That said, there is some strain showing along the bulging seams of The Avengers: The Age of Ultron. Writer-director Joss Whedon keeps this busy super-ensemble sequel chugging along at a brisk pace, but even he seems overwhelmed by the required elements of a Marvel movie.
The short synopsis, as spoiler-free as possible, is this: Our heroes bust up a secret HYDRA base in the remote mountains of the fictional Eastern European nation of Sokovia, where they have a brief run-in with the Maximoff twins, the super-fast Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and super-psychic Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), both of whom have a grudge against the Avengers in general and Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) in particular. Stark and Bruce banner/the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) use captured HYDRA technology to jumpstart the Ultron project, an artificial intelligence meant to protect the world so that no one else has to.
Naturally, Ultron (James Spader) quickly (and somewhat inexplicably) turns psychotic, decides that the biggest threat to the world is humanity, and thus the latter needs to be wiped out. Ultron dupes the twins into siding with him, and the Witch’s ability to get inside a person’s head and dredge up their worst fears allows Ultron to get the upper hand. The team scrambles to lick their wounds get their act together in time for the climactic showdown.
On the surface, it’s not that much different from the first Avengers movie or the past couple of Marvel films in general, and Whedon’s knack for writing clever banter and character development around large casts and action sequences is in full affect here. On the down side, he’s saddled with a slew of characters to develop, as well as cameo appearances, callbacks to previous movies, and plot seeds for upcoming movies. (Thor: Ragnarok and the two-part Infinity War especially get some foreshadowing, though it’s sutured roughly to the plot.) The result is a very busy movie. It’s kept moving at a fast pace, but ironically Age of Ultron could probably have gotten away with an extra 10 minutes or so added to its 141-minute running time.
Some of its parts may move smoother than others, but the movie is never dull, and Whedon’s skill at giving actors plenty of raw material to work with is put to good use. Everyone gets their key scenes, most notably Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), who was pushed into the background of the first movie. Here, he gets a back story that stands in contrast to the grim personal lives of his teammates. (He also gets what is arguably the best line of the entire MCU to date during the climactic finale, one that puts the comic book movie phenomenon into perfect perspective.)Much has been said of the romance between Banner and the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), though it often verges on soap operish. Taylor-Johnson and Olsen have a lot to work against, but hold their own well, especially the latter. (Whedon obviously finds her the more intriguing of the two.) Spader is perhaps the only actor on the planet who can match Downey when it comes to snark, and he plays the villain to the hilt. Though his third-act introduction is jarring, Paul Bettany’s debut as the android Vision is gripping. A synthetic whose creation mirrors Ultron’s, the character is exotic and fascinating, and Bettany perfectly captures the alien-ness of him and makes a memorable impression with a limited amount of screen time.
Still, it’s a lot to digest, and familiarity with the characters and their world is sinking in. Up to now, the MCU has been a simple and unknown quantity. It has become a very big place, with a lot of characters inhabiting it. It comes as no surprise that the epic third Avengers outing is scheduled as a two-parter; with this much plot and character build-up going on, it will have to be in order to have room for everything. However, with at least a half-dozen or so new heroes waiting in the wings (including Spider-Man), one has to wonder if two movies will be enough. This summer’s Ant-Man might make for a welcome return to smaller-scale (pun intended) superhero adventuring.