Charm and humor balance the mayhem of the 'Avengers: Age of Ultron' (B+)

Beneath the thoughtful ridiculousness and blithe sound and fury of Avengers: Age of Ultron lies the core idea that drives this whole hugely profitable franchise. You see, these people are just like us, only more awesome.

They crack wise on one another and drop pop culture references amid the mass destruction. They go out for drinks together and get jocular. Their egos need feeding, and they yearn for stability.

This streak of humanity provides the levity needed to keep an overly busy plot moving. It also keeps us from thinking about the flurry of pixels and green screenery invested in each action sequence, including the obligatory and interminable grand finale, in which a fictional Eastern European city floats in the air as mankind's fate hangs in the balance.

By making the Avengers snarky rivals as well as brothers and sisters in arms, franchise Big Brain Joss Whedon injects exactly what such a noisy spectacle needs: a dollop of charm.

The prime fount is Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark, who explains his fatigue thusly: "It's been a real long day. Like, Eugene O'Neill long." It has indeed. Stark, the alter ego of Iron Man and the most alpha of the Avengers' alpha dogs, has unleashed an artificial intelligence system named Ultron, a ghost in the machine who acquires a hulking metal body and, thankfully, the sardonic bravado of James Spader's voice. Ultron may be Stark's baby, but he doesn't think much of Iron Man, Captain America, Thor and the rest of the gang.

Age of Ultron finds time to bandy about big ideas about scientific hubris and man's overreach for domination. This may be the most staggeringly destructive antiwar movie ever made, and you have to chuckle when the screenplay gives lip service to the idea of preventing civilian casualties. There's enough full-scale mayhem going down in Ultron to kill civilians for generations to come. But not really, because, you know, PG-13.

Whedon is imaginative enough to carve out some wonderfully cinematic moments from the rubble. When Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow coaxes the Hulk back into the human form of Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), the movie takes on the romantic grandeur of classical myth. (It's also pretty remarkable how eerily the Hulk's facial features resemble Ruffalo's.)

Hulk/Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) in "Avengers: Age of Ultron." (Photo courtesy Marvel/TNS)

The mind spells cast by another Stark hater, Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), bring to life free-associative nightmare visions worthy of great science fiction.

Casting is half the battle in elevating this kind of fare and reaching an audience beyond the fanboys and true believers. Put Ruffalo, Downey, Johansson, Don Cheadle and Jeremy Renner on-screen together and you're going to generate some sparks of intelligence.

Even when Ultron spins its action wheels, and sends its heroes and villains through their computer-generated rigors, it exerts a moderately human touch. Glib, yes, and a little too cocky for close comfort. But human nonetheless.

AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON (B+)

Directed by Joss Whedon. PG-13 (intense sequences of sci-fi violence, action and destruction, and for some suggestive comments). 141 mins. In wide release.

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