This entertaining if disposable follow-up to the 2012 blockbuster is a triumph of, well, let's call it "story engineering". Writer/director Whedon deserves kudos for deftly handling an intimidating task: further developing six complicated superheroes while adding at least four major new characters, bringing in several supporting players from previous Marvel outings, delivering eye-popping set pieces, and shoehorning the narrative (reportedly against his wishes) into Marvel's ambitious five-year plan, in which a larger story is slowly developing across several properties. He must be exhausted.
Marvel's transparency about their release slate actually kind of hurts Age of Ultron. Even before the movie's release, the studio publicly revealed dates for the next two Avengers sequels, as well as all the individual characters' next films, and new features for tangental characters. The result is that Age of Ultron, despite being one of the most anticipated features of 2015, feels like filler.
As we've seen in the first Avengers, the Thor movies, and 2014's Guardians of the Galaxy, the big picture is all about some galactic MacGuffins called the Infinity Stones. That makes Age of Ultron's story, in which the titular evil robot hopes to destroy Earth, feel out of place. Ultron isn't part of the Infinity Stones saga, and obviously he won't destroy Earth, so while this movie is enjoyable, it feels cautious somehow, as if trying not to get in the way of Marvel's long-term plans.
This is a bummer, because last year's Captain America: The Winter Soldier succeeded in part by turning the Marvel universe on its head. It was a gutsy, unpredictable movie, and in its wake, Age of Ultron seems all too safe, its villain all too insignificant.
You still get solid action sequences, a few laughs, and intriguing new characters (one of whom isn't revealed until late in the movie, but the openness with which Marvel has been discussing him once again ruins the surprise). Ultron himself – voiced and sort-of performed by James Spader – is a little disappointing. Reportedly, at least 15-20 minutes of story were cut from the film, and you can feel it in Ultron's rushed character development. You don't get to know this robot well enough to be terrified by him – or to really see his side of things.
I actually prefer this movie to its predecessor thanks to its globe-trotting scope, as the first Avengers spent too much time on a S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier. At any rate, I'd be more likely to watch Age of Ultron a second time. Or "re-read" it, I should say: the plethora of Marvel movies actually brings back memories of the comics I read as a kid. Some are one-offs, some are parts of larger sagas. Some stories are slight, some are stunning. If Marvel the movie studio has sought to recapture the fun of reading Marvel comic books, then on this front, they've succeeded.