A plea to Marvel: it’s time to kill some Avengers. Retire them, replace them, whatever: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes have gotten too big. That is the underlying problem with Avengers: Age Of Ultron – it’s a spectacular, funny, riotously entertaining sequel. But even a director as skilled as Joss Whedon can’t escape the problem bedeviling the franchise: the headcount is too damn high.
The plot of Age Of Ultron (inspired by but for various reasons wildly different from the iconic comic book storyline) is at its core this: in his bid to create the Iron Legion, a robotic Earth defence system, Tony Stark and Bruce Banner unwittingly create an evil artificial intelligence that sets out to destroy the Avengers. Sounds simple? It’s not. Throw in Loki’s sceptre, Hydra, super-powered Maximoff twins Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Scarlet Witch (Elisabeth Olsen), a whole load of vibranium, Black Panther’s African homeland of Wakanda, and a bioengineering subplot, and you’ll start to appreciate the absolute mass of material that Whedon has to assemble in just over two hours. You can see why it appears to have nearly killed him.
Ultron, voiced by James Spader, makes for a far more entertaining villain than the bland alien races or scheming politicians that have populated recent Marvel sequels. Spader’s voice — menacing, schizophrenically leaping from wit to menace like a mad Shakespearean king — is enhanced by some fantastic character design. The robot’s face, in his final form, is nuanced and alive thanks to performance capture (ironically – and maybe intentionally — Ultron actually feels more human than his god-like foes). However, despite the performance, and some brilliant lines, he never feels as dangerous as his Avengers-slaughtering comic book iteration. It’s not a spoiler that none of the key Avengers will die — Captain America and Thor already have third sequels announced, which will include Iron Man and Black Widow — so we know that they’ll win in the end. The entertainment comes in knowing how they’ll get there.
And what entertainment it is. AOU turns up the format Whedon established with the first Avengers to eleven. Spectacular action scenes (the long-awaited clash between the Hulk and Iron Man’s Hulkbuster doesn’t disappoint) sprinkled with delightful one-liners (“Good talk,” quips Iron Man after downing a room full of goons. “No it wasn’t,” croaks one) and touching personal moments. While the fight scenes occasionally veer in to Transformers territory — too much happening to know what’s actually going on — the film also contains, as Whedon puts it, “some of the most comic book frames I’ve ever shot“. The strongest scenes, however, are those that let Whedon’s dialogue sparkle — the team trying to lift Thor’s hammer, or Captain America confronting Stark over ethics in a scene that alludes to the conflict coming in Captain America: Civil War.
Because of all of the high points, it’s easy to forgive the film’s flaws. It’s too busy. The number of characters means that none of them get a real chance to shine, a problem compounded by some rather indulgent cameos (if you haven’t seen all of the Marvel films, expect to get lost a few times). The new additions, including Paul Bettany’s The Vision, aren’t fleshed out enough, to the point of feeling redundant. But the ambition, and the sheer fun of it, means that Age Of Ultron is that rare thing: a two and a half hour action film that would actually benefit from being 10 or 15 minutes longer.
So, herein lies the question. Age Of Ultron ends with an Avengers roster even bigger than some fans might be expecting. Marvel’s “phase 3” which kicks off with Ant-Man in July, will introduce even more characters to the equation, including Doctor Strange and Black Panther, before Avengers: Infinity War in 2018. You’re Marvel. Who do you kill?
Fans will no doubt debate the question. The obvious candidate is Iron Man, who feels like he’s run his course.. At one point it might have been Captain America, but somehow with Winter Solider the Russo brothers have turned Cap into perhaps the team’s most likeable, badass hero. Which given that they’re in charge of Avengers: Infinity War, shows the franchise is in very good hands. Avengers: Age Of Ultron is out on May 24.