Dave's Rating:

3.5

Much Avenge About More Things

They're building a giant machine now, a machine made of movies. To participate in the machine's agenda of taking your money, it will not help to begin by looking at this perpetual motion installment and working backwards, trying to catch up. You must, at least, return to the first Avengers film, the first Thor movie and both Captain America chapters, or you must instead have a thorough superhero briefing from a Comic-Con attendee who has already logged the hours for you. Otherwise, Avengers: Age of Ultron will be merely loud, densely detailed, and incomprehensible for 141 minutes.

We begin in mid-battle, and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Captain America (Chris Evans), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), and Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) are busy slow-mo flying through the air to triumphantly kick at HYDRA evildoers. Somewhere during this frenzied roar, a bad person says, "Can we hold them?" and another bad person responds, "They're the Avengers..." Meaning no, dummy, you can't hold them. Nobody can hold them. Not even what's coming next can hold them, and Thing Next is an unstoppable robot army led by an ultra-Libertarian super-intelligence named Ultron (perfectly voiced by James Spader). Even that. They're the Avengers. Unless the title of the movie is Avengers Something Whatever Fighting Jam, Part 1 they're going to win.

Like any effective terrorist -- and if these films are about nothing else, they are about unseen forces invading us from all directions and how fear guides our responses -- Ultron has only ideology to guide it and access to the most complex of human technological achievements, the better to decimate everything that gets in its way.

And the frequent confusion attending this real age of terrorism is matched by the confusing messages that accompany the Avengers. It's a world of alien aggressors that require nothing less than extreme displays of destructive force as a corrective. The most trustworty of those destructive forces are benevolent corporate and militaristic entities that will save you. Maybe. Because you can't trust anyone, sometimes even those saviors. But we're all in this together so, uh, sorry, you simply have no other choice. Comforted yet?

Writer-director Joss Whedon's humanism is never far away, and it tempers those no-win scenarios with comic ensemble dialogue that wouldn't feel out of place on an old episode of Roseanne (his first writing credit). Packed with a disgruntled family's worth of characters already, Age of Ultron crams in several new ones -- Vision (Paul Bettany), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), and Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) -- as well as sequel-seeding details the observant and experienced will pick up on, even as they fly past the rest of you. And by "you," I mean me -- something about Infinity Stones that I expect future films will walk my brain through, even though, yes, I know, they've made cameo appearances in the other movies.

To his credit, Whedon juggles these franchise-fulfilling facts efficiently and the story's competing character agendas with light touches of humor and warmth, even if the characters themselves have become known by some shorthand tics and quirks. (Cap hates profanity, goes the best running gag.) You've visited with these particular guardians of the galaxy before, no need to remediate, and the new batch still feel like welcome additions. One question, though: how sardine-tin-like is this hero train going to become when the actual Guardians of The Galaxy climb on board? Hulk is going to eat that raccoon and pick his teeth with that tree.

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