If you needed further proof that Joss Whedon is a brilliant director, you'll find it in one tiny(ish) bit of Age of Ultron: he elicits a fine performance from Aaron Taylor Johnson.
You'll also find it, of course, in spades throughout the film's 140 or so minutes. The opening action sequence. The closing action sequence. The various action sequences in between. But, as great as JW is at the whizz bang stuff (not least because it's coherent – pay attention, Michael Bay) this is a film that's also full of great characters, humour and quieter moments. The interplay between the Avengers is terrific – you can easily believe this crew are all old friends; there are little moments of unexpected back story (including – finally! – Hawkeye); there's a quite superb and charming running gag; and the budding romance between Black Widow and The Hulk, which could easily have been risible or one for assorted nudge-nudge, wink-wink comments, is genuinely tender. There's also the fact that, even at 140-or-so minutes, this isn't particularly flabby filmmaking. Sure, you could shave a little off the sides but it certainly never comes close to outstaying its welcome.
The film opens with the Avengers attacking a HYDRA stronghold in... Eastern Europe. The target? Loki's sceptre / staff / big glowy stick thing. This source of power has enabled HYDRA to build all sorts of weapons – including two flesh and blood ones – and they must be stopped. And they are. But, as it happens, that's merely playing into HYDRA's hands. With the sinister assistance of The Twins – and, particularly, the mind manipulating powwers of the Scarlet Witch – the Avengers, well, Tony Stark and Bruce Banner, are about to unleash a powerful source of AI into an unsuspecting world. Worse, it's got control of the internet, and inspiration, and weaponry, from Stark's ultimate project, Ultron.
The idea of Ultron, the project, is world peace, automatic defence against interstellar nasties, and the chance for the Avengers to retire to a beach somewhere. The reality of Ultron, the being (voiced brilliantly by James Spader, although with more than a hint of Shatner about him) is that to achieve world peace, the world needs to evolve once again. And that means an extinction level event with only a group of very special beings to stop it.
While detractors will argue that Age of Ultron is simply a very good stepping stone to the next stage of the apparently never-ending canon of Marvel stories, this is so much more than that. As someone whose knowledge of comics starts with The Dandy and finishes with Roy of the Rovers, unless the next stage(s) of Avengers movies sees Dennis The Menace bitten by a radioactive spider or Thor turn out as goalkeeper for Melchester Rovers, I can only watch these as standalone slabs of entertainment. And on that basis, Age of Ultron is a knockout. No, it might not be quite as satisfying as the previous one, but it's damned close.
It's slick, thrilling and very funny – the Thor hammer scene (and its final payoff) is a classic – and as good as Hemsworth is in that (it's the best use of an eyebrow on the big screen since Roger Moore), he's more than matched across the board. If you have to single anyone out it's Ruffalo's Hulk / Banner, whose tortured soul suggests that yet another reboot of that franchise wouldn't be a bad idea at all.
The main strength of Age of Ultron is not that it's a big summer blockbuster interspersed with little scenes of characterisation. It's an ensemble piece interspersed with great scenes of blockbuster action. The Russo brothers, who will be filling Mr Whedon's shoes next time out, have an awful lot to live up to.