Marvel Studios and writer/director Joss Whedon pulled off a massive movie feat with 2012’s THE AVENGERS, the first milestone in the studio’s shared universe concept that went on to become the biggest superhero film of all time. The joy of reading comics books came to life for the world to see and embrace. In place of a futile attempt at repetition, MARVEL’S AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON surges forward and succeeds by mirroring the evolution of its source material with bigger ethical stakes and deeper, more introspective character study, all without losing its sense of fun.

In a sensational opening sequence, The Avengers leap right off of a comic book splash page and onto the silver screen to take down a few bad guys and, they hope, finally earn a break from hero duty. Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) is the most excited and tempted by the thought of an end game, so much so that he takes a (mis)calculated risk by handing over the reins to a peacekeeping form of artificial intelligence, Ultron (James Spader). Things go bad, quickly, and The Avengers have to race around the world to contain the new threat.

Avengers25535312606103

The global scale of this team up film benefits from being much more literal compared to its predecessor. South Africa, South Korea, Italy, and Bangladesh all played host to various stages of production, most of which took place in London. Whedon keeps things moving at a remarkable clip, weaving in and out of high stakes drama between familiar faces and getting-to-know-you sessions with the new players- the aforementioned Ultron, along with Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) and Pietro Maximoff (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), known more fantastically as Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver.

Olsen and Taylor-Johnson each excel in roles that are far more critical to the story than one might assume for new characters hanging around heavyweights like Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth). Despite their wonderfully worthy efforts, it is the less (or more) than human characters, Ultron and Vision (Paul Bettany), that are in closest competition for top rookie honors. The less said about Vision before you see the film, the better, so just know that he works brilliantly and Bettany earns the promotion from his previous J.A.R.V.I.S. voice-over work.

Ultron is a real, unexpected treat. He is so much more than a cold cyborg attempting to eradicate human life out of general indifference toward it. He has a point, but equally important to this film, Ultron has a personality. He takes after his fathers, Stark and Joss Whedon. In crafting his brilliant performance, Spader goes beyond reading Whedon’s words to the point of channeling a piece of the director’s personality. Joss Whedon is not a mass-murdering robot, but it’s not hard to see how Whedon’s own wit, sense of humor, and thoughts on some of humanity’s failings bled into his titular antagonist and the character is enriched because of it.

Marvel's Avengers: Age Of Ultron..Ultron..Ph: Film Frame..©Marvel 2015

Humor plays a large role in AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON with Whedon and his cast at their absolute funniest. All of the comedy lands and draws big laughs even if there is a joke or two that could have been held back so as not to interfere with the intensity of the action. It is a minor issue, though, as those bits are still hilarious and the action never falls short of epic super-heroism, all of which is beautifully shot by Ben Davis, who directed photography on last year’s gorgeous GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY.

Not lost in all the hilarity and comic book confrontations is the genuine humanity found in each hero. Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Bruce Banner/Hulk have a budding romance that charms, but their newfound intimacy also inspires the film’s most moving scene. Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) cashes in on the one owed to him after spending much of the last film as a mind-controlled puppet. This film defines him as a person and an Avenger in such a wonderful way.

Avengers

The headliners deliver everything audiences have come to expect from them without dominating the story too much. A better balance is struck and everyone has a more evenly-distributed chance to shine. Distance from his usual family drama allows Hemworth’s Thor to enjoy himself a bit more than last time before he’s hit with the weight of bigger forces at work. This takes him away from the heart of the story for a little while, but heSharp-witted and charismatic as ever, Downey is pure gold as Tony Stark. Evans continues tynamic between Iron Man and Captain America provides ample comic relief,  but the serious differences in their respective philosophies is where the real depth can be found. These are two friends with mutual respect and a shared goal, but vastly different views on how best to accomplish it. The resulting debate midway through the film is powerful and poignant.

The greatest success of MARVEL’S AVENGERS: AGE ULTRON is its ability recapture the elements that made the first film so enjoyable without walking along an already beaten path. The story is grows in size and complexity as the characters are further tested and better developed. A new, different movie inspires feelings similar to those inspired by its predecessor with several fresh ones thrown in for good measure. The comic books have been brought to life once again, but in a way that invites the viewer to witness an evolution toward more refined, but no less fun storytelling. The magic of Marvel is on full display in a hilarious, emotional, thrilling, and undeniably epic superhero experience.

MARVEL’S AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON opens in theaters May 1.

Avengers255353118812fc