While the Marvel Cinematic Universe has pressed onward to new heights with the last solo outing for Captain America and the wacky high-jinks of Starlord and friends, it's time to get back to what made this all so tantalising for many people in the first place, the big team up of Earth's mightiest heroes to round off the individual films. While the original Avengers had a clunky start and took time to find its feet, once the big showdown came along it was hard not to enjoy the mix of disaster spectacle, alien invaders and green giant versus puny god beat down. But here we are, back for round two. And while Thor 2 might have tripped over it's own cape and the Mandarin was a bit of a lost opportunity, things have picked up the pace in the time leading up to this second team adventure. With more characters, ever growing stakes and a world now changed following the antics of HYDRA being foiled, there are a lot of pieces to be balanced when the roster is still increasing. Now this is another entertaining feature with enough eye watering comic book action and fun dialogue for anyone, but the element of simplicity has been lost in a film that seems to be too long and at the same time in need of an extended cut.
At one critical point during the third act all human life is on the verge of destruction, to the surprise of nobody. A colossal machine is raised into the air, taking with it many helpless civilians and plenty of concrete. The scale of this is immense, and it's that size, that weight, which seems symbolic of the movie and the franchise as a whole. Will it all come falling down? Are all these loose pieces and those cracks going to be lasting problems? Always trying to go one better genre sequels all face this kind of issue at some stage, and Age of Ultron has a lot of moving pieces to keep in the air. The initial plot has Shell-head and company taking back Loki's mind altering sceptre from the unsavoury elements in SHIELD which were uncovered during The Winter Soldier, which leads Tony Stark to create an artificial intelligence to aid them against new alien attacks. Some sort of global defence network. I guess they didn't see The Terminator in this universe. Within a few minutes of browsing the internet, 'Ultron' as it's been designated decides to break out, build himself a scary exoskeleton and starts an evil master plan to destroy mankind. This is a pretty good plot, cartoonish but engaging. But so many other ideas are fighting for attention here.
During the opening the Avengers are in top fighting form, in sync and saving the day. It's a slick performance but as the story goes on things get cluttered and disjointed. In a way Ultron is another overgrown child with daddy issues and a chip on his shoulder. So they stick with what worked before, that's okay. But while James Spader's sarcastic, impatient, yet cold and calculating performance is plenty of fun they don't give him enough development, particularly in terms of his plan and shared screen time with his 'father' Tony Stark. There's a whole lot more demanding screen time from Bruce Banner fighting his demons while figuring out a growing romance with Natasha Romanov, Hawkeye debating his worth in a team of super powered heroes, and then amongst other things the inclusion of new characters the Maximoff twins. The latter is the weakest link with Scarlett Witch (the psychic) and Quicksilver (super fast) dropping by from the X-Men but losing any mention of x-genes thanks to legal fine-print. They get a quick intro and later a moment to explain their vendetta against the heroes, but they never feeling like worthwhile additions when the big bad should be more central. At the same time it has to be said the character moments are still fun when they work properly. There's a super hero party scene and a countryside getaway. The psychic powers of Wanda Maximoff make for some nightmare visions that add a lot without over explaining things. But it could do with expanding on the smaller moments or cutting them out entirely to gain a real sense of pacing. The three act structure is buried and on top of everything it's always rushing to the next set piece.
And yet those are really good, from snowy Eastern Europe, South Korea and South Africa, there's a lot of visual variety, all kinds of inventive battle sequences and super powers interacting with each other, and yes a fight between the Incredible Hulk and the Invincible Iron Man. They've certainly figured all of this stuff out nicely in terms of showing off the team work. But it does seem like things are constantly jumping along to the next big effects scene. It becomes very evident late on in the story that some moments have been left on the cutting room floor, and others have been added just to provide links to follow up sequels. Crucial plot reveals are done with in a flash and side characters are skimmed over. It's a jarring experience at times, not quite as bad as Iron Man 2 but almost with an appearance from Andy Serkis as a throwaway villain that will probably return in a separate story and a late entrance from Paul Bettany which is of great importance but is never really fleshed out. I could have really got into a streamlined adventure about the perils of over reaching technological advancement, but it includes a lot of other pieces that seem rather messy. It's kind of a paradox when you have slow moments for character chit-chat more than once, with just about every side character from the main ensemble and other players from the series getting a look in. War Machine, Nick Fury, Agent Hill, Falcon and more. This is big, fun, and has a whole lot of ...stuff. Not all of it works, it's even sloppy at times; but it is enjoyable. The breaking point may be imminent, but this isn't quite it.