- - Thursday, April 30, 2015

‘The Avengers” was not only one of the most successful blockbusters in years, but it was also one of the best. Writer-director Joss Whedon, the geek auteur behind television’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Firefly,” delivered a film that balanced, with almost superhuman ability, the franchise’s need for mammoth spectacle on one hand and careful character-building on the other.

It was a movie that demonstrated that it understood its cast of iconic comic book characters just as well as anyone in the audience, and that it cared about them in the same ways — and with the same intensity — that lifelong fans did.

Yet it was also easily accessible and enjoyable for those not steeped in Marvel Comics lore. It was a perfect summer blockbuster and a perfect comic book movie at the same time.

The sequel, “The Avengers: Age of Ultron,” once again written and directed by Mr. Whedon, shows a similar regard for its characters and an equal zeal for effects-driven destructive spectacle, but it has a harder time balancing its many imperatives.

Like its predecessor, “Age of Ultron” is alternately intimate and bombastic, funny and thrilling, with grand action sequences punctuated by genuine laughs. Many of the scenes showcase Mr. Whedon’s ear for zippy, character-defining dialogue.

With his TV background, his heavy reliance on quippy back-and-forths and his frequent use of scene-capping monologues, Mr. Whedon sometimes comes across as the Aaron Sorkin of the superhero set.

This time, many of those monologues are spoken by Ultron (voiced by James Spader), the sentient program who serves as the Avengers’ chief nemesis.

Created by Iron Man’s human alter-ego, tech mogul Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), with some help from Hulk’s human form, Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), Ultron is a powerful artificial intelligence tasked with ensuring global peace. He quickly decides that the only way to do so is to destroy the Avengers, and the rest of humanity while he’s at it. He is a superhero in negative — out to save the world by destroying it.

The particulars of the plot, to the extent that they can be understood, matter less than the characters and their intentions.

Aside from Iron Man and Hulk, Captain America (Chris Evans) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) once again make up the other core members of the team, and Mr. Whedon finds moments to showcase each of their distinct personalities through their banter and their brawling.

He does the same, though less successfully, for the film’s trio of superpowered newcomers: Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and the Vision (Paul Bettany).

The movie’s emotional core comes not from the four headline heroes, however, but from the team’s less-powerful players: Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). The decision to include these essentially powerless characters on a team full of godlike heroes ought to be absurd, but Mr. Whedon turns it into a virtue by gently contrasting their ordinary lives with their extraordinary circumstances. These characters provide the film an intimate human counterpoint to its barrage of superhuman action.

Mr. Whedon is less successful with the action scenes, which, while nicely scripted, often feel hectic and hurried. Like the rest of the film, the big set pieces are jumbled and overstuffed.

The movie suffers from an overabundance of, well, everything, partly because of its status as a major event in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which now spans 11 films and multiple television shows. It’s less of a sequel, really, and more of a crossover smorgasbord.

The first “Avengers,” which had fewer films to unify and took time to carefully introduce each member of its sprawling cast, felt like being served a perfectly designed tasting menu. The sequel feels more like visiting a buffet. There are still plenty of choice bits, but the presentation leaves something to be desired.

Ultimately, “Age of Ultron” is still a pretty good blockbuster and a pretty good superhero movie.

But its biggest problem is that, thanks to its predecessor, we know what a truly great one looks like — and this isn’t it.

TITLE: “The Avengers: Age of Ultron”

CREDITS: Written and directed by Joss Whedon

RATING: PG-13 for mild language and superhero action

RUNNING TIME: 141 minutes

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