'Avengers: Age Of Ultron' builds its brand (and occasionally entertains) 

Avengers: Age Of Ultron / B

One of the downsides of Marvel announcing its future slate of superhero movies so far in advance of their release dates is that their “phase one” blockbusters already seem to pale in comparison to the on-deck “phase two” installments. After all, how can writer-director Joss Whedon’s just-released Avengers: Age of Ultron possibly compare to 2018’s two-part Avengers: Infinity War? One is merely an age; the other tackles, well, infinity. One can only assume heaven and hell are on deck for “phase three.”

It’s understandable given the ridiculous juggling act on display in Age of Ultron — overstuffed with no less than a dozen superhumans threading their way through a trio of plotlines. The movie has just enough Whedonesque quips, banter, and character moments to make his presence felt (the best is when Thor’s teammates attempt, in turn, to lift his mighty hammer), but mostly features gargantuan fight scenes, crammed-in cameos, and corporate blueprinting for future sequels and spinoffs.

Nevertheless, it’ll make another billion and a half dollars, even if it is, as Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) describes: “Eugene O’Neill long.”

Things kick off with an assault on the castle fortress of Baron Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann). Iron Man, Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) are out to capture the last of Hydra’s evil agents and retrieve the Staff of Loki hidden in his labs. Little do they know that the staff contains one of the Infinity Stones, powerful artifacts that will come into play in the next set of sequels. Also in Strucker’s employ are Wanda Maximoff, aka the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), and her super-speedy twin brother Pietro, aka Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). The siblings complicate the Avengers’ mission, and inadvertently inspire Stark to create the movie’s main nemesis. You see, Wanda’s mind powers cause her foes to live their worse fears, and Stark, foreseeing the demise of humanity, decides that Loki’s staff must be used to power a defense system that will protect the Earth against an alien attack.

Instead, his by-any-means-necessary hubris gives rise to Ultron (brilliantly voiced by a droll James Spader), an artificial intelligence that decides that mankind is actually Earth’s greatest threat. Using spare Iron Man parts, Ultron constructs a badass robot body for itself, builds a mechanical army, teams with Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver, and recites lyrics from “I’ve Got No Strings,” a song featured in Disney’s Pinocchio (apparently, even genocidal robots believe in corporate synergy).

There are fights in an Eastern European forest, at Avengers tower, on a freeway, in the streets of Johannesburg (an enraged Hulk versus a Hulkbusting Iron Man), and, in the finale, around and atop a floating city. Super sidekicks like Rhodey/War Machine (Don Cheadle) and the Falcon (Anthony Mackie), along with Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), Stellan Skarsgård’s Dr. Selvig, and newly minted android the Vision (Paul Bettany) — nee J.A.R.V.I.S. — all get thrown into the convoluted mix.

Needless to say, the various characters all jostle for attention, with Hawkeye, improbably, emerging with the most intact through-line. Natasha (Black Widow) and Bruce (the Hulk) smolder with romantic longing, sentient robots muse on the nature of humanity, and each member of the team gets a well-timed zinger and single spark of emotion as the next sequel-friendly plot device kicks in. The mayhem is occasionally clever but, functionally, Whedon is serving Disney’s branding schemes first and his story and characters second.

What he does manage to shoehorn into this noisy spectacle is the geeky grandeur of comic book quirk, and the heartfelt notion that ideals and intentions, not superpowers, are what make the hero. It’s a sentiment voiced by Hawkeye — who is all too aware that a dude with a bow and arrow seems ridiculous alongside gods and robots and monsters — and in Captain America’s rallying cry against Ultron, who sees humanity as worthy of only extinction: “This isn’t just about defeating him. This is about whether he’s right.”

For the fans who remember what it was like to page through heavily inked newsprint to witness colorfully costumed superheroes fire laser beams from their forehead at skull-faced bad guys and still protect the innocent from harm, Avengers: Age of Ultron is an old timey ode to what made comic books great. Thor’s teammates may not have what it takes to lift his hammer, but they’re plenty worthy enough to be called heroes.

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