Avengers: Age of Ultron - Superheroes' tale not so Marvel-ous
The Avengers franchise needs to get back to basics and get rid of its many subplots, spin-offs and sequels, writes Andrew Johnston
Avengers: Age of Ultron has a lot to live up to. Its predecessor, 2012's Avengers Assemble, was the culmination of Marvel Studios' deft plan to bring together second-tier superheroes in one blockbusting movie, and became the third biggest cinema release of all time, earning more than £1bn at the global box office.
Since then, there have been further instalments in Marvel's multi-film franchise - Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World, Captain America: The Winter Soldier and last year's surprise hit, Guardians of the Galaxy - that have expanded the shared universe and no doubt seen the stars' bargaining powers boom, as well.
So, with Robert Downey Jnr's Iron Man, Chris Hemsworth's Thor, Mark Ruffalo's Hulk, Chris Evans's Captain America, Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow and Jeremy Renner's Hawkeye fighting for meaningful screen time alongside a wealth of secondary players, Avengers: Age of Ultron - again written and directed by Joss Whedon - proves as overstuffed as Hulk's shorts.
Downey Jnr is the nominal headliner, wheeling out his Tony Stark schtick for the sixth time. It's a role that threatens to define the actor, but he goes along with it gamely, rattling off the sardonic wisecracks on cue.
Sadly, Hemsworth - so good in the standalone Thor flicks - is limited to a handful of lines as the Asgardian god of thunder, while Evans's 'Cap' - the supposed leader of the Avengers - mostly stands around looking buff and glum.
And with so much already going on, one has to question the wisdom of introducing more faces to the mix. Happily, Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen's mutant twins Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch turn out to be rather diverting. Taylor-Johnson and Olsen's Eastern European accents may waver, but their conflicted siblings add a little edge.
Also successful is Hulk and Black Widow's unlikely blossoming romance. Ruffalo cements his standing as the finest Bruce Banner since Bill Bixby, while Johansson's beefed-up role finds her ex-Soviet assassin - real name Natasha Romanoff - now called upon to do more than merely ride motorbikes and pout.
In between the butt-kicking, Banner and Romanoff's yearning to leave Avenging behind is sweetly done, and gives Age of Ultron some emotional heft, as does Hawkeye's increased participation.
Renner's superpower-devoid archer might have been the least interesting member last time round, but here, as we're shown his everyday home life and its associated stresses, he receives arguably the most engaging arc.
Still, when smaller, offbeat moments like the flirting of two star-crossed misfits or a normal guy worrying about whether he'll make it back to his wife and kids are the best aspects of a £165m summer blockbuster, something's not right. Perhaps it's spectacle fatigue. As for the plot - yes, there is one - it's to do with an artificial intelligence creation of Stark's taking on a mind of its own and attempting to destroy the world, while the Avengers assemble to defeat him. James Spader voices the titular Ultron deliciously, like a robotic version of Heath Ledger's Joker, though with the metallic megalomaniac cloning himself to provide an army of digital henchmen for the heroes to destroy, it all veers dangerously close to Star Wars prequel territory.
And with so many subplots, spin-offs and interwoven sequels for fans to keep track of, it could soon be time for Marvel to strip things back to basics.