Three years after saving New York from an alien apocalypse, Marvel’s superhero all-stars once again find the weight of the world — or, at least, an airborne chunk of Eastern Europe — thrust upon their mighty shoulders in “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” a super-sized spandex soap opera that’s heavy on catastrophic action but surprisingly light on its feet, and rich in the human-scale emotion that can cut even a raging Hulk down to size. Having gotten over the hump of assembling his six main characters in 2012’s “The Avengers,” returning writer-director Joss Whedon brings a looser, more inventive and stylish touch to this skillful follow-up, which finds our now S.H.I.E.L.D.-less defenders facing off against a man-made enemy more dangerous than any alien life form. Jump-starting the summer movie season on May 1, “Age” may well cool its heels in theaters until the dog days of August, where it stands a very good shot at surpassing the previous film’s $1.5 billion worldwide haul.
For all its box office muscle (making it the third-highest domestic and global grosser of all time, behind “Avatar” and “Titanic”), “The Avengers” was hardly the most glittering gem in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, arguably more memorable for its snappy banter between caped crusaders than for its two gargantuan, pummeling action setpieces (one on a state-of-the-art aircraft carrier, the other on the streets of Manhattan), which seemed haphazardly stitched together by Whedon and his editors, as if they were being paid by the cut. That movie largely lacked the more intimate, character-building moments that had distinguished the first “Iron Man” and “Captain America” adventures from the superhero herd. But it did have two aces up its vibranium sleeve in the form of Tom Hiddleston’s fratricidal Loki (sinking his teeth into each of Whedon’s faux-Shakespearean lines as though they were ripe, juicy plums) and Mark Ruffalo’s existentially conflicted Dr. Bruce Banner/Hulk, ill at ease in his own body whether green or white.
Having apparently resolved that one failed Earthly invasion is enough for one millennium, Loki is nowhere to be found in “Age of Ultron,” but even minus his caustic wit, the new movie is a sleeker, faster, funnier piece of work — the sort of sequel (like “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan,” “Superman II” and “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” before it) that shrugs off the self-seriousness of its predecessor and fully embraces its inner Saturday-morning serial. Rather than putting all his eggs in one apocalyptic basket, Whedon this time hopscotches the globe from Europe to Africa to Asia and back, staging exuberant mini-cliffhangers as he goes. And if we must once again watch the world end — or come perilously close — “Age of Ultron” at least gives us a more compelling (and plausible) destroyer than yet another galactic supervillain hellbent on domination. Specifically, it gives us that most destructive of all universal forces: man’s own best intentions.
Before all that, this second chapter plunks us down in the wintry republic of Sokovia, where Captain America (Chris Evans) and the gang raid a mountaintop Hydra base to retrieve Loki’s troublesome scepter from the clutches of Baron Wolfgang von Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann, last seen up to no good in the post-credits teaser from last year’s “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”). It’s there that the team first encounters two new, genetically enhanced foes: the twins Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), he of blinding speed and she of blazing psychic powers — including the ability to infect others with vivid and terrifying waking dreams rooted in their deepest fears. These nifty phantasmagorias allow Whedon to flex his visual imagination in ways that the first “Avengers” never hinted at (think “A Nightmare on Marvel Street”). But a greater threat to the Avengers hides in plain sight much close to home. Its name is Ultron, and it begins life as a kind of ghost in the Stark Industries machine: an artificially intelligent “global peacekeeping initiative” designed to serve as “a suit of armor around the world.” Iron Man, meet Iron Dome.
As such brainchildren are wont to do in the annals of science fiction (where man routinely suffers for playing God), Ultron enters sentience with some major daddy issues and the temperament of a hormonal adolescent, ready to bite (off) the hand that fed him and then some. When the character of Ultron first appeared in the “Avengers” comics circa 1968, he was the Frankenstein-like creation not of Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) but of “Ant-Man’s” Hank Pym. But for the character’s movie debut, Whedon has made him over into a kind kind of power-mad Pinocchio (along with a few sly nods to the 1940 Disney animated classic) who needs no help from a fairy godmother to lance his strings, assemble a makeshift suit of Stark Industries armor, and raise an entire drone army in his own image. (Like father, like son, indeed.) The movie’s visual-effects wizards (a whopping 19 companies are credited) have a grand old time with Ultron’s herky-jerky movements, but James Spader has an even grander one giving voice to the machine-man’s self-aggrandizing sentiments — a diabolical purr that sounds like HAL 9000 reborn as a Vegas lounge lizard.
Of course, what Ultron wants most of all is to become a real live boy — well, that and to turn a sizable chunk of Sokovia into a meteorite to be hurled back at the Earth like a fast ball down the middle. But even as billions of lives hang in the balance, “Age of Ultron” takes (welcome) time out to show us what our Avengers do when they aren’t busy avenging. In the case of Banner and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), that makes for a nicely hesitant romance between savage man-beast and the woman (with no shortage of her own emotional baggage) who knows how to soothe him. Ruffalo and Johansson have terrific chemistry together, and they become the tender core of a movie that also makes a surprising reveal about the personal life of Jeremy Renner’s Clint Barton/Hawkeye, and frequently reminds us that, while sticks and (infinity) stones may scarcely harm these Marvel mainstays, their psyches have suffered their fair share of heavy blows. (Taking his cue from those reviews that compared the first “Avengers” to a comicbook “Rio Bravo,” Whedon has also amped up the Hawksian vibe here, including some amusing macho posturing having to do with Thor’s mighty hammer.)
When the movie does return to symphony-of-destruction mode, it stays engaging precisely because Whedon has given us reasons to care — at least a tiny bit — about the all the whirring and smashing and booming and crashing. It helps that the actors by now wear these roles as comfortably as second skins — an enviable model that those forthcoming superhero alliances, “Fantastic Four” and “Justice League,” can only hope to follow. (Even Downey, whose smirking sarcasm had already begun to wear thin by the time of “Iron Man 3,” is kept relatively in check here, despite his top billing.) And while Whedon still lacks the innately gifted image-making of his obvious role model, Steven Spielberg (or of his fanboy contemporary, J.J. Abrams), he keeps the movie’s heavy machinery in constant, fluid motion. If this is what the apotheosis of branded, big-studio entertainment has come to look like in 2015, we could be doing much worse. Unlike its title character, “Age of Ultron” most definitely has soul.
Working for the first time with British d.p. Ben Davis (“Guardians of the Galaxy”), Whedon thinks the film out in more cinematic terms than the prior installment, with some complex tracking shots that last for upwards of a whole minute. Dueling composers Brian Tyler and Danny Elfman have provided a surfeit of speaker-rattling action music, though the most memorable passages remain those recycled bits of Alan Silvestri’s brassy “Avengers” fanfare.