(Joss Whedon, 2015)
This is a film which is so dense and crammed - with gags, one-liners, action sequences, characters, easter eggs, plot twists and cgi - that it is curiously exhausting. It feels like watching an entire season of a tv series in one sitting. But crucially, it's a really entertaining, fun tv series, made by a writer-director who understands and loves the genre he's working in.
Setting the Avengers up against a villain partly created by Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr, as comfortable and funny in this role as ever) and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo, still finding new depths in this character), Whedon manages the tricky job of balancing storylines and arcs for each of his principals while also keeping an epic, propulsive guiding narrative in ceaseless motion.
That involves Ultron (nicely voiced by James Spader), an artificial intelligence with multiple bodies whose ultimate goal is the usual destruction of the world. He enlists twins Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), who give the Avengers a bit of trouble with their respective "he's fast, she's weird" abilities before eventually switching sides to fight against Ultron.
Whedon loves and understands these characters, which is why this film is always better during their conversations and exchanges than it is during the many cgi-heavy action scenes studded throughout the two-and-a-half-hour running time.
Perhaps most interesting is the relationship between Banner and Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow. She talks him down out of his Hulk state, and reveals an unexpected vulnerability to his dorky integrity, which terrifies him, so afraid of hurting anyone around him. Their tentative romance is the emotional core of the film, and gives the ending much of its sting. Jeremy Renner is given much more to do this time around, revealing a solid, warm, normal home life with a wife and children, while also acting as the human glue bonding the "Gods" around him together. Evans and Hemsworth as Captain American and Thor do more of what they have done with aplomb across three films each at this point, their highlights mainly coming in their banter with Stark as Whedon ensures much of the focus is on the trinity at the heart of any decent Avengers story. There is a little set-up done for the next big film involving the characters, as the idealogical differences between Cap and Iron Man are emphasised, the battle lines subtly drawn.
That is the strangest thing about the Marvel films: because they are all part of one big ongoing narrative, it sometimes feels like nothing can ever really matter. We know another film is just around the corner, another villain, another threat, another epic battle. This is written in the DNA of the comics, but they are structured around it, whereas the architecture of a motion picture is different and built to supply a certain amount of third act catharsis or satisfaction that the Marvel films by necessity are unable to deliver.
Another problem is action. For an action genre, super-hero films generally don't handle action all that well. It is the achilles heel even of Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy (which do splendid spectacle but fudge combat consistently until the third film), and has been uncertain in most of the Marvel films so far. Captain America: The Winter Soldier perhaps fares best here, but Avengers: Age of Ultron struggles. Whether it is down to Whedon's limitations as a director - unlikely, given that the fight scenes in Serenity are pretty good - or, more likely the overuse of cgi and accompanying spectacular camera movements to track it, many of the big action sequences here are visually incoherent and chaotically choreographed.
Luckily: there are ancillary pleasures and many of them.
Whedon has always had a gift for one-liners and Avengers: Age of Ultron is stuffed with them, from the others chiding Captain America for his dislike of bad language, to Thor and Vision discussing the perfect balance of Mjolnir. Of the newcomers, Bettany is most arresting as Vision, ably handling some great gags and action beats, while Olsen and Johnson act as crucial new blood to the mix.
The details here are crucial and brilliant: from the Irish accent (Voiced by Kerry Condon) of F.R.I.D.A.Y to Stark's asides during his battle with Hulk to Ulysses Klaw (Andy Serkis) being involved in supplying Vibranium from Wakanda, to Stark and Thor bragging about their girlfriends and War Machine's (Don Cheadle) angst that his story does not impress the Avengers they all play well and give the story and the world more texture and life.
The cast is filed out with some unexpected class in tiny roles: Linda Cardellini, Julie Delpy, Idris Elba, Anthony Mackie and Hayley Atwell all pop up alongside Serkis and Cheadle, again making this world feel populous and lived-in.
For all its flaws, as summer blockbusters go, this is a sumptuous piece of purest entertainment; funny, exciting and consistently impressive.