“We’re mad scientists, monsters. You gotta own it.”
That’s Tony Stark lecturing his partner in world-saving, Bruce Banner, while fooling around with a little sentience-integration work in the lab in “Avengers: Age of Ultron.” As the second installment of the Marvel Comic-based series that began in 2012, “Age of Ultron” seeks mightily to portray its core group of superheroes as misfits and antiheroes, haunted by their own compromised pasts and emotional shadow material.
The fact that “Age of Ultron” only partially succeeds at that mission is actually a good thing. As he did in the first “Avengers,” writer-director Joss Whedon avoids the fatal trap of comic-book self-seriousness, leavening a baggy, busy, overpopulated story with zippy one-liners, quippy asides and an overarching tone of jaunty good fun. There are plenty of blockbusters these days that feature a noisy, protracted, risibly improbable motorcycle chase; “Age of Ultron” may be the first in which the driver delivers a cheerful “beep-beep!” as she’s plowing through pedestrian traffic.
It’s just that chirpy, unpretentious tone that sets Whedon’s “Avengers” apart from the superhero pack, and that barely saves “Age of Ultron” from collapsing under its own overdetermined weight. There are great swaths of this movie that viewers may never understand. (Where exactly does the Hulk go when he disappears for minutes on end?) And like so many examples of the genre, this sequel suffers from repetitive, too-long action sequences and the utterly useless cash-grab of 3-D.
The draw here is the band that’s getting back together, as Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk, Hawkeye and Black Widow recapture the prickly chemistry that makes them click. The novelty lies in watching them dispatch yet a brand new villain: in this case the title character, a silky-voiced, ember-eyed robot, played with characteristic suaveness by James Spader.
Before he shows up, though, fans are treated to a reprise of what made the first “Avengers” such a blast: “Age of Ultron” begins in the midst of a by-the-numbers battle in which the team members show off their individual strengths (a tableau that will be recapitulated in a third-act donnybrook that plays like a greatest hits medley). But the real fun starts when the group gets together for a party at Stark’s Manhattan penthouse, and the patter starts pinging.
While Tony/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) spar about their absent girlfriends, Bruce/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and Natasha/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) exchange meaningful glances at the bar. Later, Thor challenges all comers to see if they can lift his Asgardian hammer, as magnificently overcompensating a phallic symbol as it sounds.
It’s all terribly silly. (“None of this makes any sense,” says Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye at one point.) And Whedon and his cast make few apologies for that fact. Rather, they lean into the outsize feelings and gestures with a combination of goofy humor and utterly sober and convincing focus on their individual characters’ anxieties and motivations.
All of them have secrets and issues to work out — the most tortured being Ruffalo’s quiet, mournful Bruce Banner — and they come distressingly into play when the group meets a pair of Slavic twins portrayed by Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen, the latter of whom plays a dazed-looking spellbinder with a gift for mind games.
For all the troubled doors Olsen’s character opens for the protagonists, however, Whedon never lets the dark stuff overwhelm the easygoing, even warm atmosphere he’s set up, whether by way of that little “beep-beep” Natasha delivers on her motorcycle or Tony Stark compulsively referencing everything from graffiti artist Banksy to Eugene O’Neill to Yahtzee.
Stark, of course, is the most obnoxious of the Avengers, a wealthy, cock-of-the-walk embodiment of entitlement and arrogance who’s just begging to be taken down several notches. He meets his match, knowing wink for knowing wink, in Ultron, a character that’s tailor-made for Spader’s late-career incarnation as the smooth, erudite baddie who’s so easy to loathe.
The battle of wits between the two ultimately pivots around issues of super-ego and id, pluralism and chauvinism, chaos and order. They’re noble, even poetic sentiments — especially when they’re engaged by Paul Bettany’s Jarvis, who assumes a gratifyingly central and expressive role here — but they’re nearly drowned out in battle scenes that reduce the entire world to a dusty, shredded pulp.
Whedon stages the literally earth-shattering mayhem with impressive commitment, but the inevitable computer-generated apocalypse has begun to look tiresomely standard-issue by now. No one will leave “Age of Ultron” breathlessly analyzing how the filmmakers staged a disastrous earthquake in a fictional Eastern European country, any more than they’ll be talking about redundant set pieces involving robot armies and last-ditch rescues. They’ll be talking about Stark’s ever-reliable bravado; Bruce’s solitary psychic journey; whether the enormous green rage-monster and Natasha will ever get together and — most important, for the Marvel franchise — whether the handful of new characters introduced in “Age of Ultron” can hold their own with this flawlessly well-tuned ensemble.
Casting has been a crucial element in the “Avengers” formula, and once again Whedon has enlisted surpassingly gifted actors to inhabit an ever-widening shared universe. He’s wise enough to know that these funny, conflicted, deeply pained characters are never more human than when they’re at their most monstrous.
Two and a half stars. Rated PG-13. Contains intense sequences of sci-fi action, violence and destruction, and some suggestive comments. 141 minutes.
Ratings Guide: Four stars masterpiece, three stars very good, two stars OK, one star poor, no stars waste of time.