***By now, many of you will have seen the film, so you can expect that this review will be full of SPOILERS.***
The first time that I saw Avengers: Age of Ultron, it disappointed me. The second time, it surprised me. But one thing about my opinion didn't change, which is that at its core, Joss Whedon's follow up to his 2012 mega phenomenon Avengers Assemble is an enormous mess, in equal parts frustrating and brilliant. The first issue is that there are just too many characters: we've now got eleven official Avengers, not to mention support from Nick Fury, Maria Hill, Professor Selvig, Laura Barton, Dr Helen Cho, passing references to Jane Foster and Pepper Potts, Ultron himself and two supporting villains in the form of Kretschmann and Ulysses Klaue. Granted, many of these appear only briefly or in cameo, but the sheer number of them means that the chess pieces are forever being moved around to make space for each other, and it's indicative of a franchise that is threatening to crack under its own weight.
Whedon, usually so assured at handling a large cast, strains to keep all the plates spinning, and if he's at all at fault here it's from trying perhaps a little too hard to cram in as much as possible, thereby losing some of that effortless magic that characterised the first film. Certainly, no one could accuse him of not working hard enough, but the first Avengers worked so well because it knew instinctively how and when to streamline the extensive cast of the wider MCU, whereas Age of Ultron never quite knows whether to ignore its auxillary characters or include them in the film properly. Instead, we get a compromise where characters such as James Rhodes or The Winter Soldier's Sam Wilson appear, but whose presence is of little or no consequence. For example, Rhodey / War Machine is at the party at the beginning of the film, but inexplicably disappears after Ultron's first attack, only to reappear at the climax with nary a mention as to where he's been in the meantime. For casual viewers, this is confusing - who the hell is this guy in a grey Iron Man suit, and why wasn't he around earlier? - and for seasoned Marvel fans it's logically frustrating, not least because the last time we saw Rhodey, in Iron Man 3, he'd dropped the War Machine moniker in favour of being Iron Patriot. What's happened between that film and this one for him to revert to the War Machine armour? Why hasn't he been helping the team up until the end? By themselves, these questions don't harm the film too much, and there is an easy answer - because there's not enough space to fill the screen with another major character - but dramatically it's still unsatisfying.
The point here is that Age of Ultron is just too overloaded with stuff: there's too much exposition, too many action sequences, too many characters, and too many sequels to set up. People complained that Iron Man 2 spent too much time setting up future films, but frankly, Age of Ultron beats it hands down in this regard. Fundamentally, Avengers: AoU is an overladen bridge, buckling most visibly in its mid section, where the plot grinds to a halt in favour of franchise management, clunkily handled character development and consequence-free action sequences.
It's these flaws that on my first viewing spoiled much of the film for me and made AoU feel disappointing and incoherent. However, after having seen the film a second time, it's easier to see that AoU offers much to revel in. Without a doubt, the film's opening sequence is far better than it's predecessor's, and arguably the best of all the Marvel films. The initial extended tracking shot is a joy to behold, and once again shows Whedon's talent at framing action and creating a cohesive sense of space with multiple characters - it's just a shame that this sequence is never truly matched again. Following this, the plot steps up with Tony and Bruce secretly developing the Ultron AI, which effectively, if a little perfunctorily, re-establishes their friendship so wonderfully sketched in the first film. The ensuing party sequence is one of the best character-based scenes in the film, though it's a shame that this is one of the few moments of levity and lightness of touch the film brings us beyond.
Where AoU starts to show its cracks is the Wakanda sequence - both in Ultron's search for the vibranium metal, and the smackdown between a hypnotised Hulk and Iron Man. It's painfully clear that the only reason that Ultron specifically needs vibranium is so that the film can send him to Wakanda, thus setting up Ulysses Klaue as a future Marvel villain. Following the Avengers' confrontation with Ultron, we are treated to a fight between Iron Man and a hypnotised Hulk, which requires the plot to grind to a halt as we are distracted by an exciting but ultimately empty sequence with no lasting consequences for the characters: Bruce already feels wary of his violent side without the need for this sequence, and the potentially interesting twist that the fight turns the public against the Avengers is dropped almost immediately.
Subsequently, the scene with Barton's farmhouse and the reveal of his family is a clunky and unnecessary character beat, borne more, one suspects, from Jeremy Renner's insistence that his supporting character be given more screen time this time around, than a considered creative decision by Whedon. Most egregiously, however, it gives rise to the worst line in any MCU film, when Black Widow tells Bruce that she's a monster because she is sterilised. This, from the writer-director who recently described a clip from Jurassic World as '70s-era sexist'. It's disappointing, weirdly unnecessary, and bafflingly offensive.
It's clear that the plot has ground to a halt here, and while it pushes itself back into second gear its clunky machinations become all too visible: Nick Fury returns because he needs to be around for the climax's deus ex machina, and Thor goes on a vision quest to learn something that the audience already knows. Fury's return is frustrating because it effectively voids the ending to the excellent Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and Thor's side quest is another pointless distraction that should have been cut before it was ever filmed. Once the team confront Ultron and retrieve the dormant Vision, however, the film once again finds its footing. The twins' switching of sides once they learn what Ultron is really up to is handled well, and the train sequence, while clearly owing a debt to Spider-Man 2, is one of the best actions beats of the film.
Subsequently, the 'birth' of Vision is one of the best moments in the MCU franchise, with Paul Bettany injecting humanity into a character that could so easily have been laughably silly. Indeed, it's here that Age of Ultron finally takes off, answering the question of The Vision's trustworthiness with one lift of Thor's hammer, a pitch perfect moment that encapsulates Whedon's trademark wit, humour and sense of drama.
The climax that follows, while being bigger and more complex than the first film's Battle of New York, doesn't quite manage to hit its exhilarating heights. This isn't to say it doesn't work - it really does - it's just that the sense of space that Whedon crafts so well in the film's opening sequence just isn't there in the climax, and it's often impossible to tell where each of the characters are in relation to each other. What we get instead, however, are a dozen great moments where everyone gets to do their thing, and a sequence that epitomises the film's raison d'etre in a single, transcendent shot that is both crammed with action and yet meticulously framed and executed. There are, however, a few bum notes even in this, the film's most confident and successful scene. Fury arriving in the nick of time, complete with the helicarrier, stretches our suspension of disbelief, and Quicksilver's death is a cheap way to insert emotional stakes without taking out any of the main players. This is especially annoying given how successfully Aaron Taylor-Johnson works to differentiate himself from X-Men: Days of Future Past's version of the same character, and how much potential his character has for development. On that note, both Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth bring welcome new blood to the team, both in terms of interesting abilities and succintly drawn characters. Indeed, if you ask me, Hulk should have died rather than Quicksilver: it would have been a far bigger shock to the status quo and a more impactful way of writing Banner out of the series than having him leave the team in all-too-familiar self-imposed exile.
Where many films like this fail because of rushed, underwritten scripts, apathy on the part of the studio, or the creative team missing the point of the main character (Amazing Spider-Man 2, I'm looking at you), Avengers: Age of Ultron fails as a coherent narrative because it tries too hard, attempting to be all things to all people. But it succeeds, moment to moment, with its wit, directorial verve, and a cast of actors that could now play these characters in their sleep. When Age of Ultron sags, it sags badly, and the wholly superfluous Wakanda sequence should never have made it into the shooting script, let alone the finished film. At its best, however, AoU soars with imagination, excitement and confidence. It's an odd thing, but on that all-important second viewing, my opinion of the film's quality hasn't changed - it's a clunking mess of a film, overburdened with the demands of an unwieldy franchise - and yet, my emotional, gut response has gone from confusing disappointment to surprising satisfaction and real, unabashed enjoyment. If this franchise is to continue its successes, Marvel and uber-producer Kevin Feige need to learn the lessons of Ultron's mistakes. For now though, I can forgive its errors and revel in its triumphs.