Signaling its entrance with one long digitally aided take, Age of Ultron wastes no time with slow moments of character building exposition. And it doesn’t have to. We know the drill, and it’s exhilarating watching Earth’s mightiest heroes leap, fly, and drive into action, hunting down the last remnants of the villainous Hydra organization. Each Avenger gets their own brief moment to shine, each beating up bad guys and firing off one-liners their own unique way. This opening becomes emblematic of the film as a whole.
After the successful invasion, Tony Stark recovers the magic Scepter previously wielded by Loki against Earth in the first movie. He discovers artificial intelligence inside and, with Bruce Banner’s help, creates Ultron. But, as always, there’s a glitch, and Ultron decides not to protect the world, but destroy it, forcing our heroes into action once again, followed by Joss Whedon’s trademark blend of high stakes and unexpected humor. The villain (James Spader relishes the role, giving each line menace or hilarity, and sometimes both) and the A.I. premise are both superb. It is genuinely compelling to watch the Avengers confronted by their own frailty, and questioning whether or not they’re the problem (“It’s about whether he’s right,” Captain America says of Ultron’s claims that the Avengers are a monstrosity). Marvel films (particularly Thor and Iron Man) have always poked playfully at the idea of American exceptionalism, but here Whedon cuts a bit deeper.
Tonally Age of Ultron brings nothing new to the table. Unlike last year’s Marvel slate, which delivered both a high-octane spy thriller and a space opera, Joss Whedon and company seem content with generally replicating the feel of their 2012 hit. If you aren’t already in the choir, Age of Ultron won’t get you singing; if you are, it delivers gloriously.
With spectacle this bombastic (watch out for a massive mid-film battle between Hulk and Stark’s “Hulkbuster”) the long run-time never feels it. Everyone gets their moment, and Whedon is to be commended for so deftly balancing such a bloated cast of God-like characters, giving even the newest characters sufficient development. Action sequences ebb and flow nicely, with Whedon zipping from big picture focus to tiny one-on-one battles of superhero badassery. The images and moments of comic geek heaven, such as Captain America flipping his shield into the air for Thor to hammer it through dozens of Ultron’s lackeys, are plentiful. Sadly, although Whedon’s eye for action has improved, his famous wit takes a bit of a step down. Luckily there is no short supply of laugh-out-loud moments, but a few jokes do fall flat, feeling like a cog forced into a machine – which is ultimately what the film is – a machine of pure Marvel formula. Thankfully, Whedon and company sneak moments of weight and character gravitas into the formula, and mold a wonderfully colorful romp around it, but one wonders what might have been had he not been fighting the powers that be.