- HERE THEY COME: The Avengers, again.
The sequel to "The Avengers" has been chugging along in the background of moviedom for the past three years, since the first one became the third-highest-grossing film in history. The wait for "Avengers: Age of Ultron" has been three years of are-we-there-yet, with trailers and teasers and trailer teasers trickling out to fluff our interest, like mile-marker road signs on an interminable interstate. It arrives almost as an obligation for you, the culturally literate but hardly comics-mad movie consumer, to check this one off the list. Will you enjoy it, or merely endure another 141 minutes of the Hulk hulking and Black Widow widowmaking and Captain America captaining Americans?
Joss Whedon returns as writer and director, so we have that going for us; the usual crew returns as well, with the addition of two villainous "enhanced" HYDRA creations, Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), who are, respectively, very fast and good at messing with people's heads. Ultron, considered by many Marvel fans to be utter crap as a villain, begins his life as a peacekeeping software system who finds he has the voice of James Spader. He's what happens when Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) tinker around with artificial intelligence juiced with a magical crystal from another dimension. Naturally it doesn't go well for them once Ultron awakes and realizes that the biggest conflicts in the world all seem to center around the Avengers. Maybe this is the result of a deeper set of computations than we mere mortals could understand, or maybe Whedon simply needed an extremely powerful android with the ability to jack into factories and clone himself, in order to make a rad movie. Anyway, Ultron wants to kill the Avengers, and he's highly smart and pretty good at fighting. So off we go.
Once we wind up Ultron the Avengers are stuck on the defensive. Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) are longtime buddies, and she seems to be starting a little something with Banner. Otherwise it's a dysfunctional crew at work here, especially when the Scarlet Witch dips into their minds. Worth the price of admission alone is Iron Man dialing up a massive exosuit that arrives via satellite deployment (the fabled Hulk-Buster suit) so he can tangle with the Hulk in downtown — Johannesburg, is it? Smash, boom, bang, these are little-boy sequences with big-boy toys, in which the only thing you can't see are the tiny hands wrapped around the action figures plowing through skyscrapers and colliding in midair, and they're a hoot.
Whedon is great at these sorts of sequences, and even better, he knows how to throw this many discordant elements at a single film and keep it from melting down to mush. Does Ultron's plan to eradicate humanity make a lick of sense at the end? Probably not, but it is fiendish as the day is long, and it clears space for fine fighting. The dialogue springs along nimbly, balancing a tone that could otherwise land heavy. There are some jokes, as well as a creeping sense of camp — an allowance, without getting too wink-wink, that we've been here before, and will be back, so why worry?
This franchise has become the biggest in cinema over the past decade, and may wind up the biggest of all time, if it keeps this pace. It's hard even to guess what, in the 11th Marvel film, we have left to learn about this universe. Maybe nothing all that profound — though who would've thought that Paul Bettany would be such a resplendent Vision in eggplant facepaint? "Ultron" doesn't break much new ground, at bottom, but perhaps it doesn't matter when the same old thing has become so comfortably satisfying, and almost as familiar as all the looking forward to the next one.