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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Iron Man


 

Iron Man

Stop! In the na-ame of love…Robert Downey Jr. finds his inner Supreme.

(2008) Superhero (Paramount/Marvel) Robert Downey Jr., Jeff Bridges, Gwynneth Paltrow, Terrence Howard, Jon Favreau, Leslie Bibb, Shaun Toub, Bill Smitrovich, Paul Bettany (voice), Nazanin Boniadi, Micah Hauptman, Samuel L. Jackson, Clark Gregg, Faran Tahir. Directed by Jon Favreau

 

Some superheroes are born to be heroes. Others are made by circumstance. The question is, were those sorts born to be heroes and always had that characteristic in them, or is it more a matter of necessity.

Tony Stark (Downey) has it all; the brilliant CEO of Stark Industries, he is young and one of the brightest minds in America. Most of the cutting edge weapons the military uses as their bread and butter were inventions of Stark, overseen by his partner, Obadiah Stane (Bridges) who worked with Stark’s dad, the founder of the company. Stane more or less bridged the gap between father and son.

In addition, Stark has a beautiful and efficient assistant, Pepper Potts (Paltrow) and a succession of Maxim supermodels to share his bed at night. His butler, Jarvis (Bettany) is completely electronic. He has a magnificent home in Malibu with a panoramic view of the Pacific. What’s not to like?

Out in Afghanistan demonstrating a new missile along with his good friend and military liaison Col. Jim “Rhodey” Rhodes (Howard),  Tony’s convoy is ambushed by insurgents and Stark is gravely injured, but taken to the caves where the insurgents are holed up. Just before losing consciousness, Tony notes that the weapons that attacked the convoy were manufactured by his own company.

There is shrapnel near Stark’s heart so Raza (Tahir), the leader of Ten Rings (the terrorist group that captured him) forces Dr. Yinsen (Toub) to keep Stark alive, which he does with an electromagnet ringing the industrialist’s heart powered by a car battery. Once Stark is able to, Raza orders him to build the Jericho missile (the same sort that Stark had been demonstrating) for his group which Stark knows will be used against American forces. This he cannot abide. He convinces Raza he’s building the missile while in reality he and Yinsen are creating a suit of armor that will allow him to break out of the caves and get away. He does, but barely – he has to construct a miniaturized nuclear power source called an ARC reactor to power the suit but the flight capabilities of the armor are limited and Stark crashes some miles from the caves, destroying the suit.

Back at home, Stark announces that Stark Industries would be getting out of the weapons industry to the consternation of Stane and Stark’s shareholders. Stark responds by withdrawing from the public eye, going into his home workshop to upgrade both the reactor and the armor. The sleeker Mark II armor, red and gold after his racing team’s colors, prove to be a powerful weapon as Stark returns to Afghanistan to prevent Ten Rings from destroying Yinsen’s village, leaving Raza to the less than merciful villagers.

In the meantime Pepper discovers that someone within Stark is selling advanced weapons technology to terrorists and had set up Tony for capture and eventual murder by Ten Rings. She notifies SHIELD, a newly formed government agency set up to deal with exactly these sorts of issues and Agent Coulson (Gregg) is dispatched to investigate.

Ten Rings has discovered the pieces of Stark’s original armor, as well as the blueprints for it. Scientists attempt to reverse engineer the armor which they do, but they are unable to build an ARC reactor to power it. There’s only one of them in the entire world – and it’s the only thing keeping Stark alive. The terrorists want it and will use whatever means necessary to get it.

When this was released in 2008, Marvel had licensed their characters to specific studios; X-Men, Daredevil and the Fantastic Four to Fox, Spider-Man and Ghost Rider to Columbia. They had a vision of creating a shared universe like the one they created in their comic books but in order to do that they would have to have control over their characters and how they were being used; this couldn’t be done if they were licensed all over hell and gone so they decided to create a movie division of their own and with a fairly substantial investment, announced an ambitious slate of five films of which this was the first.

It is here that the roots of The Avengers were laid. The tremendous success of the movie not only established Marvel Comics (who were already seeing great success with their licensed properties) as a major force in Hollywood. Even the notoriously hard-to-please comic fan base were impressed not only with this film specifically but with the vision of Marvel generally.

The fact that this is a kick-ass summer movie doesn’t hurt. Downey is perfectly cast as the wise-cracking billionaire industrialist with an eye for the ladies and a mind unparalleled anywhere in the world. Much of the dialogue was ad libbed and Downey tends to excel in that kind of environment with a quick wit of his own. Downey was already a fan of the comics when he was approached to play the part; he had a real understanding from the get-go as to who Tony Stark is and what makes him tick.

Favreau hit a home run not only with the casting of Downey but with the look and feel of the movie. In many ways this was the anti-Batman; whereas Nolan’s hero is dark and brooding, Stark takes himself less seriously. That both are wealthy playboys is about all Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark have in common.

In fact, the movie looks like it could be taking place right here, right now. Most of the weapons that are employed during the movie (of course excluding the armored suit and the Jericho missile) are at least based on weapons that are either already in use or not far away from it. That gives the movie a sense of realism that other superhero films lack.

The supporting roles are more or less backseat drivers for the movie. Bridges looks like he’s having a good ol’ time as the bald and bearded Stane. Paltrow provides some nice chemistry as Potts and Howard, while given not much to do, does it well at least.

This turned out to be a huge fanboy chubby-inducing blockbuster of a film. It accomplished nearly everything it set out to do, creating a huge universe for filmmakers to play in – one that has been expanded upon with every succeeding film. They’ve also set the quality bar very high, one which has been at least approached if not met with all the other films that Marvel Studios has released since (not including the Ghost Rider films – sorry Nic). This is a favorite that holds up well even after all the other films that have since seen the light of day. It all started here and it’s worth going back to the beginning once in awhile to see how far you’ve come.

WHY RENT THIS: Kick-started Marvel Studios into becoming one of the industry’s big players. Elevated both Downey and Favreau’s career.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Final battle between Iron Man and Iron Monger kind of anti-climactic.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is plenty of action which of course means violence – some of it on the ugly side. There are also some suggestive situations. Tony Stark is a playboy billionaire after all.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The sound used during a target lock on Iron Man’s Head Up Display is the sound of a laser cannon firing in the original Space Invaders arcade game.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s a look at the history of the Iron Man comics, as well as some rehearsal and audition footage. There’s also a hysterical piece from the Onion News network about the adaptation of the Iron Man trailer into a feature length film. The Blu-Ray edition also has a “Hall of Armor” that examines the various iterations of the armor complete with 360 degree rendering.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $585.2M on a $140M production budget; the movie was a great big hit!

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Spider-Man

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Craigslist Joe

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

Top 5 Movie Superheroes That Didn’t Start Out in Comic Books


MegaMind is something of an homage to the superhero comic books that are as indelible a part of the American landscape as the Super Bowl and Disney World. Of late, the movies have picked up on the viability of the great superhero characters, from Marvel (Iron Man, Spider-Man, X-Men) to DC (Batman, Superman) and the independents (Hellboy, Kick-Ass). They’ve even gotten into the act of creating their own superheroes, some of which have had comic books created for them. Here are the best of them.

HONORABLE MENTION

Captain Zoom (Tim Allen) in Zoom (2006) didn’t benefit from being in a really good movie, but that’s the breaks. While the movie is a forgettable mess, the character had a good deal of potential as a kind of cross between The Flash and a kind of alcoholic, broken-down Yoda. Allen did his best here and in a better movie, Captain Zoom would have rocked. The Strobe (Thomas Haden Church) wasn’t the most likable hero you’ll ever find, not even among his own group, The Specials (2000) but he still had something likable about him. This low-budget movie about heroes who weren’t on the A-list was barely seen, either theatrically or even on cable but it deserved a better fate. More soap opera than superhero film, it was more of a study of life in the limelight more than a special effects extravaganza which might be why audiences stayed away. Finally, while not strictly about a superhero, Jingle All the Way (1996) contains Turbo Man, a TV superhero whose action figure became the center of attention for Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sinbad. Arnold even got to try the suit with all of its nifty gadgets. While played strictly for laughs, there weren’t very many of those as it turned out.

5. CAPTAIN EXCELLENT, PAPER MAN (2009)

Captain Excellent, played by soon-to-be superhero expert Ryan Reynolds, acts as more of a conscience for writer Jeff Daniels in this indie comedy. While his superpowers are essentially undefined, Excellent appears from time to time to counsel Daniels who is pretty much falling apart in real life. It’s an interesting role and an offbeat use for a costumed hero; quite frankly, I thought it quirky enough to make the list.

4. SHARKBOY, LAVAGIRL, THE ADVENTURES OF SHARKBOY AND LAVAGIRL (2005) 

Robert Rodriguez has become rather adept at CGI-heavy kid films like Spy Kids and this superhero adventure, which features pre-teen heroes shepherding a daydreamer of a boy to a far out world. The dream world sequences were filmed in 3D while the real world sequences were presented in regular 2D, which meant that audiences were taking off and putting on their 3D glasses throughout the movie which was a bit of a drag. However, Sharkboy was played by a pre-Twilight Taylor Lautner which by itself may have plenty of pre-teen girls scrambling to order this on Netflix.  

3. MEGAMIND, MEGAMIND (2010)

 It’s unusual for me to include a movie I just reviewed in the Top 5, but MegaMind is such a great character there was no point in excluding him. Of course, he also has a death ray pointed at my skull at the moment, so that might also have something to do with it. In any case, this is a hero who we can all relate to; someone who has been put down and pushed around all his life to the point where he just gives up on being liked. It is only when he is forced to find his inner hero that he discovers he is a hero for all of us. This may well turn out to be the best animated movie of the year.

2. THE COMMANDER, SKY HIGH (2005) 

Kurt Russell going back to his early Disney movies was always adept at playing the hero; giving him superpowers was a masterstroke of an idea. In this teen comedy, he is the most famous hero there is, married to a beautiful super-heroine and father to a son who may eclipse the accomplishments of his parents, but on whom the pressure has become so great that he can’t perform. This was meant to become a Disney Channel series but the movie never really generated enough revenue, so despite the terrific performance of Russell (and Lynda Carter as the school principal), this remains a movie that is all about what could have been.

1. THE INCREDIBLES, THE INCREDIBLES (2004)

I admit a soft spot in my heart for this movie, and many a fellow comic book fanboy knows why. This is a comic book superhero team done Pixar-style. It incorporates many elements of typical comic superhero teams, making them a family (very much influenced by the Fantastic Four) with an alpha male (Mr. Incredible, voiced by Craig T. Nelson), his wife Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) who ironically enough had Reed Richards’ superpower of super elasticity, their son speedy Dash (Spencer Fox) and force field-generating daughter Violet (Sarah Vowell). There are references to 60s spy movies as well as the comic book heroes of the 90s and before. It’s a terrific movie and the heroes are all heroes I’d follow in the comics, which really is the benchmark for any movie hero.