Avengers: Age of Ultron, Marvel’s highly anticipated follow up to 2012’s Avengers Assemble, fixes many of its predecessor’s flaws. Joss Whedon has always had a flair for ensemble casts and quippy dialogue, but the first Avengers team-up at times felt uneven. What is Loki’s plan exactly? Why does Hawkeye have to spend most of the film mind-controlled? Why so much focus on Iron Man and Captain America, when they already have their own franchises? Age of Ultron, on the other hand, not only manages to perfectly balance its existing characters but also introduce three new ones (four, including the villain), the Vision and the Maximoff twins, who operate in interesting moral grey areas and absolutely hold their own.
The appeal of established characters like Thor and Captain America are that they don’t change; they’re unequivocally forces of good and while that can be fun to watch there’s only so much drama there. Countless times we’ve seen Tony Stark go from cynicism to self-sacrifice, and it’s just not that interesting any more. Instead of repeating that arc, Age of Ultron smartly fleshes out the human (rather than God-like) characters - Natasha Romanoff a.k.a. Black Widow, Dr. Bruce Banner and the much-maligned Clint “Hawkeye” Barton - giving them compelling original storylines.
In some ways it’s a repeat of Avengers Assemble, only this time when the team are turned against each other the emotional stakes feel far bigger (the physical stakes are, once again, saving the world). While Ultron’s plan is basic world destruction his use of Scarlet Witch’s powers to get inside the Avengers’ heads, revealing their deepest fears to themselves, provides some of the best dramatic scenes in the film. And, unexpectedly, seeing the team take several diversions to rescue civilians they’ve put in harm’s way is really exciting. Even in the most serious moments, however, a well-placed joke is always around the corner. The juggling of tones is impressive.
Stylistically Whedon has also stepped up his game, with the help of new cinematographer Ben Nevis (Guardians of the Galaxy). The scale feels epic and there are plenty of moments, including one in slow motion towards the end, that capture the pure sense of glee a kid experiences reading a comic book. This is what is missing from so many of the current superhero films - excitement and wonder.
This is not only a huge improvement on Avengers Assemble, it might just be the most polished and most fun Marvel film yet.
Avengers: Age of Ultron is out in the UK on the 23rd April.