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

Guardians of the Galaxy


Just don't call him Rocky...it pisses him off.

Just don’t call him Rocky…it pisses him off.

(2014) Science Fiction (Disney/Marvel) Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Bradley Cooper (voice), Vin Diesel (voice), Dave Bautista, Lee Pace, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Djimon Hounsou, John C. Reilly, Glenn Close, Benicio del Toro, Laura Haddock, Peter Serafinowicz, Christopher Fairbank, Gregg Henry, Josh Brolin, Alexis Denisof, Tomas Arana, Lindsay Morton. Directed by James Gunn

So what makes for a great summer movie? Is it spectacle? Over-the-top action? Bigger than life characters? A mix of comedy, pathos, drama and action? A movie that puts you in a place where you can relax and forget all your cares?

Marvel Studios, the cinematic arm of Marvel comics, has been dominating the summer market ever since they broke out with Iron Man back in 2008. Since then, it has been one blockbuster after another as they have successfully created a shared cinematic universe in a similar fashion to the one they developed for their four color division, keeping audiences invested in the goings on and eagerly anticipating the next film in the franchise. This year has been particularly successful for the Marvel brand, not merely in box office (although that is the bottom line for most studio sorts) but also by delivering what are arguably the two best films in the brand both in 2014.

After Captain America: The Winter Soldier utilized a ’70s-style political thriller as a kind of framework for a superhero movie that had repercussions across the Marvel cinematic universe (and greatly affecting the TV series Marvel Agents of SHIELD) the House of Ideas has taken a bold move; to center on a little-known group of heroes in a space opera setting that is the final stand-alone installment in Marvel’s Phase 2 before next year’s Avengers: Age of Ultron.

 

Peter Quill (Pratt) is an adventurer and thief who used to live on Earth before being abducted by a group of outlaws named The Ravagers on the night his mother (Haddock) passed away from cancer. Did I mention that the Ravagers are a group of aliens led by Yondu Udonta (Rooker)? Quill has more or less broken away from the gang and is on the deserted, lifeless and ruined planet Morag. As he jauntily dances his way through the ruins he eventually finds a nondescript orb, using high tech to capture the artifact in a nod to the Indiana Jones movies.

Turns out he’s not the only one who wants the Orb. A renegade Kree named Ronan the Accuser (Pace) needs the Orb which hides a devastating secret. He’ll stop at nothing to get it and sends Gamora (Saldana), an adopted daughter of Thanos (Brolin), a malevolent figure who has designs on ruling the galaxy. Ronan is merely insane, akin to a religious terrorist who means to impose his version of morality on the Galaxy which begins with exterminating the planet Xandar, home of the Nova Corps who have signed a treaty with the Kree’s ancient enemies the Skrull as well as with the Kree themselves. Ronan will not tolerate this and needs the Orb to exact his version of justice.

Yondu also wants the Orb to get the massive pay day that’s being offered for it but Peter is making his own deals these days, so Yondu sets a bounty on Peter’s head. A pair of disreputable bounty hunters, a genetically modified raccoon named Rocket (Cooper) and a humanoid tree named Groot (Diesel) who only speaks three words and in the same order every time – “I Am Groot,” want Peter and the Orb so that they can get paid.

 

Then there’s Drax the Destroyer (Bautista) who doesn’t want the Orb or Peter – he wants vengeance on Ronan who murdered his entire family. When he espies Gamora battling Peter for the Orb, he figures he can start moving his way up the ladder by sending Gamora to the sweet Hereafter. However, since all of this is transpiring on Xandar, the Nova Corps arrest the whole lot of them and send them off to prison.

Gamora reveals that she intends to betray Ronan and keep the Orb from him permanent-like as the Orb conceals one of the Infinity Gems, an artifact of immeasurable power that can level planets and wipe out civilizations. Quill, normally the most mercenary of men, grows a conscience but figures that the five of them can escape from this inescapable prison, avoid Ronan and is henchmen Nebula (Gillan) who is also one of Thanos’ adopted “daughters,” and Korath (Hounsou) a fearsome fighter. If they can keep from killing each other while they’re doing it, so much the better.

James Gunn is an inspired choice to helm this film; as previous movies on his resume like Slither and Super showed, he has a quirky sense of humor and a stylish visual sense. One of the things he utilizes to full effect is a group of songs from the 60s and 70s that Peter has collected on the Awesome Mixtape Vol. 1 which his mother gave him prior to her death and is his sole link with his life on Earth. The tape (which is available for download or on CD) has some amazing songs that have a certain cheese factor but are actually all pretty damn catchy, ranging from “Hooked on a Feeling” by Blue Swede and  “Come and Get Your Love” by Redbone to “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” by Marvin Gaye and “Spirit in the Sky” by Norman Greenbaum (the latter two both classics for different reasons). It’s one of the most engaging soundtracks in recent years.

This is a galaxy that may be far, far away but there’s an awful lot that’s familiar about it too. Part of the reason for that is that Gunn takes the time to develop all of his characters. It isn’t just Quill and Gamora, the two leads, who are given personalities, but all five of the Guardians and to a certain extent, some of the villains as well – Yondu, Ronan and The Collector (del Toro) all become defined, fleshed-out characters that everyone in the audience will root for – or against as the case may be.

 

Pratt, who has mostly been known for supporting roles but made some career headway in Parks and Recreation, establishes himself as a lead movie star here. He’s funny, but also handles his action sequences with aplomb and when the time comes for him to be heroic, handles that aspect nicely. He has a great deal of screen presence and seems comfortable being the film’s center. While Saldana’s chemistry with Pratt isn’t as incendiary as I would have liked, the rest of the crew all come off pretty well.

The characters of Rocket and Groot are just as real as the flesh and blood actors is; there is a moment near the very end of the film when Rocket lets down his guard and we see his pain in a very real way. It is one of the most moving moments of the film alongside of young Peter mourning his mother. I think it isn’t unfair to say that the two CGI characters very nearly steal the film. One of the moments I loved most in the movie is Groot getting absolutely medieval on a bunch of Ronan’s thugs, beating the holy crap out of them to the point of overkill, then turning to Peter – a.k.a. Star-Lord by the way – and giving him a sheepish grin that had the whole theater in stitches.

I don’t often give perfect scores to summer movies but this is one that is getting one. This is as entertaining a movie as I’ve seen in years. I’m not big on going to see a movie more than once in theaters – there are only a very few that I’ve done that with – but as I write this, I’m getting ready to head down to the IMAX 3D theater at Pointe Orlando to see it a second time, this time in 3D IMAX. So you still want to know what makes a great summer movie? Just watch this.

REASONS TO GO: Great balance between humor and action. Spectacular visuals. Career-making performance by Pratt. Rocket and Groot work so much better than I expected.

REASONS TO STAY: You don’t like sci-fi, you don’t like superheroes, you don’t like Marvel or you don’t like movies in general.

FAMILY VALUES:  Sci-fi action and violence and a little bit of harsh language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Diesel recorded all of his dialogue in a number of languages including Spanish, Mandarin and French so that the same voice can be heard in every version.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/10/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Serenity

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Sex Tape