Endgame: New Nerd America

I was several weeks behind the curve when I finally caught Avengers: Endgame on the big screen. Thoroughly spoiled on which characters were going to die and filtered though several cycles of praise & backlash for its merits as either A. the greatest film of all time or B. just another superhero sequel, I was predisposed to a fairly lowkey moviegoing experience. Ultimately, I did have about the same reaction to it that I did with last year’s less-loved Avengers film, Infinity War: I was tickled by the components of the MCU that already tend to tickle me and bored with the characters & storylines that always tend to bore me. That high-floor/low-ceiling quality of this series leaves a lot of room for the mind to wander, especially when stretched out over a three-hour downer of an “action” film that is very light on action. What I couldn’t stop thinking about throughout Endgame was how inconceivably popular it is, and profitable. Making over a billion dollars in its first weekend and still packed to the walls in our spacious Faux-Max theater many weeks into its run, Endgame is a mind-bogglingly popular film – one that’s even gunning to become the #1 box office earner of all time. How, then, is it possible that what was playing out on the screen in front of me was so deeply, incurably nerdy?

It wouldn’t really be going out on a limb to suggest that nerds have won the culture war. Considering the regularity with which the box office is dominated by superhero flicks, Star Wars sequels, and all other Disney-owned properties within that spectrum, it’s been clear for years that nerd culture is popular culture. You can no longer infer any general characteristics of a person who says they’re “such a nerd” because they’re into Marvel superheroes or Star Wars. Everyone is into Marvel & Star Wars to some degree. They’re the foundational pillars of our Disney-owned monoculture. Still, there was something uniquely extreme about Avengers: Endgame that felt like the arrival of a new paradigm in modern pop media. I was no longer sharing theater space with moviegoers who were being slowly, gradually indoctrinated into watching “nerd-ass shit” by way of handsome movie stars delivering snarky one-liners to reinforce how above-it-all & non-nerdy the characters & creators actually are. I was in the deep end. Endgame is a very long, deeply sincere film where the (supposedly) relatable smartass of the group that holds audiences’ hands with nerdery-deflating jokes dies onscreen and you’re supposed to cry over the loss. I got the distinct sense during our screening that I was now sharing theater space with a New Nerd America. The snarky training wheels are off. Our transformation is complete.

It’s not just that Endgame is long or overly serious, either. It’s also that it follows a complex sci-fi plot most audiences would balk at if it were in service of an original property. This is a time travel film in which several teams of costumed superheroes travel through distant times & places throughout the galaxy to retrieve the Infinity McGuffins necessary to undo their failure from the last nerdgasm. All the usual time travel paradoxes from sci-fi nerdery past arise during this mission – including the implication that their actions could be creating alternate timelines throughout Avengers history (that, of course, can be dealt with in future adventure$ on platform$ like Di$ney+). A few dismissive, smartass jokes about the absurdity of the heroes’ “time heist” reassure the audience that what we’re watching is still Cool & With it, but for the most part it’s treated like a dead-serious genocide prevention mission staged across the vast nerdiness of space-time – one that’s largely met with genuine, heartfelt tears from its loyal, global audience. What’s especially bizarre about that reaction is that it’s evoked by scenes from the audiences’ own indoctrination into the New Nerd America paradigm. When the Avengers time-travel back to their Infinity McGuffin-encrusted past, they’re also traveling to the milestones of the monoculture’s gradual nerd transformation, fully displaying how far we’ve come in the ten years of MCU culture domination.

Sequels that time-travel back to their previous installments to observe & alter their own lore aren’t an entirely new plot phenomenon. It’s been done before in Back to the Future II, Terminator: Genisys, Happy Death Day 2U, and probably several others I can’t name offhand because I’m just not nerd enough. What’s different here is that Endgame has twenty-one pervious films in its own franchise it can choose to revisit, an oceanic wealth of #content. Revisiting those past franchise entries, especially the first Avengers team-up from 2012, is a stark reminder of how far off the nerd-culture deep end America has truly gone. This is a time-travel sci-fi picture where superheroes square off against their own doppelgangers in a world-threatening conflict you have to watch nearly two dozen previous pictures of homework before you can fully understand. It sounds exhausting in the abstract, but so many people have kept up with the series so gradually that we hardly had time to step back and consider just how elaborate & convoluted it has become. It’s an engagement with pop media that has become common in the American household: binging on over fifty hours of a single story (usually on television) to keep up with talk at the watercooler, even in instances when you’re told that the story only “gets good” after the first twenty hours or so. I’m not the first person to compare Marvel movies to television, but it definitely wasn’t lost on me that at the exact same time this film was eating up the nations’ screen-space at the theater, the same audience was ravenously digesting the swords-and-dragons show Game of Thornes at home, over seventy hours into its run. Nerds.

I mostly enjoyed the experience of watching Avengers: Endgame. I can’t match the emotion or enthusiasm of Boomer’s five-star review, but it was pretty alright. I also enjoyed the twenty-first Marvel film that preceded it – another sci-fi action film titled Captain Marvel – which is so recent that it’s still playing in theaters simultaneous to Endgame. I also stayed after the credits of this three-hour epic that I kinda-sorta liked to watch a spoiler-loaded advertisement for its next follow-up, Spiderman: European Vacation, out this summer. I don’t know, I guess you could say I’m a total nerd that way. Or, more accurately, you could say that I’m a totally average, unexceptional American consumer, just counting down the days until our official form of currency is converted to Disney Dollars. The culture war may have been lost a long time ago, but Endgame has offered its casualties a rare opportunity to step back & observe how nerdy we’ve become, like live frogs gradually being brought to a boil.

-Brandon Ledet

Avengers: Endgame (2019)

Oh boy oh boy oh boy! It’s here! It’s finally here! We’re in the Endgame now. All good things must come to an end, after all.

Speaking of all good things, remember how that was the title of the series finale for Star Trek: The Next Generation? And how that episode showed our dearly beloved Captain Picard visiting the past and the future, solving a mystery that spanned decades and giving the audience a chance to revisit where that series had started and where it could go in the future, while also putting a nice little bow on the journey of Picard and his cohort? Going into Endgame, I had the same feeling, and as it turns out, this was intentional, going as far back as last March, when Marvel Films bigwig Kevin Feige cited “All Good Things … ” as an influence on this latest (last?) Avengers picture. So for once, I’m not just inserting a Star Trek reference where it doesn’t belong; it’s relevant.

Here there by spoilers! You have been warned! There’s virtually no way to talk about this movie without them, so saddle up buckaroos.

The film opens exactly as Infinity War ends, with Hawkeye/Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) at a family picnic teaching his daughter archery. He turns his back for a moment and looks back, only to find that his entire family has been raptured turned to ash as part of Thanos (Josh Brolin)’s stupid, stupid plan to end scarcity across the universe by killing half of all living things. (This is also the plan of Kodos the Executioner from the classic Star Trek episode “The Conscience of the King,” because you should know by now that you can’t trust me not to insert Star Trek references were they don’t belong from time to time as well.) Three weeks later, the devastated remains of the team, Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), and War Machine/Rhodey (Don Cheadle) are joined by the only surviving Guardian of the Galaxy, Rocket (Bradley Cooper) in their existential depression. Luckily, Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and his companion Nebula (Karen Gillan) are found in deep space by Captain Marvel/Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) just in time to prevent their suffocation, and she brings the two back to earth. With Nebula’s help, they locate Thanos’s little retirement farm and head straight there to retrieve the Infinity Stones and bring back everyone who was raptured dusted. When they get there, however, they learn that Thanos has already destroyed the Stones to prevent exactly this thing; Thor beheads the mad titan unceremoniously.

Five years later, people are still struggling. Struggling with depression, struggling with moving on. Cap goes to group counseling meetings. Natasha keeps the mechanisms of the Avengers in place, coordinating efforts to keep the peace, overseeing outreach and relief. Captain Marvel’s in deep space, helping the planets that don’t have the benefit of superheroes looking after them. Banner has managed to reconcile his two selves and lives full time as an intelligent Hulk. Tony has retired to a lakehouse with wife Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow) and adorable daughter Morgan. And Ant-Man/Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is still stuck in the Phantom Zone Quantum Realm until his equipment is accidentally reactivated, popping him back out into the regular world so that he can have a tearful reunion with now-teenage daughter Cassie (Emma Fuhrmann) and heads to Avengers headquarters, where he tells Cap and Natasha that it’s only been five hours for him, not years. With help from a hesitant Tony, the team works out how to use the Ant-Man equipment to stage an elaborate “time heist,” plucking the Infinity Stones out of time to recreate Thanos’s gauntlet and undo the damage he wrought. It’s “All Good Things … ”! But Marvel! And I cried! I really did!

You don’t need the ins and outs of how all this shakes out. There’s that Marvel house style of comedy that you’ve come to know and (probably) love, coupled with the emotional devastation that you would expect in a world where half of the population has disappeared. Clint’s taken on the Ronin persona from the comics (although this codename is never used on screen), tracking down and murdering criminals as the result of having no moral tether after the loss of his family. Scott’s headlong run across San Francisco to try and find his daughter only to discover a memorial to the lost, which he searches frantically in the hopes that her name won’t be there. Natasha puts on a brave face, but you can tell that she counts every life lost as red in her ledger (she clears every crimson drop by the end of the movie, and then some). An unnamed grief-stricken man in Cap’s support group recounts a first date with another man; they both break down in tears over the course of the evening, but this is the status quo now, so they’re seeing each other again (so, you know, the post-snap world isn’t all bad).

The time travel premise lets us revisit past events from new perspectives, which makes for a lot of fun to counterbalance all that drear. This includes contemporary smart Hulk having to act like his brutish past self, much to his embarrassment and consternation. Tony’s interactions with his daughter are adorable, and went a long way toward making him more relatable and likable, especially after I’ve been pretty anti-Iron Man for a while. One of the most moving parts of the movie also comes as a result of its comedic elements; we learn that the remaining refugees from Asgard have set up a “New Asgard,” where a broken Thor has retired and let himself go (he’s got pretty standard dad-bod, but the internet has reacted as if he looks like Pearl from Blade, just in case you were wondering if bodyshaming was still a thing). Once the heist kicks off, this means that Thor and Rocket have to travel to the time of Thor: The Dark World to get the Aether from Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), giving our favorite Asgardian hunk a chance to have an affirming heart-to-heart with his departed mother Frigga (Rene Russo), retroactively adding more depth to her character in a lovely way.

I’m burying the lede, though, since what really matters about all these time travel shenanigans is that we get to see Peggy (Hayley Atwell) again. PEGGY! As soon as there was a wrinkle in the time plan and they mentioned having to go back to the seventies, I knew where we were headed and could barely contain my excitement. If I remember nothing else from this movie on my deathbed, I will remember the thrill of seeing Peggy one last time (and then again). That doesn’t even include the fact that Tony gets to have a nice moment with his father (John Slattery), too, and that there are appearances from every character.

Look, this is the perfect capstone for this franchise. If there were never another MCU film, it would be totally fine, because as a finale, this is pitch perfect. Every important and semi-important character (other than Lupita Nyong’o’s Nakia, because she was presumably busy shooting Us) gets a moment to shine, as the Snap is undone (come on, you knew it would be). There’s even a moment where every living lady hero from the entire MCU is onscreen at once, and it is delightful, although I’m sure the internet is already full of comments about how it was “forced” or “cheesy,” but I don’t feed trolls and I try not to cross the bridges that they live under, so I wouldn’t know. But, as the people behind the MCU have noted, this is a finale, not the finale. We get to say our goodbyes to many of our favorites, but the future is in good hands with Falcon/Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) taking up the mantle and shield of Captain America, Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) taking her place as the new leader of the Asgardians in diaspora, and the possibility of future adventures of Pepper Potts as the heir apparent to Iron Man. The future is now, and it couldn’t be brighter.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

X-Men vs. The Avengers: Determining the Worst No-Stakes Offender

Avengers: Infinity War offers an interesting conundrum for a movie critic, as it defies consideration as an isolated piece of work. Overall, the film felt to me like the MCU in a microcosm; there were some aspects I really liked mixed with some I couldn’t care less about. Like with the MCU at large, I could’ve done without Stark & Strange, the CGI spectacle could be really numbing, and its absurd length felt paradoxically too short to fully serve its myriad of storylines & too long to maintain constant, undivided attention. The bizarre critical dilemma it presents is that it can’t be separated from the MCU at large at all. Not only does it represent both the highs & lows of its franchise, its impact is meaningless without 18 previous films informing its in-the-moment significance. Considering the merits of Infinity War as an isolated work of art would be like critically assessing a randomly selected episode of a soap opera, a single pro wrestling match from a months-long angle or, perhaps most appropriately, a mid-stream issue of a comic book series. It’s a tough thing to evaluate in isolation, as it’s built on a structure that requires both knowledge of its characters’ previous arcs and acceptance of its medium’s need to never truly wrap up a storyline. This type of storytelling’s endless self-propulsion requires always leaving a door open for The Next Big Show. The tagline for Infinity War is “An entire universe. Once and for all,” but we know as consumers that a more accurate descriptor would be “Once or thrice a year.” It’s difficult, then, to invest any emotional response in the film’s at-the-moment consequences, since they convey a kind of finality that we know will inevitably be undone in the next summer’s sequel(s). Adapting a comic book story structure to blockbuster cinema has created a never-ending franchise that can’t afford to introduce actual stakes to its everlasting gobstopper “plot.”

That’s not necessarily a bad ting, though. I love pro-wrestling. Millions of people watch soap operas every day. Comic books are at least popular enough to have justified this franchise’s launch in the first place. Like with consumers of all kinds of serialized storytelling, MCU fans are entering these films recognizing that their storylines can never fully reach a satisfying conclusion. At the very least, they can assume that the death of a major character who’s already scheduled to appear in an announced sequel will inevitably be reversed through supernatural shenanigans. There’s a surplus of dubious character deaths in Infinity War that anyone familiar enough with the film to be watching it as the 19th entry in a series is going to be skeptical of, if not outright dismissive. The one aspect of the film that helps distinguish it as an isolated work, however, is that it does not acknowledge that inevitable impermanence. It commits to its own tragic consequences by ending on a disaster of mass death & mayhem. All signals of an optimistic future for its doomed characters are extratextual, based entirely on those deranged Disney press conferences where the corporate bully claims future weekend release dates for their bottomless wealth of sequels planned centuries into the future. We can fully expect as an audience that Infinity War’s damage will be undone by the end of the next Avengers sequel, but the film ends without any indication of that impermanence. I mention this because I’ve seen plenty of comic book movies (both in the MCU and outside it) do the exact opposite in the past, to their own detriment. For instance, if Infinity War were an X-Men sequel, its mass death downer of a conclusion would have wrapped up tidily at the climax, then immediately been undone by a convenient, quick denouement. I know this because I’ve seen the X-Men movies do it more than once, most egregiously in its two most recent entries.

I’m about to vaguely spoil two recent-ish X-Men movies, but don’t worry; nothing really matters in that franchise. In just two pictures, X-Men has become the authority on the comic book Reset Button, assuring that its individual battles have no stakes in the context of franchise-wide storylines. The current trajectory of the X-Men series has been a decade-by-decade nostalgia trip. The prequel X-Men: First Class plays like a swanky 60s spy picture. Days of Future Past deals largely in 70s political thriller genre beats. Apocalypse functions as a Ready Player One-style indulgence in 1980s aesthetic. The next film on the docket will presumably push through to touch on 90s grunge or pogs or whatever. Even beyond these temporal divisions, X-Men movies typically feel more independent from each other than MCU entries, with each individual episode resetting the rotary dial for the next adventure to arrive with a mostly blank slate. The most backlash I’ve seen to this repeatedly mashed Reset Button plot structure was in the reaction to The Days of Future Past’s ending. Days is a sci-fi time travel movie that splits its efforts between a possible future reality and an alternate version of the past. The movie largely concerns preventing a grim future by nipping past evil in the bud, which the heroes inevitably accomplish to no one’s surprise. What was surprising is that, after victory, omnipresent series favorite Wolverine awakes in a timeline that ties together both the First Class prequels & the early 00s series that preceded them, undoing many major character deaths through an afterthought shrug of time travel shenanigans. I understand why this tidy conclusion rolled many viewers’ eyes when the film was first released, but I was personally much more annoyed by a smaller moment in the next picture. There’s a scene late in X-Men: Apocalypse where characters with mutant powers stand in an open field with their arms extended, palms open, while their destroyed home base magically reassembles itself. Every broken brick & board smoothly floats back to its proper assembly in a low-rent CGI spectacle, not an inch of the once-destroyed structure out of place or conveying damage. It’s maybe a 20 second clip, but there was something about its magical ease that really irked me. I’ve never seen the impermanence of consequence in comic book movie storytelling represented so succinctly in a single scene before or since.

For better or for worse, the massive, sustained success of the MCU means that more of this serialized blockbuster storytelling is on its way. I found myself watching a trailer for an upcoming Star Wars prequel this past weekend that ends on an action sequence cliffhanger teasing that Chewbacca may or may not die in the film. Everyone who’s ever seen any Star Wars movie before (read: everyone) knows that Chewbacca will not die in that prequel. That momentary crisis has no potential consequence in its larger series, but that’s just how these kinds of stories are told (including the old-timey radio serials Star Wars was originally inspired by). All we can do, if we’re going to continue to tune in for the next episodes in these ongoing series, is celebrate the examples that commit to their consequences in the moment. Avengers: Infinity War might not ultimately mean anything in the grand picture of individual characters’ fates, as it will likely be undone by its successor next summer. At least it committed to its own consequences, though, instead of undoing them on the spot. In X-Men: Infinity War, the mass character deaths would’ve been a climactic crisis immediately undone by the surviving superheroes standing in an open field, arms outstretched, putting their friends’ pieces back together again with their mysterious powers. I only mildly enjoyed Infinity War overall, the way I only moderately enjoy the MCU overall, while recognizing that there are individual elements I’m really into: Captain America, the Guardians of the Galaxy, Thor, Black Panther. I do respect that it didn’t reset its own consequences we know through extratextual means to be impermanent the way a more traditional comic book series entry would have. When I first reviewed X-Men: Apocalypse I asked, “What’s the point of any of this if it can all be fixed & rebuilt with the light shake of a CG Etch-a-Sketch?” By saving its own magical reset for a later date (which I’m sure was announced at a press conference five years ago), Infinity War sidestepped that annoyance completely, even if its in-the-long-run storytelling amounts to the same general effect as what’s undone in Apocalypse: no effect at all.

-Brandon Ledet

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

It’s hard to be anything other than cynical these days. Coming of age during the Bush Administration (how quaint our worries from those days seem now), then passing into the not-free-from-issues-but-generally-pretty-good halcyon days under Obama only to emerge into the rhetorical hellscape that is the current state of American affairs has left me in suspension between various states: hollowed out, terrified, and using humor as a form of non-violent resistance to oppression (check out Majken Jul Sorensen’s essay about the topic here, if you so desire). I find it pretty hard to garner much enthusiasm for anything of late; I’m certainly happier in my current city and living situation on a day-to-day basis than I’ve been for much of my life, but like Lisa Simpson in “Homer’s Triple Bypass,” I feel like all of the static and my own age have left me incapable of feeling either highs or lows. It’s unusual for me to be able to get myself hyped about anything, even something that I’m looking forward to, like the recent premiere of the second season of Westworld, or my own upcoming birthday. But I was excited about Avengers: Infinity War, especially with it coming so close on the heels of Black Panther, which was amazing. And after 18 films and ten years of lead-up, how could I not be? Maybe I was setting myself up for a disappointment right from the start.

Picking up almost immediately after the end of Thor: Ragnarok, Infinity War opens with Thanos and his hideous CGI minions aboard the Asgardian refugee ship. From there, we check in on each of the characters that we’ve come to know over the course of the past decade: the crew of the Milano are out and about doing good, bad, and a little bit of both; Dr. Strange is being a snarky snarkman; Tony Stark and Pepper Potts contemplate their upcoming nuptials and perhaps starting a family; Rhodey is holding down the fort at Avengers HQ while Vision and Scarlet Witch sneak away for a secret tryst, Montague/Capulet style; Cap, Falcon, and Black Widow are still fugitives from the law per their rejection of the Sikovian Accords; Bucky gets a new arm from T’Challa and Shuri; Peter Parker is on a field trip to MoMA. And then all hell breaks loose as Thanos’s various heralds show up to retrieve those blasted Infinity Stones.

I’m not going to spoil anything for you here, so that may mean this review is shorter than you’ve come to expect from the needlessly verbose windbag that I am. I’ll save all of that for the Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. discussion (I can hear poor Brandon‘s wrist bones creaking already, despite the next zine transcription being some time from now; sorry, buddy). There’s only so much you can discuss when you’re trying to avoid sharing any details, but I’ll try. I will say that a lot of people die in this movie. Like, so many more than you’re expecting. That number that you’re thinking of? Double it, then double it again. You think your favorite character is safe? Think again, buddy.

Not that this is a bad thing, necessarily. It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of these flicks and am a staunch defender of even those that some consider their missteps (I’ve long held that Iron Man 3 is the best of the three), although I’ve also been quick to criticize their racial or regressive issues (suffice it to say that I’m not a fan of Doctor Strange), but there are other legitimate problems that crop up over and over again. Eighteen of these films preceded Infinity War, and they almost all follow a similar formula. In 2/3rds of these, in fact, the conflict is all but identical: in Iron Man 1, 2, and 3, The Incredible Hulk, Thor and Thor: Ragnarok, Captain America, Doctor Strange, Ant-Man, Black Panther, Winter Soldier (to a certain extent), Spider-Man: Homecoming, and even Age of Ultron if you think of Ultron as a dark mirror of Tony all follow the same basic plot of “protagonist meets a dark reflection of himself and defeats him (or her, but only once).” The original Avengers and both Guardians films are more about opposition to an external invading force, with the inclusion of personal stakes, sure, but with a different kind of immediacy and intimacy as the whole “Obadiah/Winter Soldier/Yellowjacket/Mandarin/Vulture/whatever is me without a moral compass” element. I honestly can’t remember at all what The Dark World was about.

Obviously, that doesn’t mean that these movies are always formulaic or generic, as the uninformed armchair critic likes to claim: Winter Soldier is a seventies-style conspiracy thriller, Ant-Man is a heist flick, Homecoming is a John Hughes-style high school comedy, etc. A more legitimate criticism is that these films are usually lacking in stakes, as character death is often a misdirect (Loki’s multiple “deaths,” the fakeout death of Nick Fury in Winter Soldier) or otherwise undone (Bucky was revealed to have survived his apparent death in The First Avenger, Agent Coulson’s death in Avengers was undone in Agents of SHIELD); the only permanent deaths leading up to this film among protagonists has been the death of Quicksilver in Age of Ultron and the elderly Peggy’s death in Civil War. Infinity War seems to be attempting to course-correct, with the deaths of a lot of people, but only some seem more or less permanent, while others are so obviously temporary that it makes the whole thing seem . . . pointless.

The fact that this is a dark movie isn’t a problem, per se. There’s just something that feels . . . off. There’s been a sharp uptick in the outright comedy in this franchise ever since Guardians showed that the audience was hungry for that kind of mix of humor and action, and that’s been for the best overall, with Ragnarok and Homecoming both being very funny. But a lot of the jokes in this film don’t seem to land as well as in those films. I saw Infinity War late on Sunday night, so it wasn’t a packed theater, but even when there were obvious punchlines that would normally elicit at least a chuckle or two from the general audience, there was dead silence. Which isn’t to say that all the jokes missed; a lot of them were actually pretty strong. There’s also a lot more Doctor Strange in the film than one would expect, but that wasn’t a detraction for me either. All the hallmarks are here: the great interaction between characters that we’ve come to know so well over the past ten years, the action sequences to make every viewer’s inner child jump for joy, and the grouping of characters who have never interacted before coming together in a brand new calculus of characters playing against each other.

It’s hard to narrow down what exactly doesn’t work for me here, but there are a few things that I can point to as being problems. Thanos’s cronies are no fun, and every single one of them looks terrible. Only one of them is named onscreen (Ebony Maw), and perhaps not coincidentally, he’s the only one with any kind of real personality in his brief appearances. Two of the three others are on par with Justice League‘s Steppenwolf when it comes to character modeling, as they appear to have been rendered using some truly outdated technology (like, maybe two generations newer than what was used for Babylon 5), and the third, an ax-throwing hulk of a man, is so needlessly baroque that he resembles a Transformer. None of them have even the smidgen of personality afforded to even the most shallow Marvel villains we’ve seen so far, so although there are stakes on a large, intergalactic scale, it feels like our protagonists are fighting cardboard cutouts.

I can only guess that this issue is the result of editing the film down from a longer narrative, as this would explain quite a bit. For instance, when last we saw the purple stone, Starlord et al had left it in the care of the Nova Corps on Xandar; at the beginning of this film, Thanos already has it in his possession. Structurally speaking, it feels like too much of this film happens offscreen or in between cuts. The pacing of the movie works perfectly, however, so I must conclude that there was a choice between a movie that had good narrative flow and one in which all the relevant scenes were present, and the choice was made to jettison chunks of the story in order to maintain a better flow. That’s probably the right choice, but it still left me feeling unfulfilled when I left the theater. That’s not even getting into the complete irrationality of Thanos’s entire plan (killing half the universe “at random” to ensure that the other half has enough resources, which is some Malthusian nonsense on top of being illogical), or the fact that some characters get a “moment” but are still ill-served by having very little to do (Cap, Black Widow, and Falcon are notably absent for long periods and do little more than punch and shoot when they are on screen, despite being, you know, the Avengers).

I’m sure that future re-watches (especially at home, on a screen that’s smaller and thus better at hiding the flaws of bad computer imagery) will likely leave me with a more positive feeling (and I reserve the right to change my opinion at a later date), especially after the second half of this narrative is released next summer. For now, though, I just can’t bring myself to love this. It’s not because it’s a bummer; I think that was a good choice and I usually prefer that. It’s not because it’s popular, either; that’s never been a problem for me. Ultimately, the problem for me has nothing to do with what’s in the movie, but everything that it’s missing. Here’s hoping the next outing is something better.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X.: Avengers – Age of Ultron (2015)

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Superhero Watching: Alternating Marvel Perspectives, Fresh and Longterm, Ignoring X-Men, or S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X., is a feature in which Boomer (who reads superhero comics & is well versed in the MCU) & Brandon (who reads alternative comics & had, at the start of this project, seen less than 25% of the MCU’s output) revisit the films that make up the Marvel Cinematic Universe from the perspective of someone who knows what they’re talking about & someone who doesn’t have the slightest clue.

Boomer: Do you need a history of the Avengers sequel here? The first movie cast such a shadow that it was impossible to escape this film, even if you wanted to (and most people didn’t). Even when it was unclear whether or not director Joss Whedon would return to helm the second film, there were no other potential directors announced before he eventually acquiesced. By the time this movie came out, virtually every blog that is created and consumed by humans had talked about the upcoming film in extreme detail. Next time, when we talk about Ant-Man, there’ll be a lot of production history to discuss, as that film had a long and troubled road from inception to release, but not Age of Ultron. Let’s just get to it, shall we?

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threehalfstar

Brandon: When I first reviewed Age of Ultron last summer I had kinda marked it off as a breaking point for the MCU. I enjoyed the film very much as a loud, chaotic action film, but felt like it was stretching itself a little thin trying to please both people like me who (at the time) only casually checked in on the Marvel films every now & then and hardcore fans who had consumed all ten films, three television shows, several DVD-exclusive shorts, and untold amount of tie-in comic books worth of content that preceded it. Age of Ultron was enjoyable to an outsider, but it had to labor fairly heavily to get there & I felt like at some point the franchise would have to leave me behind if it wanted to keep already-established fans engaged in future films. In the past year I’ve since caught up with all of the preceding MCU films & a few of the comic books and it turns out Age of Ultron still feels a little overstuffed & compromised now that I’m somewhat in the know. It’s a sluggish, sprawling mess of an action film that stresses itself out trying to provide significant character beats for each of its many larger than life heroes while also juggling with the introduction of several new supervillains for them to thwart. In a lot of ways Age of Ultron repeats a lot of the highlights and downfalls of the first Avengers films. It’s fun & inspired in moments both big (a stunning slug-it-out fight between Iron Man & The Hulk) & small (the repeated gag with who can/cannot lift Thor’s hammer), but also labored in a way that’s impossible to ignore, especially in its overlong, stop & start exposition.

However, there is a new spark of inspiration at work in Age of Ultron that gives me great hope for where the MCU is headed as a franchise. Now that the individual introductions & character quirks for each Avenger member are out of the way, the series has made a little room for itself to go into unexplored territory beyond the basic novelty of seeing all of these superheroes function as a unit. This development comes twofold. The first & flashiest change afoot here is the breathing space the film allows for its eccentric villainy. James Spader is a total hoot as the titular Ultron, just devouring the scenery at every opportunity he gets (even as soon as his introduction as a disembodied voice). The second development is the very nature of Ultron as a form of artificial intelligence. Thus far, MCU movies have centered on very traditional superhero plots: origin stories, tales of revenge, moral crises over the very nature of heroism, etc. Captain America: The Winter Soldier & Thor 2: The Dark World both promised new lines of narrative with their respective experiments in political thriller & space epic plot lines, but Age of Ultron takes this adventurous genre play a step further. The film’s pedigree as modern A.I. sci-fi makes it surprisingly satisfying & unique as a modern superhero work (and as a result it ranked fairly high on our recent list of the best A.I. sci-fi titles of the 2010s). Age of Ultron may be a little messy in its attempts to juggle so many varied larger-than-life personalities & sidebar plot lines, but James Spader’s over-the-top performance as the central villain & the resulting A.I. sci-fi plot that surrounds him make the film at the very least an interesting, entertaining mess. It’s at least as good as the first Avengers film & promises that there’s even better work to come in the near future (I’m starting to get really stoked about Captain America: Civil War‘s imminent release, as I’m sure most people are).

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three star

Boomer: I’m never really sure where to start when talking about this one. Age of Ultron isn’t a bad movie. In actuality, it’s a pretty decent outing for a group of characters that people were losing their minds over the first time we saw them unite. I’d dare say it’s good, if not great. The cinematography is clean, the pacing moves swiftly and cleanly, and the likable characters are terribly likable while the unlikable characters are not.

Buuuuuuuut…. this movie bores me? Maybe “bores” is the wrong word; it’s more that the film just fails to really grab me? Although there are some tonal inconsistencies and narrative problems throughout, the same could be said of Avengers, and I still found that movie enjoyable in spite of its flaws. I’d even go so far as to say that this film might be technically better, but I don’t get the same thrill from it that I still get from the first one. Admittedly, it would have been virtually impossible to capture a second lightning bolt in this particular Marvel-shaped bottle regardless, but I still feel underwhelmed with each viewing. This was my third watch of the film (after seeing it in theatres and then again at Christmas), and this was probably the most rewarding watching experience, but does an Avengers flick need to be the kind of movie that takes multiple rewatches to be fully enjoyed? This isn’t Jacob’s Ladder or Primer that I’m talking about; it’s the eleventh movie in a franchise that walks the thin line between “media made for children” and “media aimed at adults,” a direct sequel to a movie that was so much fun we all willingly ignored the fact that its plot is pretty threadbare and that the villain’s motivations were utterly inexplicable. So how did a follow-up with more explicit character motivation and expanded personal stories for many of the heroes end up being so… blasé?

When Whedon finally announced that he would return to direct Age of Ultron, he said that it was because he “actually started to consider it [and] it became so clear that [he] desperately wanted to say more about these characters.” This is most evident in Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye, which is ironic given that the actor couldn’t stop putting his foot in his mouth during the press tour. Overall, the film garnered a mixed response among new media outlets: many people interpreted Black Widow’s line about being a monster, a declaration that came on the heels of the revelation that she was sterilized as part of her espionage training, to mean that she considered herself less than a woman because she could not have children (I don’t personally subscribe to this inference, but the placement of that line is unquestionably insensitive and poorly timed). And it’s no real surprise that Whedon got burnt out from working on the film, considering that he was trying to grow the mythology while also being beholden to the Marvel franchise at large. This was a pretty big contributing factor to his eventual departure from social media, which was solidified when people reacted angrily to his accusation that Chris Pratt’s character in the then-upcoming Jurassic World smacked of “seventies-era sexism” (an observation that turned out to be absolutely correct, for anyone keeping score at home).

But those are all things that aren’t specific to the film itself; so, what about the movie? Well… clocking in at 2.5 hours, there are still too many stories that feel unresolved. In my review of Batman v Superman, I mentioned the scene wherein Lois Lane has to retrieve a Kryptonite spear from a flooded building after throwing the damn thing into the water in the first place; both I and the friend with whom I saw the movie immediately referred to this as the “Riker Fights a Monster” moment, referencing RedLetterMedia’s Plinkett Review of Star Trek: Nemesis. In that film, there is a scene in which Jonathan Frakes’s character goes down into the bowels of the ship to fight Ron Perlman’s Nosferatu-esque Reman character for no other reason than to give Riker an irrelevant plot point; as “Harry Plinkett” points out, making a main character run off to engage in hand to hand combat with a monster simply to give that character something to do is a demonstration of utter failure to properly craft a story. The same thing happens here with Thor, who takes off from the Barton farm halfway through the movie to go submerge himself in some magic waters and have a mystical vision, for the sole purpose of getting him out of the way for a little while and providing Thor with the information needed to provide exposition about how the MacGuffins of the MCU are interconnected, even though we kind of already got that explanation from The Collector in Guardians. Because the film has to introduce three new Avengers but Thor is still on the team, he has to be sent off on an irrelevant side quest just to give him something to do.

I didn’t read any books written by men in 2015. The biggest reason for this is that, while I was reading Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe last January, I realized I was reading the fifth novel in a row that was about a relationship between fathers and sons, specifically one that was estranged. Like a lot of writers, I also have a strained relationship with my Pops, but I’m sick to death of having to see that narrative device in every piece of media that I consume. It’s been a central thematic element of most of the Marvel films, with Stark having to face off against his surrogate father in Iron Man and Iron Man 2 revolving around him having to finish his father’s work (with bonus daddy issues coming from a parallel story about Whiplash’s own dead father). Thor could have been subtitled “Odin is kind of a bad dad,” and the plot of Thor 2 is basically “Loki has daddy issues some more, and also there are evil elves.” Guardians of the Galaxy has both Nebula and Gamora rebelling against their “father” Thanos, and Star Lord’s father is mentioned several times, setting up more dad-focused shenanigans further down the line. The Incredible Hulk didn’t focus on the patriarch of the Banner family (although Ang Lee’s non-MCU Hulk certainly did), but it did milk drama from the relationship between Betty and General Ross. Even Ant-Man, which I really enjoyed, wrung most of its pathos from the parallel father-daughter relationships between the two Ant-Men and their respective offspring. The only movies that don’t have bad father-child relationships as a central element were the Captain America films. And, hey, I get that, I really do. Assuming that your parents were present in your life, the relationship that you have with them is the first and most formative relationship that you have; further, especially in God-haunted America, the relationship between fatherhood and the divine takes on such familial and social importance that one’s father is often one’s model for how they conceive God. I’m just saying that this is a metaphorical well that has been visited by storytellers so often that they’re hauling up buckets of dust at this point and trying to get us to drink it.

Age of Ultron takes this idea and cranks it up as high as it will go. Wanda and Pietro turned to Baron von Strucker and his experiments as a way of getting back at Stark for the death of their parents. The Barton family farm gives every character the opportunity to reflect on their own place in the world and whether or not that precludes them from starting families of their own: Banner and Widow have a heart-to-heart about how neither of them is biologically capable of starting a family (the idea of adopting, as is so often the case, never crosses anyone’s mind); Stark talks about building Pepper a farm, implying that he is thinking about continuing the Stark lineage (legitimately). Cap’s is a little more subtle, as we see him dreaming about the end of the war and being able to finally dance (and, by implication, settle down) with Peggy, a dream that can never be realized. Even Thor becomes a kind of father by the end, as his lightning gives life to Vision. But, of course, all of this pales in comparison to Ultron and his hatred for his “father,” Tony Stark. It’s thematically connected but ultimately feels hollow.

Where do I even begin with Ultron? For one thing, his design is terrible. The effects team did some excellent work making him look as good as he does, but he still doesn’t quite fit. The Iron Man suits are almost always CGI, but they work for me because they don’t have as many distracting details on them and they aren’t required to imitate real facial expressions; Ultron, on the other hand, has a stupid cartoon face that laughs and speaks and looks absurd. Combined with James Spader’s disarmingly likeable dialogue, this doesn’t work for me at all. I understand that Ultron wants to become more human (even if the film fails to properly explain why this is a goal for him), but he would have been more unsettling if his jokes and attempts to seem more affable had come from a less expressive face. When Ultron first interrupts the after-party at Avengers tower and gives his “I’m alive, father” speech to the gang while inhabiting a broken Iron Legion bot, he’s much more menacing in that moment than he is at any point later in the film, and that’s a problem; a villain should become more frightening as he goes from party-crasher to world-destroyer, but Ultron gets less creepy as the film goes on. If they weren’t going to keep him in a broken robot suit the whole time, the least that could be done would have been to make his face immobile to ramp up the uncanny valley factor.

On top of that, the film sells itself short by having Ultron move into full-blown extinction-event villainy almost immediately. Remember the scene from The Fifth Element in which Leeloo discovers the concept of “War” and briefly has a psychic break before returning to her mission with a renewed vigor? Age of Ultron would have benefited from downplaying Ultron’s maliciousness at the outset. For instance, he could have worked alongside Jarvis for a scene or two, maybe even helping to design the anti-Hulk “Veronica” system, which would have foreshadowed that Ultron would eventually work against the team. Then have him come to the conclusion (after having a Leeloo-like epiphany but with the opposite result) that the world would be better off without humans in general and the Avengers specifically, so that he goes rogue, kills Jarvis, and sets out on his own to unmake life as we know it. This would raise the emotional and thematic stakes without changing the plot all that much, while also making Stark look less foolish by having his “son” turn to evil eventually rather than instantaneously.

All that having been said, do I hate this movie? Not really. I actually enjoyed its mindless summer action flick elements, and I continued to laud the fact that the MCU heroes really are heroic in that they focus their attentions on saving people as much as they do on defeating villains. Compared to the mindless ultraviolence of, for instance, Man of Steel (and the petulantly sarcastic “good thing this island we’re utterly destroying is uninhabited” violence of follow-up BvS), Age of Ultron truly reflects the superheroic ideal in a way that other franchises fail to understand. The trailer for Civil War even shows that there were fewer than 200 casualties in this film, which is mind-boggling, given that an entire city is obliterated in the climax. The action scenes are fun, even if there are so many that the excitement is diluted and diminished (the Iron Man versus Hulk fight is narratively justified but could have been excised with few changes). I also like that the film takes the time to remind us that Tony Stark is a real asshole, and that the character growth he’s experienced over the course of the franchise hasn’t absolved him of the guilt of his past (as evidenced by his recognition of a notable black market arms dealer and the fact that the Maximoffs were orphaned as a result of his company’s war profiteering) or of his pathological egomania (as seen in his accidental creation of what is essentially Skynet and his willful refusal to destroy the experiment that would become Vision, despite all available evidence at the time indicating that this was the best course of action).

Still, the spectacle doesn’t make up for the looseness of the plot this time around, and the film’s thematic focus on progeny and responsibility is neither as strong nor as clever as it tries to be. It’s the quintessential example of a sequel that reduces its narrative world rather than enriches it. It’s a recommended watch, but not a required one.

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Lagniappe

Brandon: I’m giving a lot of credit to the character of Ultron here for what makes this film so entertaining as a work of superhero-themed A.I. sci-fi, but Ultron’s philosophical counterpoint Vision is just as fascinating. I know both Ultron & Vision are both inorganic lifeforms entirely dedicated to their respective good & evil plots to “save” the world (Ultron’s Murder Everyone policy is particularly inventive in that regard), but what strikes me most about these two characters is their off-putting sexuality. James Spader has always been something of a creepy sex symbol throughout his career & even though he appears here mostly as a voice, his work as Ultron is no different, so no surprise there, really. What’s really off-putting is the sex vibes I get from his heroic opposite Vision. Vision is creepily sexual in a way that a subtly flirtatious yoga instructor or an enigmatic cult leader would be and it makes me simultaneously super fascinated & super uncomfortable watching him at work. It’s highly probable that this is all in my head, but I still think it was a reaction worth mentioning.

Boomer: As much as I cited the problematic over reliance upon father-child relationship clichés, it is worth pointing out that this is, to my knowledge, the first and only time that anything created by Joss Whedon has a good father archetype. From Buffy (in which literally every single character’s father was either not present, abusive, or both) to Toy Story (in which Andy’s father is notably absent), Joss Whedon has a the same hard-on for bad fathers that Jonathan Safran Foer has for fatherhood in general. Arguably, Fred’s dad on Angel was decent, but Hawkeye is the first good, relevant father that we have ever had in a Whedonverse product.

On a more random note, non-comics character Helen Cho feels like an attempt to fix the comics-to-screen adaptation of Kavita Rao, who was created by Whedon during his Astonishing X-Men run and who was unfortunately ruined by her appearance in Fox’s X-Men: The Last Stand.

I’d also like to point out that I really like Vision. He’s a favorite character of mine from the comics because he’s just such a total weirdo. For those who don’t read the comics, Vision’s neural patterns were based on those of fellow Avenger Wonder Man (who has no analog in the MCU, possibly because he was excised from The Ultimates); when Coulson was killed in the first Avengers film, my theory was that they would bring him back by using his mind as the basis for Vision. I’m not saying that my idea was better, but… okay, I am saying that. Still, I appreciate that the MCU has brought on such a bizarre comic character and I have to admit that I’m really looking forward to seeing what they do with him. I also like that they slyly alluded to his comic-book relationship with Scarlet Witch, with Ultron saying early in the film that she needs something different from/more than a man, and with Elizabeth Olson’s reaction to seeing Vision for the first time (her face basically says “Oh, my, yes”).

Of course, even more than Vision, I love Wanda. She’s a notoriously difficult character to get right, and even though the movie makes some changes for the worse (divesting both Pietro and Wanda of their Roma heritage and instead making them generically Eastern European is unnecessary and insulting, especially considering that you can count the number of Roma comics characters on one hand), her characterization is pretty neat. The Ultimates version of the twins was awful, and the dumbed-down nature of X-Men Evolution meant that she was turned into a pretty generic goth girl with issues, a la Nancy in The Craft. My favorite non-comics version of her is probably from the all-too-brief Wolverine and the X-Men cartoon from five or so years ago; pairing her off on adventures with Nightcrawler made sense thematically (given both character’s connections to the Roma) and making her an ambassador for Genosha allowed her to be involved without making her a part of the team.

As for how this film fits into the wider MCU, we haven’t quite gotten to see the ramifications of these events inform the growth of the franchise in quite the same way as, for instance, the events of Winter Soldier did. When that film was released, it had an immediate and apparent impact on other films, taking away the S.H.I.E.L.D. support system that the characters and the audience had come to rely upon and making Hydra a real threat in the present. This had an obvious and instantaneous effect on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., finally refining that program into something worth watching. How does Ultron tie into the program this time around? An off-the-books project is referenced many times throughout the second season, a project so secret that it causes dissension in the ranks (when Ming Na’s Agent May finds out what it is, a few weeks before the audience does, she seems pretty pissed). The big surprise is that this secret project is actually the new helicarrier that is used to rescue the fleeing Sokovians at the end of Ultron, which doesn’t make sense given what Agents showed us and is completely irrelevant to viewers who only follow the films and don’t care about the shows. Ignoring that, it looks like the events of this film will be important in the upcoming Civil War, so that’s something to look forward to. And, of course, we can expect to see more of Andy Serkis’s character when the Black Panther finally gets involved.

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 Combined S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. Rating for Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

three star

-Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

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threehalfstar

At this point in the evolution of the MCU, there are nearly a dozen (!!!) films, three television shows, several DVD-exclusive shorts, and an untold amount of tie-in comic books worth of content. Holy shit, that’s daunting. Honestly, I’m just not the right kind of comic book dork to find that amount of MCU content exciting. If there were a Fantagraphics Cinematic Universe you could bet I’d be at the theater for every new release, but that much Marvel content sounds more like work than play to me. Of the eleven MCU films released so far I’ve seen exactly three: Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Avengers: Age of Ultron. To me, the draw of tuning in for these films was that they felt like a highlight reel instead of having to watch all MCU content, which at this point would take days on end.

This approach worked out fairly well with the first Avengers film, which had only(!!!) five preceding films of build-up, whereas I had felt totally left behind at the beginning of its sequel, Age of Ultron. Starting with an in medias res action sequence in the snow and quickly followed by some sciencey montages & well-needed (I’m guessing) R&R, the Avengers team had now left me, the casual viewer, far behind and was struggled for a near 40-min stretch to me back to the table. It took almost the entire first third of the film for me to get invested in the story while all the loud things were going boom, but once I was brought up to speed, I was just as on-board as any other giddy child in the theater. For what it’s worth, I think the exact moment was sometime around when Iron Man was trying to punch The Hulk to sleep or maybe only a few minutes before.

Once Age of Ultron gets rolling on its own merit, disconnected from its place in the MCU, it’s a fairly exciting action spectacle. Cities are destroyed, superhumans run around doing their superhuman things, good triumphs over evil, etc. I just wish it didn’t take so long to get there. The MVPs of distinguishing this movie from its MCU brethren are the newest characters. Not the genetically modified twins introduced in the opening scenes, but the man-made characters that come later in the film, Vision & Ultron. Especially Ultron. As the title hints, the film doesn’t really stand out on its own until Ultron hijacks the plot from the ten preceding movies. He’s such an arrestingly odd, smarmy villain, expertly voiced by James Spader, that he makes all the work that it took to get to him feel worthwhile.

Despite the shaky start, I eventually found myself giving into Age of Ultron’s ridiculous spectacle and even had a few moments where I completely nerded out (particularly in a well-teased moment involving Thor’s hammer) and felt like part of the participatory audience. I’m just wondering how long Marvel can keep pulling off this trick for the casual viewer. According to their current release schedule, Avengers 3 will have at least sixteen films preceding it. Avengers 4 is likely to have nearly two dozen. If it already takes 40min of exposition to rope the casual viewer into these film’s storylines, I’m wondering if they can even continue to take us along at all or if they’ll (smartly) choose to leave us behind.

-Brandon Ledet