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Movie review: ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’

Photo: Disney/Marvel

“Avengers: Age of Ultron” (PG-13) 3 1/2 stars (out of four)

Earth’s mightiest heroes are disassembled and reconfigured in an exciting new way in “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” a thrilling, complex and action-packed sequel to the overrated 2012 original.

Once again written and directed by Joss Whedon, the hotly anticipated follow-up to “The Avengers” delves deeper into the fragile psyches of the seemingly unstoppable band of superheroes. It also skillfully blends a new villain and additional super-powered characters to the mix, thereby distancing it from any potential threats of sequelitis. The progression of the narrative feels natural and doesn’t try to rest in any way on its laurels, even though the film is a sure-fire box office blockbuster.

“Age of Ultron” picks up in the fictional Eastern European country of Sokovia, where the villainous organization HYDRA holds Loki’s scepter from the first “Avengers” film in their bid to develop weapons of mass destruction. The team recaptures it, but thanks to the wicked, mind-altering powers of Wanda Maximoff (Elisabeth Olson) and hyper-speed of her twin brother, Pietro Maximoff (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a trap is set by Hydra when Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) uses the scepter’s power to jumpstart his dormant global peacekeeping “Ultron” program. Stark has the support of Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), but the rest of the team – Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) feel left out in the dark.

The final execution of the program, which helps Stark finally realizes his goal of artificial intelligence, ultimately manifests itself in a super robot named Ultron (voice of James Spader), who not only wants to kill his creator, but rule the Earth after he realizes his plan of global annihilation. And that’s especially a big problem when the Avengers as a team find themselves at breaking point, where loyalties are questioned and trust becomes a big issue, since members of the group have different ideas on how to proceed with stopping the enemy and creating a peaceful future.

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Click image to pre-order the 12-inch (1:6 scale) figure of Gamora from “Guardians of the Galaxy” from Hot Toys/Sideshow Collectibles.

Coming in at just over 2 hours and 20 minutes, “Avengers: Age of Ultron” doesn’t feel too long, but rather a complete story because Whedon wisely uses his time to weave in the darker, complex vignettes of each team member in between all the action. For this reason, the film has more of a Christopher Nolan “Dark Knight” sort of edge to it, making the narrative that much more satisfying. While there are plenty of gags and laughs in the “Age of Ultron,” to be sure (a burgeoning romance between Hulk and Black Widow spurs some saucy humor, and there are also running jokes about Cap’s clean-cut demeanor and Thor’s hammer), it’s just refreshing to see that Whedon has adapted to the darker path of the Marvel movie series, where life for its superheroes moves onto shakier ground.

Of course, “Age of Ultron” is packed to the hilt with action, and the special visual effects are about as good as it gets. Particularly impressive is how the fluidness of the metal-based Ultron allows for some expressiveness, and you can really feel Spader’s smarmy characterization flowing through it. The hotly anticipated Hulkbuster scene is also hugely entertaining and diehard fans will definitely not be disappointed.

While the core cast of “Age of Ultron” delivers as expected, it’s exciting to see the introduction of new Marvel Universe characters to the mix like Vision (Paul Bettany) — who is a particularly thrilling addition — and the Maximoffs, who are finely realized by Olsen and Taylor-Johnson. And, without revealing too much, it’s great to see a hint of how the Avengers team is undergoing changes as the film series heads into the two part “Avengers: Infinity War” chapters coming in 2018 and 2019. There will be more in between, though, with “Ant-Man” (in July) and more “Captain America” and “Thor,” because the Marvel Universe is an expansive one – and we can’t get enough of it.

Tim Lammers is a veteran entertainment reporter and a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association, and annually votes on the Critics Choice Movie Awards. Locally, he reviews films for “KARE 11 News at 11” and various Minnesota radio stations.

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Interview: Russo brothers talk direction of ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’

Never mind the thrilling and intense action scenes, the story’s well-rounded characters or the “Iron Man,” “Thor,” “Captain America” and “Avengers” films that came before it: When it came to making “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” the brother directing team of Anthony and Joe Russo said it was the cameo by Marvel Comics legend Stan Lee that had them fretting the most.

“Directing Stan was totally surreal, especially as comic book fans. It was mind-blowing,” Joe Russo, accompanied by Anthony Russo, told me in an interview Tuesday. “We grew up with him with comic books and cartoons, and suddenly, here we are in a room with him. It’s always impactful when you meet people who had an influence you as a child, and you couldn’t ask for a bigger influence here. Of all the things we pressured ourselves on because Marvel has raised the bar so high with the other films, the Stan Lee cameo was up there.”

Anthony and Joe Russo on the set of 'Captain America The Winter Soldier'
Anthony and Joe Russo on the set of “Captain America: T
he Winter Solider” (photo: Disney-Marvel).

New on Blu-ray and DVD (Walt Disney Home Entertainment), “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” finds the World War II-bred Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) after the events of “The Avengers,” still trying to adjust to the modern world. Trying to live a quiet life in Washington, D.C., Rogers suddenly finds himself on the wrong side of S.H.I.E.L.D. after the organization has been greatly compromised by unknown forces — and millions of lives, including his own, are at stake because of it.

With little time and few people he can trust, Captain America embarks on a perilous trek with Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Sam Wilson/The Falcon (Anthony Mackie) in an effort to ferret out the mystery, even if it means destroying the very organization that the Avengers were built upon. Worse yet he’s forced to face off against an old friend, who has been molded into the villain dubbed “The Winter Soldier.”

The interesting thing about the Russos’ experience in the business is that it’s mainly in the comedy genre, whether it be films like “You, Me and Dupree” or comedy series like “Community” and “Arrested Development.” And while the brothers adapted to the high-octane action genre quite well with “Captain America: The Winter Solider,” it’s clearly their sense of being storytellers first that landed them the highly-regarded Marvel gig.

“We were known for a very strong sense of story and character in our comedic work, mainly because it’s the sort of storytelling we most enjoy,” Anthony Russo said. “We like to laugh, but we also like something else going on at the same time that audiences can feel. So, we brought that same work ethic to making an action film. Every beat of the action has to be imbued with very strong storytelling and very strong character moments, otherwise the action gets boring.”

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Click image to pre-order the 12-inch (1:6 scale) figure of Gamora from “Guardians of the Galaxy” from Hot Toys/Sideshow Collectibles.

Both in their early 40s, the Russos say they want to maintain childlike sensibilities making films like “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” because they vividly remember how similar, fantastical films impacted them as youths. Ultimately, the brothers want to do the same for today’s kids.

“As a kid, when I went to ‘The Empire Strikes Back,’ I got to the theater at 11 in the morning and left at 11 at night after seeing the film six times in a row in the front row,” Joe Russo recalled. “Whether it’s in a theater or in a living room, we want to pass that experience on to other kids. We want to have a cultural impact, otherwise why do it? It takes two years of your life to make a movie like this, we wanted to reach people in a way that they could have an emotional experience and that they remember it for a long time.”

The Russos, of course, will have a chance to create more lasting memories for moviegoers for the yet-untitled sequel “Captain America 3,” which is due out in May 2016. And while rumors are running rampant over which “Avengers” members will assemble for the film, the Russos hint at least that there will be more of the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), who in his earlier life before the evil forces of Hydra got hold of him, was Rogers’ best friend, Bucky Barnes.

“As storytellers, we always felt that the relationship between Steve and Bucky was not resolved by the end of ‘The Winter Soldier.’ We love that relationship. It’s so complicated and tragic,” Anthony Russo explained. “The relationship is so important to who Cap is, especially since he’s feeling so isolated in the modern world. It’s his connection to the past. The relationship with Bucky now isn’t exactly reliable and trustworthy, but it’s something that Cap has faith in nonetheless. That’s definitely something we want to continue dealing with in the next film, because their relationship remains critical, important and rich.”

While he couldn’t name anyone specifically, Anthony Russo added, “There are other characters very specific to the world of Cap that will also have a big role in the coming film.”

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Review: Tim Lammers reviews ‘Lucy,’ ‘Hercules’ on KARE-TV, more

'Lucy' Scarlett Johansson

Tim reviews the sci-fi thriller “Lucy” with Diana Pierce on KARE 11 TV (NBC) in Minneapolis.  See the review of the film, starring Cameron Diaz and Jason Segel, below. You can also read the print version of the review, along with a review of the animated adventure, “Planes: Fire & Rescue,” on BringMeTheNews.com.

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Also hear reviews of the film on WOC 1420, 96.3 K-TWIN and 94.1 The Loon below.

Black Widow - Natasha Romanova Premium Format Figure

Tim Burton Book 2
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