To say that Whedon succeeds only in part scarcely counts as a criticism. (To belabor the metaphor: He may have dropped a chainsaw or two, but he got across safely.) Age of Ultron is a strong opener for the summer blockbuster season; it’s just not a mind-blowing quasi-revelation like its predecessor. The sharp, interpersonal dramedy that made the first movie such a delight is again present in flashes, but not infrequently it is drowned out by the noisy, inevitable need to Save the World.
The story begins where it left off. Not at the end of the previous Avengers, mind you—that would be too straightforward—but at the end of last year’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Having located the wooded alpine lair of Hydra commander Baron von Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann), the Avengers proceed to assault it. Therein they find both Loki’s scepter and a pair of decidedly unfriendly super-powered twins, Pietro and Wanda Maximoff, played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen, respectively. (The super-monikers are never used but, yes, these are Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch.)
Upon returning the scepter to the Avengers’ spiffy Manhattan HQ, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) proceed to examine the gemstone embedded in it. This stone (Marvel fans will long since have deduced its identity) leads them to a breakthrough in artificial intelligence, enabling the creation of a Stark pet project, the “Ultron” program: robotic peacekeepers who can do the Avengers’ job for them when they are otherwise engaged. Not that Stark and Banner bother to tell anyone else about their little breakthrough. “I don’t want to hear the ‘man was not meant to meddle’ medley,” Stark explains. “Peace in our time—imagine that.”
Alas, peace never gets much beyond the imagination stage. No sooner does Ultron (voiced by James Spader) awake than he goes all Modern Prometheus on the gang, in the process breaking up a perfectly good house party, destroying Stark’s butler/operating system Jarvis (Paul Bettany), and announcing, with Spaderian relish, his intent to eradicate humanity. Oops.
From there the movie proceeds largely as one might expect. Ultron creates an army of metal Mini-Mes and recruits the Maximoff twins to his cause. Wanda, a telepath, messes with the Avengers’ minds—to particularly dramatic effect with Banner/Hulk—and Pietro runs circles around them, though never, alas, to the tune of Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle.” The Avengers crisscross the globe—East Africa, Oslo, Seoul—in pursuit of their new nemesis. Along the way, Captain America (Chris Evans) polices his teammates’ foul language, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) tries to make us forget that she had a much better haircut in Winter Soldier, Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) reveals a Dark Secret, and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) flexes his steroidal-Shakespearean biceps. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) makes a dramatic entrance or two.