The one question that the audience may have had going in to this second Avengers film would be exactly how this team of wildly disparate heroes were going to be brought back together. Obviously, the audience may have thought, Ultron would be catalyst - but, exactly how would that play out? Would Tony Stark, as the creator of the villainous robot in the film, have to go to the other Avengers with his tail between his legs after his creation turns on him? Would they come together naturally against an overpowering threat (having already gone through all of the growing pains of becoming a team in the previous Avengers film)?
Well, as it turns out, all of that speculation was ultimately a bit pointless, as the film launches us right into the action - with the already reformed team of Avengers launching an attack on one of the last remaining Hydra strongholds, eager to recover Loki's staff (which, you may remember, was last seen in the post-credits scene of Captain America: The Winter Soldier). They were all there, too - we even had Bruce Banner willingly becoming to Hulk, once more, to take on this mission. It may not have been what I was expecting (or, necessarily, what I wanted), but having the team already together as the film opens did give us an entertaining action sequence - so, I suppose it can be forgiven.
It is also here that we meet Pietro and Wanda Maximoff (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen) - war orphaned twins who volunteered to take part in experiments conducted by Baron von Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann). Strucker's plan is to use Loki's staff to create supernaturally gifted individuals that will be loyal to Hydra - and, so far, the twins have been his only real success. In any other film, this could have been the whole story - though, here, Strucker is reduced to little more than the opening act. With the entire team taking on a mission that any of them could probably have handled alone, Strucker really doesn't stand a chance.
Baron von Strucker is, fairly promptly, defeated - and, Loki's staff is recovered. So, now, with only a few days left until Thor (Chris Hemsworth) takes the staff back to Asgard, Tony Stark and Bruce Banner (Robert Downey Jr and Mark Ruffalo) only have a short period of time to do some research of their own. Using Strucker's own research based on Loki's staff, they are able to find elements of highly sophisticated programming that would allow Stark to radically improve on his own artificial intelligence creations. Using this new knowledge, Stark dusts off and finally complete an abandoned project - Ultron, an AI construct intended to protect Earth from external threats. But Ultron, created by Tony Stark and Bruce Banner with the intent of bringing about 'peace in our time', takes one look at the long history of the human race and promptly comes to the conclusion that there is really only one way to fulfil his intended purpose - wiping the slate clean and starting over.
Of course, before he can get to his true plan, Ultron knows that he will first need to deal with the only people on Earth capable of stopping him - the Avengers. In this, he receives surprising support from the super-powered twins - who have reasons of their own to hate the Avengers (particularly Tony Stark).
James Spader, taking on the role of Ultron, did a great job with what he was given - his voice-work supporting the CGI, and effectively bringing Ultron to life. Ultron, as he is portrayed here, is an oddly 'human' creation. Often arrogant, and at times petty and childish, there is an obvious and intentional parallel between Ultron and his creator, Tony Stark. This version of the villainous robot even seems to share Tony's sense of humor.
Sure, it was interesting in its own way. But, it also felt like there were moments where the film's decision to portray Ultron in this way simply got in the way. Like, for example, having Ultron cut short a fairly normal villainous monologue because he couldn't remember that the word for the smaller and younger humans is 'children'. It was a funny moment, sure - but, did it actually improve the scene? Or, did it just undermine Ultron as a legitimate villain? When I tried to take a step back and consider what these moments of humour meant for the character of Ultron, as a whole, I was forced to admit that, at least for me, it just didn't work.
Pietro and Wanda (who are never actually referred to, in the film, as Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch) always felt like a bit of a strange choice, to me. Sure, in the comics, they are among the surprisingly large cast of characters who have been a part of the Avengers at some point in Marvel's history. But, in the comics, they're also mutants, and the children of Magneto - so, naturally, would seem to be strongly tied to the X-men franchise (an alternate version of Quicksilver even appeared in X-men: Days of Future Past). Thanks to some very convoluted film-rights issues, though, the characters were able to appear here, as long as their origins in the comics where never mentioned. So, instead of being the mutant children of the X-men's most tenacious villain, they appear here as the results of Baron von Strucker's experiments. But, there's still the questions of whether it was actually worth it?
Given her importance in driving the film forward, it seems fairly obvious that Joss Whedon was really only interested in using Wanda Maximoff, with Pietro really only being brought along because the two are something of a package deal. The Scarlet Witch, with her ability to mess with people's heads (effectively trapping them in waking dreams) is clearly very important to the story being told. For the first half, or so, of the film she even manages to come across as a much more effective and intimidating villain than Strucker - or, even, Ultron himself, early on. Quicksilver, on the other hand, is really just along for the ride. That may sound a bit unfair, and it is true that Pietro's super-speed abilities do allow him his share of great moments, but, unlike his sister, he also does often feel a bit superfluous. But, they are both likable enough - and, Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson work well with what they are given (even if the accent they are both forced to put on is a bit shaky).
The previously established characters are pretty much everything that fans have already come to expect. Robert Downey Jr is just as perfectly cast as Tony Stark as he ever was - able to manage both comedy and drama easily. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) maintains the same balance of intimidating physical presence and good-natured affability he had settled into in previous films. Mark Ruffalo is still proving himself to be the best of the various actors to have played Bruce Banner in film - with the Hulk remaining the same fantastic CGI creation. Chris Evens, meanwhile, continues to explore the nature of his 'man out of time' role - as well as providing an entertaining 'straight man' for the rest of the cast to work off. Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) is given the opportunity or provide a little more detail about her past as a Russian assassin - which is appreciated, since I don't recall her past being given that much focus in any of the previous films. Also, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) makes an appearance - though, it's really little more than a cameo.
Then, there's Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). As someone who had previously considered Hawkeye to be a rather useless addition in previous films, I was surprised by how quickly I grew to like him in this one. The amount of focus he receives this time should more than make up for having to spend most of the previous film under Loki's control. Also, the revelation that he knows how absurd it is to be a man with a bow and arrow fighting an army of robots, but is going to fight anyway, is the perfect mix of humour and dramatic character growth.
Paul Bettany, meanwhile, makes the biggest transition. Initially limited to providing the voice of Tony Stark's AI butler, J.A.R.V.I.S, here he is able to step forward into the role of The Vision - a creation of Ultron which is recovered by the Avengers. He may only have a few scenes, but he is able to make good use of them to quickly establish The Vision as a figure worthy of standing beside the already well established heroes.
The film features some fantastic action sequences, as you would probably expect. And, when the moments of humour work, they work very well. But, unfortunately, some of the film's attempts at quiet emotion felt a little forced, to me. The overt, and heavy-handed, way that Pietro suddenly launches into his story about the time that he and Wanda spent a few days trapped with an unexploded shell that had Stark's logo on the side, for example, was just awkward. It was an important story, obviously, and it needed to be worked in somehow, so that the audience could understand what was driving the twins - but, more care should have been taken in how it was revealed to the audience. The same could also be said for the not entirely convincing romance blossoming between the Black Widow and Bruce Banner - though, in that case, the issue there is more of a lack of time to give it proper focus.
Avengers: Age of Ultron is still a highly entertaining film, in spite of whatever issues I may have with it. There is, admittedly, a sense that the film is constantly at risk of collapsing under its own weight (thanks to the sheer amount of separate elements it is trying to juggle) - but, it is to the film-makers credit that it never quite reaches that point. It isn't the greatest addition to Marvel's cinematic universe, sure - but, it is still well worth a fan's time.