There’s no real reason for Marvel’s vignettes of destruction to be more popular than any other franchise. Avengers: Age of Ultron is fascinating in that it deliberately seems to want to downplay its heroes’ specialness, constantly reminding the audiences of their foibles and mortality while simultaneously asking the audience to see them as gods, avengers. It’s a strange concoction which finds the uber-franchise in slightly above average form, neither reinventing the wheel nor bothering to replace the tyres. Hydra, the shadowy organisation which was last seen dismantling S.H.I.E.L.D. from the inside in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, has been experimenting on humans using the sceptre Loki wielded as the villain of the first Avengers picture. The Avengers retrieve the artefact from a bunker in the fiction Eastern European country of Sokovia, and back at Avengers HQ Tony Stark a.k.a Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) discovers an artificial intelligence in the gem of the sceptre.
Thinking the gem finally has the capacity to bring his world defence system into being, Stark activates Ultron (James Spader), a robot who turns out to have a decidedly pessimistic take on human sustainability. Ultron decamps to Sokovia and amasses 'vibranium', the material used to craft Captain America’s (Chris Evans) shield, while also building a goddamn ton of drones in his image. Meanwhile, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Bruce Banner a.k.a The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) dance around their potentially doomed attraction.
Added to the equation are twins Pietro and Wanda Maximoff, better known as Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), who want revenge on Stark after weapons his father made helped kill their parents. Once they realise Ultron is basically a narky HAL-9000, they quickly ally themselves with The Avengers, Quicksilver’s super-speed and Scarlet Witch’s telekinesis coming in nice and handy.
But that’s not before Scarlet Witch implants visions in the team’s heads, causing The Hulk to wreak havoc while Stark deploys a weapons system designed to contain him. The resulting fallout leads them to hide out in Hawkeye’s (Jeremy Renner) country home. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is also present in this motion picture.
For all it has going on, Age of Ultron weaves through its many storylines with relative grace. Writer-director Joss Whedon backloads the film with battles and set-pieces, with the first forty-five minutes or so comparatively lacking intrigue. The snappy banter remains intact, but the movie’s more muted tone means it tends to feel shoehorned in. Where The Avengers felt largely like an entertaining romp, Age of Ultron is a bit of a comedown – something which feels increasingly true of the franchise as a whole. It’s at once a meatier instalment and one that’s difficult to be excited by, hardly aided by Ultron’s disposability as a villain.
It is nice, however, that Whedon found time to flesh out Hawkeye, spinning his earlier blankness with trademark self-awareness. But it’s frustrating that Black Widow is so short-changed. Marvel’s track record with female characters is extremely poor, but it seems like Whedon and co. have relied on Black Widow’s inherent bad-assery to paper over the fact that her significance in this story depends entirely on the men around her. Scarlet Witch fares slightly better – her dependence is fraternal rather than romantic – but the women still lack the independence of their male counterparts.
On the whole, Age of Ultron feels very much like a stepping stone in a bigger story. The Avengers had fun pulling the universe together, and Age of Ultron faces the reality of that unification. The forthcoming Infinity War, ominously split into separate films, is likely to see that universe torn apart. As hard as Marvel has tried to counterbalance the hyper-seriousness of the Nolan-inflected DC universe, their brand is struggling to escape the inexorable fact that these stories are destined for tragedy in one form or another. The stakes have to be higher and higher, but at the moment Marvel is opting to super-size rather than become more ambitious.
Laurence Barber - follow Laurence on Twitter at @bortlb.