“The Avengers Come of Age”
by Scott Mantz

“Avengers: Age of Ultron”
Robert Downey Jr, Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson
Directed by Joss Whedon

After a decade of having big-screen adaptations of its best-known comic book characters – like Spider-Man, X-Men and the Fantastic Four – primarily controlled and released by other studios, it’s hard to believe that it’s been seven years since the Marvel Cinematic Universe came into its own with the Marvel Studios release of the first “Iron Man” back in May of 2008. But that’s because the old saying is true: time flies when you’re having fun.

And as a separate production company that has gained control over its treasured library of superheroes (and villains), Marvel Studios sure has had fun in the years since with the release of “The Incredible Hulk,” two “Captain America’s,” two “Thor’s,” two more “Iron Man’s,” “Guardians of the Galaxy” and, of course, the first “Avengers,” which alone grossed more than $1.5 billion worldwide (making it the third-biggest movie of all time, behind “Avatar” and “Titanic”).

Based on the box office returns of what we’ve seen so far, there’s no question that moviegoers are having loads of fun too. And there’s a lot more to come with additional sequels to the aforementioned titles, as well as new franchise-starters like “Captain Marvel,” “Doctor Strange,” “Black Panther” and, thanks to a new deal between Marvel and Sony, another reboot of “Spider-Man.”

Don’t get me wrong; I love these movies as much as the next comic book nerd (some more than others, of course), but I can’t help but wonder, is this all too much of a good thing? Based on the by-the-numbers malaise that permeates the new “Avengers” sequel “Age of Ultron,” the answer, unfortunately, is yes.

Not that the first “Avengers” was all that great to begin with – a fun movie, yes, but the alien invasion story didn’t feel inspired, and last year’s “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” which felt like a mini-“Avengers” movie unto itself, was a superior film on every level. But now that the “cool” factor of seeing Earth’s Mightiest Heroes assemble for the first time is out of the way, what we’re left with this second time around is a film that’s far too unfocused, uneven and convoluted than a movie based on a comic book has any right to be.

It’s also too long, running 2 hours and 21 minutes, which just so happens to be one minute shorter than its equally overlong predecessor. And then there are the action scenes, which are thrilling and exciting at first, but after a while lead to the mind-numbing effect of “battle fatigue.” So by the time we get to the climactic showdown of mass destruction that fills the last 30 minutes, it looks and feels too much like the big blowout that closed out the last film.

If “Avengers: Age of Ultron” has one saving grace – and it’s a saving grace that goes a long way – it’s that the irresistible chemistry between the characters is infectiously entertaining. Despite having to pick up the pieces after their world-protecting agency S.H.I.E.L.D. crumbled in the last “Captain America” movie, it sure is fun hanging out with these heroes. They feel like a close-knit family now, digging at each other with sly, cheeky humor. There’s also a romance brewing between Black Widow (Scarlet Johansson) and…well, no need to spoil the fun on whom she hooks up with here, but it’s a nice surprise.

But it’s not all fun and games for the once-and-future Avengers, who once again assemble to save the world from a threat in which the future of humanity lies in the balance. That threat is Ultron, an artificially intelligent super-villain that made its first appearance in the 58th issue of the “Avengers” comic back in 1968. As if its intent is to wipe the human race from the face of the earth wasn’t bad enough, the Avengers must also contend with two mysterious super-powered newcomers – the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson).

There’s a lot going on here – too much, perhaps – and even though popcorn-minded moviegoers just looking for nonstop action will get their wish, “Avengers: Age of Ultron” is really at its best when it’s focusing on the characters. As usual, Robert Downey Jr. effortlessly commandeers the proceedings at Tony Stark/Iron Man, but there’s also a noble attempt by returning writer-director Joss Whedon to give all of the heroes their moment in the sun. That’s especially true for Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye, who after being vastly underutilized in the previous movie, is given a much bigger backstory this time around.

Overall “Avengers: Age of Ultron” is fine. It’s fun, it has a confident tone that’s endearing, and the action scenes deliver the goods. But as Marvel Studios gears up to keep cranking out more of these superhero flicks – and that’s in addition to the full slate of movies that its rival, DC, has on tap with “Batman v Superman,” “Aquaman,” “Wonder Woman,” “Suicide Squad” and “Justice League” – the pressure will be on the filmmakers to make each and every one of them feel as unique as possible, lest they start to feel like more of the same.

As for whether or not they’ll succeed, we’ll find out soon enough over these next few years. After all, time flies when you’re having fun.