The Harlem Globetrotters of the superhero world are back in Avengers: Age of Ultron, pulverising bad guys, cracking wise, and suffering a few more hits than usual. That last part keeps the fights out of Toon Town, but just barely. This eleventh entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is the zaniest and least necessary yet. Everyone's a comedian. That includes the villain, who looks like The Iron Giant and sounds like Steff from Pretty in Pink. But it all works in that special Marvel/Disney/Whedon way.
Age of Ultron begins with the aforementioned kick-ass globetrotters bounce-passing bad guys to one another in the forests of Sokovia. It's director Joss Whedon's immediate wink to the audience: the same unbroken shot sequence, jumping focus from one superhero to the next, that he used towards the end of Avengers. He's letting everybody know: We're back!
This kind of bravura is why people love the Marvel movies. These scenes are at the absolute forefront of modern action filmmaking. You can't deny the fight sequences. Marvel directors may never be able to approach the intimacy of the fight choreography in micro-budget movies like The Raid: Redemption or its sequel. But Whedon manages to keep things grounded in other ways.
The opening forest sequence is an attack on evil HYDRA boss Baron Von Strucker, who's got Loki's stolen scepter. He's also in possession of something else: twin mutants, Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) and Pietro Maximoff (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who provide much of the early Avenger antagonizing. These two new characters are well-familiar to Marvel fans as Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, and they bring the movie to Earth with a good old fashioned payback modus operandi: Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) built the weapons that destroyed their lives.
Admirably, Whedon, who also wrote the script, makes the bold assumption that his audience doesn't need to be briefed on what's preceded the film. The biggest improvement Age of Ultron makes over The Avengers is eschewing expository backstory. That may be an organic result of the Cinematic Universe evolving, but not every filmmaker would do the same. Whedon knows and trusts his audience and it's refreshing not to have to relive the same thing over and over like after a commercial break on Hell's Kitchen.
So Whedon introduces the Avengers, Quicksilver, Scarlet Witch, and then the movie's final boss, Ultron. An A.I. created by Stark and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) to protect the world from another galactic attack, Ultron (voiced by James Spader) becomes sentient and believes the only way to truly protect Earth is to wipe out the Avengers and then, humanity. Appearing in an unfinished Stark robot like a drunk looking for a fight, Ultron taunts the Avengers after wiping out JARVIS and teaming up with the evil twins. There's no doubt the evil robot is smart, Whedon's writing and Spader's performance assure that, but he's sorely undermatched facing off with the famous heroes... undermatched and unworthy. He's powerful and ambitious enough, but you never get the sense he's a real threat. He's got a little too much Spader in him. This franchise is in dire need of a Heath Ledger as Joker performance.
Thankfully, Ultron's not the only bad guy. Using her mind control ability, The Scarlet Witch tricks the Avengers into reliving their worst moments while "destroying them from the inside." This leads to Hulk going insane and Stark having to break out the Hulkbuster suit to keep him under control. They raze a skyscraper in the ensuing fight. Meanwhile, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) is making serious eyes at Banner. Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) becomes the heart of the team, offering his "safe house" as refuge and convincing the twins to fight against Ultron. Captain America (Chris Evans) remains steadfast as the team's moral center (and mother hen). And Thor (Chris Hemsworth) provides a few witty one-liners and provokes the movie's funniest scene as all the Avengers try to pick up his hammer.
Most of Avengers: Age of Ultron is fun, but this movie is overflowing like a tub full of fat guys. It beats The Avengers in terms of expository scenes, but it's also jam-packed with small references, operatic scores, Disney songs, inside jokes, and, most of all, huge action. Whedon's insistence on moving the film forward will leave those unfamiliar with the characters and comics in the dust. In many ways, Age of Ultron is nothing but a bridge film and totally unnecessary. The key component—the infinity stone that births Ultron and then, The Vision (Paul Bettany)—will be at the center of the next Avenger films: the two-part Infinity War. That storyline is relevant, but just about everything else that happens is gravy for the fans.