[The following review of Avengers: Age of Ultron contains very minor spoilers.]
So it turns out the problem with The Avengers is pretty much The Avengers themselves, and not just because this time they’ve invented a crazy genocidal robot. The all-star superhero team-up Avengers: Age of Ultron has so many characters that the filmmakers’ attempts to fix the only real problem with the first movie – its simplistic, dopey plot – actually creates more problems than ever before. There’s just so much going on in this otherwise crowd-pleasing blockbuster that none of it lingers on screen long enough to feel like it really matters.
But that’s not so bad. The greatest enemy The Avengers ever faced may actually be the enormous amounts of hype heaped upon this enjoyable sequel, encouraging audiences to expect more than a messy blow-‘em-up action extravaganza in which Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, The Hulk, Black Widow and Hawkeye quip at each other and punch hundreds of robots to death. Avengers: Age of Ultron is not the next evolution of superhero storytelling, nor does it particularly set the stage for Marvel Studio’s upcoming “Phase Three.” The pieces move around the board but the game stays the same. Fortunately, that game hasn’t stopped being fun.
The action starts out heavy with The Avengers, fully formed, cleaning up the last nest of Hydra agents after the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. There they find not one but two new supervillains – Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) – and the means to produce a state of the art artificial intelligence that, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) believes, can save the world.
Instead, of course, Tony Stark and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) accidentally create Ultron, a psychotic robot with plans to exterminate the human race. Voiced by James Spader (with the same breezy sociopathy you’ll find on The Blacklist), Ultron begins traveling the world, assembling an army (literally), and planning the doom of both The Avengers and humanity alike. Robots will be exploded, banter will be banted.
There’s more to Avengers: Age of Ultron than that. A lot more. So much more that, again, none of it feels particularly important. Audiences learn a lot more about Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) than ever before, and it turns out he has a great excuse for not being in any of the movies since The Avengers. Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and The Hulk are flirting with the possibility of romance, but their checkered pasts get in the way. The Vision is created and played beautifully by Paul Bettany, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) absconds on a vague and largely unnecessary vision quest, and Ulysses Klaw (Andy Serkis) makes an appearance for no better reason than a Black Panther movie is coming in 2018, so Marvel might as well tease it now.
The Avengers still have a great dynamic, thanks to pitch perfect casting and snappy dialogue from Joss Whedon, whose script gives multiple opportunities to take a load off for minutes at a time and do team-building exercises. But then it’s back off to the races, zipping across the planet on mission after mission, all of which are so big and extravagant and entertaining so you might miss the fact that most of them don’t matter much. Because the movie has to end with a big, complicated action sequence in which our heroes once again fight an army of faceless enemies who can be ripped limb from limb without making The Avengers look like bad guys.
How we get to that climax is largely besides the point, which means all the somewhat overcomplicated machinations of Ultron and the elaborate explanations for everything going on in the Marvel Cinematic Universe feel a little pointless. Unlike Captain America: The Winter Soldier, this Avengers sequel never lingers on its themes long enough for them to take on meaning, and unlike Guardians of the Galaxy, the story is just complicated enough to get in the way of the audience turning their brains off and having completely escapist, breezy fun.
So instead, we are stuck with messy, overstuffed fun. It’s a gooey plate of nachos that shouldn’t constitute your whole diet, but is perfectly enjoyable for now, even when it congeals at the end into a wet, sloppy mess. So lower your expectations just a little bit and take a ride with Avengers: Age of Ultron. It’s not Marvel Studios’ best movie (by far), but it’s still a good time at the multiplex.