Chris Evans and Chris Hemsworth in Avengers: Age of UltronAVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON

Whatever your feelings about Avengers: Age of Ultron, even if your feelings can be summed up in a succinct "Meh," you can't say that writer/director Joss Whedon is merely giving audiences an exact replica of 2012's comic-book behemoth The Avengers. There's some romance here, for one thing. There's also a lot more plot, now that we're spared its predecessor's hour-plus of super-team origin story. And rather than being granted all of his film's best, most thrillingly unexpected moments, that rampaging mass of CGI id known as the Hulk is instead stuck with the worst scene in the movie - which, unfortunately, also happens to be its most prototypical one.

First, some lead-up, which I'll try to keep simple. I presume you know about the Avengers? That team of costumed crime-fighters that includes Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), and the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo)? This film finds them battling a power-mad cyborg named Ultron. (And yes, fans, I know he's not really a cyborg. He's a gone-awry version of a top-secret, global-peacekeeping initiative who speaks in the voice of James Spader and is able to travel electronically and assume cyborg form. I'm trying to simplify here!) Ultron has, on his team, a pair of Eastern European twins with powers of their own: Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who runs really fast, and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), who has telekinesis and the ability to root around in people's heads. At one point, unseen by us, she roots around in Bruce Banner's. (That's the Hulk when he's not green. You also know these guys all have real names, right?) After she does, the Hulk goes on an absolute rampage, tearing through an innocent-bystander-filled business district and Hulk-smashing everything in sight. Only Tony Stark can stop him, which he attempts to do by donning a super-sized version of his Iron Man outfit and smacking the bezeesus out of his brain-scrambled ally. And so the two go at it. Pound for pound and punch for punch. For 10 freaking minutes.

In retrospect, it was easy, at least for me, to cite this as Age of Ultron's nadir. Not only does the violent pummeling and wanton destruction last forever and kill the film's momentum, but it's all inherently meaningless, to boot; the scene's only true point is to get the sad sack Bruce Banner to a mopier place than usual, which certainly could've been accomplished with fewer tumbling edifices and less broken glass. But what makes the sequence particularly vexing is that it's not an aberration - it's Avengers: Age of Ultron in its most distilled form. Buildings crash, glass shatters, characters suffer horrific beatings, Robert Downey Jr. makes snarky wisecracks ... and the crowd, at least at the screening I attended, couldn't be more tickled. Even though my auditorium was packed to the gills, I heard exactly zero laughs when, later in the film, an exhausted Downey said, with bone-dry hilarity, "It's been a long day. Like Eugene O'Neill long." But there was both loud laughter and applause when, near the climax to their endless street fight, Iron Man was jack-hammering the crap out of the Hulk - with his fist, I hasten to add - and ordering him to "Go to sleep! Go to sleep!" It was a directive I would've considered myself if the audible joy of my fellow patrons weren't keeping me awake.

Mark Ruffalo and Robert Downey Jr. in Avengers: Age of UltronPersonally speaking, and including the finale that boasts a floating city and battalions of murderous robots, I found all of the movie's action set pieces similarly dull, even though Whedon pulls off some truly graceful and inventive bits of choreography. (His slow-motion flourishes, with the camera seemingly stationary while each circling superhero is briefly given center-screen focus, are particularly fine.) And there was plenty more that I found irksome: the bizarre, late-film introduction of Paul Bettany's caped and crimson-faced Vision, whose purpose I couldn't make heads or tails of; the short shrift given to the twins, whose narrative was far more intriguing than Ultron's "I will destroy the world in order to save it" megalomania; the mournful, maudlin trumpet that played when a computer program died. But I'm happy to report that this is where my bitching (mostly) ends, given that when our superheroes aren't performing super-heroics, Age of Ultron is actually a great deal of fun.

Back in 2012, just a few weeks after the original Avengers arrived, specialty-house audiences were also treated to another new Joss Whedon release in his black-and-white adaptation of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing. It was shot over 12 days, at Whedon's house, during the filming of The Avengers, and beyond being about 10 times more spirited than his comic-book outing, the movie shows the miracles of charisma and playfulness that its filmmaker, when allowed, can inspire. (Not that we didn't already know this thanks to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, and Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog.) Lord, how I wish Whedon had embarked upon another 12-day experiment during Age of Ultron filming, preferably if he had employed the cast he has here. Hell, they could've even played the same roles, because the passages in Whedon's sequel that find characters just shooting the shit or, you know, connecting in some way are so good that they make you - well, me - a little angry that there aren't more of them on hand.

Would anyone have complained if there were? As much as I can lament my crowd's collective eating up of the boring CGI mayhem, they were also more than alert to the movie's quieter segments - the scenes of Hawkeye's previously unreferenced domestic life, for instance, or the incredibly touching romantic build-up between Black Widow and a figure whose identity I wouldn't dream of spoiling. (The gentleman sitting in front of me, who threw his fist in the air during the most violent encounters, did the same when this pair eventually kissed, and also shouted "Yes! Finally!") Early on, our heroes get to enjoy a cocktail soiree with relaxed joshing and casual banter and his teammates trying, unsuccessfully, to lift Thor's hammer; the sequence is so fresh and funny that you wish it would never end. Our leads, for the most part, deliver lovely and humane (and frequently very funny) portrayals, with Johansson, Renner, and Ruffalo especially strong and thoughtful. Olsen is a very welcome addition - though I do wish that instead of Taylor-Johnson, the livelier Evan Peters would've been allowed to reprise his Quicksilver role from X-Men: Days of Future Past. There's great enjoyment in seeing Marvel returnees Samuel L. Jackson, Don Cheadle, Anthony Mackie, Cobie Smulders, Idris Elba, and Stellan Skarsgård. The amazing guest list also manages to include Linda Cardellini, Andy Serkis, Julie Delpy, Thomas Kretschmann ... and those are just the performers I noticed. (One of whom I didn't, apparently, was Josh Brolin. Where was he hiding?)

No film with this cast could ever be wholly devoid of personality, even when relentless visual-effects "wonders," just like Ultron himself, are doing their darnedest to make human beings irrelevant. And while I currently feel I got all I needed from Avengers: Age of Ultron the first time around, I can easily see myself sitting through it again some day just for Johansson's femme fatale lusciousness, or Cardellini's gentle heartache, or Cheadle's hard-won satisfaction in finally getting his dopey joke to land. For those of us who continually bemoan Hollywood's steady diet of cinematic comic books, Joss Whedon may be serving up more of the same. But with his persistent interest in people above all else, he's also - bless him - doing all he can to add some flavor to the menu.


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