In a world that has neither SHIELD to defend it nor HYDRA to destroy it, Tony Stark finds himself thinking a bit bigger. After all, 2012's The Avengers saw the arms dealer-turned-do-gooder and titular company successfully fend off intergalactic invaders. What's to say it couldn't happen again? What's to stop Tony from creating an artificial intelligence designed to keep the peace on a global scale? Furthermore, what's to prevent said A.I. from deciding that humanity faces no greater threat than itself?
Sounds like a bunch of nonsense, huh? To its credit, Avengers: Age of Ultron is impressively orchestrated nonsense, being the 11th big-screen entry over the past seven years to constitute Marvel's lucrative cinematic universe of comic book adaptations. The brand's inescapable cultural saturation puts to shame any government agency or sinister technology depicted to date, and writer/director Joss Whedon’s sequel in particular thrives on next-level plate-spinning rather than coming remotely close to breaking the billion-dollar mold set by its predecessor.
These days, Stark (Downey Jr.), aka Iron Man, along with the hammer-wielding Thor (Hemsworth), anachronistic super-soldier Captain America (Evans), ever-nimble assassin Black Widow (Johansson), rage-prone Hulk (Ruffalo), and ace archer Hawkeye (Renner), have checked their egos and tempers for the sake of the human race. Alas, once Stark boots up his well-meaning Ultron program, it quickly assumes the form of an eight-foot-tall robot (sardonically voiced by Spader) and determines that nothing could protect the world quite like an extinction-level reset. Assisted by a pair of superpowered twins (Taylor-Johnson’s Quicksilver and Olsen’s Scarlet Witch) with their own anti-Stark agenda, Ultron sets forth on breaking the team apart from within, exploiting their deepest insecurities to render Earth’s mightiest heroes vulnerable once more.
With a well-established team dynamic already working in his favor, Whedon strikes a better balance this time out in transitioning between beats of exposition, moments of tenderness or levity, and frenzied bouts of action. (Such a concerted effort is made to avoid familiar American landmarks and collateral damage in general that Ultron feels like a very intentional counterpoint to Man of Steel’s city-wasting melees; instead, countless hostile robots get crushed like so many soda cans.) Despite a parade of fan-baiting money shots and choice quips, what this supersized sequel can hardly muster is any real sense of novelty to rival the superhero-uniting spectacle that seemed so shiny and new just three summers ago.
Perhaps to knock Ultron for being a mostly coherent assembly of globe-trotting, gadgets, and glib one-liners is akin to knocking the better Bond films for delivering well on formula while rarely defying it. As swell as it is swollen, this entry operates on a larger scale while retaining the same planet-saving stakes, with mortality hardly ever more than an inconvenience. It is the product of a machine perfectly evolved for the sole purpose of annihilating boredom, a machine whose primary weakness is the utter indifference of those uninitiated or unimpressed by this point. For the rest of us, it’s a hearty helping of fine.
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