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

Arrival (2016)

fourstar

I was very shaky on Arrival’s merits as high concept sci-fi until its third act revelations & narrative upendings completely turned me around on how I was thinking about the story it was telling. As such, it’s difficult to discuss the film’s successes without diving headfirst into spoilers, which is something I’d like to avoid in this review if possible. Arrival is a film about two species, human and alien, learning to communicate with one another by the gradual process of establishing common ground between their two disparate languages. Similarly, the film has to teach its audience how to understand what they’re watching and exactly what’s being communicated. It’s often said that movies are about the journey, not the destination, a (cliché) sentiment I’d typically tend to agree with, but so much of Arrival‘s value as a work of art hinges on its concluding half hour that its destination matters just as much, if not more than the effort it takes to get there. This is a story told through cyclical, circular, paradoxical logic, a structure that’s announced from scene one, but doesn’t become clear until minutes before the end credits and can’t be fully understood until at least a second viewing. Whether or not you’ll be interested in that proposition depends largely on your patience for that kind of non-traditional, non-linear payoff in your cinematic entertainment.

My initial complaints about Arrival‘s narrative shortcomings are fairly indicative of how I feel about high-concept sci-fi cinema as a whole. With a lot of hard sci-fi, Big Ideas are given prominence while smaller, more personal emotions take an unfortunate back seat. In an ideal sci-fi work, something like Ex Machina or Midnight Special, those two ends meet a well-balanced compromise. Arrival struggles to find that compromise, opening with a world-class linguist (played by a wonderfully measured & muted Amy Adams) as she recounts the loss of a child & the monotony of an academic life lived alone, but not taking the time to live in those moments & make their emotional impact count for something. The familial drama at the film’s center is conveyed through an impressionistic set of Tree of Life-type imagery & brief conversational snippets, a preview of the worst information dump stretches of the film’s eventual alien invasion plot that finds Adams’s protagonist at the center of a potentially world-ending interplanetary negotiation. The way narrative information is conveyed in Arrival is often cold & blatantly utilitarian, at one point even spelled out in a narrated monologue that completely disrupts the flow of its storytelling rhythm. The film is much more interested in the global implications of an alien invasion (within which it’s much less realistic than a Godzilla film from this year of all things, in how it depicts America’s involvement in such a crisis) and the tensions between military & academia in its problem-solving strategies than it is depicting the smaller scale personal impact that would make these tensions resonate with any significance. Any and all personal drama within Arrival, no matter how traumatic, exists only to serve the weirder turns the plot takes in its mind-bending second half. It’s a good thing that the ideas they serve in the film’s gloriously strange conclusion are so interesting that their emotionless delivery in the front end doesn’t matter in the slightest.

I’m typically a style over substance audience when it comes to movies, especially sci-fi, so a lot of Arrival wasn’t my usual mode of genre filmmaking. Until the film pushes its narrative into the loopy, paradoxical territory of its glorious third act, it mostly just reminded me of The Martian: a reasonably entertaining story of scientific problem-solving with more in-the-moment significance than ideas worth chewing over long-term. I was very much struck by the film’s design of the alien species and their vaguely egg-shaped ships, which had a kind of 2001 monolith vibe in their clean lines & oppressive grandeur. The film would have been perfectly admirable as a The Day the Earth Stood Still-style parable about humanity’s potentially aggressive response to alien contact had it remained a straightforward story, but it thankfully expands into something much stranger & much more unique. Arrival is above all else a story about the power of language, how it is the first weapon drawn in a conflict, how learning a new one can rewire your brain to think differently. Once you learn the film’s own language, you start to understand that it was never a straightforward story to begin with, that it was always just as strange as the places it eventually takes you in its final act. This rewiring of audience perception takes a little patience before it reaches a significant payoff and it’s one I expect is better appreciated when experienced rather than explained. Director Denis Villeneuve tried to do something similar with the surreal conclusion of his film Enemy, another work that plays with his audience’s linear perception of storytelling, but I think he’s much more successful in pulling off the trick in Arrival. For all of my early misgivings about the film’s emotionless information dumps & preferences for big ideas over small character moments (despite the best efforts of Adams & other capable actors like Michael Stuhlbarg, Forrest Whitaker, and Jeremy Renner), the weird dream logic surrealism and paradoxical reality-shifting of the final act makes all of those complaints entirely worthless. The truth is that the film & I just started off speaking different languages and it’s value as a work of high-concept sci-fi storytelling was lost in translation until we found common ground. I’m very much eager to give it a second look now that I know how to communicate with its more outlandish ideas in a less-linear, less literal fashion.

-Brandon Ledet

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.

Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X.: The Avengers (2012)

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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: The Avengers was always one of Kevin Feige’s goals. Audacious and ambitious, when Feige started conceptualizing the greater Marvel Cinematic Universe his intention was to create a crossover film that united characters originally featured in individual films, mirroring the character/team dichotomy that permeates superhero comics. As such, a great deal of the history of the Avengers film project is really the history of the MCU up to this point, which has been discussed in our previous posts.

Casting for the film began in 2010, with Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye being cast far enough in advance that Kenneth Branagh was able to insert an early cameo from him into Thor in 2011. Marvel’s official story is that they “declined” to have Ed Norton return as Bruce Banner, whereas Norton has claimed that he never intended to return to the role after the 2008 The Hulk flick, as he “wanted more diversity” in his career. His role was recast with Mark Ruffalo. The only other major addition to the ensemble was Cobie Smulders, who was cast in the role of Maria Hill. Hill is well-known to comic book fans as the sometime director of S.H.I.E.L.D., and she was a key player in Marvel’s then-recent Secret Invasion storyline. As a result, her casing fueled fan theory that her casting was an indication that the metamorphic Skrulls would be the primary antagonists in the film, especially when the Chitauri (who essentially stand in for the Skrulls under Marvel’s Ultimate imprint) were announced as well; ultimately, these theories were proven incorrect. Other than the six Avengers themselves, the film also featured the return of Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts and Paul Bettany’s Jarvis from the Iron Man flicks and Stellan Skarsgård’s Erik Selvig and Tom Hiddleston’s Loki from Thor. Clark Gregg also reprised his role as Agent Coulson, and Samuel L. Jackson is featured as Director Nick Fury.

Early story work was completed by Zak Penn, who also contributed to the story for the excellent X2 and co-wrote the screenplay for the abysmal X3; the script was rewritten by Joss Whedon when he was brought on board to direct. There’s no need to explain who Whedon is, right? There are probably sea mollusks out there that are sick of hearing about the Cancellation of Firefly like it was an actual battle that was lost. Still, Whedon’s experience as a director as well as a purveyor of superhero yarns (his run on Astonishing X-Men was particularly good, although I didn’t care for his work on Runaways) made him the perfect fit for bringing the Avengers to celluloid life. Composer Alan Silvestri so impressed Marvel Studios with his composition for Captain America that he was brought back to score this film as well.

But enough about the seeds of the franchise. Brandon, what did you think?

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threehalfstar
Brandon: Finally, an MCU film I’ve actually seen before! When I went to the theater to see The Avengers in 2012 I was aware of its individual characters’ basic attributes, but a little lost as to what exactly was happening in the film plot-wise until about halfway into its massive runtime. The funny thing is that now that I’ve watched all five standalone films that have lead up to this crossover effort, I still found myself somewhat lost. The Avengers is the beginning of the MCU’s descent into full-blown Infinity Stone, MacGuffin-chasing nonsense. The film’s opening sequence feels like the ending of a nondescript action film that just happens to include a magic scepter and a “tesseract”. It’s a pretty clever idea to throw the film’s in-the-know audience into just as much of a confused state as those who just happened to wander into the universe for the first time, but the film’s central Infinity Stone caper is not nearly as much of a draw as the thrill of seeing six wildly varied superheroes share top billing in a single feature, so it feels a bit like wasted time. And once the film sets up its stolen tesseract conflict, it then takes way too much time to re-introduce each of the film’s disparate heroes & bring them together as a single unit. I had a lot of fun with going into an IMAX 3D screening of The Avengers completely blind of context in 2012, but returning to the film fully-informed (movie-wise, anyway) dampened my enthusiasm a good deal. It’s still a fun, crowd-pleasing action film, to be sure, but I think the effort required to get to its gang’s-all-here charm rolling reveals itself to be a little more labored on repeat viewings.

That being said, there are at least two scenes in The Avengers that rank among the best moments in superhero cinema of all time. I’m thinking, firstly, of the scene where the pissant god Loki’s evil scepter causes all six Avengers & (released from his post-credits stinger prison) Nick Fury to bicker in a slowly ratcheted moment of bitter discontent. It’s a well-played moment that sets up how a group of inflated superegos would have a near-impossible time working together as a unit. That scene functions as a set-up for the much more obvious centerpiece: the climactic battle with the alien robot army that destroys an entire metropolis. I don’t really have much to say about the film’s concluding action sequence other than it’s a grand spectacle of fist-pumping action that might be one of the single most fun to watch half hour stretches in the history of superheroes on film. I have no doubt that the reason I left the theater so satisfied in 2012 is that the spectacle of that Battle for the Fate of the Universe completely obliterated any concerns about the labor it took to get there. I was probably also less bored with the film’s individual introductions to the characters & the concept of Infinity Stones on that first go-round, since I feel now like I already put in that effort in the 10 hours of media leading up to that point. Still, I’m entirely grateful for the isolated moments of excellence that The Avengers delivers on its own time, not to mention some wonderful character beats for my favorite duo within the franchise so far (Black Widow & Captain America) and a fantastic revision of a character who simply did not work the first time around (The Hulk). I’ll just be more likely to return to those moments as isolated scenes in the future instead of watching the film as a whole, unless it’s as background noise. The Avengers is one of those movies I can see working best as something you can drift in and out of, maybe while channel surfing or housecleaning or something along those lines.

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fivestar

Boomer: It’s been three-and-a-half years (and roughly 7,283 thinkpieces of varying insight and coherence about whether or not Joss Whedon’s body of work is sufficiently feminist or hopelessly static and outdated) since a group of friends and I went to see The Avengers after a long and trying semester. There was some concern that the film would be bloated or an overall mess. While there’s certainly a case to be made that Age of Ultron would realize those concerns three summers later, I find myself drawn in by Whedon’s first MCU outing every time I watch it, despite the number of times that I have seen it. Between the whip-smart dialogue, the extended but imaginative action set-pieces, and the undeniable cool of seeing super-powered characters come together and coalesce into a united, if volatile, front, there’s so much to enjoy about the film that even the most cantankerous of critics found it hard to commit to panning the movie.

The Avengers is a fun ride, and although the Battle of New York—as the final action sequence would come to be called in later MCU media—admittedly experienced a series of diminishing returns, most of the myriad of other high-octane set-pieces were genuinely thrilling and engaging. It was a smart move to start the film with an action sequence that was largely Avenger-free and which instead focused on Fury, Coulson, and Maria Hill before following that up with a series of smaller scenes that reintroduce each of the key players with varying degrees of bombasity. Other checkmarks in the “good idea” column include the decision to have characters express reluctance and hesitance to commit to the idea of a full-on superhero team, and to introduce the seeds of discord early on. As a result, when the temporary falling out occurs at the end of Act Two, it feels properly earned and not as forced as it so easily could have.

As a writer, Whedon has always had a talent for drafting dialogue and characterization that is at once clever, observational, and occasionally devastating. Jeremy Renner isn’t given much to do in this first flick as he spends most of the film under the brainwashed control of Loki’s staff, but the other Avengers work well here. In particular, Tony Stark improves a great deal as a character under the direction of Whedon, as his dialogue, while still pompous, is less obnoxious in all its crackling Buffy-esque witticism than when other writers have put words in his mouth. Chris Hemsworth’s Thor gets in some good lines as well (the reference to the bilgesnipe is a favorite of mine despite its brevity, as it’s totally wacky while remaining oddly conversational), and Evans gets to show more dimensions to Cap, now a man out of time. Evans’s performance is particularly strong, but, for my money, Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha is the MVP here, not that it should be any surprise that Whedon would expand her role significantly from her previous appearance in Iron Man 2.

Throughout the film, Romanoff is surrounded by men who project assumptions onto her: the Russians she is “interrogating” in her first scene see her only as an object of sexual scorn, using derogatory and charged language; Banner initially underestimates her strength and resolve; Loki spits insults at her, concluding that her investment in saving her friend is purely the result of pathetic romantic attachment. In every instance, these assumptions are false, and Black Widow uses these misogynistic and presumptive attitudes against the antagonists at every turn. Despite some well-choreographed ass-kicking in her last appearance, Natasha was still mostly played for the male gaze (potentially an inevitable consequence of appearing in an Iron Man film); here, she’s an extremely competent agent who is so skilled that she doesn’t seem out of place as a team-member alongside supersoldiers and literal gods. And, like Buffy before her, Nat is not an “strong female character” in the sense that she is an emotionless and implacable badass–she gets hurt, experiences doubt, mourns her comrades, and is forced to fight her closest friend. She doesn’t have to be coded as a male character, and it’s just grand.

Overall, The Avengers is an ambitious but well-suited capstone to the first phase of the MCU. It expands a lot from here, as Phase Two would include not only six films but two network television series (it’s not clear where Daredevil and Jessica Jones fit into the “phase” structure, if they fit in at all) over the following three years. It’s big fun that’s mostly (but not wholly) a surface-deep spectacle.

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Boomer: Not only did my friends and I go see this film in costume, but we caught it in 3D as well, as we had with Thor. For those so inclined, I daresay that Chris Evan’s punching bag scene towards the beginning of the film may well justify the extra dollars spent on the post-conversion.

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(image courtesy of user thecaptainrogers of rebloggy)

With regards to the larger MCU, the events of the Battle of New York will come up again and again, especially in regards to how the public and governments will respond to the team. The death of Phil Coulson is cheapened by the knowledge that his character returned a mere three months later when Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. debuted; the reason for his sudden and unexpected resurrection was one of the ongoing mysteries of that show’s lukewarm first season (arguably the weakest). My original theory at the time was that his mind would be used to create the personality imprint for Vision when that character eventually appeared in the MCU, standing in for Wonder Man, although the MCU obviously went in a different direction.

Brandon: The feeling I got while watching The Avengers‘ 2015 followup, Age of Ultron, was that the MCU was stretching itself a little thin trying to include both barely-interested newcomers & deeply invested comic book supernerds in the same audience. Now that the novelty of meeting the MCU’s characters for the first time in the first Avengers film has worn off a bit for me, I feel that strained divide might’ve begun as soon as 2012. As a compromise between pleasing both the well-informed and the completely contextless, The Avengers is a massively impressive balancing act. However, I think that these crossover films might be better served as standalone works of art if they left newcomers behind completely & just focused on serving the audience who’ve already put in the effort to get there. And I’m saying that as a recent convert who’s just barely keeping up as is.

Combined S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. Rating for The Avengers (2012)

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fourstar

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