Second outings are tricky. They're trickier still if you're Joss Whedon, Lord Of The Geeks, and your last film was only the most successful comic book adaptation of all time.
Avengers: Age Of Ultron releases this Friday in India, a full week before the US and many other countries. That's all I really should be writing here. For a film like this -- with a wide release, all the marketing fire-power in the world, and featuring some of the world's biggest stars -- the only way a review could hurt its prospects is if it were a colossal disappointment, a movie so bad that you can't even bear to watch it in its entirety.
But now, having watched all 142 minutes of it with mostly-rapt attention, I can safely conclude that Age Of Ultron is far from being a colossal disappointment. As mighty Thor (played by Chris Hemsworth) would say, as a sequel to one of the most celebrated films of this decade, "it is worthy".
We meet him and the rest of the Avengers -- Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Captain America (Chris Evans), Dr Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) -- in the thick of things as soon as the movie begins, in the fictional eastern European country of Sovokia. Within the first five minutes, Whedon succeeds in pulling the viewer right in, belying the fact that three years have passed since the first movie. "Nothing has changed, guys. Welcome home," he seems to be saying to viewers.
The plot, which will be familiar for readers of the comics, is standard. Ultron (voiced by James Spader), a top-secret defence program Stark and Banner have been working on, becomes self-aware. S.H.I.E.L.D. has dissolved since Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Hydra has spawned two new characters: twins Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), Magneto's children who are better known as Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch. Why is Taylor-Johnson, who we've seen play Kick-Ass (another Marvel superhero), cast here as the speedy Quicksilver instead of Evan Peters who played the same character in last year's X-Men: Days Of Future Past? Search me.
If you've watched upwards of five sci-fi movies in your life, you know what happens when artificial intelligence gains consciousness -- it leads to "Human beings need to be wiped out so that we can start all over again" theorising. From Skynet to Agent Smith to, now, Ultron, moviegoers have seen this plan for over 30 years.
Which brings me to the main -- and only -- real problem with Age Of Ultron. It follows a steady little rhythm that goes 'action sequence → witty banter → plot development → funny scene → action sequence' and so on. It is so well-paced that its somewhat bloated running time whizzes right past. In short, it has everything you would expect from Whedon, when what we really want from him is to not get what we expect.
(From left): Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch
By now, we have all paid money to watch the Marvel Cinematic Universe unfold before us 10 times since 2007. We don't know the quips Downey Jr's Tony Stark is going to make (he's as hilarious as ever, by the way) but we know when he's going to make them. We know that when Whedon sets up a funny scene in which the Avengers are fooling around with Thor's hammer at a party, there is going to be a pay-off later on in the movie. It's all very entertaining without being the least bit surprising, like ordering your favourite meal from your favourite restaurant while you curl up at home and watch your favourite TV show.
Whedon, of course, is fully aware of these limitations and even wields it self-referentially ("None of this makes any sense," mutters Renner, during one very meta moment). There are times, however, that you wish he had gone the whole hog with his irreverence to the standardised nature of the genre. This is especially true when it comes to Ultron, who, thanks to Spader's droll delivery, sounds like the Chandler Bing of evil genius androids, but is still taken at face value by the movie. Why is no one talking about how template-like his plan is, for example?
Of course, there are some things that come as surprises, such as an unexpected romantic track and unprecedented back-story time given to Hawkeye. But watching Age Of Ultron as cinema is pointless when it is clearly meant to be nothing more than an outstanding theme-park ride. So, savour the terrific action sequences (even if they're somewhat more incoherent this time around), the spectacular CGI, an insanely good Andy Serkis cameo, and a new 'Hulk, smash!' moment without thinking much about it and head to the theatres right now.
Wait, you're already there. Never mind.