In September 1963, Marvel Comics published Avengers #1, a superhero comic written by Stan Lee and drawn by Jack Kirby. In that first story, characters including Thor, Hulk and Iron Man were brought together fighting evil – and each other – for the first time. Fast-forward 52 years and the Marvel Cinematic Universe – launched by Marvel Studios with Iron Man in 2008 – is now a massive international film business.
Following its release in April 2012, Joss Whedon’s Avengers Assemble – featuring a team of characters originated by Marvel in that series of much-loved 1960s comic books – became the third highest-grossing film ever after Avatar and Titanic, raking in over $1.5 billion at the global box office. Marvel’s is now the world’s second largest movie franchise, second only to Harry Potter and bigger than Star Wars and James Bond.
Now, with three of the Avengers team (Thor, Captain America and Iron Man) fronting hugely successful spin-off films since the first instalment, Whedon’s sequel arrives riding a predictably massive wave of anticipation. The writer-director, whose CV includes creating iconic TV series Buffy The Vampire Slayer and co-writing the original Toy Story film, returns with an immensely ambitious plot. Avengers: Age Of Ultron follows the Marvel crew as they seek to defeat Ultron, an artificial intelligence service determined to eradicate mankind because it feels horrified by the flaws that make us human. Ultron manifests itself as a mysterious group of super-powerful robots, all voiced by former Boston Legal actor James Spader, who delivers his lines with snide relish.
Though Whedon establishes this epic premise efficiently and entertainingly, the film initially feels slightly laboured. With Chris Hemsworth’s Thor, Chris Evans’ Captain America and the rest of the Avengers Assemble team joined by new superheroes Quicksilver (Kick-Ass star Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Scarlet Witch (Godzilla‘s Elizabeth Olsen), the writer-director struggles to juggle a massive cast. Popular characters from other films in the Marvel franchise including Idris Elba’s Heimdall and Hayley Atwell’s Peggy Carter make frustratingly brief guest appearances, while French indie actress Julie Delpy (2 Days In Paris) makes a bizarre cameo playing a stern authority figure in a dream sequence.
Because the film is so stuffed with talent, none of the main characters shines quite as brightly as perhaps they should. Scarlett Johansson’s intriguing Black Widow manages to enjoy some heartfelt moments with Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk after she confides a tragic secret in him, but Robert Downey Jr.’s charismatic Iron Man is curiously underused, offering fewer zingy one-liners than fans have come to expect. Instead, Whedon becomes distracted with subplots including a clumsy attempt to make Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye more interesting by giving him a supposedly “normal” home life with a wife and kids.
Thankfully, Whedon chucks in enough dazzling action sequences and clever visual gags to make up for any minor quibbles. Highlights include an amusing set-piece in which Thor challenges his fellow Avengers to lift his hammer, and a brutal fight scene where Hulk, tricked by an enemy, turns on one of his teammates.
The film builds to an epic finale involving a fictional eastern European city threatened with total destruction, and a harrowing howl of pained emotion from a previously unsympathetic member of the Avengers crew. Though it has a few more flaws than its predecessor, thanks to an exhilarating climax and the consistent charm of the Marvel characters, Whedon manages to deliver another must-see summer blockbuster.