MARVEL'S AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON (PG13)
141 minutes/Opens tomorrow/***1/2
The story: Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) ropes in Dr Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) to help create the ultimate solution to protect Earth - an artificial intelligence named Ultron (voiced by James Spader). But Ultron has a mind of its own and turns into a powerful foe with a very different agenda. Its plan is to develop an even more powerful version of itself - Vision (Paul Bettany). The Avengers are also under attack from the genetically enhanced Maximoff twins - Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who can move at superhuman speed, and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), who can control minds. Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Captain America (Chris Evans) and Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) are all rattled by her. Only Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) manages to dodge her clutches.
Saving the world can be a deadly serious and even grimly dour business.
Thank goodness then for writer-director Joss Whedon. He spent years honing the art of saving the world while firing off well-aimed zingers on television series such as action-fantasy Buffy The Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) and sci-fi adventure Firefly (2002).
Here, he finds moments of humour and playfulness that make Age Of Ultron a fun watch. When Iron Man stands before a wall and goes: "Please be a secret door, please be a secret door. Yay!", it makes you smile and the cocky billionaire character becomes a little more human.
There are also zippy one-liners flying to and fro.
Most rib-tickling of all is the Avengers party game of who-can-lift-Thor's-hammer (check out Thor's fleeting frown of concern when the celestial weapon gets moved a teeny bit). This joke, which answers the burning question of what superheroes do for fun when they get together for drinks, even has a pay-off later on.
One of the challenges in a movie of this scale is juggling multiple characters and parcelling out screen time to all.
Perhaps it is not a coincidence that the characters who get a little more exposure this time are those without a movie franchise of their own. Step right up, Hawkeye, Black Widow and Hulk. Fans get a peek into Barton's personal life and are teased by the prospect of a romance between Romanoff and Banner.
There are also multiple storylines to weave together, connecting Age Of Ultron to previous films in the Marvel universe and setting up the stage for future instalments. (Say hello to Avengers: Infinity War in 2018 and, possibly, Thor: Ragnarok in 2017.)
At the same time, Age Of Ultron has to stand on its own as a movie. The resolution of the conflict with Ultron feels a little anticlimactic, maybe because Whedon has already thrown everything and the kitchen sink at the audience earlier in terms of spectacular showdowns (the film opens right in the heat of a snowy battle, Hulk goes on a raging bender and Ultron musters an army of droids to take down the Avengers). While there is a certain poetic justice in Ultron's fate, it seems a little too tidy.
With The Avengers (2012) the third-highest grossing movie worldwide with US$1.5 billion (S$2 billion) in earnings, Whedon must have been under pressure to deliver yet another gargantuan moneymaker.
When an exhausted Hawkeye sighs that it has been a very long day, one imagines that he is echoing how the director must have felt at the end of the punishing shoot. Whedon has already made his mark in the Marvel universe, never mind that he will not be helming the two-part Infinity War.