**Warning – minor spoilers**
As strange as it may seem to those who know me, I wasn’t overly excited going into this second team-up of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe characters. Yes, despite being a qualified member of Stan’s Merry Marvel Marching Society, and being somewhat obsessive about the Marvel comics and films, I genuinely lost my excitement over the past month. Don’t be mistaken, I expected it to be as thrilling and action packed as previous outings, but there just wasn’t that high level of anticipation anymore. After all, we’ve come to accept that Marvel can do no wrong, so there is nothing left to hope for as we now have complete trust that they will deliver. Add into that the fact that the recent Netflix Daredevil series has shown what Marvel can genuinely achieve without any studio interference, and Avengers just seems another chapter in the ongoing film franchise. Suffice to say, the film delivered exactly as expected and whilst it was yet another great entry into the series, it was nothing more than that. Maybe Marvel have already peaked with the first Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy, and to expect them to deliver more than those films is crazy. Maybe so, but it is safe to say Age of Ultron is a crowd-pleasing, action packed adventure, and nothing more.
The film kicks off right into the thick of action as the team are on a mission to take out a HYDRA base (yes, there are still HYDRA bases around, as anyone keeping up with Agents of SHIELD will already know) and retrieve Loki’s staff. We get to quickly see how the team have learned to use each other’s abilities in unison to function as a whole, and we also get to see how Hulk is tamed by Natasha. Post mission analysis on Loki’s staff reveals that the core of the gem could provide the solution to an AI problem that Stark has – how to activate the Ultron plan for an automated peacekeeping force. However, activation of the AI leads to unfortunate results as Ultron determines that humankind must evolve or die, and thus declares war on the planet. Added to the mix are the twins, Pietro and Wanda Maximoff, one with the power of super-speed, and one with telekinesis and mind control/manipulation powers. Together they will confuse and manipulate the Avengers, turning them against each other.
From the offset, there is a bit of a flaw with this new entry into the Marvel Cinematic timeline, as it appears that all the events of Iron Man 3 have been forgotten, and Tony’s arc in that film (traumatised after seeing an alien fleet, clamouring to build lots of defence drones to combat any menace, but to then realise that none of it matters as the man inside the suit is more important) seems pointless as we start to repeat his paranoia again, thus leading to the creation of Ultron. It does beg the question, why did they not actually introduce the Ultron program in Iron Man 3, and then springboard it to life in this film (much as Loki was introduced in Thor, then made sense as a villain in Avengers). The result is a sudden burst of exposition to pluck the Ultron concept out of thin air, as well as another project that suddenly pops up that came from no-where, and a film that is a series of action set pieces held together by a ropey plot. Now, I’m aware that Marvel films have always been scant on plot (heck, there are articles online that highlight how Guardians of the Galaxy is exactly the same film as Avengers), and what matters most is the action and the wit, but is this right and should we accept it? Surely if the films are just going to progress to be a series of bigger, more spectacular explosions, then it is weakening what is so important about Marvel’s comic stories. Maybe it is more the fact that this current team of Avengers are far too familiar now, and it just seems there isn’t anything new to claw at. Phase 3 will hopefully inject that aura of anticipated excitement again as new characters and histories come to the franchise in Ant-Man, Black Panther, and Doctor Strange. With the next team up (Infinity War) being a two-parter, I only hope that it does take time to grow a story rather than just throw lots of things into the mix and hope the action distracts the audience from the weak exposition.
Reading back through that paragraph I’m aware that it may seem that I didn’t enjoy the film, but far from it, I was caught up in the moment and loved the banter between the team, and there were some excellent sub-elements that worked really well. Clint ‘Hawkeye’ Barton, for example, who was extremely short-changed on the last film, here gets possibly the best role in the film. Close behind is Natasha ‘Black Widow’ Romanoff, whose past we explore a bit more, and her relationship with Banner in and out of Hulk mode too. The Maximoff twins are superb additions, as is Vision (who comes into play in the latter half of the film), and I look forward to seeing more of those characters in future films. But the general story feels like an afterthought, and doesn’t end the second phase in the same manner the first Avengers film did. In fact it feel more like a set-up for Phase 3, with hints and nods toward what is to come, which unfortunately means that Ultron feels short-changed in his villain role. The menace we saw in the trailer seems somewhat subdued in the end product, and whilst the safety of the world is still in jeapordy, it feels like ‘just another day at the office’ for the team. Even the attempt to divide the group and turn them on each other doesn’t really have the impact it promised, although maybe Civil War will work that one better.
All in all, the film just feels like it was made just because the fans wanted another team up, yet it delivers much less than Iron Man 3 or Winter Soldier did, and fails to feel like it is pushing the overall story forward any further. For fans of comics there are a smattering of nods and references to keep a keen eye out for, some subtle (Jocasta), some blatant (Klaw), and there is a mid credit sequence that comic book fans will hate simply because they now have to spend the next year or so explaining it to the non fans (seriously, why do non fans stick around for these sequences? They won’t understand the reference, and will just be confused!)
If I was to score the film, I’d give it a firm 7 or 8 out of 10, with the action, excitement, and characters all working, even if the overall story doesn’t quite make it.