Director: Joss Whedon.
Cast: Robert Downey Jr, Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Mark Ruffalo, Jeremy Renner, James Spader, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany.
|Super-awesome friends fistbump!|
Through an interweaving web of 10 films we've seen Norse gods, super-soldiers, alien attacks, a mono-syllabic tree and a gun-toting raccoon, with the high watermark being 2012's The Avengers, which brought most of these things together for the third-biggest grossing film of all time.
It was the culmination of what is now called a "mega-franchise" - something comic book rivals DC are desperately and hurriedly trying to mimic - but it set the bar impossibly high for every MCU film that followed.
It's a bar that the 11th film, Avengers: Age Of Ultron, can't quite reach, but that doesn't stop it from being an action-packed rollercoaster punctuated by some cool character moments and ruled by a great villain.
After some individual adventures (Iron Man 3, Captain America 2 and Thor 2), the Avengers re-assemble to track down Loki's sceptre - a left-over MacGuffin from their first team-up.
But Iron Man longs for a time when he doesn't have to strap on his battle armour, so he and Bruce Banner (Ruffalo) set about using the staff to create a super-smart super-suit to protect the entire world from intergalactic threats.
The result is Ultron (Spader), a robot who sees the world's biggest threat as coming not from space, but from humanity itself.
Whedon's wit and way with words, such a highlight in The Avengers, are back in full force for Age Of Ultron and are particularly evident in the titular robot, where Spader's delicious delivery (and some motion-capture wizardry) help create an android with attitude that's unlike any we've seen before.
The character of Ultron also sets up some interesting themes about gods and evolution - there's some intriguing science-meets-spirituality ideas at play here, but nothing too heavy as Whedon's humour ensures a nice mix of levity and gravity.
In fact it's the script's talky moments that are the real highlight, perhaps more so than the bash-and-crash spectacle. Most notable is a scene where the Avengers just hang out and play a party game of "Try to Lift Thor's Hammer" - it's this kind of stuff that sticks in the memory more than most of the action.
Not that the action is bad though. There is a tendency for it to whiz by in too-quick edits and blurs of CG imagery, but some parts are outstanding, such as a single-take opening shot and the much-previewed Hulk vs Iron Man showdown.
Another highlight, especially for the fans, is the introduction of new characters. We get the super-powered Maximoff twins (Taylor-Johnson and Olsen), the aforementioned Ultron, and The Vision (Bettany), with the latter being a fascinating prospect for future films. There are also a few "hey it's that guy" moments for some returning characters.
Where the film struggles is juggling such a big cast evenly. It seemed a Herculean task in The Avengers with six characters (one that Whedon pulled off amazingly well) but here we're up to at least 10 characters and it's near impossible to keep track of them when they split up for the final battle. They each get their moment to shine, but it's occasionally too many balls to juggle in the editing suite.
Even less successful is a seemingly out-of-nowhere romance between two characters, and a few strange plot points, including one which is best described as "Thor goes for a swim". These elements stick out as "huh?" moments but are not enough to drag the film down.
After all, this is a comic book movie, and there is a fair amount of comic book insanity and MacGuffin mumbo jumbo involving alien technology and "computer magic", so the best idea is to just strap in for the ride because it's a fun one, filled with plenty of laughs, great spectacle, and more cool characters than you can poke Loki's sceptre at.