The Best Thing About "Avengers: Age Of Ultron" Is The Humanity

    Marvel's latest is its biggest, baddest installment yet, but it's the little moments that make it work — in part, because Joss Whedon is so good at them.

    Of all the big developments and plot twists preloaded into Joss Whedon's Avengers: Age of Ultron, the best surprise, which I won't spoil, involves a glimpse of a character's home life.

    It's a surprise because of what it contains, but also because, it seems fair to say, you don't come to an Avengers movie expecting much by way of home lives. They're designated special occasion affairs — grander, more star-packed, and more blow-uppy than the regular Marvel Cinematic Universe installments, which are already pretty action-packed.

    Domesticity and downtime aren't the kinds of things a tentpole extravaganza typically squanders too many minutes on, not when there's a robot army to battle, humanity to save, and groundwork for future installments to be laid. And Avengers: Age of Ultron, which opens in U.S. theaters on May 1, has a lot of (a little too much) business to attend to beyond that, including the introduction of some new superheroes — twins Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) and Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) Maximoff, aka the Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver, along with the Vision (Paul Bettany), who doesn't arrive so much as form.

    Avengers: Age of Ultron is bigger, messier, and more sprawling than The Avengers, less satisfying while still being an undeniably good time from the opening raid on a Hydra stronghold to the concussive finish. But this film, more than the first, is also beset by tension between the need for blustery set pieces and the fact that the greatest pleasure of these movies is actually watching its varied and not always simpatico superheroes hang out and interact, especially as written by someone with such a feel for them as distinctive personalities.

    Avengers: Age of Ultron, which Whedon wrote and directed, literally reaches for the sky in one of its later action sequences, which one-ups the many recent blockbusters that have ended with mere buildings getting flung around. But it's that interlude at the house, that goofy party scene, and those bits of banter in between body blows that stand out, and that are the greatest thing Whedon has brought to the Marvel Cinematic Universe in his tenure with it as a writer, director, and creative adviser.

    It's fun to see these characters fight together and, sometimes, against each other. But it's so much better to see them talk, and to revel in the facets of their fully formed personalities and personal histories underneath their outsize exteriors. Avengers: Age of Ultron continues Whedon's tradition of treating these characters like people who happen to be capable of extraordinary things. It's not the grandeur of Avengers: Age of Ultron that makes it good. It's the bits of wry or vulnerable humanity — even when the characters in question aren't technically human.

    One of those characters is the baddie of Avengers: Age of Ultron's title, an artificial intelligence that Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) builds without consulting his teammates. Creating technology to stop wars before they start is part of Stark's plan to achieve "peace in our time," but Ultron, who's made with the help of some confiscated Hydra research, immediately comes up with his own interpretation of Stark's mandate that involves taking out the Avengers and then, possibly, the rest of humanity.

    Ultron's motivations are garbled, even when he finally gets around to explaining then, but he's voiced by James Spader with a wonderfully unrobotic bitchiness ("I can't physically throw up in my mouth," he snarks at one point). After making a dramatic entrance in a half-assembled Iron Man suit, Ultron turns out to be an unmemorable villain, physically — he's a bunch of identical robots and one slightly more distinguished one — but he's prone to bursts of rage and philosophy. He's Stark's finest and darkest impulses, siphoned out and made whole, the apocalyptic AI version of a rebellious son.

    And even with the introduction of the twins, who start off as Hydra and then Ultron's allies, Stark remains the most morally complex figure around, wrestling with PTSD that's crystallized by one of Wanda's mind-control visions, willing to charge ahead with his ideas without oversight or wider discussion. "We don't have time for a city hall debate!" he tells Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo).

    Stark's not a good team player, in part because, he admits, what he'd like to do is figure out a way to make the team unnecessary by figuring out a way of protecting humanity, permanently and perfectly, a "suit of armor around the world." Stark gets many of the Avengers: Age of Ultron's best quips (though Jeremy Renner's Clint Barton actually walks off with the lion's share this time around), but he's also its least trustworthy character, the one who seems most likely to accidentally eradicate humanity with all of the best intentions at heart.

    The MCU will sorely miss Downey Jr. when he eventually leaves Iron Man behind. He oozes the ethical unease these movies need. Stark is a witty, conflicted superheroic embodiment of imperfect tech utopianism tied to capitalist guilt for a past he can never leave behind, a character who always hints at real-world relevance without it needing to be explicit. When one of his remote-controlled Iron Legion lands in the fictional Eastern European country of Sokovia where the film begins, the crowds it's supposed to help hiss and throw things, while on the wall behind it Iron Man stencils are overlaid with dollar-sign graffiti.

    None of the new characters Avengers: Age of Ultron trots out suggest they'll make the same eventual kind of impact, at least so far, despite the caliber of actors playing them. Olsen's Scarlet Witch is the toughest fit, always seeming a little sillier than intended when summoning her powers with liquid dancing-style hand motions. With humanity comes time passing, and among other things, Avengers: Age of Ultron provides a bittersweet reminder of the extent to which the Marvel movie empire is greater than any cast member or creative voice.

    But the old class isn't headed anywhere yet, and Avengers: Age of Ultron is threaded through with a particularly nice romance involving two of them — Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) and Banner. They're two characters with baroque personal histories, but their flirtations are tentative and earnest, falling between Beauty and the Beast and "popular girl falls for charming geek." Watching them together, it's easy to appreciate their battlefield feats, in which the Hulk gallantly smashes a gun turret for the Black Widow. But it's their other interactions that you long to see more of. What would their home life be like?