This Thursday, Team Screening ventured out of the Batcave (umm… office?) down to our local cinema to catch one of the first screenings of Marvel’s latest superhero offering – the follow-up to 2012’s wildly successful Marvel’s Avengers Assemble, Avengers: Age of Ultron.
From the off, it’s refreshing to see the old gang back together – and it seems they’ve been so for quite a while, making light work of one of the film’s (admittedly very minor) villains, Baron von Strucker with a brutal efficiency and functioning together as one cohesive unit. Our Avengers are well and truly aware of each team member’s unique talents by now and it’s clear to see this is most definitely not their first rodeo. Their ability to understand and capitalise on each’s unique abilities effectively is impressive to see, mixing Hawkeye’s marksmanship with Hulk’s… well… smashing to great effect. First glimpsed in the post-credits sting of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, it turns out Strucker’s been experimenting with “Powereds” – individuals with superhuman abilities – the most promising of who are the Maximoff twins, and it’s here that we get a look at two of the franchise’s newest additions.
Pietro and Wanda Maximoff – or to give them names you may be more familiar with, Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch – were a heavy part of the film’s pre-release marketing push, which is unsurprising given how much the plot hinges on their involvement, but whilst the twins’ backstory is a particularly compelling one – their parents were killed by a blast from a Stark Industries bomb – we felt it difficult to get emotionally attached to one of the two. Quicksilver’s impact on the film seems a bit two-dimensional, serving only to provide a bit of power variety and the odd bit of humour (which, to be honest, we didn’t really think was pulled off that well). It doesn’t help that the same character was played to much greater effect by Evan Peters in 2014’s X-Men: Days of Future Past, and to see a less-impactful performance here so soon after another’s didn’t help, either. We won’t give too much away, but our lack of empathy made a significant event late on in the film’s third act fall a bit flat for us. On the reverse, however, Elizabeth Olsen plays Scarlet Witch to perfection, blending rage and malice with more subtle emotional beats which left us wanting more from her character, something we’ll hopefully get after the actor confirmed this week that she’ll be back for Captain America: Civil War.
Of course, the film’s main villain is the titular Ultron, who is the brainchild of Stark and Banner. Originally envisioned as “a suit of armour around the world”, to quote Stark, Ultron quickly goes rogue and becomes hell-bent on destroying the Avengers, which only serves to give the voice of Ultron, James Spader, some absolutely phenomenal lines which really show off his acting chops. Spader voices Ultron to perfection, and as big fans of The Blacklist here at Screening (hey, you didn’t think we just watched films, did you‽), we couldn’t get enough. Ultron swaggers around scenes with as much self-confidence as Tony Stark himself, and there’s some great interplay in the film’s final moments between Ultron and Paul Bettany’s The Vision – another new character adding to the ever-growing number of Avengers – which could only be achieved by those two. Ultron provides an intelligent challenge to Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, leaving them bruised, battered and broken for a time and resorting a few of our heroes to chopping wood (no, really!) in quiet retrospect of one of their earlier defeats.
Age of Ultron isn’t just about brash action sequences, either. Whilst there’s plenty of that, one of the more remarkable feats of achievement in this film is just how deep Whedon delves into each Avenger’s backstory. Of course, the ‘bigger’ names in the team – Iron Man, Thor, Captain America and Hulk – have all had their own films to tell their stories, but it’s refreshing to see some of the MCU’s under-used characters come right into their own. We’ve been quietly lobbying for a Hawkeye solo movie at some point before the turn of the Millennium, and while nothing’s been announced just yet, Age of Ultron is a fantastic look at what a Hawkeye movie could look like. Jeremy Renner’s strong but silent Clint Barton is given plenty to do in this film, and it’s not before time – a lot of the plot is centered around his character and backstory. We won’t give too much away, but suffice to say that Renner brings a huge amount of heart to the screen.
As the film enters its final act, it does drop a few clangers and there were times when we feared it may stray into over-used territory – Ultron’s army of manufactured robots swarming our overwhelmed heroes was very reminiscent of the Battle of New York and the Chitauri in the first Avengers film, and there’s only so many times Iron Man can save the day relatively alone, but any doubts were quickly swept away as the final battle proceeded and a much greater emphasis was placed on character, rather than all-out destruction – even if there is still plenty of that to go around!
On paper, Avengers: Age of Ultron shouldn’t really work – there’s far too many big characters with big stories and attached mythos, not to mention the wealth of big-name actors to play nicely without each other, but somehow – miraculously – Joss Whedon has managed to pull off the impossible – a cohesive, intelligent, brash and humorous film with very few negatives to speak of. It feels just long enough without going overboard – one of our major criticisms of 2014’s The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies – and its ability to pare back the action and focus on its characters is to be applauded. It’s not quite our favourite film in Phase Two of the Marvel Cinematic Universe – that award is still retained by Guardians of the Galaxy – but it’s a close-run thing and has left us with only one question: when can we own it?