'Avengers: Age of Ultron': Sparks of quiet humanity amid CGI blasts

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Look who's talking: Earth's mightiest heroes - (from left) Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) take on James Spader as the title villain's voice in "Avengers: Age of Ultron."

What if they made an Avengers movie and nobody got punched, pummeled, blown up - or even bothered to put on their tights? What if everyone just sat around and talked for a couple of hours? My Dinner with Hawkeye. Captain America and Thor Go Boating. Coffee and Cigarettes with the Hulk and Black Widow.

The best sequences in Avengers: Age of Ultron have nothing to do with platinum robot drones butting heads with Tony Stark's Iron Legion, or Black Widow and Captain America cartwheeling through dense forest in hot pursuit of Hydra troopers, or the Hulk stomping his 3,000-pound bod around a crowded metropolis, turning a trip to the corner store into a life-or-death proposition.

The action in the latest Marvel Universe installment - and there's plenty - is just what you'd expect: giant-screen CGI-driven thwacking, thumping, throwing of SUVs into the air, and Ultron, the titular A.I. bad guy, looking invincible (until he isn't). It's state of the art, it's videogame-like, and, sure, it's sort of cool.

But it's the, shhh, quieter moments in Joss Whedon's $279 million superhero extravaganza that stand out. Never mind the "extinction level events," as Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) calls these apocalyptic altercations. How about Stark and Bruce Banner a.k.a. the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Steve Rogers a.k.a. Captain America (Chris Evans), Natasha Romanov a.k.a. Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Clint Barton a.k.a. Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) sitting on a couch at Avengers HQ, each pulling and prodding, huffing and puffing, trying to budge Thor's enchanted hammer, Mjolnir, from the coffee table.

The magic mallet remains firmly planted until its rightful owner, the blondie-locked Asgardian god of thunder played by Chris Hemsworth, casually takes it in hand.

It's the between-the-mayhem moments that work best, that bring out the humor in Whedon's screenplay, even if some of Downey's deadpan asides are as predictable as Ultron's evildoing pronouncements. (James Spader, Downey's Less Than Zero costar - eons before the first Iron Man - provides the nemesis' ominous rumble.)

Elizabeth Olsen, who joins the gang as Wanda Maximoff a.k.a. Scarlet Witch, was on Jon Stewart's Daily Show the other night, talking about the challenge of acting aghast and agog in front of blue screens while flanked not by castmates but by their stunt doubles. The effects-dependent production averaged a meager eighth of a page of screenplay a day, she said.

Which helps explain why a key component lacking in Avengers: Age of Ultron is a sense of spontaneity. It's hard for actors to come alive when they're not even there - when a stand-in or digitally rendered likeness is zooming around the sky, thrusters blasting.

If there's a theme going on in Avengers: Age of Ultron, it's the old one about teamwork, and what happens when the team is fractured, in disarray. To wit, there's an epic faceoff between the Hulk and Iron Man, with a whole city and its panicky populace under foot. On another front, Bruce Banner and Natasha Romanoff finally acknowledge they're hot for each other, but "there's no future with me," he warns - a pained look crossing Ruffalo's brow - because, you know, at any moment he could turn into that big green monster with anger-management issues again. And thanks to the psychic powers of Scarlet Witch, everyone gets these really bad visions of their pasts, and their futures. Dread looms.

The industry trades are predicting Avengers: Age of Ultron will have something like a $200 million opening weekend. It's already made more than that overseas, where it opened in some markets last week.

The thing's a behemoth. And as the franchise thunders on, it's also becoming more and more a bore.


srea@phillynews.com

215-854-5629 @Steven_Rea

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Avengers: Age of Ultron

Directed by Joss Whedon. With Chris Hemsworth, Samuel L. Jackson, Jeremy Renner, James Spader, Scarlett Johansson, Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Cobie Smulders, Elizabeth Olsen. Distributed by Walt Disney Pictures.

Running time: 2 hours, 21 minutes.

Parent's guide: PG-13 (for intense sequences of sci-fi action, violence and destruction, and for some suggestive comments).