If you think for a moment about the best sequels ever made, the short list contains iconic films that nonetheless improved on their first installment. Think “The Empire Strikes Back,” “Terminator 2,” “Spiderman 2,” even “The Dark Knight.” So even though the original films were great, there was room for improvement. This explains, in part, why “Avengers: Age of Ultron” though it is a very good film, feels a little like a disappointment. The previous film, “The Avengers” is arguably the best superhero film ever and there was nowhere for any sequel to go but down. Surely audiences know this, yet expectations were other-worldly.
It would be hard to make even an average movie with this fun cast, and “Ultron” feels like a sometimes crowded but can’t miss party with the gang all back including Robert Downey Jr. (Iron Man/Tony Stark), Chris Hemsworth (Thor), Chris Evans (Captain America/Steve Rogers), Scarlett Johansson (Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff), Mark Ruffalo (The Hulk/Bruce Banner), and Jeremy Renner (Hawkeye/Clint Barton).
After recapturing the villainous Loki’s scepter, the Avengers team lead by Tony Stark attempt to harness the scepter’s “Infinity Stone” (one of six that play significant roles in the Marvel films) to re-ignite a dormant Artificial Intelligence program. Of course the result, “Ultron,” a sort of Stark evil-doppelgänger (voiced amusingly by James Spader) decides he knows better what to do with humanity (destroy it) and the Avengers team must use all of their combined resources, eventually adding former Hydra recruits the Maximoff twins including the light-speed Quicksilver/Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and tele-kinetic Scarlet Witch/Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen).
You can’t fault director Joss Whedon for maximum effort here. There’s plenty of the jovial camaraderie that made the first installment a comic romp including a hilarious hammer-lifting contest over cocktails. The action sequences don’t feel overstuffed and there are quieter moments involving the Banner/Romanoff relationship and some secrets about Barton’s personal life that give the film emotional heft and a welcomed reprieve from the loud but well-choreographed bombast.
Eschewing the typical formula of these types of films, at least for a few moments, are some scenes that, via Wanda’s hallucinogen-causing abilities, explore some of the darker sides of our heroes including their regrettable past and their ominous destiny.
“Avengers: Age of Ultron” is long but doesn’t bore because of superb pacing and a final act that doesn’t involve an endlessly long final battle. While saving the innocent is a noble focus of the Avengers efforts here, the lives of the protagonists themselves never seem in real danger – something that would add gravitas to the plots. Death of the supposed immortal hero was a constant theme in the comic-books, after all.
Even if the franchises will, no doubt, live forever.
Technical note: This film is one of the first to feature Dolby “Atmos” sound that, through the use of many more speakers including some directly above the audience, offers “three-dimensional sound” greatly enhancing the film experience. The technology will eventually arrive in southern Utah but for now is available in Salt Lake City and Las Vegas.
Rated PG-13 (for intense sequences of sci-fi action, violence and destruction, and for some suggestive comments)