The original Avengers movie (2012) was something of an anomaly. Larger than life and all over the place with its assembly of superheroes and their respective mythologies, it took most skeptics by surprise how painlessly things came together, sailed along and ended in a resounding, otherworldly bang. This time around, as dictated by the laws of sequels, every aspect of the film from its scale, decibel level to the possibilities for tie-in merchandising only got bigger. Without the element of surprise, however, the continuation of the saga proves a more labored effort, which costs it quite a bit of charm.
Starting in the middle of an extended chase-and-battle sequence, all the major players enter the picture one by one like summoned during roll call. It's an efficient way to set the stage when you have so many stars to present; and seeing such a colorful bunch fly, storm, hammer, or in the case of The Hulk, hulk through a forest infested with baddies can certainly stir up childlike glee in the most stoic of minds. However, as early as in these opening minutes, a stiffness creeps beneath the streamlined, somewhat sterilized fights. One senses how the appearance of each character and the distribution of their screen time have been minutely planned and balanced out. This owes, no doubt, to the strict financing and marketing mandates particular to blockbuster filmmaking. But it also results in something that feels less organic than calculated and compromised. The script comes across as somewhat overwrought too, sacrificing a fluid, compact storyline to make sure every Avenger gets their moment to shine (or brood) and that geographically, half the globe is represented. Convoluting matters further is the heightened dramatic focus, as the grim backstories and inner demons of our heroes are reintroduced via the vaguely defined superpower of mental manipulation. Not that comic books adaptations can't have depth, but when we're dealing with mutants and alien princes decked out in capes and spandex, playing it too straight might not be the wisest move.
Though not as fresh and exhilarating as its predecessor nor as concentrated and sleek as, say, any of the standalone Captain America movies, this second outing, again orchestrated by Joss Whedon, still has many good tricks up its sleeve. The titular villain of Ultron is a mighty cool creation. Conceived as a superior, bodiless consciousness able to teleport and resurrect itself in this interconnected digital age, its visual manifestation is tremendously done in a Genesis-like sequence sparkling with fluidity and immanent menace. As can be expected, the special effects are out of this world. Especially notable is the further enhanced sensation of flight achieved here, thanks in part to the sharp 3D imagery (in Berlin also available in IMAX 3D). But even more impressive is how much it's still done practically. Sets, robots and machinery actually built to be destroyed place you in an alternate reality the way no computer generated illusion can and the sheer size of this production is astonishing. Finally, what makes a project like this endearing even at its silliest and most overblown is its helmer's intimate knowledge of and absolute devotion to the material. And this Whedon has in spades. A scene towards the end shows the Avengers congregated in a circle fending off evil troopers attacking from all sides. An excessive stunt for sure, but it brings the comic book pages to life in such an explosion of vigorous, unadulterated geekdom it'll send fans straight to heaven and more than amuse the rest.
Avengers: Age of Ultron | Directed by Joss Whedon (USA 2015) with Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo. Starts April 23