It takes less than five minutes before "Avengers: Age of Ultron" reveals its glamor shot of its six main heroes barreling forward in glorious slo-mo. In the previous movie, Joss Whedon spent much of the dazzling running time building up to this moment, so when the team finally assembled, it felt like the triumphant outcome of an epic gamble — both commercially and artistically, the movie did its job. By contrast, "Age of Ultron" plays out like a spectacular shrug: We’ve already arrived at the destination before the journey begins.
With comics vet Whedon once again holding the reigns as writer-director, "Age of Ultron" still manages to deliver an impressive scale and the ability to translate its colorful, majestic figures into cinematic form. From Iron Man’s speedy aerodynamics to the Hulk’s path of destruction, the characters move through the murky plot with tremendous versatility.
But Whedon comes up short with the challenge of crafting genuine excitement over the latest perils facing the same people we’ve watched save humanity several times before. The previous movie had the rare quality of a mass market spectacle driven by witty banter as much as the stunning effects work. The new one offers a handful of intriguing developments but lacks the same dynamic chemistry that made the initial installment such an anomaly. Whereas "The Avengers" felt like a reimagining of the paradigm for superhero movies, "Age of Ultron" has air of a rerun. Though impressively made and visually remarkable, it suffers from the hollowness that plagues so many blockbusters carrying the sense that we’ve been through this before.
At the end of "The Avengers," Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) manages to stop an alien invasion in New York. This time, he inadvertently sets the stage for a variation on the same threat, by initiating a "peacekeeping" software program named Ultron that transforms into a power-hungry form of artificial intelligence intent on killing the entire Avengers crew. That straightforward scenario doesn’t take long to take shape, but for the rest of the movie, the Avengers gradually deal with cleaning up the mess — and essentially go through the same motions we’ve seen them endure before.
Fortunately, Whedon has done justice to the nefarious cybernetic villain whose comic book reign goes back several decades. Appropriately voiced by James Spader, who gives the impression of icy calculation with every line, the robotic Ultron looks like the Terminator on steroids and comes equipped with a much savvier mind.
But Ultron doesn’t work in a vacuum. His scheme is empowered by twin villains Pietro and Wanda Maximoff, aka Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen) who harbor a grudge against Stark Industries for developing the bombs that destroyed their family in an earlier war. The supernaturally empowered duo trick Stark into getting ahold of Loki’s scepter, which ends up endowing Ultron with his evil proclivities. At the same time, Stark receives much of the blame for creating the menacing figure in the first place.
The self-interests at the root of this conundrum lend a darker thematic focus than most Marvel movies. However, once Ultron comes to life and begins threatening humanity, "Age of Ultron" starts to drag. "How does humanity save itself it it doesn’t evolve?" Ultron says aloud to nobody in particular as he envisions a new age of robotic rule. After sitting through a series of unremarkable developments, it’s hard not to relate to his sentiment.
To be fair, "Age of Ultron" offers a handful of sharply scripted moments that deepen its heroes’ motives. There’s some promise to the idea of the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) crushing hard on Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) and attempting to help him cope with his tendency to transform into a monstrous green muscleman, but the subplot drifts in and out of the proceedings like a half-formed seed planted in the service of future installments in the franchise. Other characters, such as Samuel L. Jackson’s one-eyed S.H.I.E.L.D overlord Nick Fury or Don Cheadle’s Iron Man sidekick War Machine, surface in bit parts just to remind us of the bigger picture. But at this point it’s gotten so crowded that the franchise could burst at any moment.
By its climax, that’s exactly what it does. Yet another CGI extravaganza in which the third act involves a menacing, fiery object speeding down to terra firma, "Age of Ultron" lacks any semblance of an attempt to surprise audiences — even though each pricey, digitally-enhanced shot manages to enthrall in the moment. It looks great, moves fast and intimates anyone willing to question the fancy gadgetry in play.
And so does Chris Hemsworth, charming as ever in the mock-brutish role of Thor, who has become synonymous with these movies’ ability to feel both stilted and amusing at the same time. But the true symbolic weight lies with Chris Evans’ much blander Captain America, whose presence epitomizes the larger agenda on display — to sweep us up in the unabashed rush of the mission at hand and stop questioning its purpose. "You know, I totally support your avenging," says one civilian onlooker. He speaks for the masses.
However, "Age of Ultron" provides an excuse for a reality check. Whedon’s script frequently repeats Ultron’s eerie verdict that mankind is doomed, which means that the Avengers are fated to salvage it indefinitely. That’s a scarier concept than anything the robotic evildoer dreams up. Above all else, the latest "Avengers" proves that even a great franchise has an expiration date.
"Avengers: Age of Ultron" opens nationwide on May 1. This article has been updated.