Ultron delivers overstuffed action thrills

Joss Whedon’s The Avengers assembled Earth’s mightiest heroes and sent them off on an epic adventure distinguished by whip-smart dialogue, loving characterizations and more than a few moments of armrest-gripping awe. The director’s deliriously anticipated follow-up, Avengers: Age of Ultron, boasts a larger cast (at least nine featured superheroes), a steeper budget and even grander thematic ambitions, but it can’t quite rekindle the spark of fun and ingenuity that made its predecessor such a resounding triumph of pop cinema.

The film opens on an exhilarating high note as Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) fight their way into the mountain fortress of HYDRA boss Baron Wolfgang von Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann), a Teutonic tyrant who’s been performing grotesque experiments on young meta-humans. This sequence comes closest to capturing the whiz-bang joy of the source material, and the team’s mid-battle banter, most of it stemming from Cap’s discomfort with curse words, is infectious. That lighthearted spirit quickly subsides, however, once the team breaches the castle walls and encounters Strucker’s prized pupils, the telekinetic seer Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and her brother, the super-speedy Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson).

Haunted by a Witch-induced hallucination of his friends being slaughtered by an unstoppable foe from beyond the stars, Tony Stark redoubles his efforts to create a form of artificial intelligence that will act as an unmanned global-defense system, a “suit of armor around the world.” Later, during a swanky, cameo-laden party at Avengers Tower, the prototype of this system, codenamed Ultron (James Spader), achieves sentience and embarks on a campaign of world domination in a twisted bid to fulfill his prime directive: saving humanity from itself. Horrified by what he’s unleashed, everyone’s favorite genius billionaire playboy philanthropist vows to bring down the mechanical menace, even as his teammates, including an unusually combative Cap, berate him for his recklessness.

It’s clear that Whedon, who also wrote the screenplay, intended to put our heroes through the emotional wringer this time — the plot reads like a amalgamation of The Empire Strikes Back (there’s even a city in the clouds) and Frankenstein — but his attempts to provide depth and complexity are continually hamstrung by Marvel’s corporate mandates regarding obligatory third act showdowns — the climax is a carbon copy of the first movie’s “Battle of New York” with Ultron drones replacing Chitauri invaders — and the studio’s obsession with setting up future installments, even when it comes at the expense of in-the-moment drama.

Then there’s the matter of Ultron himself. With the exception of Tom Hiddleston’s ruthless but perversely sympathetic Loki and Vincent D’Onofrio’s soft-spoken psycho Kingpin, Marvel has struggled to create memorable onscreen heavies, but Spader, acting through motion-capture, imbues the raving robot with just the right mix of charm — he is Stark’s prodigal son, after all — and unhinged fanaticism. The quality of his performance is offset, however, by the fact that Ultron spends the majority of the film on the run, ducking and covering when he should be destroying, conquering and generally living up to the promise of the movie’s title. He also turns to outright villainy far too quickly, so his beef with his creator lacks any kind of tragic weight. Those of you hoping for scenes with a newly activated, child-like Ultron compulsively watching Disney’s Pinocchio will be sorely disappointed, though he does sing “I’ve Got No Strings” like it’s going out of style.

Despite the flaws, there’s still plenty to enjoy here. Whedon actually manages the difficult task of juggling dozens of characters and plot points in a manner that seems not only coherent but downright inspired at times, even though the audience can sense his exhaustion every step of the way.

The interpersonal drama is still the highlight, often to the point where even the most breathtaking action scene — that would be Iron Man taking on a mind-controlled Hulk in his fan-favorite Hulkbuster armor — feels disruptive. Cap and Iron Man are already on the ideological collision course that will one day lead them to Civil War. Thor’s booming arrogance has never been funnier. The Hulk’s budding romance with Black Widow is sweet without being cloying. Even Hawkeye, who was sidelined for much of the first movie as Loki’s brainwashed stooge, gets some much-needed attention this time around.

Taylor-Johnson’s sadly one-note Quicksilver can’t help but pale in comparison to Evan Peters’ exuberant take on the character in last summer’s X-Men: Days of Future Past, but Olsen’s Scarlet Witch is a truly intriguing addition: a sorrow-scarred war orphan brimming with righteous anger and a bottomless wellspring of psychic energy. It’s a good bet we’ll be seeing much more of her in the Russo brothers’ upcoming Infinity War saga.

Speaking of intriguing additions, let’s take a moment to discuss The Vision (Paul Bettany), the Technicolor android whose sudden appearance in the third act represents the very best and worst of Whedon’s creative instincts. The exact circumstances of his “birth” are deep in spoiler territory, so suffice it to say that The Vision is essentially Ultron as he should have been, a selfless global protector meant to embody the ideals of compassion and serenity. His initial interactions with the Avengers and his later conversations with Ultron are arguably the most well-written scenes in any Marvel film so far, weighing the promise of humanity against its capacity for cruelty, but he remains strangely underutilized for the majority of the final battle, a fact that cheapens the power of his parting monologue. Hopefully the rumored 160-minute director’s cut will redress this issue.

If Avengers: Age of Ultron ends up being Whedon’s final time behind the camera of a major Marvel property, it won’t be for a lack of effort. These movies tend to take a toll on their makers, and the writer-director has recently indicated that he wants to start working on original projects again, far from the world of brand expansion and studio notes. Creative exhaustion is a tricky thing to measure, but this film feels perilously close to the tipping point. Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy both proved there’s still plenty of gas left in Marvel’s tank. It’s simply time for someone new to take the wheel.