Avengers: Age of Ultron opens on a spectacular battle scene, one in which the camera zooms around the heroes as they thrust themselves into the mayhem. The visuals have been plunged into slow motion and we are given the illusion that this was accomplished in a single take, as there are no visible cuts to be found. This scene is reminiscent of a similarly terrific fight towards the end of the first Avengers that really gave you a sense of the scale of the battle, as well as the role that each of them plays in the fight. It is the kind of large-scale, showy visual extravagance that puts all the money on the screen and makes you appreciate the enormous budget behind movies like this.

There is a nagging issue with Age of Ultron, one that persists throughout most of the films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and it is one of cohesion, something that this introductory scene manages to deliver completely without dialogue and in an utterly cinematic fashion. It is when the overarching story of the MCU starts to take precedence over the characters that Age of Ultron begins to slip out of your grasp. That overarching story is manifest in what the Dissolve’s Tasha Robinson refers to as “hubjubs”: stuff like Infinity Stones, glowing scepters, and a fictional material called “vibranium.” These are objects that drive the plot of Age of Ultron, yet seemingly have nothing to do with the characters who want them other than “they blow stuff up real good.”

The eponymous supervillain, wonderfully voiced by a sneering James Spader (is it redundant to call him sneering?), is one such character who wants the hubjubs. Indeed, Ultron is a robot, whose artificial intelligence is derived from a hubjub. In a slyly brilliant inversion, Ultron has developed sentience and operates under the belief that the Avengers are responsible for the world’s ills, as opposed to the world’s saviors from them; hence, it determines that they must be destroyed. This is a great premise. But then, perhaps because he gains access to the hubjub, Ultron decides that all of humanity must be destroyed. This is where the film lost me, because this is a logical leap that suddenly divests the story of any cause-and-effect relationship between the folks we know and care about (the Avengers) and some faceless abstraction (all of humanity). Yes, the Avengers formed to defeat evil that could not be withstood by a single hero, but when their task literally is to save the world again, it starts to feel stale, insanely cool bad guy or not.

So the story is a bit overblown; that’s not a surprise. Even Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which is the best of the bunch, eventually gets too big for its britches. What is perhaps most disappointing about Age of Ultron is that the fight scenes become rather muddled, too. The exhilarating clarity of the opening scene is sacrificed in favor of a traditionally cross-cut battle. There is so much going on simultaneously that the filmmakers can’t help but chop up the action. The scenes are also punishingly long, and rife with the urban destruction that has become de rigeur. I understand that the logistics of assembling a single-take scene like the one I love so much prevent them from occurring more than once per movie, but I would prefer several, very brief scenes like those to the protracted, redundant brawls that we’re subject to.

Because Joss Whedon is still the writer-director of this film, those battle scenes are nevertheless imbued with jokes and visual wit, albeit less so than in the original Avengers, perhaps due to the absence of Tom Hiddleston’s Loki. The cast has become very comfortable in their roles, and their mid-carnage banter is still one of the highlights of the Avengers series, as well as something that we miss in the single-hero films. There is a bit of intrigue between Bruce Banner and Natasha Romanoff, in addition to the surprise introduction of Clint Barton’s hidden family, but that is only so much pleasant yet superfluous padding, at least at this point in the ongoing storyline. The most compelling relationships between the characters are the platonic ones, but this movie does little to progress those in any way. I’d like to see more development in the relationship between Thor and say, anyone else on the team, because on his own, the Norse demigod simply isn’t all that interesting.

Age of Ultron is a disappointment, but not a huge one. Many of my criticisms can be leveled at most of the other films in the MCU, which takes the sting of out of my issues a bit. It is still a fun, often funny action movie, one that utilizes its massively deep pockets to mostly positive effect, and never forgets the humans at its core. But it still ultimately fails to feel like anything more than a stopgap. The second film in a trilogy (or, in this case, the end of the second phase of a three-phase project) is often the best because of the tension it can create as you anticipate the conclusion (see The Dark KnightThe Empire Strikes BackCatching Fire). Age of Ultron is just another cog in the corporate wheel. A flashy, spunky cog, but nevertheless, a cog.

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