Avengers: Age of Ultron

Tony Stark (played by Robert Downey Jr.) and his Avengers are in the midst of celebrating a victory when an evil robot, named Ultron, gains consciousness and starts to blow stuff up. The Avengers retaliate…mostly by blowing more stuff up.

Although this is the second film to fully feature “The Avengers,” it’s actually a sequel to five movies, as the Marvel film universe is now fully synergized (in the same way the comic books all had an either direct or loose connection). “Age of Ultron” has lots of moments I liked a great deal, in a movie that’s a near-miss.

Everyone in the cast has at least one scene where they get to shine but that’s still not enough. The screenplay bites off more than it can chew and occasionally chokes. Shoe-horning Stellan Skarsgard, Anthony Mackie, Idris Elba and Haley Atwell in, all because they played pivotal roles in previous Marvel properties, makes the actors (and the character’s they’re playing) feel like afterthoughts.

Director/co-writer Joss Whedon’s usually sharp gift for dialog mostly fails him here. The abundant quips and one-liners are often cute but rarely all that funny. The self-aware lines coming from Ultron especially come off as forced and clearly conceived by a screenwriter aiming to be hip. There’s a crass but hilarious one-liner in “Guardians of the Galaxy” where Chris Pratt’s Star Lord, says this of this of his spaceship: “if I had a blacklight, this place would light up like a Jackson Pollack painting.” Nothing in “Age of Ultron” comes close to being that memorable.

Downey Jr. and his engaging co-stars do what they can to flesh out these heroes but the formula is starting to get long in the tooth. Mark Ruffalo, as great an actor as he is, still feels miscast as Bruce Banner. Many of Scarlett Johansson’s line readings sound very Mae West-like (which is odd, since she’s a former Russian spy).

I don’t mean to be unkind, but this is the second summer movie in a row where Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson co-star and are blown off the screen by their co-stars and abundant CGI. Olsen, in particular, is a sensational actress but doesn’t make enough of a mark on her character. Taylor- Johnson’s take on Quicksilver comes nowhere near last summer’s rendering in “X-Men: Days of Future Past” (in fact, that movie as a whole is far more engrossing than “Age of Ultron”).

James Spader’s vocal performance as Ultron is engaging but the character isn’t much of a villain. There’s a lack of danger, fear and menace in the role. The Avengers have yet to be matched against the Marvel Universe equivalent of The Joker or Lex Luthor.

The opening scene is designed to look like it’s been shot in one take, which is a real problem: not cutting away from all the chaos only demonstrates how wildly improbable the shot is, as well as how phony the CGI looks. Much of the visual effects look like the pixilated illusions that they are, and some of the actions sequences play more like video game replications than the coherent, momentum-building set pieces.

While the brief Iron Man versus Hulk dust-up is rather pointless, it’s the one TKO action set piece. A flashy moment near the end, where the camera swirls around a massive cluster of super heroes having a massive rumble, mostly resembles what it looks like if dozens of actions figures are being flushed.

The scenes with Linda Cardellini, playing the wife of an Avenger, are deadly. It stops the movie and gives us lines where she references her husband’s “avenging,” the way one would regard accounting. Some of the Avengers suffer hallucinations, where we see the guilt that plagues them: these moments are oddly similar to the Sybok “I’ll-take-away-your-pain” sequences from “Star Trek V.” Yes, that last sentence is arguably the nerdiest in this entire article.

The freshness of the first and third “Iron Man” is missing, as is the snap and heart of “Guardians of the Galaxy.” For all the exploding buildings and gigantic depictions of destruction, it’s the quieter moments that stick. I loved the “birth” of Ultron, as well as the contemplative introduction of Paul Bettany’s “Vision.” Likewise, the way Black Widow approaches the Hulk in the same way Diane Fossey once communicated with mountain Gorillas. Much of this is fun, though it’s hit and miss, and a bit confused about its identity. The attempt to make this a children’s film, a mythos-building comic book franchise sequel and a fantasy/action/comedy for adults results in a tonal scramble.