"Age of Ultron shines brightest when it is allowed to do what Whedon does best"

Joss Whedon’s Avengers sequel doesn’t waste any time filling in blanks or making room for newcomers to the series. Smashing its way onto the screen with a three-minute tracking shot that showcases the superhero team as they storm their way through a snowy landscape, Avengers:  Age of Ultron feels very much like Whedon knows his audience and has made a film aimed directly at the most diehard of comic book fans. This James Bond style pre-credit sequence is emblematic of the entire film, bounding forwards at a pace that nobody could possibly keep up with, and only vaguely explaining the where and why of it all. The film is a mess, but what a mess.

With the characters’ back stories now firmly established, Age of Ultron is able to devote time to fleshing out some of Marvel’s flatter characters. The relationship between Natasha Romanoff and Bruce Banner is given ample screen time, becoming one of the more interesting of the film’s sub-plots. There are some intriguing scenes with Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye too, but as usual it’s Tony Stark/Iron Man who insists on driving the show, like it or not. With a dream of building a “suit of armour” around the planet, Stark and Banner create a sentient artificial intelligence system designed to automatically protect the world, eliminating the need for the Avengers. In doing so, they inadvertently give life to Ultron, an omnipresent villain, hell-bent on destroying humanity.

Ultron (voiced by James Spader) is a peculiar villain, dark and evil one minute, and cracking omelette puns the next. As an artificial intelligence, he isn’t motivated by relatable human desires and, as such, is difficult to understand. The brilliance of Loki as a baddie was one of the original film’s driving forces and disappointingly Age of Ultron feels lacking in that regard. Weak too, are the new characters Pietro and Wanda Maximoff (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen), Eastern European twins bearing a grudge against Stark. The pair are given far too much screen time for the lack of depth afforded to their characters.

Age of Ultron shines brightest when it is allowed to do what Whedon does best. For a few brilliant moments the film basks in Whedon’s excellent ability to mix campy pop culture references with heart-stopping action, some brilliantly aloof jokes are handed to Chris Hemsworth’s Thor and Chris Evans’ Captain America, as well as others. Scarlett Johansson and Mark Ruffalo are equally brilliant as Black Widow and Hulk with the focus on Romanoff going some way to solving Marvel’s problem with female characters.

Hardcore comic fans will be far from disappointed with Age of Ultron. Whedon has once again shown the competition how it’s done by cramming as much as he possibly can into his film. The action is unparalleled as far as superhero films go, and there is plenty of interesting characterisation going on, surprising given the sheer number of stars jostling for screen time. For the uninitiated or unconvinced, however, the movie does nothing to get them on board, and for some, Age of Ultron will feel like a sticky mess.