Avengers: Age of Ultron, dir/wr. Joss Whedon, st. Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany
The latest instalment in the seemingly unending yet highly polished Marvel oeuvre is Whedon's second crack at the whip, a tale that sees the Avengers assembling once more to save us puny humans whilst getting off a line of smart-assery or five. By now the narrative beats should be familiar, and although Avengers: Age of Ultron might not show us anything desperately new, the established ensemble still has enough charisma to rock your world. The plot, always more interesting when revealing fissures in the teamwork, revolves around Loki's sceptre - specifically the contents of its nucleic gem, which Hydra have wielded to turn twins Pietro ("he's fast") and Wanda Maximoff ("she's weird") into sinister agents. Stark (Downey Jr.) sees the gem's alien A.I. as the last piece in his Ultron project - a robot steward of the Earth that might allow the Avengers to retire in peace. But Ultron (exuberantly voiced by James Spader) becomes self-aware before his time and, well, let's just say it all hits the fan to the tune of a quarter of a billion dollars. The blitz and boom of the many explosive set-pieces are as deftly orchestrated as ever, but it's in Ultron's quieter moments where it really shines; Whedon undoubtedly writes zingers of one-liners, but revelations of the Avengers' hopes and nightmares are where the characters and the fragility of their bond are really sold; Taylor-Johnson and Olsen imbue Pietro/Quicksilver and Wanda/Scarlet Witch with shifting rage and conflicted allegiance; a Black Widow flashback allows Johansson to expand on a superhero's early trauma and sacrifice; Ruffalo's Banner has real poignancy this time round as the grim reality of the Hulk's destructive nature comes to the fore; Renner's Hawkeye gets a touching and humble side-story; and perhaps best, most subtly of all, Stark's gung-ho arrogance and assumed leadership really begins to piss off his costumed colleagues. All of which leaves us where? Well not an avid reader of the source material, I am none the wiser. But the only way is forward, and that means the stakes have to rise and there have to be enough tragic consequences to make the struggle feel real. And if by that time Marvel are still casting actors of this calibre, wow, wouldn't that be something.