Movie review: 'Avengers: Age of Ultron'

Blockbuster sequel balances blistering action, human heart.

Updated 4/30/2015

★★★★ out of four stars

Rated: PG-13.

How can you expand a cinematic universe of hit after hit? With another hit. From the very first word in the new Avengers blockbuster, you know you’re in for a Mach 5 roller-coaster ride, with many stops at Ferris wheels, bumper cars, water slides and merry-go-rounds.

“The Avengers: Age of Ultron,” an industrial-powered Marvel/Disney entertainment behemoth piloted by writer/director Joss Whedon, starts with a hello that Uncle Walt and Stan Lee would never approve, and that’s the first shot in a barrage of clever, naughty, moving, inventive ideas fired at Gatling-gun speed. It feels as if this comic book franchise has become a never-ending cinema story. If future films are as well realized as “Ultron,” that’s fine by me.

Whedon, equally good at action spectacle and solid narrative, begins in the middle of things. Without a tweet of setup we launch into an extended battle extravaganza following individual Avengers, duo teams, and all six united to clobber an evil HYDRA army in a European forest. There’s the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), partnering with Bruce Banner’s Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). Archery whiz Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) fires his bow as fast as the hammer of Thor (Chris Hemsworth). Captain America (Chris Evans) races through the combat on his supersonic motorcycle as Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) strafes from the skies in his Iron Man armor.

It’s a blissfully realized blitzkrieg, presented with full confidence that we already understand these characters, enjoy elegant production design, and dislike needless exposition. It’s also a master class in how to launch viewer interest and delight.

With the villains brought down and their home base in mythical Sokovia emptied, the group moves ahead as Downey’s preening egotist thinks they should, to a gala party in his Manhattan penthouse. It’s a chance to let audiences breathe and let the cast act.

The previous film introduced these once-independent superhero stars as strangers wrestling with their resentments of each other while trying to tackle their external enemies. Here, they’re relaxed and celebratory, with plenty of laughs (this film contains a remarkably good series of gags about Thor’s magical mallet).

Banner and the Black Widow are progressing beyond a close friendship. She so effectively talks him down from his green attack mode with her “Hey, big guy” lullabies that they are moving toward, wonder of wonders, a potential romance. Which in time triggers a priceless Iron Man zucchini joke that is only barely PG-13.

It’s part of Whedon’s signature balancing act between racing, hitting and shooting, and heartfelt human interaction. In his 2012 smash “The Avengers,” he rescued the problematic character of the Hulk by focusing on Banner’s emotional anguish and his alter ego’s Tasmanian Devil comic violence. Here he pushes Hawkeye beyond his near-cameo in earlier films with a look at the life and values and family the archer has on his own. Whedon doesn’t focus so much on explosions that we lose track of the human heart. His film and TV projects outperform his competitors’ because he allows us to learn and care about the players.

And sometimes to dislike them. For his victory prize, narcissistic weapons designer Stark devises an artificially intelligent shield to defend Earth from alien attack. The plan is a pompous take on a valuable principle. Instead of inventing a guardian, Stark creates the robotic title character, the biggest, baddest comic book villain in a million, bazillion, infinity years.

Voiced by James Spader, Ultron is also the most sarcastic. He explains that he sees his mission as destroying the Avengers and humanity itself, then coasts into Pinocchio’s “I’ve Got No Strings.” Who but Whedon could imagine this cheerful Disney charmer in the key of doom: “I’ve got no strings / To hold me down / To make me fret, or make me frown / I had strings / But now I’m free / There are no strings on me.”

Ultron can’t wait to kill his Geppetto father figure, since the poisoned apple falls close to the sour tree. He quickly drafts allies in Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) and Pietro Maximoff (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), super-powered Sokovian twins whose parents were killed a decade earlier by Stark-brand bombshells. Wanda’s abilities let her push each Avenger into paranoia by triggering their individual nightmares — Stark imagining giant mechanical electric eels, Thor visiting Asgard’s dancing dead.

The film gives much of its attention to the team’s efforts to hold onto their loyalty, now that the institution of S.H.I.E.L.D. has been decimated and their small corps faces attacks designed to break them apart. It builds to a bombastic finale, a limitless overstuffed smorgasbord of sky-high battle. It works, where Michael Bay’s pointless Transformers films and Zack Snyder’s disappointing “Man of Steel” stumbled. First, Whedon avoids cutting so fast that the fireballs, falling buildings and smashed cars feel like outtakes from a demolition derby. More important, his warriors prize saving the civilians. A large part of the climax derring-do is about rescuing humans, a heartening, hero-cheering notion.

This chapter has already picked up more than $200 million from the world box office before its U.S. opening, and seems set to break $1 billion soon. I bet we’ll be seeing a few more.

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