Friday, 15 May 2015

"I was designed to save the world. People would look to the sky, and see hope... I'll take that from them first!"

A few years back, making The Avengers (2012) work looked a daunting prospect – bring together four franchise leads and two supporting characters, plus bad guy, and make it watchable for those without a PhD in Marvel's comic book back catalogue. Joss Whedon's mistake was to make the job look so easy, and his reward was an exponentially harder task. Avengers: Age Of Ultron makes its triumphant, giddily enjoyable predecessor look like a secondary school production by comparison. The cast has swollen to enormous proportions (the roll call of Avengers and their allies is now 18, including cameos) and the action has become truly global. And this is not just the finale of Phase Two  for Marvel's Cinematic Universe, but a foundation stone for the next five or so films, a mind-boggling challenge, and a stunning achievement.

Inevitably for a blockbuster sequel, the story here is a little darker. The characters still spark off one another and seem, for the most part, to enjoy one another's company. But even our pole star, Chris Evans' Captain America, finds his faith sometimes shaken here. The catalyst for much of the conflict is Elizabeth Olsen's (Martha Marcy May Marlene) uncanny Scarlet Witch, Wanda Maximoff, who along with her super-fast twin brother Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), attacks the Avengers and causes them to see their worst fears brought to life, whether in memory or prophecy. It is her opening strike at Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) that magnifies his post New York trauma and causes him to behave even more recklessly than usual, enlisting an unconvinced but amiable Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) to create the peacekeeping artificial intelligence Ultron.

Avengers: Age Of Ultron is ultimately about hubris, it is Marvel's take on Mary Shelley's Frankenstein with Ultron as Stark's hideous progeny. Tinged with madness from the start, Ultron (James Spader) emerges hating his creators, sure that the best way to save humanity is to destroy it.

Spader here is perfect casting. Oozing intelligence and sophistication tinged with rage and righteous indignation. A megalomaniac who will pause for a perfect one-liner while destroying the rest of the human race without a thought, he is a genius sociopath who mirrors his creator, Whedon's horror roots showing through magnificently as Avengers: Age Of Ultron becomes arguably the first genuinely frightening entry in the franchise.

What follows is a globetrotting attempt to discover Ultron's aims and stop him, a quest of considerable complexity and seemingly endless property damage. We all know how this is supposed to go. But complicating the search are the aforementioned Maximoff twins and the Avengers own guilts, desires and secrets, which spill out to cause a whole mess of family drama and more than one broken heart.

Joss Whedon understands how to craft a superhero movie as much as Marvel knows how to sell one. With every scene required to multi-task to give us heavy exposition, action and drama, it is only Whedon's natural gift for character that holds it together. He doesn't abandon nuance in the middle of a firefight – which is just as well given how much he has to fit in – and draws unlikely sympathies and parallels that elevate all the cast. Captain America, for example, feels an immediate kinship with the twins, fellow survivors of experimentation. Ultron shares his creator's biting sense of humour and tendency for inappropriate wisecracking. Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) empathises with Banner's fear of the monster within and they strike up a tentative romance, even as he once again learns to dread his powers (and anyone who thought Hulk was perhaps a little too amiable last time, well, prepare to be smashed). Jeremy Renner's Hawkeye, so underused before, keeps his head while all around him are losing theirs and provides the quiet centre around which the team revolves. Even the fight choreography demonstrates that these people have become a team, Thor smashing Cap's thrown shield towards his enemies or Hawkeye taking down a threat that has neutralised his more powerful friends.

Whedon has certainly settled into his role as director, showing a sure hand with the near flawless visual effects work and the enormous action set pieces. He revels in his reputation as a dealer of death to blackly glorious effect, but also packs the film with moments to make a comic book lover's head spin. The Avengers' opening attack through a snowy forest is the stuff that splash pages were made for, that beautiful trailer image of them all mid-air in attack a visual flourish enough to draw a cheer. It's the first of several impressive set pieces, yet Avengers: Age Of Ultron also establishes itself as primarily concerned with the personal and the political – a superhero movie grounded in the real world, focused on family, ethics and psychology.

The film's biggest burden, ultimately, is not its plethora of characters but the tasks laden upon it by the wider Marvel Cinematic Universe. Where the first film's world changing felt largely organic, here specific targets appear to have been set to launch not just Captain America: Civil War, but also Thor: Ragnarok, Black Panther and the two-part Avengers: Infinity War. It adds complication to an already complex plot, in a way that can make this a little dense on first chew. What's more, Marvel still haven't escaped their 'airborne threat to a city' final act tendency, despite a valiant attempt to twist the formula here, the need for a fresh sort of climax now seems almost critical.

Bigger and, yes, darker than the first, this is less air punchingly gleeful but probably more consistent than the The Avengers. Thanks to Whedon and the most charismatic, compelling cast you will find anywhere, Avengers: Age Of Ultron redefines the scale we can expect from our superhero epics but still fits human sized emotion amid the bombast. A smart superhero smackdown that raises the bar once more.

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