As the Avengers combat terrorist organization Hydra in the Eastern European nation of Sokovia, team benefactor Tony Stark aka Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) has a horrifying vision of the team laid to waste because he didn’t do enough to save it. To avert this fate, he and Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), alter ego of the Hulk, use Asgardian technology to create Ultron, an artificial intelligence dedicated to defending the Earth. Unfortunately, it isn’t long before Ultron (voiced by James Spader) decides that the only way to save the world from destruction is to annihilate its human inhabitants.
In the three years since the first Avengers film, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has grown by leaps and bounds, not only increasing in number but diversifying in style and tone. With everything from cosmic adventures to political thrillers in the oeuvre and the character count at an all-time high, pulling off a coherent ensemble piece that still satisfies the fandom is twice the challenge it was in years’ past. While this sequel is hardly seamless, it nevertheless rises (super) heroically to the occasion.
First, the bad: though the conflict (heroes vs. megamaniacal robot) is as simplistic as ever, the film misfires most when it aims for more complexity. Specifically, its attempts at furthering character depth all too often read as character derailment. Stark’s morally ambiguous heedlessness is (necessarily, in light of the upcoming Captain America: Civil War) on full display here, but instead of coming across as vulnerable and conflicted (a la Iron Man 3), he’s as flippant and jokey as ever. Speaking of jokey, it’s a pity that writer/director Joss Whedon decided that the best way to counter claims of Captain America’s woodenness was to make him part of a lamer-than-lame running gag about sensitivity to harsh language. In comparison, his deadpanning from the previous film (“It appears to be powered by some sort of electricity.”) was considerably more amusing. This does not even touch upon the film’s awkwardly shoehorned romantic subplot or the tendency for characters to go from comrades in arms to attacking each other (and visa versa) seemingly on a whim.
Ultimately, however, neither these script shortcomings nor a 140-minute runtime can erase how much fun the movie is. The action choreography remains top-notch with not only Cap (Chris Evans) and Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) pulling off impressive melee acrobatics but newcomers Pietro Maximoff/Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) making the most of their abilities (super speed and telekensis, respectively) as well. The pacing is also an asset here. While there are quieter, more intimate and contemplative scenes, they complement rather than kill the momentum built by the action, and are no wasted moments here. As a result, the film feels considerably shorter than it is.
Lastly, as misguided as some of the scripting and character decisions are, the cast refuses to mail it in. Downey remains amusingly affable and roguish as ever, Johansson and Ruffalo do the tortured soul thing without sacrificing either efficacy or believability, and Jeremy Renner gives his Clint Barton/Hawkeye character both sarcastic quips and a moral center. Spader certainly could have made Ultron sound colder and more calculating, but in a way, his Stark-patterned neurosis and all-too-human personality make the antagonist more unnerving.
With each successive (and successful) film, Marvel continues to both redefine the parameters of its own triumph and inch closer to the point where audiences will finally say “Enough!” Avengers: Age of Ultron occupies neither the upper nor the lower bound, and though it fumbles more than it should, it also exhilarates, amuses, reflects, and, ultimately wins the day.