"Avengers" Sequel A Solid Exercise In Button Mashing

Apart from the overstuffed, underwritten “Iron Man 2,” Marvel’s recent run of solo films has writ large the joy of comic books. They’ve been crafty, colorful, and celebratory, pooling together an unlikely mixture of talent into something uncommonly alive and deeply human – all without a roadmap to follow.

The idea of an interconnected cinematic universe was a daydream, an unreality, until Marvel president and producer Kevin Feige went and made it happen.

This all comes to a head early on in “Avengers: Age Of Ultron, “ with the eponymous team hanging out in a penthouse, drinking, shit-talking, delighting in the moment like the normal people they aren’t. With a bang, they’re jolted from their reverie, snatched from their revelry, reminded of their abilities and responsibilities, immediately sober in their drunkenness. It’s a scene that no one could have fathomed existing a mere ten years ago. But it’s among Marvel’s best to date.

When Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Hulk, et al. first joined forces in 2012’s “The Avengers,” they rode the goodwill of their solo films and the novelty of a big screen superhero team-up to nearly unheard of box office numbers. Audiences were so excited by what they were seeing, in fact, that the pic’s shortcomings – later acknowledged by writer-director Joss Whedon – went largely ignored.

Mostly confined to two decidedly bland locations – an airship and a sterile imagining of New York City – the movie saw the Avengers bicker their way through two acts, all but free of teamwork, only to band together in the nick of time to fend off an army of generic extra-terrestrials. Perhaps most inexplicably, the movie was – and remains – the only entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe shot in a narrow 1.85:1 aspect ratio.

Considering the pic’s seemingly limitless budget and co-mingling of already wonderfully realized characters, it was surprisingly uncreative. But it was new, and viewers responded in kind.

Cut to “Age Of Ultron,” arguably the most inevitable sequel of all time, and sure to be one of the most thankless. In the past three years, Marvel has hit even higher highs with their solos outings – “Iron Man 3,” “Guardians Of The Galaxy” – meaning that the flaws of “The Avengers” might be the only thing working in favor of its follow-up.

As such, “Age Of Ultron” is a pretty successful course correction, with Joss Whedon mashing the teamwork button right out of the gate and never letting up. More importantly, each character – from Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man to Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye – gets his or her moment in the sun, making the action more impactful and the stakes seem higher than they really are. We know all of the mains will live to fight another day. It’s how they live that matters.

With the unexpected physical manifestation of one of Tony Stark’s artificial intelligence programs – Ultron, voiced brilliantly by James Spader (NBC’s “The Blacklist”) – the team is faced with a threat of their own doing. Cornered by a genocidal robot who’s after world peace through destruction, Stark and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) – the Jekyll to Hulk’s Hyde – resolve to fight fire with fire.

In bringing Stark’s ever-reliable J.A.R.V.I.S. system to life in the form of the Vision (with Paul Bettany extending his previously voice-only role into live-action), our heroes make a pretty stunning admission for a superhero film – that they have no idea what they’re doing. The rest of the team bristles at the duo’s “fake it ‘til you make it” approach, but they’re left with little choice but to go along for the ride.

If the story is only a tick above average, Whedon’s gift for chaos rises above the din, making for a relentlessly quippy, mostly rollicking 140-minute ride that’s never short on visual fireworks. The action is significantly more expansive this time around, offering up a healthy side of globetrotting to the main dish of pummeling, and the torrents of snappy dialogue include a little something for everyone.

It’s when Whedon indulges his more esoteric instincts that the film really hits its stride, particularly with a series of spell-induced nightmares shared by Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Captain America (Chris Evans), and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). These are the solo film callbacks that were sorely missed in the first “Avengers,” finally tying Cap’s most deep-seated anxieties to that of his co-horts. And vice versa.

The biggest failing of “Age Of Ultron” is in its desaturated cinematography, dulling what should have been a kaleidoscopic, retina-pleasing spread. The muted photography feels like an attempt to match the frequently serious story beats, but it’s all wrong, robbing viewers of the splashes of color that made “Guardians Of The Galaxy” so memorable.

Logic would have it that with each success, Kevin Feige and company would have more creative freedom, but au contraire. Now a subsidiary of Disney, Marvel is the brand in Hollywood, increasingly subject to historic amounts of scrutiny. That “Age Of Ultron” has any personality at all is a small miracle, not to mention that it’s pretty easy to watch.

Despite its perfunctory existence and frequently mechanical plot – certain scenes might as well come with a flashing “exposition” sign – the film manages an impossible balancing act with love. As a deliberate extension of multiple brands all at once, as the latest lily pad to Marvel’s next big thing, it’s a solid success, if not much in the way of an evolution.

But leave invention to Marvel’s solo films. That’s where the real fun is, anyway.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Release Date: May 1, 2015
Studio: Walt Disney Pictures, Marvel Studios
Director: Joss Whedon
Screenwriter: Joss Whedon
Starring: Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Chris Hemsworth, James Spader, Elizabeth Olsen, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Samuel L. Jackson, Cobie Smulders, Paul Bettany, Andy Serkis
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of sci-fi action, violence and destruction, and for some suggestive comments)