The Avengers Age Of Ultron: Whedon has settled into his role as director

The Avengers Age Of Ultron: On a mission to clear a HYDRA base, the Avengers find technology that leads Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) to conclude that artificial intelligence is the only way to keep the world permanently safe. But the mind he brings to life, Ultron (played by James Spader), decides that peace is best ensured by wiping out the Avengers and humanity with them.

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A few years back, making Avengers Assemble work looked daunting: bring together four franchise leads and two supporting characters, plus bad guy, and make it watchable for those without a PhD in Comic Book Backstories. Joss Whedon’s mistake was to make the job look so easy, and his reward was an exponentially harder task. Age Of Ultron makes its triumphant, giddily enjoyable predecessor look like a secondary school production of Our Town.

Age Of Ultron cast has stretched to enormous proportions (the roll call of Avengers and allies is now 18, cameos counted) and the action has gone absolutely global. And this is not just the finale of Phase Two but a foundation stone for the next five or so films, a mind-boggling challenge, and a stunning achievement. Whedon deserves something easier to do next, a musical version of War & Peace for instance that he could direct while lace making. In Antarctica.

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Inevitably for a blockbuster sequel of this sort, it’s a little darker. The characters still spark off one another and seem, for the most part, to enjoy one another’s company. But even our main star, Chris Evans’ Captain America, finds his faith shaken at times here. The catalyst for much of the conflict is Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch, Wanda Maximoff, who together with her ultra-fast twin brother Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), attacks the Avengers and forces them to experience their worst fears, whether in memory or prophecy.

It’s her opening strike at Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) that maximizes his post-Avengers trauma and makes him behave even more recklessly than normal, enlisting an unconvinced but friendly Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) to bring the peacekeeper A.I. Ultron to life. Tinged with madness from the start, Ultron (James Spader) emerges hating his creators and sure that the best way to save humanity is to destroy it.

What comes after is a globetrotting attempt to find out Ultron’s goals and stop him, a quest of considerable complexity and endless property damage (there’s a Marvel spin-off show to be created about what the age of superheroes has done to worldwide insurance premiums). The Avengers see a plot; they thwart it. We all know how this is supposed to go. But complicating the search are the aforementioned Maximoff twins and the Avengers own guilts, desires and secrets, which spill out to cause a whole mess of family drama and more than one broken heart.

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With every sequence required to multi-task to provide us heavy exposition, action and drama, it’s only Whedon’s gift for character that holds it together. He doesn’t abandon nuance in the middle of a firefight – which is just as well given how much he has to fit in – and draws unlikely sympathies and parallels that elevate all the cast. Cap, for instance, feels an instant kinship with the twins, fellow survivors of experimentation. Ultron shares his creator’s biting sense of humor and love for inappropriate wisecracking.

Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) empathizes with Banner’s fear of the monster within and they strike up a tentative romance, even as he once again learns to dread his powers (and those who thought Hulk was a bit too nice last time, well, prepare to be amazed). Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye, so underused before, keeps his head while all around him are losing theirs and provides the quiet centre around which the team revolves. Even the battle choreography shows that these folks have become a team, Thor smashing Cap’s thrown shield towards his foes or Hawkeye taking down a threat that has neutralized his more powerful friends.

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Whedon has settled into his role as director, showing a sure hand with the near-flawless visual effects work and the enormous action set-pieces. He revels in his reputation as a dealer of death to darkly hilarious effect, but also packs the movie with moments to make a comic lover’s head spin. The Avengers‘ opening attack through a snowy forest is the stuff that splash pages were made for, that beautiful trailer image of them all mid-air in attack a flourish to draw a cheer.

But Whedon does so much right, and fuses such a powerful mix of humor and high-stakes into each frame, that we can’t pick too many holes. When we’d happily watch this cast of characters just cook dinner together, it’s hard to complain because they also save the world instead.

The movie’s greatest burden, in the end, is not its plethora of characters but the tasks laden upon it by the broader Marvel universe. Where Assemble’s world-changing felt largely organic, here specific targets appear to have been set to launch not just Captain America Civil War, but also Thor Ragnarok, Black Panther and the two-part Avengers Infinity War. It adds complication to an already complex story, in a manner that can make this a little dense on first chew. What’s more, Marvel still hasn’t quite escaped their airborne-threat-to-a-city final act tendency, despite a valiant attempt to twist the formula here, and the need for a fresh sort of climax is now critical.

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The Avengers Age Of Ultron: Whedon has settled into his role as director
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