Avengers: Age of Ultron


Hawkeye takes the heat.

Hawkeye takes the heat.

(2015) Superhero (Disney/Marvel) Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, James Spader, Elizabeth Olsen, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Samuel L. Jackson, Don Cheadle, Anthony Mackie, Andy Serkis, Paul Bettany, Cobie Smulders, Hayley Atwell, Idris Elba, Linda Cardellini, Stellan Skarsgard, Claudia Kim, Thomas Kretschmann, Julie Delpy. Directed by Joss Whedon

As Uncle Ben from the Spider-Man series was wont to say, with great power comes great responsibility. It also makes sense that with great power comes great ego. When you have god-like powers (or are an actual god), the tendency would be to think that your powers make you right. When you get a roomful of such beings who may disagree on certain things, how possible is it for them to work together?

Avengers: Age of Ultron picks up from the pieces of HYDRA’s infiltration of SHIELD as shown in Captain America: The Winter Soldier and continued in the television show Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD as the Avengers are mopping up certain HYDRA bases trying to find Loki’s scepter which Thor (Hemsworth) is eager to restore back to its place in Asgard.

Despite heavy resistance from HYDRA and their leader Baron von Strucker (Kretschmann), Captain America/Steve Rogers (Evans) leads the Avengers to their goal and retrieves the scepter as well as capturing von Strucker. Von Strucker has been using the scepter to experiment on humans, bestowing on twins Quicksilver/Pietro Maximoff (Taylor-Johnson) and the Scarlet Witch/Wanda Maximoff (Olsen) superpowers; in Quicksilver’s case super speed, in the Witch’s case the ability to enter minds and to shoot red hex blasts from her hands. She implants a suggestion in Iron Man/Tony Stark (Downey) to sow discord among the Avengers, somewhat successfully. After all, the conflict was essentially already there.

Stark uses the scepter to kick start an artificial intelligence he calls Ultron which is meant to be a program that protects the planet from alien invaders, an event from Marvel’s The Avengers that so traumatized Stark that it has literally become his greatest fear that the next time invaders come he won’t be able to stop them. However, Ultron (Spader) decides to make himself a body and after quick consideration comes to the conclusion that the best way to protect planet Earth is to remove the human beings from it and to start anew, preferably with metal constructs as the dominant species. That Stark doesn’t tell his fellow Avengers what he’s up to (although The Hulk/Bruce Banner (Ruffalo) assists him reluctantly) further stirs the pot.

As you might guess, this doesn’t sit too well with the Avengers who go out to stop Ultron, who has recruited the twins to his side. They get wind that Ultron is visiting Ulysses Klaw (Serkis), an arms dealer in the African nation of Wakanda to retrieve as much vibranium as he can get his metal hands on and each are given a kind of dream courtesy of the Scarlet Witch that stops them in their tracks and further makes the team wonder if they can function properly. Afterwards, with their gaudy New York headquarters compromised, they retreat to a farm owned by Hawkeye/Clint Barton (Renner) and his wife (Cardellini) to lick their wounds. Thor heads off to find out the meaning of his dream, enlisting old friend Erik Selvig (Skarsgard) to help him.

In the meantime romance begins to blossom between Banner and the Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff (Johansson), and Nick Fury (Jackson) arrives to give the team a pep talk. Thus they head out to stop Ultron, even though it might cost them their lives. And Ultron plans an extinction level event to take out the entire planet. Can the Avengers stop a being that may be smarter and stronger than they are collectively?

Believe it or not, that’s just the bare bones outline of what’s going on in this movie; there are tons of subplots going on as well. Along the way we get more insight into the characters of Hawkeye and the Black Widow (which are welcome) and extended battle sequences which after awhile, truthfully, begins to feel repetitive.

Whedon was able to weave all the different characters together in the first Avengers movie in a way that brought disparate elements into a congenial whole. He is less successful at it this time, which I think has more to do with an attempt to tell a story with so many moving parts, meant to not only influence events in Phase II of the Marvel Cinematic Universe but also lead directly into the next Phase. In many ways, this is the worst review I’ve ever written; there’s so much Marvel-centric jargon here that it’s nearly impossible to really sum up the movie without going into detailed background, so much so that to really do it justice the review would end up being novel-length. Therein lies the rub for the movie; whereas Marvel’s The Avengers didn’t require a lot of explanation, this one does.

Still, the battle sequences are plenty amazing and while there are so much of them that after awhile there may be some overload particularly among audiences who aren’t young and male, they are all impressive enough to make for wonderful summer entertainment. I’m also liking Whedon’s attempts to illustrate the team’s dysfunction, their self-doubts and the realization that even if they succeed the collateral damage may be unfathomable. Whedon goes well out of his way to depict these warriors as human beings chock full of frailty; it doesn’t always work but at least it makes the movie more interesting than just a mere smashfest.

This sounds very much like a negative review and maybe it is; after all, Marvel has been setting the bar high with their cinematic universe and the last two films in the series have been absolutely outstanding, year-end top 10-worthy features. This doesn’t quite reach that bar but maybe it doesn’t have to. For those looking for ideal summer blockbuster entertainment, this more than fits the bill. It’s the kind of movie made for hot days, cool theaters and freshly popped popcorn. It’s the kind of movie that you’ll want to see with friends and go out for pizza afterwards. And yeah, it may not be the best Marvel film ever but it isn’t the worst either and it more than gets the job done.

REASONS TO GO: Plenty of superhero goodness. Looks at the inherent dysfunction of a team of powerful beings.
REASONS TO STAY: Feels less focused than the previous Avengers.
FAMILY VALUES: All sorts of comic book violence and mayhem, and a couple of suggestive comments.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Juggling all the characters in this film was so grueling and exhausting that Whedon elected not to direct the next Avengers movie, scheduled for 2018. Instead, Captain America: The Winter Soldier‘s The Russo Brothers will take on the next two-part Avengers: Infinity Wars.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/16/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Spider-Man 3
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: My Life in China

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Marvel’s The Avengers


Marvel's The Avengers

Jeremy Renner and Scarlett Johansson are a bit grumpy because they didn’t get a nifty uniform.

(2012) Superhero (Disney/Marvel) Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Samuel L. Jackson, Tom Hiddleston, Stellan Skarsgard, Clark Gregg, Cobie Smulders, Gwynneth Paltrow, Paul Bettany (voice), Alexis Denisof, Powers Boothe, Jenny Agutter, Harry Dean Stanton. Directed by Joss Whedon

 

Okay, take a deep breath now. It’s finally here, after five years of anticipation, of endless speculation, it’s here. Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, assembled in one place. Comic book fans of all sorts have been squirming in their chairs for months waiting for this movie to make it into the multiplex.

The thing is, this isn’t a movie just for those who love superheroes. This is spectacle on an epic scale, with battles raging in the skies as well as in the streets of Manhattan. However, there is more to it with a bit of pathos as well as some sharp dialogue. For those wondering, you don’t necessarily have to have seen the preceding Marvel superhero movies, although it helps to have done so.

Loki (Hiddleston) has been released from his quantum exile by the Tesseract, a cube of immense power that SHIELD has been using to try to create a self-sustaining energy source. He immediately uses his spear to control Professor Erik Selvig (Skarsgard) who’s been consulting with SHIELD on the project, and Clint “Hawkeye” Barton (Renner), an agent of SHIELD.

SHIELD director Nick Fury (Jackson) realizes that war has been declared on Earth by Loki – and he may have an army of alien beings behind him. The armed might of the world’s armies will be insufficient to stop what’s coming, so he is forced to recruit the most powerful beings on Earth to stop the threat – Iron Man (Downey), he of the powerful metal battle suit; Dr. Bruce Banner (Ruffalo), a brilliant scientist and expert on gamma radiation who when angered turns into a gigantic mindless beast that can tear about virtually anything without much effort, and Captain America (Evans), a soldier from World War II rescued from a decades-long sleep who was enhanced at the genetic level by a super soldier formula.

They are joined by the Black Widow (Johansson), an athletic spy and master interrogator and agent Phil Coulson (Gregg), Fury’s right hand – and eye in the field. They’re going to need all of them because with Hawkeye swinging for the other team, Loki is privy to all of SHIELD’s dirty little secrets.

The rest of the team is transported to SHIELDS heli-carrier, an airport carrier with gigantic helicopter rotors and the ability to turn invisible – yes, a cloaking shield! Eat your hearts out, Trekkers! In any case, Banner works on a device to track the unique but faint gamma radiation signature of the Tesseract. In the meantime, Loki is captured by Cap and Iron Man in Germany.

That brings Thor (Hemsworth) into the mix. Thor, Loki’s adopted brother, has noticed what Loki is up to and has had his father send him to Midguard (Earth) at some great cost. The intention is to bring Loki back to Asgard to answer for his crimes there. However, there is work to be done on Earth before that can happen – heading off the invasion that Loki has initiated, for one thing and the alien Chitaurs are not particularly interested in a gentle, benevolent rule. It will take the combined might of all of them to thwart Loki’s intricate plans and save the Earth from being subjugated by alien masters.

This is everything a superhero film is supposed to be; it captures the dynamics of each individual character and Whedon and writer Zak Penn extrapolate how the interpersonal relationships would work given their personalities and egos (which, to be fair, the comics have been doing for years). The result is a believably dysfunctional group of heroes who can be prima donnas and have their own agendas from time to time. Tony Stark (the alter ego of Iron Man) for example is highly suspicious of SHIELD’s motives and distrusts government, particularly after they forcibly tried to take away his work from him in the first two Iron Man movies.

Everyone gets to shine here, from the big guns (Downey) right on down to Gregg who has few scenes but makes the most of them. All of them, including Nick Fury (who hasn’t had much to do in previous films except for a good deal of expository dialogue) kick patooty, whether each other (as in  Thor-Hulk battle) or against the aliens (Cap gives the big green guy the orders “Hulk smash” and Hulk, grinning broadly, does just that).

It might have gone a little bit long (and waiting until the very end of the credits for the second extra scene might be a too much to ask) but all in all this is mind-blowing when it needs to be and visceral when it has to be. Watching Hulk smash is one of the great joys in life, as is seeing Cap’s leadership abilities come to life, or Tony Stark’s ego.

Nothing I say is going to dissuade people who want to see this from seeing it or those that don’t want to see it from avoiding it. If you don’t like superhero movies, if you find big loud action movies with Dolby sound and 3D glasses to be sensory overload, you’re going to be uncomfortable with this. HOWEVER if you don’t mind or actively love these things, you’ll be in your element here.

A note to parents: please don’t bring your kids along if they’re say seven or younger. The movie is a bit long for kids with short attention spans, it’s very scary in places and LOUD throughout. There was a moment when Hulk was roaring and I happened to be glancing at a little girl who couldn’t have been more than five years old covering her ears with a look of ABSOLUTE terror on her face. She had no business being there and you know it wasn’t her idea to go. Get a babysitter folks, or take them to see a Pixar film instead or be prepared to have an angry mob of people at the theater turn on you. This isn’t a little kids movie by any stretch of the imagination. If your kids aren’t able to handle a two hour movie at home, they probably won’t be able to handle it in a theater – and if you should know how easily frightened they are. The movie theater isn’t a day care center.

REASONS TO GO: Extremely well-choreographed action sequences. None of the heroes get short shrift.

REASONS TO STAY: Might be a bit long for those with short attention spans.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of violence of the alien invasion sort, as well as a few fairly scary sequences. This is definitely not for children under, say, seven years old.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie became the fastest to earn $200M at the U.S. box office – it only took three days to reach that milestone.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/10/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 69/100.The reviews are almost without exception positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: X-Men

STAN LEE LOVERS: The legendary Marvel Comics grand vizier shows up in his cameo during a montage of interviews of Big Apple residents being interviewed about the battle just fought on city streets.

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

Iron Man 2


Iron Man 2

Iron Man and War Machine have a little heart-to-heart.

(Paramount)  Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Sam Rockwell, Mickey Rourke, Scarlett Johansson, Jon Favreau, Samuel L. Jackson, Clark Gregg, Garry Shandling, John Slattery, Kate Mara, Leslie Bibb, Paul Bettany (voice), Olivia Munn. Directed by Jon Favreau

With the success of any superhero movie, a sequel is inevitable. Sometimes the sequel is even better than the original, as happened in Spider-Man 2 and The Dark Knight. In other cases, such as Superman 2 and Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer not so much. Which side will Iron Man 2 fall on?

It has been a couple years since the events of the first Iron Man and Tony Stark’s (Downey) shocking outing of himself as the armored superhero. In that time, Tony has effectively kept the peace, his Iron Man armor unstoppable by conventional military means.

Success breeds enemies however, and Tony has his share. Rival arms manufacturer Justin Hammer (Rockwell), for one – he has lost some critical military contracts due to Stark’s success. Senator Stern (Shandling) is another – he wants to take the most advanced weapon in the world out of the hands of private industry and into the control of the U.S. Government, where it belongs. Tony is not willing to do this, and is quite vocal about it at the Senate sub-committee hearing.

Tony’s focus is more on his Stark Expo, a Worlds’ Fair-like event he is holding in Flushing Meadow (also the site of two Worlds Fairs in 1939 and 1964-5, respectively) as a celebration of human ingenuity. It’s also something of a giant corporate jerk-off, but that might just be my inner socialist talking here.

Meanwhile, back in Moscow (there’s a future for me in the cheesy writing industry) a brooding Russky ex-con covered in tattoos and muscles named Ivan Vanko (Rourke) watches his father die and vows revenge (actually, he says something more like “Waaaaaaarrrrrrgggghh!” but you get the idea). Revenge against whom? Why, Tony Stark, whose dad Howard (Slattery) had dear old dad deported back in the day,  but not before stealing his design for the ARC reactor which powers the suit and not so coincidentally, Tony’s ailing heart. With his daddy’s designs, Ivan creates an ARC of his own to power a couple of supercharged whips which cuts through just about anything but especially race cars, one of which Tony is not so coincidentally driving at the Monaco Grand Prix. Don’t you just love it when a plan comes together?

Still, Tony saves the day with his suitcase armor (one of the coolest things not only in the film but ever) and Vanko a.k.a. Whiplash is sent to prison. However, Hammer likes what he sees, arranges Vanko’s extraction from prison and supposed death, the better for creating an army of armored soldiers for Hammer who, quite naturally, wants his military contract back.

Yes, you could say Tony’s got problems but none more serious than the fact that his ARC reactor is slowly poisoning his bloodstream, which will eventually kill him. There are no known elements to replace the palladium that runs his reactor and with all the pressures besetting him Tony begins to lose it a little bit. He hands the CEO job at Stark Industries to his longtime assistant Pepper Potts (Paltrow) and starts to drink a little bit, forcing his longtime friend Lt. Col. James “Rhodey” Rhodes (Cheadle, replacing Terrence Howard in the role) to take action and take an older set of armor for himself. Potts’ promotion necessitates a new assistant for Tony, in the person of the beautiful and mysterious Natalie Rushman (Johansson) who has secrets of her own.

In some ways Iron Man 2 suffers from Spider-Man 3 syndrome; too many villains. Rourke’s an excellent villain in many ways but the character doesn’t hold the interest of a Joker or a Goblin. He’s more or less a two-chord garage band; he’s either brooding or laughing maniacally. There’s not much in between for Rourke to do, but then again he does a really good job with what he has. Whiplash becomes a decent enough villain and might well have made for a warped reflection of Tony; both sons of fathers who worked together, one bent on world peace, the other on humiliating his enemy.

Rockwell, who’s an excellent actor and at times gets to show Hammer as an un-self-confident geek who craves attention and affection but is as cold and as ruthless as they come. Unfortunately, his alliance with Whiplash makes his character a little bit irrelevant. Rourke overshadows Rockwell to a large degree, but that’s not because of either man’s skills but more because of the way their characters are written.

The action sequences are top-notch and particularly the final battle sequence is absolutely spectacular. Unfortunately, some of the green screen work is surprisingly sloppy, such as one scene where Whiplash emerges from flaming wreckage in Monaco where he is obviously green screened and it takes you right out of the movie immediately.

The supporting performances are awfully good here, from Cheadle as Rhodes to Paltrow as the harried and somewhat overwhelmed Pepper (a bit of a far cry from her cool and collected performance in the first movie) and Johansson, who has never been sexier as the assistant with a difference. Samuel L. Jackson makes a more substantial appearance as Nick Fury, the head of SHIELD, further giving fanboys like me a reason to appreciate the nine-film deal Jackson signed with Marvel to play the character. Hopefully he’ll get a movie of his own somewhere down the line. Favreau as bodyguard Happy Hogan also has some pretty nice moments. The interplay between all of them and Downey is realistic, like old friends bickering and ribbing each other. It helps you like the movie a little more.

This is a nice start to the summer movie season. In some ways it’s not as good as the first movie but in other ways it’s a little better. Certainly Downey is redefining the way superheroes are going to be portrayed in the future; he’s a little bit quirky and a lot more vulnerable than the average superhero. You get the idea that Tony Stark is on the ragged edge and could tip over the side without much prodding.

The action is big and bold but it doesn’t break any new ground in particular. The high tech is a little higher and techier (advances since the first movie have made the tech in that film seem a little dated now), and the acting is solid. The script might be a little bit of a rehash of the first (two armored men battling it out) but at the end of the day you’ll leave the cinema entertained. What more do you need to know than that?

REASONS TO GO: The action sequences are outstanding, and the interplay between Downey, Favreau, Paltrow and Cheadle feels comfortable and familiar.

REASONS TO STAY: Some of the green screen effects were choppy and ineffective. Rockwell’s Justin Hammer seemed unnecessary.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some intense comic book action and a few bad words but otherwise suitable for all audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Marvel Comics icon Stan Lee makes a cameo appearance as talk show host Larry King near the beginning of the film.

HOME OR THEATER: Big battles, stupendous fight scenes, oh yeah this one is big screen all the way!

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Air I Breathe