Marvel is just showing off at this point. Their latest film, Avengers: Age of Ultron, is their biggest and most ambitious entry yet in the money-printing Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). The hit-makers had a stellar 2014 release schedule that saw the best solo outing in the franchise (Captain America: The Winter Soldier) and an entirely new team of super-powered misfits (Guardians Of The Galaxy). Now, Age of Ultron  not only has the pressures of continuing the quality-streak of those films, but also living up to the ridiculously-high bar set by its predecessor, 2012’s The Avengers. When compared to the latter, Age of Ultron stands as the better film, but the combined assault of studio-mandated universe connections and the law of diminishing returns takes away from the film’s overall impact.

Age of Ultron wastes no time in getting things rolling, opening with one of the most exciting scenes in the franchise to date; an already in-progress battle between the titular heroes and the last remaining Hydra forces in Eastern Europe. Everything about this scene is cool and confident, and does a great job of establishing that The Avengers are now an efficient unit, in contrast to their haphazard formation in the first film. Newcomers to the series need not apply, as the film already assumes you know what’s going on, but the scene nonetheless does an admirable job of establishing the status of the Avengers team, while transitioning smoothly into setting up the main conflict of the film.

Building off the themes of the last few Marvel movies, Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) realizes that The Avengers, while powerful, cannot hope to defend the Earth on their own against future threats. Relying on the assistance of Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), the two scientists build “The Ultron Program”, an artificial intelligence system designed to not only defend the Earth from future threats, but to give The Avengers a much-needed break in the process. Unfortunately, Stark doesn’t realize that his A.I. may have plans of its own, as the newly-created Ultron quickly determines that humans are the greatest threat of all and begins a path of worldwide genocide, starting with The Avengers.

The film’s plot is much more engaging and fleshed out this time out, thanks in no small part to the stellar work of James Spader as Ultron. Spader’s distinctive voice helps make the homicidal machine a memorable villain, particularly in the MCU where engaging villains have frequently been in short supply. Ultron is assisted in his world domination schemes by a troubled pair of super-powered twins — the super-fast Pietro/Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and his sister Wanda/Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), whose ambiguous telekinetic and mind-control powers are used to dramatic effect in planting visions of fear and doubt in the minds of the various heroes. While these characters are valuable additions to the MCU, they have to compete for time with the other half dozen or so other superheroes, which dampens their overall impact — particularly Taylor-Johnson’s Quicksilver, who is never used as effectively as Evan Peters’ take on the character in last year’s X-Men: Days of Future Past. Complicating things even further is the late-game addition of Paul Bettany as The Vision, a character whose very existence fundamentally changes the MCU going forward, but isn’t given enough time to make the impact he deserves.

Returning director Joss Whedon again showcases his incredible ability to manage an ensemble picture with a gigantic cast, giving each character their own standout moments. It’s still fun seeing star heroes like Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Captain America (Chris Evans) display their impressive abilities, but Whedon wisely reserves some of the best character beats for the heroes who don’t have their own solo films. Scarlett Johansson continues her excellent work as Black Widow, making it continually more exasperating that she doesn’t have her own film yet. However,  it’s arguably Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye who gets the best material — a welcome change from his heavily-marginalized role in The Avengers. The focus on his home life and his role as the “regular guy” in a team of super-humans helps ground the film and offers much-needed reprieves from the the film’s numerous action scenes.

Speaking of action, Age of Ultron arguably falls into the category of having too much of a good thing. There are at least 5 major extended action setpieces and each contains a dizzying array of characters doing cool stuff. It’s hard to complain about getting to see countless shots that look ripped right out of a comic book, but the novelty of seeing all of these heroes together on screen doing their thing has waned a bit since the original film. To be fair, these blowout fights may hold up better upon repeat viewings, but it’s hard not to feel that Age of Ultron is at its best when Whedon is able to slow things down and allow the characters to emote and talk out their problems, rather than pummeling them into the ground (which is admittedly still very entertaining).

Leading up to the release of  Age of Ultron, there was a lot of publicity surrounding the fact that Joss Whedon was bowing out of the Marvel game, citing the enormous stress involved in making the film. Whedon has done his best to craft something that bears the stamp of his unique talents while appeasing the powers that be at Marvel, but it’s clear that corporate mandates are starting to hurt the individual films in this gargantuan franchise. While Age of Ultron is an absolutely top-notch blockbuster that satisfyingly ties together many of the threads introduced in prior films, there are so many plates being spun that at least some were bound to shatter. Marvel is so focused on constantly looking ahead in its ever-expanding universe that their individual films are starting to feel more and more like extended trailers for the next phase, rather than stories that can stand based on their own merits. Age of Ultron is further proof of Marvel’s dominance in the blockbuster game, but it also shows that they may be in danger of reaching the point of diminishing returns.

9
Incredible
Avengers: Age of Ultron is a fundamentally better film than its predecessor, but suffers under the strain of handling too many characters and setting up numerous future plots in the franchise.