‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’ reviewed by Dan McGinn

20150521-095057.jpgA couple of weeks ago, Joss Whedon was asked by the Guardian if the plethora of superhero blockbusters – 25 scheduled for the next five years – marked the death of cinema.

Not surprisingly, the director said no, insisting it merely represented a new cinematic paradigm.

Whedon added: “To me, the Reagan era seemed to have heralded the death of movies. It was the end of the great, insane, introspective serious 70s movies. But I’m sure you can point to any time since the birth of cinema as the death of cinema.

“The question for me is only ever: are we making good movies? Now you don’t always hit and it’s frustrating as hell that it feels to a lot of people that this is all that’s going on but there are a lot of other movies being made and I believe that the non-franchise films still have a place in this world and, God willing, maybe I’ll go on to do something that isn’t part of seven other movies.”

Whedon is, of course, right.

There are a lot of decent independent movies out there – as awards season has just demonstrated.

Those movies have something to say about the human condition and they don’t rely on comic books for inspiration.

Sometimes like ‘Whiplash’ or ‘Birdman’ or ‘Foxcatcher’ or ‘The Theory of Everything’, they find audiences.

Then, there’s ‘Captain America: Winter Soldier’, ‘Wolverine’ and Whedon’s latest, ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’ – huge juggernauts that are there to simply entertain and draw in huge crowds.

‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’ is a sequel to Whedon’s 2012 smash ‘Marvel Avengers Assemble’ which brought three successful movie franchises Robert Downey Jr’s ‘Iron Man’, Chris Hemsworth’s ‘Thor’ and Chris Evans’ ‘Captain America’ together with Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow, Mark Ruffalo’s Dr Bruce Banner/Hulk and Jeremy Renner’s Clint Barton/Hawkeye under the leadership of Samuel L Jackson’s Nick Fury.

By bringing these Marvel characters under the one roof, Whedon delivered the ultimate superhero movie and also managed to eclipse the final instalment of Christopher Nolan’s more ambivalent and narratively satisfying Batman trilogy, ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ at the box office.

‘Marvel Avengers Assemble’ made a staggering $1.5 billion dollars worldwide – making it the third highest grossing movie of all time behind James Cameron’s one-two of ‘Avatar’ and ‘Titanic’.

Is it any wonder, given the mammoth box office success of the Avengers, that DC Comics has decided to pair off its two biggest franchises for the forthcoming movie, ‘Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice’?

After almost three weeks release, ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’ has shattered the $1 billion barrier, leaving many of the ‘Harry Potter’, ‘Lord of the Rings’ and ‘Star Wars’ movies behind and is about to rocket into the top 20.

It is able to do this because Whedon instinctively knows what his audience wants and he duly delivers.

‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’ begins like a Bond movie, with a dramatic raid by the Avengers on a castle occupied by the shadowy Hydra organisation in the Baltic state of Sokovia.

The Avengers have discovered Hydra operatives are housing a scepter, previously owned by their enemy Loki and are experimenting its powers on humans.

In the opening sequence, which comes across like the action movie equivalent of the Olympic 4×400 metres relay, bow and arrow wielding Hawkeye, Thor, Captain America, Hulk and the Black Widow take out gun toting Hydra agents while Tony Stark/Iron Man swoops through the sky.

Eventually, Iron Man penetrates the castle, defeats Thomas Kretschmann’s Baron Wolfgang von Strucker, recovers the scepter but also stumbles across two humans upon whom von Strucker has been experimenting – Aaron Taylor Johnson’s Pietro Maximoff/Quicksilver who can run faster than the speed of light and his sister, Elisabeth Olsen’s Wanda/Scarlet Witch who can read minds and implant thoughts in others’ heads.

During the raid, she uses her skills to spook Stark/Iron Man, conjuring up horrific images of a future where the Avengers team are killed during combat and, as the sole survivor of this imagined scenario, this makes him feel guilty.

Returning to their headquarters with the scepter, Stark and Banner discovers its gemstone contains an artificial intelligence which they hope to harness for the former’s global defence programme, Ultron.

However their plan backfires when they underestimate the power of the gemstone.

Ultron, voiced by James Spader, develops a God complex and rises up as a robot fixated with destroying the Avengers and, ultimately, human life.

He attacks the Avengers – creating an Army of robots and woos Pietro and Wanda Maximoff as partners in crime, feeding off their antipathy towards Stark.

What follows is exactly what you’d expect.

There’s lots of big muscular showdowns, lots of punches, lots of gunfire and explosions, lots of crumbling buildings, lots of high octane car chases, lots of smartass quips (mostly from Stark) with a little bit of adversity and self doubt thrown in for our heroes along the way.

Like its predecessor, Whedon’s movie weighs in at a hefty two hours and 20 minutes.

And like that movie, it is a bit plodding to begin with – taking its time to really get going.

‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’ eventually comes alive in a thrilling third and final act but you have to wade through a lot of treacle to get there.

As blockbusters go, it lacks the sophistication of a Christopher Nolan film or the emotional cunning of the finest Steven Spielberg movies.

The performances also vary.

As the principal Avenger, Downey Jr is still irritating, while Helmsworth and Evans are bland.

Johansson and Renner are more interesting characters, while Ruffalo remains the most engaging of the bunch.

Jackson turns in a by the book performance, while the associate members of the Avengers and Fury’s Shield organisation – Don Cheadle’s James ‘Rhodey’ Rhodes/War Machine, Anthony Mackie’s Sam Wilson/Falcon and Cobie Smulders’ Maria Hill have little to do.

There are brief cameos too from Stellan Skarsgard who turns up as Thor’s astrophysicist friend, Erik Selvig, Idris Elba as the Norse God Heimdall, Hayley Atwell as Captain America’s former lover Peggy Carter and Julie Delpy as Madame B, the ballet instructor who trains The Black Widow as an assassin.

Listen closely and you might also hear Irish actress, Kerry Condon as FRIDAY, Stark’s latest artificial intelligence system, speaking in her native accent.

Paul Bettany turns up as JARVIS, the artificial intelligence system also created by Stark, while Andy Serkis sports an Afrikaans accent as an oily arms dealer.

Aaron Taylor Johnson and Elisabeth Olsen make a decent fist of portraying the troubled Maximoff twins and with his booming, sneering voice, James Spader is well up to the task of portraying the superhero pantomime villain, Ultron.

It should go without saying the special effects are spellbinding.

It should also go without saying that ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’ is a leave your brain at home exercise.

Marvel and Disney simply want you to strap yourself in and go along for the ride while they count the cash.

And let’s face it. That’s what many of us will do.

(‘Avengers: ‘Age of Ultron’ opened in UK and Irish cinemas on May 1, 2015).

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