How many superheroes does it take to make a movie? At this point, Marvel Studio’s cinematic empire is getting so overpopulated that you’d need a spreadsheet to keep track of who everyone is. There are over a dozen comic-book characters vying for attention in “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” — some who have their own standalone films and TV series to promote — and the movie barely knows what to do with them all.
It’s too bad that Robert Altman is no longer around to attempt to marshal this outsized ensemble. He might have been able to craft a more satisfying film than writer and director Joss Whedon has managed here — though perhaps even he would have struggled with this Marvel-mandated mission.
It’s a lot harder to impose a creative mark now than it was for Whedon in his first “Avengers” film in 2012, when he had more wiggle room. Though it clocks in at 141 minutes, “Age of Ultron” has to spend so much time introducing new characters, joining dots and laying the groundwork for future films that it barely gets a chance to succeed on its own terms.
Picking up where “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” left off in 2014, it finds our superhero team battling against the minions of Nazi stand-in Hydra, in order to recover a MacGuffin from one of the earlier movies. But wait: there’s a pair of Slavic-accented siblings with enhanced mutant powers who’ve joined the Hydra cause due to a beef with Tony Stark, aka Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.).
One of the siblings, Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), has the power to mess with people’s minds, and she primes Stark to go home and create an artificial intelligence, Ultron, that he thinks will keep humanity protected from malevolent alien forces. However, as soon as he finishes work on said AI (splendidly voiced by James Spader) it goes rogue and puts humanity on its hit list.
Still with me? Good, because then we’ve still got to get past big, destructive set pieces in Johannesburg and Seoul, plus have some downtime at superhero Hawkeye’s farmhouse, before the whole carnival moves back to the generic Eastern European locale (“Sokovia,” apparently) where the film first started.
Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye — the least spectacular Avenger — gets an awful lot of screen time in “Age of Ultron,” as if to compensate for how much he’s been neglected in the series thus far. There are even a few knowing jokes at his expense, though none as entertaining as the parody that Renner himself performed in character on “The Tonight Show” to the tune of Ed Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud.” (Sample lyric: “Listen, I’ve got powers, too, and they’re pretty sweet / I promise I can do so much more than just archery.”)
Still, his is one of the only plot lines that’s fleshed out. The other involves a burgeoning romance between Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow and Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk that, given a few more minutes, might even have felt poignant. But “Age of Ultron” can only spare so much time for such entanglements before it has to cast them aside and unleash the next bout of awesome spectacle.
Action sequences are abundant, and some of them are pretty fun, especially the duel between the Hulk and a supersized Iron Man. More often, though, they feel as weightless and mindless as a video game. There’s a lot of frenzied punching and blasting going on here — it’s the filmic equivalent of mashing all the buttons at once on a PlayStation controller.
The end credits make it clear, as they must, that the Avengers will return. The two-part “Avengers: Infinity War” is already penciled in for 2018 and 2019, and we can expect further “Captain America,” “Thor” and “Guardians of the Galaxy” sequels.
Whedon has already announced that he won’t be on board for the next installment, and you can hardly blame him. These films don’t require a director. All they need are bean counters.