'Avengers: Age of Ultron' review: Fun, if slightly flawed, Marvel centerpiece

'Avengers: Age of Ultron' review: Fun, if slightly flawed, Marvel centerpiece

 "Avengers: Age of the Ultron" (Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios, used with permission)

"Avengers: Age of the Ultron" (Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios, used with permission)

An "Avengers" movie featuring HYDRA, Ultron (one of the great Marvel Comics villains of all time) and the Hulkbuster armor in full action should be better than "good" -- which is really the best (and slightly disappointing) word that sums up "Avengers: Age of Ultron" (in theaters May 1).

In short: While the Avengers hunt down HYDRA bases, the malevolent artificial intelligence Ultron (James Spader) enlists a pair of super-powered twins Wanda and Pietro Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson) to battle Earth's mightiest heroes. (watch the trailer)

Although "Age of Ultron" never reaches the heights of joy and excitement as the first "Avengers" flick, this sprawling adventure is still pretty exciting -- despite a clunky narrative that shoves its way forward without much grace.

"Age of Ultron" is a kitchen sink movie - it strains to introduce four new major characters (Ultron, Quicksilver, Scarlet Witch and Vision), deal with the continuing threat of HYDRA (that began in "Captain America: The Winter Soldier"), flesh out several Avengers who were neglected in the first movie (Hawkeye, Black Widow) and establish some fundamental framework for upcoming Marvel movies. That's a tall order for any movie -- the fact that "Ultron" isn't as great as the first "Avengers" isn't surprising and the fact that this sequel is still a pretty fun ride (despite perhaps biting off more story than it can chew) is a testament to director Joss Whedon's ability.

First, the good news: Spader's take on Ultron is compelling. The insanely powerful and knowledgeable robot is effortlessly evil -- yet, he's still very ... human. This version of Ultron is the metallic embodiment of Tony Stark's dark, pragmatic side -- whileIron Man strikes to protect humanity with an army of robots, Ultron believes humanity is root cause of all of Earth's problems. Ultron is treated as a multi-dimensional character - a being whose logic drives him to destroy the world, and a belief fueled by a very human anger directed at his creator, Tony Stark.

For a nearly two-and-a-half-hour long movie, "Age of Ultron" keeps chugging along with a nice momentum, with its three main acts anchored by three impressive and exciting set pieces/action sequences. And the movie wastes no time in jumping to the action - it opens immediately with the Avengers laying siege to a HYDRA base. From there, the globe-trotting flick jumps to Africa and South Korea. Any one of these set pieces could easily have been a climactic final battle - yet "Age of Ultron" executes several eye-popping battles.

And through it all, the Avengers remain a fundamentally conflicted team of heroes, united by a cause but that's about it. This internal conflict of philosophies and tactics - most notably between Captain America and Iron Man - ratchets up the dramatic tension and keeps the heroic team interesting. At several points in the movie, the Avengers turn against one another - if only momentarily - as they are manipulated or genuinely angered by their teammates actions.

Now the bad news: "Ultron" forces the narrative forward with some pretty lazy storytelling - although these cheats legitimize the incredible action scenes, they also sap a lot of emotional depth from the story.

The entirety of "The Winter Soldier" established the deeply rooted, global threat of HYDRA - yet, (aside from the major first act battle) the villainous group is barely in "Age of Ultron." Thor has a short b-plot that takes him away to some random landmark (that has never been established and is barely explained). His field trip is little more than an excuse to shove in some forced exposition that's ultimately more relevant to future Marvel movies (ie "Avengers: Infinity War") than it is to the plot of "Age of Ultron." How or why Pietro and Wanda have their superpowers is vague at best -- essentially they're just lab experiments created by HYDRA. The creation of Ultron is quickly summed up in a time-lapse montage -- so it's not exactly clear how or what went into developing Ultron's AI, personality or knowledge base. Vision is a particularly undefined character -- the extent of his powers is fuzzy, as is exactly what his powers are or why he has them. The audience is meant to shut up, not question what makes Vision unique from every other super-powered being and just accept that he's a complete bad ass.

Perhaps the laziest bit of storytelling: there's a shocking amount of action or plot development that occurs off screen. The creation of the Maximoff twin's superpowers, the murder of a major character and even how the Avengers reassembled are all events that are critically vital to the film's plot, yet, they all occur off screen.

The cumulative effect of lazy, rushed storytelling is its also dulls down any moments of absolute joy and thrilling excitement related to the narrative. The weight of dramatic plot twists is undermined by weak storytelling.

Final verdict: "Age of Ultron" is not the best film in the MCU Phase Two series of movies -- "The Winter Soldier" and "Guardians of the Galaxy" are each better than "Ultron." That said - this "Avengers" sequel remains an incredibly enjoyable and exciting action-adventure. "Age of Ultron" is really a victim of the high bar/standard set by previous MCU movies.

Score: 4/5

P.S. - For what it's worth: the "Days of Future Past" iteration of Pietro Maximoff/Quicksilver is cooler than the "Age of Ultron" version.

"Avengers: Age of Ultron" opens in theaters nationwide May 1 and is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action, violence and destruction, and for some suggestive comments.

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