‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’: Marvel at the humor, peril of a comic-book triumph

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“The city is flying, we’re fighting robots — and I’ve got a bow and arrow.” – Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye giving a recruitment talk of sorts to Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch in “Avengers: Age of Ultron.”

Any time a giant superhero movie makes time for self-referential humor, not to mention nods to “A Long Day’s Journey Into Night” AND the graffiti artist known as Banksy, count me in.

“Avengers: Age of Ultron” is a sometimes daffy, occasionally baffling, surprisingly touching and even romantic adventure with one kinetic thrill after another. It earns a place of high ranking in the Marvel Universe.

Rarely has a comic book movie struck such a precise balance between legitimate character development, crackling good humor, genuine peril and good old-fashioned big-screen entertainment.

The thing about these all-star Marvel superhero movies is they’re incredibly complicated and often convoluted — but exceedingly simple at the same time.

Somewhere along the way, one is almost certain to get dizzy from all the talk about Loki’s scepter and infinity stones and artificial intelligence and the role of S.H.I.E.L.D. in the grand scheme of things — but you know it’s all going to come down to a mega-battle in which the forces of good go up against the forces of evil, who always seem intent on blowing up the whole darn planet.

Writer-director Joss Whedon has the vibranium touch (that’s a good thing, I think) when it comes to striking the box-office-gold balance between appealing to the casual summer movie fan as well as the hardcore, cosplaying, “I’m going to spend Tuesday AND Wednesday on comment threads” fanboys and fangirls.

And that’s why this movie will gross somewhere between $1 billion and $2 billion before the start of football season.

At times, “Avengers: Age of Ultron” gets so dense with the plot machinations, I was reaching for the Advil to stop the pounding in my head. Just as often, I sat back, adjusted the 3-D glasses and enjoyed the cutting-edge special effects, the elaborate battle sequences and the “Oceans 11”-type banter among Iron Man, Captain America, Black Widow and company.

By the house of Odin, who knew the Mighty Thor was so funny? He’s the life of the party in a scene where his fellow Avengers attempt to lift his hammer, to hilarious results.

“Age of Ultron” starts in the Eastern European nation of Sokovia, where one Baron Wolfgang von Strucker (Thomas Krestschmann) has been using Loki’s scepter to conduct evil experiments. His prize subjects are the twins Pietro/Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who can move faster than the human eye can fathom, and Wanda/Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), who can literally get into your mind and also has a kind of Carrie-esque ability to ruin a party.

The twins hate the Avengers, and they really love each other. In a different movie, that relationship would be fodder for deep therapy. Then again, everyone in THIS movie needs five sessions a week and then some.

After the Avengers gain control of the scepter, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr., in prime quipping form) and Bruce Banner (the always excellent Mark Ruffalo) seize the opportunity to use it create a new, elevated form of artificial intelligence.

Bad idea.

The result is Ultron (voiced by James Spader), who is perhaps more powerful and smarter than anything the Avengers have ever encountered, and here’s the really bad news: Ultron believes the only way for the planet to evolve is for the Avengers, and most of the human race, to perish.

With a running time of 142 minutes, “Avengers: Age of Ultron” has the luxury of devoting time to subplots involving Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), not to mention a beat or two for Anthony Mackie’s Falcon, Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury, Don Cheadle’s James Rhodes and Claudia Kim’s Helen Cho. There’s a little bit of family drama, a sprinkling of romance and a startling reminder many of these superheroes aren’t immortal.

Some of the sharpest exchanges are between Tony Stark and Chris Evans’ Steve Rogers, who is literally from a bygone generation and has some major problems with Stark’s philosophies. We also get the obligatory wisecracking among the superheroes even when they’re in the middle of battle, but Whedon knows when to pull back on the barbs and acknowledge that every time these flying maniacs do battle with armies of evil, the collateral damage in human lives could number in the millions.

There’s also a weird, trippy sequence more suited to a horror movie than a comic book adventure, with Thor, Cap and Black Widow individually experiencing some really heavy lucid dreams. It’s pretty bizarre and pretty great.

Marvel veterans Downey, Hemsworth, Ruffalo et al. deliver their usual stellar work. “Avengers” newbies Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany (as Jarvis and then some) deliver fine performances. And other than a few moments when I just didn’t buy the Hulk (why is the Hulk so hard to CGI?), the special effects are spectacular.

Some day, an “Avengers” film might collapse under the weight of its own awesomeness. I mean, how many times can they save the world?

But this is not that day.

[s3r star=3.5/4]

Marvel Studios presents a film written and directed by Joss Whedon. Running time: 142 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for intense sequences of sci-fi action, violence and destruction, and for some suggestive comments). Opens Friday at local theaters.

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