Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Jeremy Renner, Scarlett Johansson, and Chris Hemsworth go airborne in Avengers: Age of Ultron.

Three years ago this week, The Avengers opened. Ultimately, it would become the third-biggest box office hit in movie history. Part of its success came from the novelty value of having so many superheroes who had carried their own films coming together for one movie, but much of it was also down to the prodigious skill and wisecracking attitude of writer-director Joss Whedon. The novelty value is gone for Avengers: Age of Ultron, and there’s nothing anybody could have done about that. This sequel also represents Whedon’s last go-around with the Marvel heroes, and while it succeeds in many ways, it’s enough of a comedown to suggest that he’s getting off the carousel at the right time.

With SHIELD dismantled following the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is haunted by visions of his fellow Avengers being killed, and he resolves to create an artificial-intelligence program to protect the Earth from the next alien invasion. Unfortunately, the result of his labors is Ultron (voiced by James Spader), who concludes — as comic-book supervillains tend to do — that human beings are the planet’s problem and need to be wiped out. To that end, the program replicates himself into an army of killer robots and recruits to his cause Pietro and Wanda Maximoff, a.k.a. Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen), teenage siblings with superpowers and a grudge against Tony.

Just about everything here is just a bit less sharp than it was in the first movie. While the freeway chase scene set in Seoul is pretty well-executed, the standoff between Iron Man and an out-of-control Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) in Fictitious African Country is uncharacteristically sloppy work by Whedon. By the same token, the climactic battle in Fictitious Eastern European Country involves so many players that the director loses track of them all. An extended sequence in the middle comes when Scarlet Witch gets inside the minds of several Avengers and shows them their worst nightmares, but those are neither scary nor reveal much about their targets. The most it comes to is a bizarre cameo by Julie Delpy as a Soviet taskmaster. Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) gets turned into the Hulk Whisperer, and though the resulting romance between Natasha Romanoff and Bruce Banner is a nice idea, it doesn’t quite come off. Even Whedon’s trademark one-liners don’t land with the same frequency, despite some references to Banksy and Eugene O’Neill.

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With all that, there’s still a great deal to like here. Spader is precisely in his element playing a super-intelligent baddie, and his pissy brand of menace is enough to leaven the proceedings — I love the exasperated “Oh, for God’s sake” that comes from offscreen just before the Hulk tosses one of Ultron’s avatars off a plane. A revelation about Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and his family life gives the character a depth that he didn’t have in the first movie. Most of the best comedic lines fall to Hemsworth in this chapter, and the actor flashes a boisterous sense of humor that he didn’t get to display in Thor’s solo vehicles, like when the smug smile melts off Thor’s face while watching Captain America (Chris Evans) threaten to lift his hammer.

Elsewhere, Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) dings the Avengers for habitually relegating the women to the sidelines during the action. Acknowledging the overwhelming maleness of the Marvel-verse is gratifyingly self-aware on the movie’s part, but Hill could have been a lot harsher, I say. A measure of redress for that is provided by Olsen, a most promising addition to the series, moving with slithery grace and creating an unearthly, demonic presence.

Whedon has talked about being run into the ground by the size of these projects, so it’s good that he exits the series before he fails outright. The restless filmmaker who did a low-budget version of Much Ado About Nothing in between these movies will find something else worthy of his time. Meanwhile, the Marvel series has projects slated for release until the end of the decade. Ultron goes on about how a species needs to evolve to survive, and Whedon smartly takes his villain’s words to heart when it comes to the franchise. By the end, the superhero team is almost entirely new (and somewhat more diverse, too). If the Avengers are still viable in 2020, this movie will be a big reason why.


[box_info]Avengers: Age of Ultron
Starring Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, and Mark Ruffalo. Written and directed by Joss Whedon, based on Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s comic book series. Rated PG-13.[/box_info]