During the opening sequence of “Avengers: Age of Ultron”, in which our mega-heroes lay siege to a compound belonging to the sinister Hydra organization in a fictitious Eastern European country, I had a vision of the film’s writer/director Joss Whedon playing maniacally with action figures in his parent’s’ basement while mouthing the characters’ frequent wisecracks at one another. (Spoiler alert: the very first word in the movie is “shit”).
While I’m sure that the scriptwriting process was a bit more turbulent than that, Whedon’s second go-around with Marvel’s superhero collective (Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, the Hulk and Co., for those outside the realm of the living) looks a lot like a kid playing in a toy store if he had about a $250 million allowance to bring anything he wanted to life.
That kind of scratch might go to waste in the hands of someone like Michael Bay, whose movies about scrap metal lack any kind of a pulse. But Whedon’s love for his source material seeps through the screen like CG sweat, from the ultimate throw-down between Iron Man and the Hulk in the city streets (salivating fans will finally get to see the long-awaited Hulkbuster suit in its full glory) to the central villain himself, a sentient and omnipresent digital menace named Ultron (voiced brilliantly by James Spader) who can’t tell the difference between saving humanity and wiping it out completely.
Ultron is created by Tony Stark, a.k.a Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), and the reluctant Bruce Banner, a.k.a Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) to protect the planet from pesky extraterrestrial invaders like the demigod Loki (the evil brother of Chris Hemsworth’s Thor), who nearly leveled NYC in the last movie.
Instead, the program — at first just a holographic orb hovering in the lab at Avengers headquarters — goes rogue, finds an appropriately creepy metal skeleton to inhabit, and attacks the team on their own turf before using the internet as an escape hatch and plotting an extinction level event using, ironically, the very alien technology that Stark was trying to protect civilization from.
Nonstop action ensues, easily outpacing the entire first film by its halfway point, as Ultron threatens to invade everything that has a plug and eventually create a body for himself. At this stage in filmmaking technology, it’s the fine details and storytelling that distinguish the good from the not-so-impressive; Whedon’s elaborately-staged chase sequences, fight scenes (and other things that I’m not sure they really have a name for yet) are very well executed — the exception being a few convoluted hallucinations that feel shoe-horned into the proceedings — but the quirky dynamic between the team members is what makes the film so entertaining.
Okay, take a breath, and don’t worry about everything making sense (not because there’s no logic to it, but because there’s simply too much going on at once). The movie throws caution to the proverbial wind for sure — the thing teeters on overload for virtually the entire 2 hr 20 min. run time — but it is a whopping piece of entertainment, even if audiences might begin to get a little weary during the non-stop climactic onslaught of Ultron’s robotic minions.
While the central theme might not seem particularly original — I mean we’ve almost done this cautionary artificial intelligence thing to death, haven’t we? — “Age of Ultron” is nothing if not an improvement, fixing several glaring deficiencies from its 2012 predecessor. Having had ample time to evolve in their own films, core characters like Iron Man, Thor and Chris Evans’ Captain America don’t soak up all the screen time, and other characters are given considerably more attention (in particular, Jeremy Renner’s arrow-slinging Hawkeye, who was sidelined for most of the first movie); Ruffalo’s Banner/Hulk is given a personality and a romantic interest (Scarlett Johansson’s deadly assassin Black Widow, who herself has appeared in four of the films). Some new additions have actual purpose: Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson are both excellent as vengeful but misguided twins who are integral to the plot, rather than just being requisite additions to the bad guy roster. And yes, even that “S” word has a ripple effect throughout the flick, one that lends itself to the movie’s biggest attribute — Whedon’s trademark sense of humor.
For my money, “Age of Ultron”, ranks with “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” and “Guardians of the Galaxy” as one of the most entertaining of the Marvel Cinematic Universe entries thus far. See it in IMAX if you can, just don’t bother with the the 3D.