Avengers sequel won't disappoint ardent fans
AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON (12A)
As the roaring success of last year's Guardians Of The Galaxy confirmed, our appetite for films set in the Marvel Comics universe is voracious.
This eagerly anticipated sequel to the 2012 action adventure Avengers Assemble is poised to smash box office records with the same unstoppable clobber of a rampaging Incredible Hulk.
Director Joss Whedon is back at the helm to lay the narrative groundwork for the 2016 blockbuster, Captain America: Civil War, which will tear the eponymous team apart as governments worldwide prepare to pass an act regulating superhuman activity.
In many respects, Avengers: Age Of Ultron is business as usual. Whedon's film fleshes out the back stories of existing characters, introduces new friends and foes to the fray, and continues the relentless cross-pollination of this menagerie of mighty misfits.
Marvel Comics chairman Stan Lee makes his traditional cameo and Whedon's script glisters with polished one-liners, including one gem to pithily illustrate how quickly an evil artificial intelligence can infect the World Wide Web: 'He's spreading faster than a Catholic rabbit.' While the sequel delivers exactly what we expect, it lacks some of the pizzazz of the first film and pacing noticeably sags in the middle, plus overly enthusiastic editing of set pieces reduces some skirmishes to an incomprehensible blur, which strain the eyes in 3D.
In the breathless action sequence which opens the film, the Avengers storm a Hydra stronghold in the central European city of Sokovia under the control of Baron von Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann) in order to reclaim Loki's magical staff, the Chitauri Scepter.
During the melee, emotionally scarred siblings Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) and Pietro Maximoff (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who have been subjected to secret Hydra experiments, are unleashed.
Wanda infects the mind of Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr), using her dark sorcery to convince the billionaire that he will bring about the deaths of the entire team.
Tormented by his nightmarish vision, Stark secretly plans to harness the power of the Chitauri Scepter to awaken a dormant artificial intelligence program to protect mankind.
'I don't want to hear that 'man wasn't meant to meddle' medley,' Stark tells scientist Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) as justification for his covert operation.
Instead, Stark unwittingly unleashes the villainous Ultron (voiced by James Spader).
Steve Evans aka Captain America (Chris Evans) clashes with Stark for control of the Avengers comprising Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Natasha Romanov aka Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Banner aka The Incredible Hulk and Clint Barton aka Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner).
Rivalries intensify and fragile bonds of trust fray as mankind's survival hangs in the balance.
Thankfully, the Avengers have a new, yet familiar, ally: an android called Vision (Paul Bettany).
By introducing a hulking automaton arch-nemesis, Avengers: Age Of Ultron duplicates some of the large-scale digital destruction of the Transformers franchise.
Spader's vocal performance lends gravitas to his mechanised megalomaniac while Downey Jr predictably snaffles the majority of the droll quips.
Seeds of romance between Ruffalo and Johansson, sown in the first film, are heavily watered as a diversion from the bone-crunching.
Running jokes about Captain America's aversion to swearing and the size of Thor's hammer don't run out of puff before the 141 frenetic minutes come to a suitably bombastic close.
Marvel films have a habit of sneaking a teaser into the end credits. Age Of Ultron doesn't disappoint the ardent fan boys and girls on this front either.