Avengers: Age of Ultron review - 'designed to please, and tick all the fan boy boxes, but feels soulless and prefabricated'
It was with a weary shrug and a knowing sigh that I donned the 3-D specs and trudged into the IMAX to watch Avengers: Age of Ultron. Which is not to say I didn't think I was going to be entertained: I was, loudly and bombastically perhaps, but entertained nevertheless. What made me feel so weary was the sheer inevitability of it all.
Unless JJ Abrams and Star Wars have something to say about it, Ultron, chapter 11 in Marvel's seemingly interminable 'cinematic universe', is sure to be the year's biggest film. In fact if it doesn't gross something like the $1.5billion its 2012 predecessor Avengers Assemble managed, Marvel and Disney will be very disappointed. Age of Ultron is designed to please, and tick all the fan boy boxes, but like Avengers Assemble it feels soulless and prefabricated and a little too carefully thought-out.
There are jokes, of course, and they start early, after Iron Man (Robert Downey), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Captain America (Chris Evans), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) have lain waste to a castle in eastern Europe and captured a dangerous new super-smart artificial intelligence program called Ultron. Back at base the superheroes celebrate, boasting and bragging and playing a drinking game that involves trying to lift Thor's hammer (no-one can, a fact that pleases the Norse god immensely).
But while his comrades party, Tony Stark makes a rash decision that will soon plunge the world into crisis. With his usual hubris, Stark unilaterally concludes that Ultron should be modified into a peacekeeping defence program so effective it could put the Avengers happily out of business. After persuading a reluctant Bruce Banner to help him, the two scientists rejoin the party convinced they've done the world a favour.
As soon as he's awakened, however, Ultron, develops an unfortunate god complex and concludes that planet Earth's most pressing threat comes from mankind, which could do with some culling. Before Stark knows it, the program has infiltrated the internet, conflated his power and become an omniscient global threat. And so the Avengers must hastily reassemble, and overcome their growing differences if they're to prevent a major catastrophe.
Some new characters are introduced, most notably the Maximoff twins (Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Johnson), two gifted and bitter young Russian siblings who aren't quite sure which side they're on. But Age of Ultron leans mainly on its tried and tested characters, some of whom are given much-needed back-stories.
Tony Stark we already know way too much about, but we do find out why Natasha/Black Widow seems such a troubled soul, and learn that Hawkeye is a family man. Robert Downey, as usual, gets most of the best lines and knows exactly what to do with them, and Joss Whedon's wordy script also makes Thor's hubris a recurring gag. But though the jokes are good, they sometimes feel tired, and there's a stubborn one-dimensionality to the whole thing that even actors as good as Downey and Scarlett Johansson find hard to penetrate.
What depth there is in Age of Ultron comes from her and Mark Ruffalo, whose unfortunate character really does seem like a soul in torment. But as the film tumbled towards its conclusion, I was left feeling I was watching the latest piece of Marvel's pointlessly complex superhero jigsaw being snapped efficiently into place.
Of course one takes the marvellous special effects in these films for granted. They're getting better and better at rendering the Hulk's senseless rampages, and a long climax involving the levitation of an entire city is spectacularly well done. But the effects come so thick and fast towards the end that they began to lose all meaning, and left me feeling that you can save the world once too often. (12A, 141mins)