Late in “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” a fair-sized chunk of Planet Earth is wrenched from its mantle and ascends, oh so slowly, into the sky. That’s a handy metaphor for the entire movie, which struggles to become airborne under the weight of its immense corporate and audience expectations. Can the latest iteration in Marvel Comics’ domination of our film and popular cultures match its predecessor, 2012’s “The Avengers,” in profits and zeitgeist punch? Probably. Can it manage to actually matter? “Age of Ultron” eventually convinces you it does — but it takes most of the movie to get there.
And mattering matters. In a world where Baltimore burns and Kathmandu crumbles, where the weather itself seems aimed against us, a state-of-the-art CGI slugfest — one in which costumed superheroes zip around the globe amid collapsing infrastructure — is both a reflection of and a distraction from our real-world fears. Too glib, and one of these digital dinosaurs risks coming off as a callow toy for the fanboys. Too heavy, and it’s no fun.
Credit writer-director Joss Whedon (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Serenity,” “Much Ado About Nothing”) for seeking and ultimately finding the right balance. As the Avengers team — Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), and the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) — grapple with the apocalyptic plans of Ultron (James Spader), a gleaming AI behemoth run amok, “Avengers: Age of Ultron” deftly mixes serious themes with banter and comic-book whamarama.
For one thing, Ultron himself isn’t an invader from outer space but — in a departure from Marvel canon — a creation of the hubris of Iron Man’s alter ego, billionaire defense contractor Tony Stark. The details aren’t necessary; suffice to say that Stark envisions an artificially intelligent global defense system that doesn’t pan out as he expects. “Every time someone tries to win a war before it starts, innocent people die,” Captain America warns Stark. That may be a multiplex version of realpolitik, but it’s enough.
Unfortunately, the movie’s villain isn’t quite enough. Plenty of Spader’s sardonic personality comes through the gleaming robotic forms that Ultron inhabits — the character is both computer virus on steroids and raging series of murderbots — and it makes sense that Ultron is a dark mirror of the man who created him, since Downey Jr. and Spader share an arrogant edge that has helped make both men stars. But Ultron’s goals never make much sense beyond the basic kill-the-Avengers-and-destroy-the-Earth checklist, nor does he develop as a character over the long haul. He’s just a static baddie, fun to look at and handy with a quip but ultimately as dull as unpolished chrome.
Lacking that sense of evolving threat to bind the action and build suspense, “Avengers: Age of Ultron” busies itself with action set-pieces that possess the necessary 3-D pizzazz but don’t have much reason for being. The opening donnybrook outside a mad scientist’s snowy lair is so heavily digitized I thought I was watching a video game parody that the real Avengers would turn out to be playing. (No such luck.) A mid-movie battle between Iron Man and an out-of-control Hulk has no genuine purpose; it’s just there to pad out the running time and let the filmmakers make rubble out of downtown Africa (that’s as specific as the geography gets in this movie). There’s too much sound and CGI fury and not enough story.
What “Age of Ultron” does surpassingly well, though, is concentrate on the secondary stories. Ruffalo and Johansson are possibly the finest actors of the bunch, so it’s nice that they share screen time as The Hulk/Bruce Banner and Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff work out the kinks of their quadrilateral romance. And poor Jeremy Renner has been sitting on the sidelines of Marvel movies for so long that he must be ecstatic to get an entire subplot to himself, one in which he proves the most domestically grounded of this dysfunctional crew. (That said, “Age of Ultron” fails to answer one of the series’ most vexing questions: How come Hawkeye never runs out of arrows?)
In addition to the usual extended cameos from other franchise players like “Rhodey” Rhodes (Don Cheadle), Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), the Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders), and Professor Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard), there’s the expected Stan Lee sighting and — wait, is that really Julie Delpy (“Before Midnight”) in a flashback as Black Widow’s creepy mentor? Can someone give her a superhero movie?
More satisfyingly, there are twin villains named Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), who have a sibling bond and outsize sorrows to go with their superpowers. (“He’s fast and she’s weird,” someone says, which about sums it up.) Unlike Ultron, they do evolve, and in ways that earn dividends by the final sequences.
For all that, “Avengers: Age of Ultron” spins its wheels — entertainingly, but still — until about two-thirds of the way in, when Paul Bettany turns up as a Player Not to Be Named in This Review. An air of Zen calm enters the proceedings, as well as a bit of the movie magic that has been missing. As designed and played, Bettany’s character is visually beautiful, eerily contained, the latest in a line of otherworldly cinematic wunderkind that stretches all the way back to “Metropolis” in 1927.
And his appearance not only pulls the fractious Avengers together but the movie as a whole. The climactic act of “Age of Ultron” is full of colossal ka-booms and special effects, but it also has heft and reason and a bass-note of emotion. (Wit, too: A running joke about Thor’s hammer pays off brilliantly.) Toward the very end, there’s a multilayered slow-motion image of the whole crew in action that is both lovely to look at and an unexpectedly moving snapshot of teamwork under heavy pressure. The first one of those slo-mo action-movie gimmick shots that actually works, it’s like a Renaissance fresco updated for an era of pulp fiction and pulpy anxieties. And at last the movie achieves something that has eluded it until then. It makes you want to see what happens next.