Avengers: Age of Ultron' makes heroic effort to extend Marvel universe

Superhero sequel's visual and narrative clutter can't conceal cleverness and affection for characters

Three years ago, The Avengers made the cinematic scene like the perfect juggling act. With just his second feature film, writer/director Joss Whedon unified sharply disparate characters from five Marvel Comics movies — including an armored zillionare, a Norse deity, and a big green monster — and delivered a superb spectacle of action, humor, and instantly iconic sequences.

The sequel, The Avengers: Age of Ultron, shows the strain that comes with ramping things up. By adding more characters and subplots, it’s like Marvel Studios keeps throwing Whedon more stuff to juggle: here’s three more balls, two hoops, some flaming torches, and maybe an Infinity Stone. Whedon still keeps everything in the air, but shows more of the work for less of the fun.

Age of Ultron almost literally hits the ground running, as the film opens on the Avengers attacking the Eastern European base of the evil organization Hydra (mopping up after the events of 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier). Not only are they Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, they work well in concert, picking off bad guys while quipping about Captain America’s (Chris Evans) aversion to profanity. Superspy Natasha, the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), has even worked out a way to calm down Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) when he’s Hulked out in the film’s first hint of their potential Beauty and the Beast romance.

The team runs into trouble with Hydra’s “enhanced” secret weapons: superfast Peitro aka Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and witch-powered Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen), who not only has telekinesis but can hypnotize her opponents to see their worst fears. Thanks to Wanda, Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) has a vision of the team dead and the Earth laid waste due to his negligence. Throughout the film, Wanda’s mind-hexes cause the Avengers to face their inner demons and illuminate dark corners of their personalities. (It’s the kind of device Whedon frequently used to good effect on his beloved TV series “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”)

Saying, “I want to build a suit of armor around the world,” Tony enlists Bruce to help him design “Ultron,” an artificial intelligence intended to secure the peace and make the Avengers unnecessary. But the experiment’s not even finished when Ultron (voiced by James Spader) becomes self-aware, takes over Tony’s technology and puts a depraved spin on his Earth-saving mission.

In interviews Whedon confessed to exhaustion in completing Age of Ultron, which comes as no surprise when you’ve seen the finished product. The chapters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe are highly interconnected, occasionally to their detriment. Whedon clearly put a lot of work in constructing plot points and adding cameos to unify Age of Ultron with Marvel movies past and yet to come. And he takes pains to give each member of the ensemble a chance to shine. Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), the least-established regular, reveals a surprising personal side while Thor (Chris Hemworth) comes across as more clever here than he does in his own films.

But with an extended cast this huge, it’s inevitable that someone would get the short shrift, and ironically, it’s Ultron, even though he can mass-produce copies of himself. It may seem silly to complain that a killer robot with an outlandish, apocalyptic scheme is underdeveloped, but Ultron makes a fascinatingly weird presence. Most evil robots on film have a cold, inhuman lack of emotions, but Ultron’s mercurial and impulsive, with a penchant for slangy dialogue: “Don’t compare me to Tony Stark — It’s kind of a thing with me,” Spader snarls, his voice reverberating like a Tom Waits spoken word riff. Even if Spader and Downey were never in a room together, you detect their shrewd personalities playing off each other.

The heroes criss-cross continents for huge action scenes, but the smartness in the writing and performances prove much more valuable than the lavish, busy computer effects. A highlight finds Tony in “Hulkbuster” armor, trying to contain a berserking Bruce, but the appeal lies more in Downey’s quips than the inventive destruction.

Overall, Age of Ultron feels cluttered, where the previous Avengers had a stornger narrative and was visually cleaner. Amid all the smashed robot armies and imperiled bystanders, there’s less room for moments of lighthearted discovery, like the last film’s shwarma scene. And though it feels like a transitional installment in a larger work more than a standalone film, it remains complex and intriguing, with palpable affection for the comic book characters and the actors who play them. You’re often aware of the effort that went into Age of Ultron while watching it, but it’s clearly a heroic one. (3 out of 5 stars)

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