I don’t read comics (not out of any snobbery, they’re just not my thing) and I haven’t gone deep-web diving into the Marvel mythology, especially as it relates to the material providing the basis for The Big Movie Event of 2015 (outside of the next Star Wars film, coming in December), Avengers: Age of Ultron. It makes for tricky reviewing, because this instalment of this franchise (the franchise within the franchise, really – the strand where Iron Man, The Hulk, Captain America, Thor, Black Widow and Hawkeye, the dude who shoots arrows, all hang out together) seems to have made the choice to really stimulate the die-hard fans rather than the casual viewer; this viewer was often deeply bored by very long scenes of expositional gobble-de-gook.
The film is darker than its predecessor, with the unfortunate effect that it’s far less witty; even Tony Stark’s (Robert Downey Jr.’s) barbs seem redacted and obsolete. Whereas Stark seemed to dominate the first film, here the emphasis is given much more significantly to second-tier players Hawkeye and Black Widow (Jeremy Renner and Scarlett Johansson); this is a negative in the case of Hawkeye and a huge positive in the case of Black Widow. Renner simply seems lost in this sea of superheroes, and his very significant screen time is the film’s most vapid, but Johansson is glorious – and gloriously costumed and shot – and, in a way, saves the movie for those not deeply into the Marvelverse.
In fact – and surprisingly – it’s the women who save the film in spite of the drench of testosterone. Joining Johansson is new Avenger Scarlet Witch, embodied awesomely by Elizabeth Olsen. She somehow manages to act in the middle of all the CGI destruction, and her character is legitimately interesting (within this world). Perhaps it’s simply that it’s refreshing to have female characters so prominent in such a film, but I think it’s more than that: Johansson and Olsen just seem to be offering fresher performances than the men around them, who, let’s face it, have all got their own franchises outside of this one, and are therefore perhaps a little – or a lot – more bored of their character’s cadences (really, how interesting can it be to play Thor?)
Many major actors turn up in small parts in the film – Idris Elba! Anthony Mackie! Stellan Skarsgård! Thomas Kretschmann! Andy Serkis! Julie Delpy! Paul Bettany! Don Cheadle! – and that’s quite fun, although Samuel L. Jackson – one of the greatest of screen actors – is either taking the piss or just not giving a damn, rendering his Nick Fury a caricature within a comic-book world. Whatever he’s going for, it goes against the movie.
James Spader, always an excellent and professional presence, provided an on-set motion-capture performance as the prime villain, Ultron Prime, a form of Artificial Intelligence that takes its primary form as a skeletal robot. While Spader’s moves and vocal work are fine, his body is covered by the CGI robot form, which, while cool-looking, deprives us of a properly engaging villain. There’s a reason Jack Nicholson, Heath Ledger, Christopher Walken, Michelle Pfeiffer, Danny DeVito, Tom Hardy, Kevin Spacey, Gene Hackman, Willem Dafoe, Tom Hiddleston and so many other good actors have been cast as the villain in superhero movies, and it’s not so they could be rendered into zeroes and ones. At the end of the day, nothing is more engaging than a good actor’s face.