A lot has happened since the first big-screen assembling of Marvel superheroes in 2012, with the destruction of the Shield organisation being the most seismic change, as depicted in last year’s Captain America: the Winter Soldier. However, it seems to be business as usual for the team at the beginning of this globe-spanning sequel, as Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, Hulk, Black Widow and Hawkeye take the fight to the hidden Hydra cell of Baron von Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann), who popped up in the post-credits sequence of the 2014 Cap adventure. It’s a rousing start, like a battle from a Second World War movie, only with colourful costumed heroes trashing the opposing army and tanks: a freeze-frame of the whole team hurtling into the enemy is a glorious vision of heroic derring-do.
But as a portent of the chaos to come, the intervention of the Maximoff twins (played by franchise newcomers Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen), code-named Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch (“He’s fast, she’s weird”), soon has the Avengers thrown off balance. That sense of impending doom is then writ large when the revels of the triumphant heroes at their Avengers Tower base are brutally ended by a divisive revelation and the first appearance of the robotic villain of the piece, Ultron (chillingly voiced by James Spader).
A major foe of the comic-book Avengers, Ultron is an equally nasty nemesis here, though unlike his origin in the comics, it’s Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark who unwittingly creates him. And Ultron makes for a powerful adversary, bent on wiping out the human race with the assistance of an ever-expanding robot army and the super-powered twins, who have their own reasons for fighting the Avengers.
It’s then full mayhem ahead, which includes a humdinger of a battle between a souped-up Iron Man and a psyched-out Hulk that makes the Thor/Hulk tussle from Avengers Assemble look like a spat in a teacup. However, director Joss Whedon is just as interested in what makes the characters tick than how they throw a shield or a hammer, so thanks to Olsen’s sullen sorceress toying with the heroes’ heads, we get a peek at Black Widow’s origins (and a brief cameo from Julie Delpy), while Cap, Thor and Iron Man also reveal their own inner demons. Most intriguing of all, though, is the burgeoning relationship between Scarlett Johansson’s Widow and Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner/Hulk, and the fact that Jeremy Renner’s underused Hawkeye gets to step up to the plate and take centre stage when the team falls apart after a destructive dust-up in South Africa.
The breaks in the all-out action are certainly welcome, but there are a few longeurs due to exposition, too, and Whedon seems bound by the need to plot a pathway to Phase 3 (Marvel’s next tranche of potential blockbusters, including Civil War, Black Panther and The Infinity War). That would explain Andy Serkis’s arbitrary appearance as arms dealer (and future Black Panther villain) Ulysses Klaue. But the witty repartee between stars now comfortable in their superhero skin at least leavens the odd lull – the running jokes about who can lift Thor’s hammer and Cap’s aversion to bad language, as well as one of the better Stan Lee cameos, are terrific fun.
Samuel L Jackson’s Nick Fury pops up to offer his usual team-building pep talk, while Don Cheadle (War Machine) and Anthony Mackie (Falcon) appear as potential new Avengers members, but the most intriguing appearance of all, particular for fans of a 1960s vintage, is the debut of the enigmatic Vision. But will he be a saviour or sinner? A literally earth-shattering climax, in which not everyone survives, will reveal all.
Whedon‘s sure hand on the franchise’s tiller will be missed as he has passed the director’s baton on to the Russo brothers, who were behind the camera on the Winter Soldier film. But if they can keep the same blend of humour and action with a punch cultivated by Whedon, then I, for one, can’t wait.
Avengers: Age of Ultron is released in cinemas on Thursday 23 April