'Avengers: Age of Ultron' loses some of its appeal but still brings action-packed entertainment

“Avengers: Age of Ultron” brings the best of all the Marvel worlds for the first explosive superhero thrill-ride of the year. Writer-director Joss Whedon outdoes himself – and the rest Marvel Cinematic Universe -- with rip-roaring action and an ensemble cast to end all ensemble casts. “Age of Ultron” easily dethrones 2012’s “The Avengers” as the ultimate Marvel movie experience.

Whedon treats “Age of Ultron” like a classic Frankenstein story where the mad scientist with the best intentions (and we know where those lead to) plays God and creates a “better” being. As these stories tend to go, which is terribly awry, the creation inevitably becomes the ‘creature’. The mad scientist here is Tony Stark, who creates Ultron, an evolved, self-thinking artificial intelligence whose sole existence is to maintain peace on Earth by protecting the world from those alien invaders from the first film. Immediately, Ultron sees the Avengers as a global threat and turns Stark’s robot police against them. Outsmarted and out-gunned, the Avengers go on the run while trying to stop the world from being annihilated (again).

Whedon and co. wait for nobody and thrust the audience head first into the action, leaving no dramatic introduction to our favorite Marvel team.  The Avengers’ individual films have given ample room for each character’s exposition and by now, after all these years, we know these characters very well. That is why Whedon wastes little time on drama. Sometimes you may just want nothing more than to watch a whole bunch of superheroes  kick butt and save the world and that’s exactly what Whedon and friends delvier.  In a film nearing two and a half hours, there is roughly ten to twelve minutes of downtime. The rest is pedal to the metal.

Even though this is non-stop action, Whedon does take extra care to show that the Avengers are indeed heroes. Sure, each has their own demons and conflicts, but The Avengers embody that old-fashioned superhero spirit that is certainly lacking in those other superhero movies (cough,  DC, cough). Whether it’s Black Widow or Iron Man, it’s hard not to cheer them on as they save innocent bystanders from ultimate destruction – and credit for that certainly goes to the Marvel team for taking good care of how their characters are presented to the legion of beloved fans.

Marvel has spent the past half-decade building their cinematic universe, which they finally united with The Avengers, but it’s here in “Age of Ultron” that the entirety of their master plan interlocks together. Casts and characters from “Captain America,” “Thor,” “Iron Man” and “X-Men,” are woven together into Whedon’s “Ultron” story.

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    The usual suspects return: Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Mark Ruffalo, led again by the always charismatic Robert Downey, Jr. Joining the team are two new recruits: twins Scarlett Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Quick Silver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Through humor, crazy stunts and a few tears, Whedon does a decent job building the audience’s connection to these characters in such a short amount of time.

    Two characters, though, given the most dramatic weight are Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo). Presented as star-crossed lovers, Banner and Black Widow find solace in their mutual understanding and dream of a future together, but alas, as members of The Avengers, fate has other plans. Their thread is really Whedon’s only chance to insert his doomed love motif that accompanies many of his stories.

    Ultimately it’s James Spader as the voice of Ultron who steals the show. Whedon and company could have gone the predictable route by giving Ultron a generic robotic villain voice, but with Spader this villain is give such a memorable personality. Spader is a singular actor with uncanny delivery and Ultron’s dialogue seems tailored specifically to Spader’s unique and expressive timbre. With Spader as Ultron, the villain becomes as much fun to watch (and listen) as the equally witty Tony Stark.

    As expected, the visual effects are better than ever, out-performing all the Marvel films that have come before. From an epic Hulk versus Iron Man rampage to Ultron’s robot army, the effects bristle with as much vibrant energy as The Avengers themselves. So far in the Marvel films, editing surprisingly hasn’t been used beyond the traditional means of basic cuts to progress the action, but Jeffrey Ford and Lisa Lassek’s editing for “Ultron” gets extra props for becoming part of the visual aesthetic as various MCU stories flash forward and backward, orbiting around the main Avengers team. Composer Brian Tyler, along with maverick superhero composer Danny Elfman bring the goods, weaving and aligning Alan Silvestri’s original “Avengers” theme with a variety of new and old themes, adding a muscular musical layer to Whedon’s epic canvas.

    Marvel and Disney will make a gajillion dollars with “Age of Ultron”, and even though the novelty of seeing all these characters together isn’t as fresh as it was in 2012, The Avengers still bring an unbridled sense of awe and excitement. What’s not to like?

    Marvel/Walt Disney Pictures. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes.