Starring Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth and Scarlett Johansson. Written and directed by Joss Whedon.

Christ, what a slog.

A shame, because I rather enjoyed the previous Avengers picture and as far as this whole superhero multiplex domination plan by our corporate cinema overlords goes, if you leave out the Thor crap I think these Marvel movies are generally better than most. They cast interesting actors and give them room to strut a bit before the inevitable third-act CGI nonsense that always seems to involve an airship or something crashing over a major city while I go take a leak.

Avengers: Age of Ultron hits the ground running, presuming that since you are a citizen of the planet you’ve probably seen enough of the other ten movies in this series to get by without any introductions and so Earth’s Mightiest Heroes are already battling agents of HYDRA before the opening credits even roll. Writer-director Joss Whedon indulges in a pretty nifty computer-assisted shot scanning from Robert Downey’s forever-flippant Iron Man to Chris Evans’ achingly sincere Captain America, to Mark Ruffalo’s mad-as-hell Hulk, to Chris Hemsworth’s god of thunder Thor, to Scarlett Johansson’s hotcha ninja Black Widow and Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye, who has (um) a bow and arrow.

Three years ago Whedon’s The Avengers took all these disparate characters, mostly from standalone movies, and made them work together in the face of an alien invasion. The not inconsiderable fun of The Avengers was watching gifted soloists find a way to work as an ensemble. Now that we’ve done that, the laws of billion-dollar-grosses and franchise maintenance insist that we must do it again.

Problem is, we’re on our eleventh movie with these here Marvel folks and we’re running out of places to go with them. The first Iron Man was about Downey’s Tony Stark beginning the film as a callous, selfish dickhead learning humility, and he has repeated that same arc in every movie since. (It’s like someone hits a reset button and he becomes an asshole all over again for every subsequent sequel.) The last Captain America movie – which I’ve watched five or six times and really is as good as these pictures can probably get – pits our ever-stalwart true-blue hero against an over-reaching government agency launching preemptive drone strikes.

So this new one pits our ever-stalwart true-blue hero against an over-reaching government agency launching pre-emptive drone strikes. The short version is that Tony Stark surreptitiously uses Loki’s Asgardian scepter to create an artificial-intelligence program called Ultron that will “put a suit of armor around the world.”

But the road to hell is paved with good intentions and Tony’s Science Project manifests itself as a towering pissed-off robot (voiced by a haughty James Spader, on autopilot) who comes to the not-illogical conclusion that the best way to save planet Earth is by ridding it of human beings altogether.

Since Age of Ultron has nothing new to say or do, Whedon breaks up the team (with assistance from Elizabeth Olsen’s psychic, mind-controlling Scarlet Witch) and basically just repeats a lot of the beats from the last one until eventually everybody’s friends again and the bad guys lose. Because this is a Marvel movie, there are occasional plot detours that don’t make sense and exist only to set up franchise properties that will presumably pay off in the slate of pictures they have scheduled through 2019.

These are some of the best actors working right now, and everybody looks so bored. The movie is stiff and enervated. It’s all punch-punch, banter-banter, like a sitcom in which cities get leveled.

You might remember that Downey hung up his armor and drove off into the sunset at the end of Iron Man 3. Well he’s back here fighting again without a word of explanation, and his better half Gwyneth Paltrow is conspicuously MIA — but don’t worry because since we’re in the Groundhog Day of character development Tony gets to hang up his armor and drive off again into the sunset at the end of this movie, too.

(At this point Stark’s fate is only determined by the size of whatever giant money truck Disney and Marvel get permission from their shareholders to drive up onto Robert Downey Jr.’s lawn. Tony Stark will probably retire over and over again at the end of the next six movies as leverage in Downey’s ongoing contract negotiations.)

Meanwhile, Chris Evans’ Captain America is one of my favorite characters in movies right now, and I think he’s quietly been giving one of the most underrated performances in this or any genre. A man out of time frozen for sixty-odd years, I adore his quiet disappointment with the modern world, and I love, love, love the way Captain America: The Winter Soldier literally wrapped skepticism in the American flag and reclaimed questioning authority as the highest form of patriotism. But that was a year ago, and now Evans just seems exhausted to be having these exact same conversations all over again in another fucking movie.

I also miss his screwball chemistry with Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, who all but stole the first Avengers and Winter Soldier with her gum-cracking, ass-kicking insouciance. Here she’s just Hulk’s girlfriend and spends a lot of this film locked in a cage, waiting to be rescued. (The sexual politics of Ultron do their best to uphold every awful stereotype about comic book nerds’ fear of women, including an ugly hysterectomy sideline that is basically insane.) Whedon doesn’t even give Cap and Widow a scene alone together until the very end.

Age of Ultron looks like a bag of assholes. It’s got the same desaturated teal-and-orange sheen that makes me want to rip my hair out every time I see a digitally shot blockbuster these days, because I guess we can’t have nice things like colors anymore. It’s fuzzy and muddy-looking, so quick-cut that I can’t even tell you what was going on in most of the action sequences. The fate of the world might be at stake here but it’s never in any question, so just wait until the patented Marvel credits-cookie to see a thirty-second trailer for the next movie.

This one is just treading water.

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