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After The Avengers retrieve Loki’s sceptre from a Hydra stronghold in Eastern Europe, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) gets the idea to harness its immense power and place it into one of his inventions to create a peacekeeping robotic being that will allow the world’s greatest superheroes, spies, and soldiers some much needed downtime. The plan goes awry when the sentient creation, Ultron (voiced by James Spader), sees how terrible humanity truly is, and he decides that the only way to save humanity is by destroying The Avengers and hitting the reset button on the entire planet.

Starting mid-action sequence and not bothering to catch the uninitiated up to speed, Joss Whedon’s Avengers: Age of Ultron admirably hits the ground running, and for a brief time the novelty is appreciated. The plot here is the least complicated of any Marvel universe project to date. That synopsis sums up the entire story in a nutshell, and there aren’t really many prerequisites to understand what’s going on. The simplicity works only about seventy percent of the time, though. For the first time since Iron Man 2, it’s abundantly apparent that something has gone amiss and that the franchise has reached the tipping point between complex and dangerously overstuffed.

The simplicity very quickly becomes a mask for a story that simply acts as a bridge to future entries, and something that has absolutely no momentum of its own. Unlike other films in a franchise that entertained by telling interesting stories, the script to Age of Ultron can’t stand on its own. It’s not its own movie. It’s a 140 minute commercial for other movies yet to come.

Whedon seems to have his hands tied, forced into setting up plot lines for the films of others. There seems to be a more distinct lack of interest on his part, and it might be the only Whedon project that could openly be described as cynical. Spader’s Ultron – who is admittedly great – seems to take on the form of a mouthpiece for Whedon’s underlying conflict with his own material; an inner monologue of disappointment. His trademark wit and ability to let his actors run with whatever ideas they have still shines through, and without that, Age of Ultron¬†would probably be the worst film Marvel has cooked up to date. Those moments of levity compensate for some of the worst, most incomprehensible action sequences outside of a Transformers movie. It’s a blur of messy fast edits as our heroes fight a bunch of low rent Terminator knock-offs in a third world country that The Expendables have already blown up in their last three outings. It’s dull and uninspired, visually and thematically. I haven’t seen this kind of movie with these specific characters before, but I have seen this film before. The stakes have been considerably lowered from the first Avengers outing to this one.

But outside of Whedon having a sense of humour about the whole thing, he does manage to give the cast and characters a lot of great development that makes one interested to see where Marvel goes in the future. Tony Stark and Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) start the subtle power struggle that will eventually lead to a rift between the two, but they largely stay out of everyone else’s way unless called upon. For the first time, there are hints of darkness for Thor (Chris Hemsworth), and while it’s the most intriguing stuff the character has had to deal with yet, his subplot feels like it has been awkwardly cut down in the edit by at least half. Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) turns out to be the true MVP next to Spader, thanks to a wealth of depth and purpose that his character previously lacked. The franchise remembers that Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) is a pretty likeable, conflicted human when he isn’t hulking out, and his relationship to Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) comes across as genially sweet and nice. Even Paul Bettany, as Stark’s trusty computer Jarvis, has more depth added to him.

Sure, a bunch of great actors get wasted in thankless roles (especially Don Cheadle, who during the climax almost seems pissed to be there), and of the two new characters to the MCU – Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch and Aaron Taylor Johnson’s Quicksilver, both of whom are quite good – only one seems like a vital addition. It’s far more disappointing than bad overall, but its more of a promise for the future than a stand alone film. You just wish by the time it was over that it could have been both.