Its perhaps appropriate that the summer movie season kicks off with Avengers: Age of Ultron. It checks all the right boxes: Its long, loud, larded with effects and sporadically witty, and it sets up events for yet another sequel.
What it doesnt have is any sense of going above and beyond. Unlike some other entries in the Marvel universe the first Iron Man, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy or even the original Avengers it doesnt transcend its boundaries. Fans of the franchise will be pleased, but those looking in from the outside of comic-book culture may find themselves also looking at their watches.
This is a bit of a surprise considering that Joss Whedon, who made The Avengers, is still in charge as director and writer. Hes known for his clever twists on pop-culture tropes ( Buffy the Vampire Slayer, an updating of Much Ado About Nothing). But Age of Ultron seems to be made by numbers, even if they are occasionally entertaining numbers.
This time around, our heroes find themselves battling a villain of their own creation. Actually, Ultron is the creation of one of them, master inventor Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.). He has made this new entity/program to help protect the Earth, but, as is usually the case when movies cross paths with artificial intelligence, things dont go as planned.
Ultron (voiced with both charm and evil by James Spader) takes on a physical robot body, puts together a vengeful robot army and vows to rid the planet of those dastardly humans because thats the only way to save the planet.
Obviously, its up to the Avengers Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) to save the day.
They are helped by a couple of newbies Pietro Maximoff/Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and sister Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) who start off as enemies of the Avengers working for the odious Hydra organization (and the two are more intriguing as villains than heroes).
Whats most interesting for Avengers followers is the deepening of the superheroes relationships and motivations. Theres the blossoming romance between Black Widow and Hulk, Iron Mans questioning of the Avengers future (hence his desire to create something like Ultron), and Hawkeyes rural family life.
And, yes, there are some genuinely funny moments, as when theyre all sitting around talking about why, despite all their superpowers, Thor is the only one who can lift his hammer. Or when Iron Man complains: Ive had a long day. Eugene ONeill long.
Also, fans will be glad to see brief appearances from Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), James Rhodes/War Machine (Don Cheadle), Vision (Paul Bettany) and Sam Wilson/The Falcon (Anthony Mackie).
Of course, there are several showstopping special-effects set pieces, including a Hulk rage explosion in Johannesburg and a final showdown in a fictional Eastern European country called Sokovia.
Though they have their impressive elements, these celebrations of CGI go on far too long and weigh the movie down with all the force of Thors hammer.
For now, this is Whedons last directorial go-round with the Avengers movies. He has gone on record as saying hes exhausted and that this is the hardest work he has done. The Russo brothers, Anthony and Joe, who did so well with Winter Soldier, will helm the next chapter, Avengers: Infinity War Part 1, due in 2018.
Maybe, just maybe, they will be able to breathe some new life into the formula.