an easy shoot for Joss Whedon.
Overall, Age of Ultron is pacey at its running length, funny when it needs to be, scary when it can be and not ashamed of what it is - an all-out comic-book blockbuster.