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Why 'Age of Ultron' doesn't live up to original 'Avengers'
Ultron is voiced by James Spader in Marvel's Avengers: Age Of Ultron. - photo by Cody K. Carlson
Like most of America's movie-going public, I like superhero movies. I love the action, the world-shattering stakes, the cool costumes, the groaning puns and the sheer excitement of seeing comic book worlds worlds with endless possibilities appear on the big screen.

Studios see superhero movies as bankable commodities. Familiar, tested and loved characters from comic books lend themselves perfectly to Hollywood's storytelling magic. In recent years, we've witnessed an explosion in the quantity and, arguably, quality of superhero films. Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy of Batman films soared, and more DC films are on the way, while Marvel's Cinematic Universe continues to expand. Already scheduled for the next few months and years are Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, Ant Man, Wonder Woman, Fantastic Four, Deadpool, Captain America: Civil War and not one but two more Avengers sequels featuring the Infinity War storyline.

And many, many more.

Why so many? Again, these are bankable commodities for studios.

The most recent superhero mega-hit is Avengers: Age of Ultron. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the film grossed nearly $900 million worldwide after two weeks. As long as superhero movies pull in this kind of money, expect more and more of them.

But one wonders if there is a point of diminishing returns creatively, if not monetarily. The first Avengers movie was acclaimed as an instant classic of the genre, and writer/director Joss Whedon was hailed as one of the great action filmmakers of the 21st century for his ability to balance action, multiple characters and story. While the second film in the series, the above-mentioned Age of Ultron, succeeded brilliantly in financial terms, there's some disappointment with regards to the story, characters and plot line.

Certainly Age of Ultron is generally an enjoyable and engaging film, one that succeeds in delivering some great action sequences. James Spader brought a sense of menacing glee to the role of Ultron, the evil robot intent on destroying the Earth. His performance was arguably the best thing about the film. But there are more problems with Age of Ultron than just fanboy outrage over the comic book minutia that Whedon got wrong. The film simply did not live up to the sheer fun and excitement of the first film. Here's why.

Warning: spoilers ahead

First of all, the film was hampered by having to set up future films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. While Thor's journey to the dark pool in the cavern may be a teaser for the upcoming Thor: Ragnarok movie, it made little sense to those who are not familiar with the comic books, and even to those who are, the sequence felt out of place and disjointed. Likewise, Captain America's hallucination in the 1940s ballroom may be setting up something for Captain America: Civil War, but it just came across as unnecessary and uninteresting.

Marvel would do well to leave the next film's setup as a mid- or post-credits stinger, like the film's brief shot of Thanos, a clear setup for the Infinity War films.

One of the major plot lines from the first Avengers film was Loki's brainwashing of Hawkeye and Dr. Selvig. Arguably, this was the film at its weakest, relying upon a flimsy plot device that, if taken to its conclusion, would have made Loki's conquest of the Earth simply a matter of touching enough people with his brainwashing staff. Still, the film got enough right that this was easily overlooked.

Age of Ultron repeats this same lazy storytelling device. When the Scarlet Witch uses her telepathy to play with the Hulk's mind, the green giant goes on a rampage and tears a city apart. While the scene was visually striking, it just felt weak from a storytelling perspective. The brainwashing aspect barely worked in the first film. In Age of Ultron, it just felt like a gimmick to introduce another set piece action sequence.

One of the great strengths of the first Avengers was the way it carefully balanced all of the characters, giving them important, individual roles in the story and each their moment in the sun. At the same time, it very much felt like a movie about a team. Age of Ultron, however, struggles with focus. Too much time is given to secondary plot lines, like the above-mentioned sequel setups. For instance, the scenes with Hawkeye's family go on too long, killing the film's pacing without really offering any emotional payoff. Is Hawkeye a character we really want to spend that much time with? Maybe Whedon just wanted to give Hawkeye actor Jeremy Renner something to do after his brainwashing in the first film.

Also, the film struggled with incorporating new heroes into the film. The Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver were never really fleshed out as characters, and when Vision shows up, we're given such an awkward, confusing introduction that those not familiar with the comics were left scratching their heads.

But hey, we saw Hawkeye's farmhouse.

Another uneven aspect of the film was the Hulk/Black Widow scenes. Early on in the film, we see that the two characters possess romantic feelings for each other, though are reluctant to pursue them because of their own personal demons. That worked as an emotional plot device. Initially. The conversation was then repeated two more times in the film, each adding nothing to the story and each killing the pacing.

The film's final battle was undoubtedly a visual treat, as Ultron scooped up a portion of an Eastern European town and attempted to drop it from high altitude, creating an event that would destroy all human life on the planet. In order to protect his goal, Ultron created a vast army of robots, each carrying his intelligence, that had to be defeated.

Kudos to Whedon for not relying on the tired science-fiction plot device in which killing the central boss would deactivate all the drones, (i.e. Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Edge of Tomorrow, Oblivion, Ender's Game, etc.). The problem with the final battle, however, is that we've seen it before. The battle against the Ultron robots felt a lot like the battle against the Chitauri from the first film. Therefore, though it offered an action-packed visual treat, the dynamic of the heroes being overwhelmed by a horde of super-enemies lacked dramatic tension. It just felt the same.

Finally, clocking in at 2 hours 21 minutes, Age of Ultron is not an overly long film. Its cardinal sin, however, is that it feels long. Where the original Avengers keeps viewers so invested the time just zips by, Age of Ultron plods along from one admittedly fun action scene to the next, offering some laughs here and there, but ultimately coming across as disjointed and plodding as Ultron's first shambling robot body.

As an action film, Age of Ultron works. But it doesn't feature the great storytelling that allowed the first Avengers to transcend the genre.