MV5BMTc3MDc0NDkzOV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNjIwMjQ0NTE@._V1__SX1202_SY826_Have often do you see a film that starts well only to falter at the midway point and limp to a conclusion that leaves you wondering what might have been? Conversely, how seldom do you see a film that is going off the rails in the early going, yet somehow manages to correct its mistakes after halftime and eke out a win?

Count Avengers: Age of Ultron as one of the rare films that appears headed toward failure, yet somehow course corrects halfway through and finishes strong enough to be regarded as a mild success. As summer blockbuster entertainment, you can call it necessary, but not sufficient. Is it better than the first Avengers movie? Probably, but then again, after three years and without a repeat viewing, how much of the first one lingers besides Cap calling out the assignments and ending with “Hulk, smash?” This time is more of the same with the emphasis on more – more Avengers, more subplots, more noise, more mumbo jumbo.

Quick synopsis: Loki’s Scepter, Infinity Stones, yada, yada, yada, Avengers save the world. Maybe by the time we get to a third Avengers movie, and that’s as certain as this one grossing a billion worldwide within a month only to be largely forgotten by summer’s end, director/screenwriter/Sci Fi Overlord Joss Whedon will realize that the good guys battling the bad guys is what we tune in for. Key to that is being able to tell on the screen which good guy is fighting which particular bad guy at any given moment.

From the outset, the hyperactive action scenes are nothing more than a blur, and we are robbed of the satisfaction of seeing the individual strengths of our A-Team Avengers (Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor) blending into the teamwork that was only hinted at in the first film. Here, Cap’s shield and Thor’s hammer are among the most successful of the supporting cast, but Whedon refuses to showcase that, instead opting to place us inside a video game. The action cannot even be considered violent, because it is stripped of consequences. It’s barely a half step removed from animation.

The other flaw is the attempt to include everything and everyone from the individual spotlight films, the previous Avengers flick, and the television show, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. The cocktail party at Avengers HQ is the most bizarre product placement scene ever filmed, with characters as the merchandise. Hey, it’s War Machine (Don Cheadle) or is that The Falcon (Anthony Mackie)? Later on, it turns that even if you’re dead or in Asgard, you’re still assured of a place in the film. Hello, Hayley Atwell and Idris Elba. And while it’s always great to see Stellan Skarsgård, what the hell was he doing here? Only Gwyneth Paltrow and Natalie Portman give this edition a miss, yet their characters are still referenced in an overly long “Don’t You Wish Your Girlfriend Was Hot Like Mine?” riff between Iron Man and Thor.

Then there’s the newbies, the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who only get their identities in the credits, while in the script, they are simply Wanda and Pietro Maximoff, orphans who ended up in a bizarre HYDRA experiment. Yes, that would be the same sibling duo that in Marvel canon are the prodigy of mutant rebel leader Magneto, but the rights to the X-Men are with another studio. But hey, who’s going to remember that we just had a Quicksilver with a different back story in Days of Future Past? All this, and Whedon still had to find time to squeeze in the essential cameos featuring Stan Lee and the Black Widow’s leather clad butt. Mission accomplished.

Fanboys will have a field day questioning how much screen time each character earned versus how much they deserved, and truth be told, Whedon makes some head-scratching decisions. Hawkeye and the Hulk are not considered strong enough to carry individual franchises, yet we get extended views of their personal lives. Do we care? Yeah, kind of, thanks largely to Jeremy Renner and Mark Ruffalo, although Ruffalo’s one-note, self-loathing portrayal of alter ego Bruce Banner is getting tiresome. The second-tier character for which there is no downside to additional focus is Natasha Romanoff aka The Black Widow aka Scarlett Johansson as a redhead. Woof. The fact that she nails the role and provides great chemistry, particularly with Captain America (Chris Evans), is icing on a rather tasty cake. Naturally, there’s also talk of a Black Widow movie.

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is essentially already in his next movie in this one. The better part of his scenes are of negligible value here, other than his visions which leads to The Vision, which is really, really not how the character originally got his name. Spoiler alert, you say? Not when the surprise character has already appeared on the cover of Entertainment Weekly. And no surprise that the Big Bad, Ultron, is voiced by James Spader is his familiar didactic snark, although it’s more Boston Legal than The Blacklist. (Wouldn’t it have been great if one of the other robots was programmed with the voice of William Shatner doing Denny Crane?)

If it matters – and it really doesn’t – Ultron is an artificial intelligence created inadvertently by Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) as a sentinel of peace for the world. Oddly, Iron Man has become a joyless character. Downey is still strong, and remains the prime example of the true strength of the Mrvel Cinematic Universe – outstanding actors in the lead roles. Perhaps it’s simply an extended lead-in to the Civil War plot line, and there is a scene that shows a schism between he and Cap. For the moment, they’re on the same team.

Which is good, since nothing brings out our specie’s insecurities quite like the idea of bring judged by a superior intellect. Ultron concludes that to save the village, he needs to destroy it. With Whedon’s help, he comes damn close to destroying the franchise, until the head coach shows up and delivers a sorely needed pep talk. That would be Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), who boils the game down to the basics. See bad guy. Hit bad guy. Even Whedon seems to get the message as the wild careening camera shots give way to gorgeous super slo-mo framing of Earth’s mightiest heroes mustering the ultimate goal line defense.

And somehow in the last 30 minutes of this 141-minute slugfest, a little genuine emotion creeps in: the jokes are funnier, the losses are more painful, the good-byes are bittersweet. Still, the film is not fully satisfying, and even the last line teases that we have yet to see The Avengers at full strength.

 

 

 

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