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David Llamas

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“Avengers: Age of Ultron” — not to be confused with the similarly titled but totally unrelated “Age of Adaline”— is the 11th movie in Marvel Studio’s ever-growing constellation of interconnected movies.

Worried by threats terrestrial and extraterrestrial, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) begin work on the Ultron program, an artificial intelligence that will act as “a suit of armor around the world.” While Stark and Banner have every hope that Ultron will help stop their fellow Avengers from risking their lives in defense of the earth, things don’t go as planned. Their artificial intelligence becomes an overzealous peacekeeper “murder-bot” voiced by James Spader, and cleverly scripted chaos ensues.

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“Age of Ultron” possesses some of the same self-awareness that made “Guardians of the Galaxy” so enjoyable last summer. Indeed, writer-director Joss Whedon’s signature wit is on display at all times. But the movie doesn’t spend its 141-minute runtime just poking fun at the well-established conventions of the comic book movie genre. Rather, it has important questions to ask about the morality of its heroes’ actions. Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) insinuates that Stark “can’t tell the difference between saving the world and destroying it.”

By raising these questions, Whedon and his Avengers avoid the disturbing trend of gratuitous destruction which has become commonplace in recent blockbusters. While the spectacle is still there, city-wide devastation is far less exploitative than other recent superhero-themed blockbusters. (“Man of Steel,” I’m looking at you.) During a particularly destructive — and enjoyable — battle between Iron Man and an unsettled Hulk, Iron Man scans a skyscraper to make sure it’s vacant before crashing into it with the Hulk. Amidst all the action, the Avengers work to protect civilian life while still delivering really cool explosions.

A joke from a recent episode of “Community” sums up fans’ fears regarding studio interference: “I hear Marvel got really hands-on this time. Really penned in Joss Whedon creatively, so how could that go wrong?” Funny as this may be, “Age of Ultron” doesn’t bend under studio pressure, but under simple time limitations.

Examples include Thor’s (Chris Hemsworth) near-absence during the movie’s second act. The scenes he does appear in feel obviously truncated, and we are left with seconds-long snippets of his side adventure that are so brief that they may as well have been excluded. And though everyone delivers what is required of them, the cast is spread thin in the movie’s finale, with the likes of the Hulk virtually missing during the third act.

#AvengersAgeOfUltron: Joss Whedon may in fact have done as good a job as was actually possible

— The Economist (@TheEconomist) May 3, 2015

Always adept at working with ensemble casts, Whedon does his best not to let any of his characters fall through the cracks of the movie’s crowded running time. After being neglected in the previous movie, Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye gets a chance to shine and compete with Robert Downey Jr. for the best one-liners. Andy Serkis made a brief appearance as arms dealer Ulysses Klaue, but regrettably doesn’t share any scenes with Mark Ruffalo — denying us the joy of seeing the “13 Going on 30” co-stars reunited onscreen.

Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen join the cast as twins Pietro and Wanda Maximoff. And even if their generic Eastern European accents may be unconvincing — and comically inconsistent — Taylor-Johnson manages to exude arrogance without speaking while Olsen is plausibly unhinged. “He’s fast and she’s weird,” Cobie Smulder’s Maria Hill says of the twins.

James Spader’s turn as Ultron is also memorable. As he advances from one form to the next, the evil artificial intelligence says, “what doesn’t kill me just makes me stronger,” quoting Nietzsche … or was it Kanye West who said that? As an invention of Stark’s, Ultron possesses his creator’s same humor. Though he’s hell-bent on tearing the Avengers apart “from the inside” — as the trailers promise — Ultron winds up mugging for the camera and cracking wise as much as Robert Downey Jr.

Moviegoers hoping for a more meditative look at artificial intelligence may prefer Alex Garland’s “Ex Machina.” But for those already inclined toward Marvel and Whedon’s blend of wit, action and dysfunctional group dynamics, “Age of Ultron” will likely satisfy on all fronts.

Back in 2012, I saw the first Avengers movie seven times in theaters. (I’m still not sure how I found the will or money to do this). And even though it’s only been in theaters a few days, I’ve already managed to see “Age of Ultron” twice. Perhaps I am drawn to these gimmicky team-up movies because — despite their potential for disaster — the talent in front of and behind the camera have put such heart into the finished product.

May have to go see #AvengersAgeOfUltron again tomorrow.

— Jon Risinger (@JonRisinger) May 2, 2015

With 11 more movies in development for release by 2020, “Age of Ultron” is now a sort of midpoint in this “Marvel Cinematic Universe.” Let’s hope the novelty doesn’t wear off.

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