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story.lead_photo.caption Ultron (in a motion-capture performance by James Spader) is a sentient robot who believes that, to save the Earth, he must eradicate humanity in Joss Whedon’s The Avengers: Age of Ultron.

It's not often I feel sympathy for directors of summer tent-pole films. They are wildly well compensated for their ordeals, for one thing. For another, they are generally unrepentant. But I absolutely feel for Joss Whedon on this one.

Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is a newly recruited Avenger who can move at superhuman speed in The Avengers: Age of Ultron.

The first installment of the franchise, The Avengers, which Whedon wrote and directed, made over $1.5 billion worldwide, becoming the third highest grossing film of all time, but more significantly (at least to a critic's eyes) it did this while scoring a resounding 92 percent on rottentomatoes.com (by contrast, Avatar, the highest-grossing film of all time at $2.8 billion, nets an 83 percent -- which I suspect would be much lower in retrospect).

The Avengers: Age of Ultron

83 Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Chris Hemsworth, Samuel L. Jackson, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, James Spader (motion capture performance)

Director: Joss Whedon

Rating: PG-13, for intense sequences of sci-fi action, violence and destruction, and for some suggestive comments

Running time: 141 minutes

By most measures, The Avengers was an absolute knockout of a film, successfully incorporating six major

Marvel comic-book heroes -- Captain America (Chris Evans), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Black Widow (Scarlet Johansson) and the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) -- and weaving an intricate story that saw each member get significant and worthy attention, even as they grew to come together, finally, as a team. It was a thrilling and invigorating piece of action filmmaking, and possibly set a standard that would be next to impossible to top.

But the burden of making a sequel to such a monster hit is that it has to strive to be better than the original, else there's no point in its existence except to soak up the dollars from the fans' good will generated from the first film. Some filmmakers are willing to do just that -- Why, hello there, Michael Bay! -- but Whedon is not a guy who cuts corners and makes things easy on himself. Hence, his reported burnout with this project: He gave it all he had, and in his words, it nearly killed him in the process (he has already announced he will not be back to tackle a third Avengers installment, whose reins instead will go to brothers Anthony and Joe Russo, the directors behind the stirring Captain America: The Winter Soldier).

One of the more impressive aspects of the first film was how Whedon was able to keep so many balls in the air at once, juggling the characters, a giant backdrop of a story, and the many action sequences, all tantalizingly within reach, without them ever hitting the ground. For this sequel, Whedon has added to the mix more heroes, more stories, more relationships, more fight scenes, and an appropriately powerful enemy the heroes have to engage, but here, you can feel the weight of his encumbrance, the grinding effort behind trying to keep so many things in the air simultaneously, all of which ultimately produces a dutiful, but far less fun follow-up. Certainly not from lack of trying, however. Many of Whedon's signature moments are here -- the perfect, offbeat quip; the unexpected twist in conversation; the imaginative use of action for emotional payoff -- but even these are far from seamless, and everything feels that much more rushed and bogged down by its own immensity. For a director known for his keen sense of tone and control, it feels as if this film finally got the best of him.

As an added problem, one that goes into any sort of group superhero endeavor such as this, you have to conceive of a way to adequately challenge the team in the first place. Call it the Superman Conundrum: In order to produce a truly thrilling action film, the hero has to be sizably imperiled, a very difficult task when you're dealing with a Norse thunder god, America's super-soldier, a man encased in an endlessly powerful metal suit, and, of course, a rampaging Hulk. Whedon's move here is to bring a classic Avengers villain -- the artificial-intelligence-dementia stylings of the robot Ultron -- to the fore and more or less hope for the best.

Ultron (voice of James Spader), it turns out, is actually the brainchild of Tony Stark (Downey) and Bruce Banner (Ruffalo), who seek to create an all-powerful AI to defend our planet against intergalactic forces such as the Chitauri, who threatened Earth in the first film. Instead, the pair unwittingly create a half-mad super robot who deems the planet's security problems are best met by wiping out the entire human race and starting over with fellow Ultrons.

Enlisting the aid of two highly gifted mutant twins, the fleet-footed Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and the mind-scattering sorceress Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Ultron does quick battle with the Avengers -- coming on the heels of one of the film's most gleefully Whedon-esque moments, when the team, relaxing after a party, each attempt to lift Thor's mystic hammer to no avail (only whom the hammer deems worthy may raise it) -- and then scatters to the wind to set up his master scheme to destroy everything and everyone.

In the first film, much mileage was gleaned from the fractious nature of the group: Stark and Captain America were at odds; Thor and the Hulk didn't get along; and best friends the Black Widow and Hawkeye were dealing with some heavy stuff of their own. This film, with the team already pretty well established, seeks some of those same tensions, but with little of the pop of the previous foray. As much as Stark and Banner's creation -- made without first consulting with the other Avengers -- causes a rift, their second attempt at the same process, which results in the creation of yet another hero, the Vision (Paul Bettany), somehow works beyond anyone's wildest dreams, which lets them both off the hook.

Whedon also gets himself into a bit of trouble with Ultron. The first film's villain, Thor's half-brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), was sneeringly dominant and amusingly overconfident by the nature of his very humanlike ego. By contrast, when Ultron -- a CGI robot creation upon whose metallic face the filmmakers disastrously bestow metallic lips and teeth -- spins comic riffs ("For the love of God," he exclaims in exasperation after being attacked viciously by the Hulk) it just serves to diminish the threat to the heroes. When we first meet him, a staggering, oil-leaking, half-finished robot, making threats and complaining of the "strings" still attached to him, Pinocchio-style, his menace comes from all that we as yet don't know about him. By the time the team gathers to dispatch him upon a giant, raised-up section of a city in the fictitious country of Sokovia, his quips and stammerings are a good deal less welcome -- or menacing.

In general, the film suffers the fate of many a big-budget sequel: the misplaced need to make everything bigger and more bombastic. As with the original, the film's best moments come in the short intervals in between massive action set-tos, with the characters spending time together, chopping wood, falling in love, bickering good-naturedly, but here they are too few and far between. In his drive to make a film that satisfies all comers, Whedon has backed himself into a corner, having to veer away from one of his core strengths -- interpersonal dynamics -- into the world of straining CGI epic battlements instead. By going big instead of small, by yielding to studio and audience pressure to make an epic, Whedon might have lost touch with a bit of his soul.

After watching the film, you can well understand why this one was so hard for him to produce, why it seemed to cost him so much. It goes against the grain of what makes him so good in the first place. For his sake, I hope his next film is every bit as small and personal as 2012's Much Ado About Nothing, a very well received post-Avengers adaptation shot at his house over the course of a fortnight. I can only imagine how tantalizing another Shakespeare comedy might look to him right about now.

MovieStyle on 05/01/2015

Print Headline: Whedon creates a monster

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