Marvel had no problem following up Avengers. Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World were solid additions to the mythos, but then came Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy, raising the bar for both how entertaining and successful these movies could be. Could the legitimate Avengers sequel live up to that standard? Age of Ultron pulls it off, but only just.
Introduced at the end of Winter Soldier, Wanda and Pietro Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor Johnson), two “enhanced” (don’t say mutant, 20th Century Fox will sue you), a speedster and telepath/telekinetic, have aligned themselves with Baron Von Strucker (Thomas Kretchmamn) current Hydra bigwig and possessor of Loki’s staff from the first film. “The Twins” as they’re called, have a grudge against Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), his company’s weapons responsible for orphaning them at a young age, so when the Avengers raid Strucker’s castle to get the staff back they’re eager to join the fight.
Needless to say the Avengers regain the macguffin, (after Wanda scrambles their brains a little) but also discover Strucker’s experiments with artificial intelligence, and when Banner and Stark get their hands on said experiments, of course wackiness ensues.
Said wackiness is the titular Ultron (James Spader), who gains his “father’s” intelligence but also his vanity and arrogance, and it’s not long before he decides the best way to protect humanity is to destroy it.
What follows is your fairly formulaic superhero punch up with the requisite laughs and drama along the way. Don’t get me wrong, this is a very entertaining and well-made movie, but it feels like a step backward after Winter Soldier and Iron Man 3’s somewhat unconventional narratives. You can’t blame the cast though, everybody’s back (except for Tom Hiddleston’s sorely missed Loki but *spoilers for a two year old movie* he’s still probably in Asgard pretending to be Odin) and in their usual excellent form, especially Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye who gets in a few choice lines this time around, similar to his classic wisecracking comics character. Spader’s great doing what’s basically Tony Stark in evil robot form, and Taylor-Johnson and Olsen are serviceable if not spectacular as the Maximoffs. Somewhat disappointing given Olsen’s excellent pedigree in awesome and weird indies like Martha Marcy May Marlene and Silent House, and of course Taylor-Johnson can’t hold a candle to Evan Peters’ star turn as the same character in X-Men: Days of Future Past.
Pacing feels a little off as well, while, again, the rest of the MCU’s phase two movies seem to have been master classes in economy and efficiency this one tends to drag. I’ve never been a huge fan of writer/director Joss Whedon’s dialogue heavy style, which he seemed to rein in for the excellent first film, but here it’s on full display, and it could use some editing. Much has been made of how many scenes there are of civilians being rescued, presumably a piss take on Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, not unlike the pissing contest Whedon got into with Bryan Singer over the use of Pietro/Quicksilver. There’s a three hour version rumored to be released eventually to home video, but I think viewers might benefit more from a shorter version.
When the action finally heats up though it’s better than ever, with the Hulkbuster sequence being the standout, and a fight on top of a tractor trailer involving Ultron, Captain America (Chris Evans) and Black Widow (Scarlet Johansson) also dropping jaws. The effects are as seamless as ever and the 3D at the screening we attended was some of the best we’ve seen.
In the end though, it’s Marvel so you know it’s great, and you can only nit pick the things that aren’t polished to perfection. Whedon’s waning enthusiasm for the material DOES sort of show through though, so Winter Soldier directors The Russo Brothers taking over the series from here can only bode well for the franchise.