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'Avengers: Age of Ultron': A marvelous sequel
3.8Overall Score

2012’s “The Avengers” united an elite group of superheroes for a singular mission: save the world. The sequel, “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” finds the Avengers once again working in unison. As a follow up, “Age of Ultron” improves upon, and alters the formula which made the original so successful. There’s an increased sense of convergence, hefty Marvel roster, and enhancement of a familiar formula, making “Age of Ultron” an epic, and worthy sequel.

“Avengers: Age of Ultron” opens in Sokovia, where the Avengers: Tony “Iron Man” Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), Bruce “Hulk” Banner (Mark Ruffalo), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Steve “Captain America” Rogers (Chris Evans), Clint “Hawkeye” Barton (Jeremy Renner), and Natasha “Black Widow” Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), infiltrate a Hydra base. After Hydra’s invasion of S.H.I.E.L.D. in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” taking down Hydra has been a top priority, and the Avengers have no trouble picking apart the well-fortified Hydra facility. Hydra elite Baron von Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann) is captured, while Dr. List (Henry Goodman) and the Maximoff twins Pietro “Quicksilver” (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Wanda “Scarlet Witch” (Elizabeth Olsen) escape.

With Hydra easily defeated, and Loki’s (Tom Hiddleston) scepter recovered, the Avengers return to Stark’s Avengers Tower (formerly Stark Tower). Celebrations, jokes, and antics ensue. However, it’s not long until Stark and Banner spawn Ultron (James Spader), a sentient artificial intelligence being, using Loki’s scepter. Ultron crashes the party, and ironically the machine created to protect the world becomes the Avengers’ most menacing adversary.

From the onset, “Avengers: Age of Ultron” displays continuity from “Avengers,” and the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). The opening receives the benefit of fast-paced action, plunging right into the narrative. Unlike its 2012 predecessor, “Age of Ultron” forgoes the lengthy setup, opting for a brisk tempo. Fight scenes are inventive and plentiful, but there’s also a pleasant balance of banter and character development: everything that made “Avengers” so enjoyable. Further enhancing the film, several Marvel sidekicks and regulars reappear, including Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Col James Rhodes aka War Machine (Don Cheadle), S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders), and former S.H.I.E.L.D. Director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson).

A quick pace and the slew of MCU characters reappearing lends a sense of cohesiveness. Additionally, the Infinity Stones once again play a prominent role, clearly setting the stage for Marvel’s Phase 3, which includes “Avengers: Infinity War” parts 1 and 2. In an uncharacteristic move, there’s no post-credits scene, but supervillain Thanos (Josh Brolin) reveals his maniacal plan to obtain the Infinity Gauntlet. Crucial characters to the MCU join the cast, including the aforementioned Scarlet Witch, and the powerful Vision (Paul Bettany).

However, amid the familiarity is metamorphosis, a predominant theme throughout “Age of Ultron.” The Avengers evolve individually and as a whole, with an emphasis on their nuanced interactions. Comradery and dissension co-mingle a unique mix. One scene finds everyone in the group attempting to pick up Thor’s hammer, a hilarious sequence, made no less hysterical by the Avengers’ differing personalities. A later segment shows Stark and Rogers bickering while chopping wood, though it seems they’d rather swing axes at one another. Barton’s backstory is notably expanded, and Romanoff’s past probed. There’s an unforeseen kinship between a pair of Avengers too, which presents a shifting landscape. A significant alteration is Ultron’s sinister power, which easily outmatches the Avengers. It’s the first time they’ve faced a foe this challenging, presenting a fascinating dynamic.

Although superbly executed, “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” like Ultron, isn’t the perfect machine it was intended to become. While the character development is undoubtedly an improvement from “The Avengers,” a few storylines feel underwhelming. Barton’s hidden life, for instance, isn’t as compelling as it could have been. Similarly, the unified sidekicks are much-appreciated, but a few characters feel crammed in rather than dutifully scripted. Dr. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard) pops up all too briefly, as do Heimdall (Idris Elba) and Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell). Notably absent is fan-favorite, S.H.I.E.L.D. Director Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg). The Cinematic Universe has truly lacked Gregg’s captivating presence, a fault hopefully rectified. Nonetheless, “Avengers: Age of Ultron” offers a unified, engaging continuation of the MCU, and laudable setup for Marvel’s forthcoming Phase 3.