(As always, spoiler-free!)
Having done the impossible with the first Avengers movie, by making a credible superhero team film by bringing together four larger than life characters from their own features and then adding a couple others to the mix for good measure, writer/director Joss Whedon now finds himself in the unenviable position of having to follow his own act with the sequel, Age of Ultron.
Sometimes a sequel is where a series really finds its footing (Evil Dead), and other times it can be a highly anticipated disappointment (Highlander). I'm not sure where in that continuum you would place AoU; it's no Godfather II, but it's no Robocop 2 either.
The finicky natures of fanboys and film fans being what they are, he couldn't possibly make a film that is all things to all people, but Whedon has succeeded in not only making a very credible sequel and another great example of comic book filmmaking, he has made a movie that is both bigger and smaller than The Avengers, feeling both more spectacular and more intimate.
Like the best of gems, Age of Ultron is brilliant, but not without its flaws. It's late, so I can`t dissect out quite as much from the film as I'd like, but let`s start by talking about the bits I didn't appreciate so much:
The pacing felt rushed - My understanding is that the first cut of this movie ran closer to three hours compared to the 2:21 we saw tonight (which just flew by, by the way), and there were still plenty of quiet scenes to break up the fights, but some of the motivations and revelations seemed to come a bit too quickly for my liking. Your mileage may vary.
Tired premise - Stop me if you've heard this one: a robot intelligence designed to protect humanity decides the best way to do that is to destroy it and start over? An artificial life-form with a vendetta against its creator? WOW.
Tired premise II - Battling your own worst fears? I think this is something much better handled in TV than film, where more time can be devoted to those characters and their fears beforehand, but it is not badly handled here.
Similar structure - A significant part of Act II is spent ripping the team apart and then somehow having to piece themselves together again. A lot of this is done on the shoulders of Captain America and Iron Man (again), but everyone gets a turn on the despair-go-round.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, there was a lot more I did like:
Fresh take - Whedon takes a tired premise and turns it on its head by making Ultron's motivation not one of clinical precision or dispassionate calculation, but of vengeful rage, a key element from his comic stories.
James Spader - With no more than his normal speaking voice, most of the time unadorned by sound fx or Cylon vocoder nonsense, James Spader gives us one of the most compelling Marvel vaillains yet, and that is saying something. Chilling, charming, erudite and vitriolic, this is not your father's robotic overlord.
Everyone has a purpose - Even with two new superpowered characters in the mix, no one feels superfluous, both in terms of the action they bring to the screen, and the roles they play interacting with the established roster.
Witty banter abounds - From mocking Thor`s diction, to War Machine lamenting how his killer stories always seem puny when told to Earth`s Mightiest Heroes, Whedon`s gift for humorous dialogue is apparent in almost every scene.
Straight-up nerd cred - Whedon just gets it. He doesn't try to out do the brilliant Quicksilver scene from X-Men: Days of Future Past, but he knows why dodging Hawkeye's arrows is not the same as trying to catch Thor's hammer.
Down time - Taking a page from one of my favourite Marvel writers, Chris Claremont, a lot of the best character insights come from the in-between moments, like at an elegant party at the Avengers Tower, or while two characters are splitting wood together in the countryside. Wonderful. I also appreciated seeing Sam "Falcon" Wilson and James "War Machine" Rhodes at the party, a nice nod to the larger MCU.
Imaginative doomsday plot - I won't give it away here (but see it quickly, before a TV spot or some loose talk does!), but the endgame puts the heroes in a classic bind, where 'victory' might require the sacrifice of thousands in order to save millions, and doesn't involve a death ray or explosive device.
Big ideas - I hope the three hour cut makes it to BluRay at some point, and I hope it is full of conversations and not fights. Stark and Rogers talking about why they fight, and if it can ever end. Banner and Stark talking about the genie in the bottle that is artificial intelligence. Vision and Ultron talking about humanity.
Fights - The fights are solid. Honestly, the opening attack on a Hydra base left me a little cold, and there were times when I couldn't tell if they were fighting soldiers or robots (mostly a CG thing), but every other one was great. The highly anticipated Hulkbuster fight does not disappoint, and it has everything such a conflict needs: kineticism, consequence, clarity, imaginative use of powers (for both parties), humour and pathos. Bravo!
Having shepherded the Marvel Cinematic Universe through both Phase I and Phase II, Joss Whedon is now stepping away from the MCU, at least for a while. He can hold his head up high, however; in addition to having done the impossible with The Avengers, he has bookended it nicely with Age of Ultron.
He has shown once again that it is possible to have an action packed, toy-selling, license-driven blockbuster of a summer tentpole movie, and still imbue it with brains and a heart. For a latter day, four-colour Frankenstein redux, that's pretty deft work.