Walt Disney Pictures
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action, violence and destruction, and for some suggestive comments.
Running time: 141 minutes.
Two stars out of four.
Much of what made Joss Whedon’s original “Avengers” such a joy in 2012 was his ability to juggle and make it look effortless. As writer and director, he combined spectacular set pieces and small, clever moments deftly, and found a way to give every member of his large, star-studded cast an opportunity to shine. It was a summer blockbuster with a sly sense of humor — the most dazzling high-wire act — and one that would be tough to top.
Whedon follows up that smash hit with the latest installment in the behemoth Marvel Cinematic Universe, “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” and this time, the effort is obvious. There is simply too much going on here — too many characters, too many foes, too many subplots, too many twists. More does not necessarily equal better; here, more is just … meh.
It’s often hard to figure out what’s going on and even harder to care, but whatever is happening, it’s brought to you by Audi (when it’s not brought to you by Gillette or Beats by Dre). Here and there, Whedon — the groundbreaking, genre-blending creator of the TV series “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Firefly” — sneaks in glimmers of the snap and wit which have made him a major cultural force. Iron Man makes an aside about Eugene O’Neill, for example, which I’m guessing the vast majority of the giddy international audience won’t get.
When “Avengers: Age of Ultron” takes a moment to catch its breath and allow the talented ensemble of actors to bounce off each other with self-aware smarts and charm, it’s thoroughly winning. There’s a party scene at Tony Stark’s glassy lair in the sky which is just a complete blast to watch. Dressed in their civvies, the Avengers drink and joke with their friends and bust each others’ chops. An amusing bit involving Thor’s hammer has an amazing payoff later on in the film. It’s enough to make you wish the entire movie could be like this: Imagine the Avengers, sitting around bantering rather than blasting bad guys. Whedon did a stripped-down, modern-day version of “Much Ado About Nothing” in his backyard, so why not?
But alas, bad guys come. And there are so many of them.
We’re dropped in at the top in the midst of a massive siege on a fortress in some made-up Eastern European country. The camerawork is smooth and the stunts are tricky and the action is punishing, but it’s all so big and glossy — and so obviously computer-generated — that it establishes an emotional disconnect from the very beginning. Yes, the characters originated in comic books, but this just looks cartoonish.
Having saved the planet from the smarmy, preening Loki and his army of aliens, the Avengers must assemble once again to stop an accidental enemy: an artificial intelligence that Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) himself designed. His name is Ultron, and he’s voiced with bemused menace by James Spader. (In an intriguing switch of their relationship in “Less Than Zero,” Downey is the one in control and Spader is the one causing damage.) The introduction of A.I. and its benefits causes an ethical divide among the Avengers: Captain America (Chris Evans), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). Various supporting players from previous Marvel movies also show up briefly, including Cobie Smulders, Samuel L. Jackson, Stellan Skarsgard, Hayley Atwell and Idris Elba.
But wait, there’s more! Besides the threat of Ultron, the Avengers also must manage a pair of genetically enhanced twins who have a score to settle with Tony Stark: the speedy Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and the psychic Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen). With the exception of a couple of pivotal moments, they weren’t terribly necessary for the plot. They’re also doing terrible Eastern European accents that suggest they’d rather be hunting moose and squirrel. Ultron also uses a super-strong metal — the same kind that comprises Captain America’s shield — to form a army of mini-Ultrons, so that’s a problem, too.
It all feels frenzied and breathless, but Whedon’s attempts at jamming in humanity end up seeming half-baked in contrast. Hawkeye gets an actual back story (as well as one great speech he delivers to Scarlet Witch in a reminder of the subtle strength of Renner’s acting abilities) but it’s more of an idyllic idea than a real life. Also hard to accept is the will-they-or-won’t-they romance that forms between Hulk and Black Widow. Even with accomplished actors like Ruffalo and Johansson — both of whom are capable of great power and great sensitivity — this new-found relationship comes out of nowhere and makes no sense.
If the high-tech issues “Age of Ultron” tackles interest you, though, there is a movie out there about the merits and threats of artificial intelligence which features tremendous performances and sharp writing and vivid special effects but about one one-hundredth of the cast: It’s called Ex Machina. It’s one of the year’s best, and a shining example of how less truly can be more.