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2.5 out of 4 stars

Title
Avengers: Age of Ultron
Written by
Joss Whedon
Directed by
Joss Whedon
Starring
Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Jeremy Renner
Classification
PG
Country
USA
Language
English
Year
2015

In 2012, the movie The Avengers accomplished something almost superheroic: A movie that was the result of a corporate collaboration, with a half-dozen characters and a mess of backstories, turned out to be a smart, lively film with a lot of personality. It also became the third-highest grossing movie in history, after Avatar and Titanic.

Once again, in Avengers: Age of Ultron, writer-director Joss Whedon shows his considerable gifts for multicharacter air traffic control in a massive 3-D spectacle while demonstrating reserves of insouciance. In an era when the phrase "big-screen entertainment" sounds quaint, Whedon offers 21st-century image-spinning of high complexity and commitment to craft. Action scenes shift fluidly between anxious partial closeups, mammoth spectacle, shaky-cam realism and woozy fantasy, in rapid combinations.

For degree of difficulty, Whedon's accomplishments earn respect. The "Marvel Universe" of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's comic books already offers a spaghetti mountain of narrative strands, compiled from a half-century of comics including former Nazis, Norse gods, supernatural creatures and magic "infinity stones", and it can all look incredibly silly if it ever stops moving.

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That said, Whedon can't quite work the same miracle twice. Age of Ultron also bears the familiar stretch marks characteristic of middle movies in franchise series. This bridging movie has to cover a long span: Avengers: Infinity War parts one and two aren't due until May of 2018 and 2019. There's a lot going on. New characters are introduced. There are quiet scenes designed to change up the rhythm and provide a few strokes suggesting psychological depth. Then there's a multiplication of new threats and the de rigueur kickass climax that have to be added before the lid can be jammed on the over-stuffed box.

One shortcut Whedon employs is tossing away most of the expositional baggage, assuming that the fan base already knows the backstories or doesn't really care. This is essentially the hot tub time machine approach to a far-fetched premise: Don't ask, jump in.

The movie begins in the midst of a hectic Eastern European forest battle, as the six returning Avengers – Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Bruce Banner/ Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) – seize an outpost of the terrorist organization, Hydra, run by the Nazi Baron Wolfgang von Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann) and acquire a supernatural sceptre, previously owned by the villainous Loki.

During the fight we are introduced to two new villains, the experimental mutant brother and sister team of Pietro and Wanda Maximoff (Aaron-Taylor Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen), who will later become the speedster Quicksilver and reality-warping psychic Scarlet Witch. The latter can induce customized nightmares and visions for enemies, a trick that undermines the Avengers' group confidence, and allows Whedon to throw in some flashback/fantasy sequences.

At the end of the first battle, the victorious Avengers repair to the bunker for cocktails, banter and superhero games (who can wield Thor's hammer?). There are some tentative romantic vibes between the sultry Natasha and the nervous Banner, who tends to avoid moments of emotional arousal.

Meanwhile, Stark has discovered an "artificial intelligence" in a gem in a sceptre. Stark, the former arms merchant who is always making impetuous Faustian trade-offs, ignores the Avengers' collective decision-making rules, and pushes Banner to help him implant the artificial intelligence in a new "Ultron" defence system, a "suit of armour around the world".Ultron woozily comes to life and gives himself a robot body (his voice, wonderfully provided by James Spader, sounding louche and growly, like a beat poet with a hangover). The very literal-minded machine, which has been programmed to produce peace on Earth, decides the best solution is to eliminate the planet's major source of violence – human beings. Ultron crashes the Avengers' party, and leaves everyone rattled.

The chastened warriors retreat to Hawkeye's prairie farmhouse and meet his wife (Linda Cardellini), who assures her husband "You know I totally support your avenging."). In this rustic homestead, the Avengers lick their wounds, bicker and plan their counter-attack, except for Thor who flies off to "find some answers." A timely arrival of Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) helps improve the splintering solidarity.

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When the Avengers eventually regroup – this would be about the film's two-hour mark – they're assisted by yet another helper, an android with a red face and a perfect synthetic body that Ultra had designed for himself, but it got uploaded with a nicer program. The thing is called Vision (suavely voiced by Paul Bettany), who we can expect to help carry those last two movies, near the end of the decade, on his meaty shoulders.

By this point, superhero fatigue has settled in. Gratitude is offered for Tony Stark's quips, which serve as a kind of apologetic commentary for the movie's abounding excess.

"It's been a long day – Eugene O'Neill long" Tony says at one point. We feel him. At 142 minutes, the Age of Ultron really does feel like an age.

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