It is that time again. The time to flock to the cinema in droves and watch Marvel's cinematic heroes band together and face yet another world-ending threat. But Age of Ultron's villain is not a Tumblr fan-girl's emo-ish dream man, it's a homicidal robot bent on annihilating the human race.
So that's the premise of the film, but is it any good? Can Age of Ultron live up to the spectacle of the original Avengers film?
The same winning formula is there, that's for sure. None of the cast has been sneakily swapped out for B-list understudies, and Joss Whedon has returned to pen the script and shoot the whole thing. Having Whedon involved in anything is always a good sign, especially since he admitted that he didn't necessarily want Age of Ultron to try to be "bigger" than Avengers Assembled. He wanted it to be deeper instead, and I'd say that's a perfect summary of what this film is. In terms of screen-filling spectacle, I'd say its on an equal footing with its predecessor, and it still manages to have heart and character too even amidst the explosion-filled madness.
The Avengers Assemble was all about bringing a group of heroes together to combat an individual threat, the origin story of the team, so to speak. Age of Ultron does have that whole "banding together to save the world aspect", but it explores conflict arises when the Avengers' mandate is so fuzzy. It looks at how some members of the team believe prevention of attacks is more important than dealing with threats as they arise. Captain America is very much opposed to that idea, instead preferring to react to threats as and when they happen, even if it means the team is killed in the process. To him it's more important that the team are together doing what's right, rather than achieving the perfect end goal. Tony Stark, on the other hand, feels that he can invent something that will keep the world safe from threats before they happen. Enter James Spader's Ultron, a walking-talking protector-robot turned despot that makes Trident look like a fly swatter. It's here you can see the conflicts that will cumulate for next year's adaptation of seminal comic series Civil War.
We also get to see the inner most fears of most members of the team, particularly Bruce Banner. His fear is obvious; he's terrified that this his ability to keep the Hulk under control will shatter, and the monster will end up on a Godzilla-sized rampage. We get to see a Hulk that's more animalistic than his first two MCU appearances, and the film is all the better for it, emphasising the unpredictable nature of the force of gamma-ray-infused nature.
We also get to see a lot more from Jeremy Renner's Hawkeye, which, surprisingly, turns out to be fantastic.
Hawkeye was grossly underused in the first Avengers film, and Age of Ultron attempts to make up for that. Hawkeye has become a bit of a joke in the non-comics reading world, because they find it ridiculous that a man with a bow and arrow is fighting alongside people like Iron Man and Thor. Remember, Black Widow doesn't have any super powers either. But Hawkeye is treated unfairly, despite the fact that his skills allow him to keep up with some immensely powerful people. The fact that he's the only person who can lay a finger on the super-fast Quicksilver makes that obvious. Despite that, Whedon didn't reverse course on Hawkeye and try to make him seem too skilled. He is completely fallible and actually focussed on this side of him, turning that into his greatest strength. The other four human members of the Avengers have incredibly screwed up lives, yet Hawkeye manages to stay an incredibly grounded, normal individual. Just one that has killer accuracy, and knack for grabbing the movie's best one-liners.
But onto the big bad himself, Ultron. Let's make it clear right now, Ultron is not your typical villainous robot/AI. He's not the cold emotionless homicidal maniac like 2001's HAL. He is a very emotional being. Specifically, the negative, maniacal emotions. He's got a whole bag of them, and some "daddy issues" with Stark, too. He's driven primarily by rage, but he expresses the same range of emotions that you'd expect from any human being. In fact, if you couldn't see what Ultron looked like you might assume that he was a fairly typical human movie villain (who wants to destroy the world). Casting James Spader was a stroke of genius on the part of Whedon/Marvel. He's absolutely perfect for the role, with a naturally villainous tone to his voice. His ongoing role in The Blacklist means that tackling Ultron's manipulative behaviour was probably second nature before filming even began.
One of the things I initially appreciated was that when Ultron first appears in the film he is very much like an inquisitive child, constantly asking questions and learning more about the world. But he matures quickly. A little too quickly if you ask me, since he winds up as a fully formed character by his second scene. I know that time restrictions and plot means that these things can't take too long, but it would've been nice to see a bit more on-screen growth.
Also the Baron Strucker, billed as the film's secondary villain, was criminally underused. I don't see the point in introducing a brand new character and giving him about five minutes of screentime.
Even as I write this I'm struggling to decide which Marvel film I like the most. I really liked Age of Ultron, but I'm not sure whether it trumps Guardians of the Galaxy or The Winter Soldier. All three are brilliant, but they're brilliant in different ways. I'd say Age of Ultron definitely trumps The Avengers, simply because it has more going on. In the first film the plot progresses a lot more slowly, whereas in this one there is always something happening. It's not filled with unnecessary filler, and I can't think of a single scene that didn't need to be there. Even the less relevant scenes were seeding things that will become incredibly important in Phase 3, but managed to not hamper the plot the way pretty much everything in Iron Man 2 did.
I will say this, though. Age of Ultron certainly doesn't have the same chill factor as The Avengers. There's nothing that quite beats the circular shot of the entire team together during the Battle of New York. That's a shame, but it's not a dealbreaker. The humour is also a little bit different. There are a lot funny points in the film, jokes that just scream Joss Whedon, but there's nothing quite on par with those two Hulk scenes in The Avengers. You know which ones I'm talking about. It's a darker tone overall, a mature reflection of the contradictory nature of these "hero'" roles in a real world would be. Reams of laugh out load gags wouldn't quite fit this time around.
Should you see it then? If you're a Marvel movie fan, or you enjoyed The Avengers then the answer is yes. There's no question about it. If you're rather indifferent about superhero movies then it might not be the best idea. I got the impression that you really needed to be up to date with the rest of the Marvel cinematic universe to fully appreciate what's going on. With its massive character list and references to other films, fitting in a refresher on all that's gone before is advised. But this is blockbuster cinema at its most exciting. Excelsior!