A lot of time and money went into making “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” an overstuffed yet unspectacular sequel to the 2012 megahit “The Avengers.” Significant time (nearly 21/2 hours) and money ($17.50 for an Imax ticket) also will be spent this weekend, by viewers who might not mind that “Ultron” feels obligatory.
That’s because Marvel has trained moviegoers to believe that all its films are special events. At the “Ultron” screening I attended, people audibly yawned throughout a movie that feels at least a half-hour too long, but then remained in their seats to watch a mid-credits “bonus” scene. Because that’s what one does at a Marvel film, good, bad or mediocre.
The studio-fan relationship is too symbiotic to attribute this sequel’s bloat just to corporate cynicism. Behind the movie’s inundation of action scenes and its too-obvious use of computer-generated imagery lies an earnestness. Marvel and director/co-screenwriter Joss Whedon appear to have wanted to give fans a full experience.
But “Ultron” is too full, of action and CGI, while also being nearly empty of genuine thrills. A talented cast (including fine additions Elizabeth Olsen, Aaron Taylor-Johnson and James Spader, who voices the villain Ultron) impresses throughout, but the action ultimately overwhelms it.
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A scene in which Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) transforms from green, overgrown monster back to vulnerable man – thanks to Hulk whisperer Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow’s (Scarlett Johansson) gentle touch – boasts seamless effects work and carries a “Beauty and the Beast”-like poignancy.
The satisfying combination of visuals and storytelling evident at this moment disappears once “Avengers” moves into set pieces like one in which Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) tries to contain an environs-wrecking Hulk. CGI takes over, and the action becomes repetitive.
Ultron is an artificial-intelligence entity that assumes robot form. The Avengers pummel and otherwise try to injure the robot even though Ultron still exists outside of it. This pursuit tells you all you need to know about this film’s wheel-spinning qualities.
“Ultron” starts with a battle scene at the eastern European lair of Wolfgang von Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann), a Hydra supervillain who experiments on humans and has been hiding a scepter belonging to Loki, Thor’s brother and villain in the first “Avengers.”
Iron Man brings the scepter back to the Avengers’ New York headquarters, where he discovers it holds vast A.I. possibilities. From its technology, Stark creates Ultron, which Stark intends to be a force of good.
But as “Less Than Zero” taught us, Downey and Spader are toxic together. The two actors, in combination, exceed the legal limit for drollery. Ultron rejects Stark’s idea that it be a peacekeeper in favor of an idea as old as comic-book villainy: that humankind must be destroyed.
Humans are flawed, Ultron argues almost convincingly (because Spader always sounds reasonable), and therefore need to evolve as a species. But the current, less-evolved crop needs to go, Ultron believes.
Whedon, in a departure from his usual blow-’em-up-but-leave-’em-laughing approach, tacitly disputes Ultron’s belief about humans by fleshing out the Avengers as people. These highly satisfying scenes offer, more than any action scenes, a reason to see “Ultron.”
Archery specialist Hawkeye, lent an appealing scrappiness by Jeremy Renner, gets even earthier when the movie travels home with him to a farmhouse that looks like Clark Kent’s parents’ place. For the length of a few scenes, “Avengers” turns homey.
Natasha and Banner embark on a tentative romance that creates plentiful sparks. Johansson and Ruffalo each show hesitation and hope as professional seductress Natasha reveals a softer side while coaxing the shy, tortured Banner to give her a shot.
Tortured always beats cocky as a comic-book character trait, though Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Tony trade some funny, egomania-inspired lines during a scene in which the Avengers get together for cocktails. (Thor wears a blazer!)
Darkness suffuses the backstory of twins Wanda (Olsen) and Pietro (Taylor-Johnson) Maximoff, subjects of von Strucker’s experimentation. War destroyed their family and left them vulnerable to von Strucker. They blame Stark, because they recognize his arms-manufacturing family’s name from weapons that entered their childhood home. Now telekinetic (Wanda) and ultra-fast (Pietro), they ally themselves with Ultron.
Olsen and Taylor-Johnson look thoroughly haunted, and they improve the acting games of the better-known actors with whom they share scenes. Olsen is especially good during a scene in which Hawkeye appeals to Wanda on a basic human level free of mumbo jumbo about A.I., Hydra or scepters.
Olsen and Taylor-Johnson have a trickier time navigating scenes with each other. The twins can seem too close. Close as in Angelina Jolie and her brother at the Oscars.
Scenes showing Pietro – better known in the Marvel universe as Quicksilver – as he whizzes past foes lack the fun and excitement of similarly themed moments from “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” in which Evan Peters played Quicksilver.
But there’s more Quicksilver total in this film than in the “Future Past,” and this might appeal to Marvel fans drawn to the Avengers films (including the “Thor,” “Iron Man” and “Captain America” movies) for their sheer abundance. This series caters to an entertainment fan’s inherent, childhood-rooted desire not to see his or her favorite story end. Marvel already announced there will be new “Avengers” films in 2018 and 2019, in addition to a new “Captain America” movie in 2016.
Seeing no end in sight, however, also can lessen the impact of a middle film such as “Ultron.” Watching this overlong, repetitive film while knowing the end of the series is nowhere near only serves to make it more tiresome.
Call The Bee’s Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB.
THE AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON
Cast: Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Chris Hemsworth, Jeremy Renner
Director: Joss Whedon
Rated PG-13 (intense sequences of sci-fi action, violence and destruction and some suggestive comments