Two lines and six seconds into “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” we officially enter the summer movie season.
A firefight, a high-speed chase and multiple explosions ensue before we know where we are or why we’re there. But the movie’s brain quickly catches up with its big body, and writer-director Joss Whedon tops his 2012 outing with a more emotional sequel.
That last sentence could be applied to the title character, too. Ultron (voiced splendidly by James Spader) is Tony Stark’s prototype for a corps of peacekeeping robots, sentient sentinels who could make The Avengers obsolete. (“I don’t want the ‘Man was not meant to meddle’ medley,” snaps Stark, pricklier than ever.)
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When Ultron’s roused to a stumbling kind of consciousness, he rebels. His motives first seem murky but become clear: He sees robots as the next step in the evolution of intelligent thought and believes peace can only come to Earth when all the humans are gone. That’s probably true, but it goes down badly with his mammalian adversaries.
Production values remain high, sound thunderous and cinematography sharp. Robert Downey Jr. and Mark Ruffalo continue to bring nuance to Stark and Bruce Banner. Chris Hemsworth and Chris Evans make the impossibly heroic Thor and straight-arrow Captain America un-corny.
Yet Whedon has more on his mind than he did in the last one. The Avengers seem not just contentious toward each other but weary, sick of their brutal responsibilities.
Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) would like to go home to the family we never knew he had, including his understanding wife (Linda Cardellini). Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) clings to her romantic interest in Banner, though he insists she can’t have a relationship with a guy who might Hulk out at any time.
By introducing the twins Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen), war orphans who have almost become nihilists, Whedon turns up the angst. Only Jarvis (Paul Bettany), Tony Stark’s computer aide, sounds a full note of hope and tolerance; he’s the wisest and most compassionate character in the story.
Whedon expects viewers to be smart, which means he occasionally goes a bit quickly for folks who don’t know the entire back story. (You’d have to watch “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” the TV show he created, to be totally clued in.)
Yet it’s a pleasure to see him toss off cultural references, old and new. “He did a Banksy at the crime scene,” mutters the confused Stark, referring to graffiti on a wall. Later, Stark groans, “It’s been a long day – like, Eugene O’Neill long.” When the staggered Ultron sings a slurred version of Pinocchio’s “No Strings,” we’re meant to think of the crippled computer H.A.L. crooning “Daisy, Daisy” in “2001.”
Toward the end, Whedon takes daring steps: A significant death, a strong suggestion that the fighting unit as we have known it cannot be reunited, farewells that have more ring of finality than in the past.
Naturally, Thor makes a comment about sacred stones missing from Asgard – Loki’s scepter, which contained one, plays a part in this sequel – and sets up another story line. At the last moment, the grim and previously unseen villain Thanos (uncredited Josh Brolin) grunts, “All right, I’ll do it myself.”
We knew there’d be a sequel, and Whedon has earned the right to keep going. Let’s see if he has the courage to continue down the path he follows in “Age of Ultron.”
‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’
Tony Stark tries to jump-start a peacekeeping program, but things go wrong, and the evil Ultron poses a threat. Smarter than you might imagine.
B+ STARS: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, James Spader.
WRITER-DIRECTOR: Joss Whedon.
RUNNING TIME: 141 minutes.
RATING: PG-13 (intense sequences of science fiction action, violence and destruction, some suggestive comments).