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

Rough Night (2017)

There’s a distinct brand of mainstream comedy that somehow gathers together every single comedic performer you’d ever want to see in a movie, but fails to deliver on the promise of their shared presence. Rough Night is an enjoyable, mildly amusing comedy that’s biggest fault is proving to be less than the sum of its parts. There’s no reason a film helmed by the writers of Broad City that features performances from people as bizarrely funny as Jillian Bell, Ilanna Glazer, Kate McKinnon, and Eric Andre should be half as tame or restrained as this movie often feels. This goes doubly so considering the film’s letting-loose plot of a bachelorette party weekend that turns deadly. There are plenty of violent, absurdist, and over-sexed impulses simmering in the background of this hard-R summertime delight, but none are pushed to the extremes you’d hope for based on the level of talent involved. The result is still amusing, but it’s difficult not to be disappointed over what could have been.

Scarlett Johanson stars as a total nerd running for political office in what seems like a mild send-up of the Clinton/Trump campaign trail (with a little Anthony Weiner thrown in for flavor). She breaks away from her election effort for a single weekend to meet up with college friends she hasn’t see all together in years for a bachelorette party in Miami. While her fiancee’s bachelor party is a hilariously lame, muted affair, her own last gasp of freedom feels like the hedonistic free-for-all we never got to see in Bridesmaids because of the incident on the plane. Cocaine, apple bongs, and gallons of top shelf cocktails fuel the small group’s debauchery while anxieties over past romances & friendship dynamics inevitably bubble to the surface like a loud & proud belch. Eventually, the party spirals out of control when the women accidentally kill a stripper & attempt to dump the body to avoid arrest, making the whole feel a little like a gender-flipped remake of Very Bad Things remake that absolutely no one asked for. It’s all fairly amusing, but also a little over-familiar and, ultimately, disposable.

It’s possible that I would’ve been able to better enjoy the minor successes of Rough Night with a more enthusiastic audience. The crowd I watched it with were quiet enough for me to clearly hear the ceiling leak in the auditorium and the Tupac biopic screening on the other side of the wall. Even with that muted reaction, I especially enjoyed its callbacks to mid-00s pop culture, including Borat Halloween costumes and a dance routine set to Kelis’s “My Neck, My Back,” which were amusing reminders that I am gradually becoming an old man. I’d also consider the film a solid victory in the noble cause Operation: Make Jillian Bell A Star. Her militant distribution of dick-themed bachelorette merch & maniacally sincere delivery of lines like, “It would mean so much to me if we could do a little cocaine together,” made Bell out to be a clear scene stealer, no easy feat considering the talent that surrounded her. Still, Rough Night could’ve reached much more memorable heights if it has just cranked the volume on the violent, dangerously horny, occasionally absurdist touches that were already hiding in the shadows. The movie’s biggest fault is that it sets up jokes & payoffs you can see coming from an hour away and waits until the last possible second to pull the trigger. If its payoffs were more immediate there’d be more room for them to also be more plentiful (more weirdness! more sex! more accidental fatalities!) and the only thing it really needed to be special is more of what it was already working with.

-Brandon Ledet

Captain America: Civil War (2016)

EPSON MFP image

fourhalfstar

Captain America: Civil War was a lot of fun! I went into the film expecting it to be a bit of a letdown after how much I loved Winter Soldier, and while it’s not as good as the last Cap flick, it’s certainly worthy of the positive critical reception that it has been garnering. I expected that there would be more of a backlash against it given that the negative reception of Batman v Superman was characterized by proponents of that film as being the result of a pro-Marvel bias among the blogosphere. Instead, the film’s 90% positive professional critic score and 92% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes reflects a generally positive reaction, and the film deserves it. While there are some detractors who are critical of the film, citing the distinct division between plot lines (one focused on the titular conflict between the different members of the Avengers and one which is devoted to following up on the plotline surrounding the Winter Soldier and his past), I’m in agreement with the general public in that I found this film a worthy successor and a great introduction to the new direction of the MCU as Phase Three revs its engine.

I’ll be saving my comparisons to other films and my discussion of the spoilery elements of the film for our Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. dual review, but I’ll talk about my favorite elements here. Unlike Age of Ultron, which likewise had a large number of characters and introduced new ones, this film felt neither overstuffed nor imbalanced. There’s more of Cap than anyone else, but that’s to be expected, and every other character gets at least a few minutes of screentime that develops them as individuals and reveals something about their personal philosophy. Notable among these is Scarlet Witch, who is basically filling the Kitty Pryde role on this team as the youngest member/trainee, getting tips on superheroing from Cap and Black Widow in the field. Elizabeth Olsen plays the hell out of Wanda’s insecurities and independence, and it’s a testament to her strength as an actress that the audience fully understands her character after just a couple of films in which she plays a role that doesn’t get a lot of screen time. Although Scarlett Johannson’s role here is much more brief than her meatier presence in Winter Soldier, the Russo brothers effectively understand that her relationship with Steve would be strained by their placement on opposite sides of the Sokovia Accord issue; I won’t get into detail here, but she gets a few scenes that allow the actress to play this conflict, and ScarJo nails it despite being arguably underused. Vision also feels a lot more like Vision this time around: a weird android whose utter incomprehensibility of human social norms is both charming and unnerving at the same time. The movie also gets a lot of subtle comedy out of the character’s uncanniness; there’s something utterly surreal about a blockbuster comic book movie featuring a character whose unusual body shape is covered by the kind of sweater that your grandmother orders out of a J. Crew catalog.

I also really enjoyed that, for the first time in the MCU, we got to see a team fight another group.In most of the films, the final confrontation boils down to a one-on- one fight (Iron Man, Captain America, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, Ant-Man), the protagonist and maybe a sidekick facing off against a single villain and his attendant faceless horde (IM2, IM3, Thor 2), or a group facing off against a single villain and his attendant faceless horde (Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy, Avengers 2). It’s not surprising that the only film from Phases One and Two that doesn’t fit into one of these boxes is Winter Soldier, which sees the individual members of Cap’s team in different places and fulfilling the roles that were best suited to each. This did mean that we didn’t get to see, for instance, a moment of pure four-color glory like Cap using his shield as a refractor for Iron Man’s blasts like in Avengers; what it does accomplish is raising the emotional stakes when the villains are well-developed and individual rather than being mass market Chitauri, Dark Elves, Ultron bodies, or the Sting-Winger things from Guardians. Here, it’s a full team against a full team, using their powers in new and inventive ways and showing how these personalities play off of each other, especially with regards to the more mature members of each team and their more green teammates. Ant-Man is a particular delight (despite some questionable CGI in a few scenes), with Paul Rudd effectively playing up Scott Lang’s awe at meeting Captain America; the serious affectation he puts into the line “Here’s your shield, Captain America” got the film’s biggest chuckle out of me, although Spider-Man’s sincere fascination with Bucky’s metal arm was great as well.

The fight scenes are frenetic in the best way, and they all push the plot forward rather than simply occurring at the anticipated intervals in which we’ve been conditioned to expect them. That’s not to say that this is a fun movie throughout, however. The length of the scenes featuring Holland’s precocious, quipping Spider-Man are balanced out by a conspiracy plot that reflects the darker elements of Winter Soldier. These revisitations don’t resonate as strongly this time around, but the revelations about the Winter Soldier program and one character’s motivations for wanting to bring this information to light are effective in their Manchurian qualities. This actually leads into the question that the marketing for the film has played up, one that was much more straightforward in the source material (which we’ll talk about in the Agents review): whose side are you on?

Where do I stand? There’s a great underlying throughline in this film that shows that, in a way, Tony Stark is right. It’s almost easy to write off Steve’s motivations as being too personal and lacking in professional distance; his desire to not only save but redeem Bucky may be the most ethical motivation in play, but it’s undeniable that this morality isn’t what motivates Cap. Steve Rogers’s desperate desire not to lose one of the last tenuous connections that he has to a home that no longer exists is understandable. On the other hand, it’s not hypocrisy on Cap’s part that he does not want to defer to the potentially unethical whims of a questionably impartial caucus while engaging in ambiguously unlawful activity himself to defend Bucky. It’s totally in line with what he claims is his goal: assuming personal responsibility. It’s also understandable that Tony would be the person most in favor of the accords: his ego and compulsion to take personal responsibility for protecting the entire earth led to the creation of Ultron. Of course Tony feels more of a need for oversight than Cap, who had heretofore never been on the wrong side of any moral conflict. In the end, however, the stakes become as personal for Tony as they are for Steve, leading him to act out violently using his technological advantage. Further, this conflict comes as a result of manipulation by a basic human for whom the stakes are also too personal. Supersoldier, genius inventor, and haunted family man: all give in to their worst instincts, tearing down empires and threatening worldwide political ramifications of the future because of the limited horizons of their own pain. This movie is both an embodiment of the need for accountability as made manifest in the lives of three different men, but also a demonstration of the infeasibility of the accords themselves.

Some situations require action faster than a committee can authorize it. This is a world where an alien portal can open up over New York or interdimensional monsters could appear in London and end life as we know it while some U.N. page is just trying to get enough people together to make a motion to deploy the Avengers. What if everyone was at lunch? And then, boom, humanity is enslaved to the Skrulls or consumed by Galactus because all they had to do was attack during everyone’s smoke break or a particularly nasty flu season. There really is no side that’s entirely right or wrong, which is the film’s greatest strength. There are a lot of people making comparisons to Batman v Superman and with good reason, considering that there is a weird overlap in some of the plot elements, but what really stands out to me is that BvS has what is essentially a sitcom stock plot where Character A and Character B are in conflict because they don’t communicate with each other. Then things get blown further and further out of proportion while shenanigans ensue, until they realize that, hey, being honest is important and everyone learns a lesson about teamwork and friendship. In Civil War, the conflicts are ideological and thus more rooted in the humanity of its characters. That’s the core of what makes this film work, and it’s a great start for the next wave of Marvel’s flicks.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

The Jungle Book (2016)

bear

fourstar

I’ve gone on record as not being a particularly huge fan of Jon Favreau’s Iron Man movies, but it seems the director might’ve learned a thing or two about how to deliver a big budget CG spectacle while helming that franchise. Favreau’s latest effort, The Jungle Book, is a “live action” remake of a Disney animation classic & marks the director’s most impressive work to date. I put “live action” in quotes because there’s really only one live action character here existing in a computer animated world, newcomer Neel Sethi as the protagonist Mowgli, which sort of positions The Jungle Book among nostalgia-inducing titles like Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and, less deservedly so, Cool World. The film intentionally cultivates this nostalgic lens through certain subtle details like a decades-old yellow font for the credits that look like they were lifted straight from an ancient VHS cassette. It’s a smart decision that eases the audience into a certain level of comfort & familiarity despite the state-the-art technical prowess on display. Again, Favreau seems to know exactly what he’s doing here, as if he’s seen it all before.

The story of The Jungle Book may be familiar to many audiences by now, but I’ve personally never read its Rudyard Kipling-penned source material & it’s been a good two decades since I’ve seen the Disney original, so I honestly didn’t remember jack shit about it going in. The only detail of The Jungle Book that was clear to me when I entered the theater yesterday was the character Baloo’s personal anthem “Bear Necessities”. Indeed, the modern version of this story doesn’t truly come alive until Baloo’s personal laid back huckster philosophy enters the scene. Early depictions of the lovable scamp Mowgli interacting with various animals of the jungle (after being raised by a pack of wolves like a little badass) range from cute to terrifying to majestic, but also lack a distinct personality & emotional pallet that Baloo brings to the table. The Jungle Book is a two-fold tale of revenge (one for Mowgli & one for the wicked tiger Shere Khan) as well as a classic coming of age story about a hero finding their place in the world, but those plot machinations are somewhat insignificant in comparison to the emotional core of Baloo’s close friendship with Mowgli (which develops a little quickly here; I’d like to have seen it given a little more room to breathe). So much of that impact rests on the all-too-capable shoulders of one Bill Murray, who delivers his best performance in years here (outside maybe his collaborations with Wes Anderson).

You might think that performance wouldn’t matter so much in a film populated with CG animals, but part of what makes The Jungle Book such a technical marvel is how realistic the animal faces are while still retaining the expressive qualities of the actors who voice them. The film essentially looks like those nature-themed t-shirts you can only seem to buy at national parks & gun shows come to life, but it’s the motion capture technology that adds a whole other layer of awe to the film’s visuals. Lupita Nyong’o is very sweet as the wolf mother Rashka who tells who tells Mowgli things like “No matter where you go or what they call you, you will always be my son.” Christopher Walken is wonderfully bizarre as the mythically gigantic orangutan King Louie (I’m guessing his uncomfortable turn as Captain Hook last year was a kind of dry run?). ScarJo & Idris Elba are both effectively terrifying in their respective roles as a murderous snake & tiger (with Johansson more or less combining her parts in Her & Under the Skin on her end). None impress quite as much as Murray does here as the con artist bear Baloo, however. Just look at his Harry and the Hendersons moment when he has to push Mowgli away despite his deep affection and you’ll find more pathos in those thirty seconds than most of the rest of the film could carry with all the time in the world. Murray has always been exceptional in his interactions with children on camera & his casting here was a brilliant choice that elevated the material greatly in terms of emotional impact.

That being said, I do feel there was somewhat of an emotional deficit at work here that made The Jungle Book more of a technical achievement than an all-around cinematic one. This was the most awe-inspiring depiction of talking animals I can think of since George Miller’s Babe (and one of the best depictions of animal coexistence politics since Babe 2: Pig in the City), but it didn’t quite reach Babe’s emotionally impactful penchant for drama. I could easily recommend The Jungle Book the same way I’d recommend a Hugo or a Dredd. You have to see this movie in the theater. You have to see it in 3D. I just don’t think it commands quite the same emotional weight as some of Disney’s more pointed work, with Zootopia being a great example from earlier this year. I should note that I might’ve been a little distracted by exceptionally poor movie theater etiquette at the particular screening I attended (screaming children, repetitive Facebooking, 4/20 bros acting unruly, the full gamut), but my emotional detachment from the film still remains true. It was beautiful to look at & Baloo made it fun, but I wish it had hit me harder square in the feelings.

It’s also worth mentioning, because it’s such an unfamiliar reaction for me, that the end credits for the film might’ve been my favorite part of the whole ordeal. The obnoxious crowd scuttled out of the theater & left me mostly alone with a beautiful pop-up book animation on a blue velvet background that made excellent use of the 3D technology on hand by playing with depth & scale. Walken’s weirdo performance also returned to serenade the (mostly empty) crowd with more New Orleans-inspired tunage and that oddly nostalgic yellow font returned to make me feel warm & fuzzy for reasons that are difficult to pinpoint. All that was missing was some extra Bill Murray content. It sounds kind of vapid to say, but the end credits in itself seemed to position The Jungle Book as a huge advancement in cinema’s visual tools, with encouraging implications as to how that advancement could be applied in a meticulously manicured art film (once it’s more affordable/accessible). The film was visually fascinating & at times wildly fun, but for the most part it just made me excited about the future of movies in general.

-Brandon Ledet

Thoughts on The Congress (2014) and the Question of What, Exactly Modern Celebrities are Selling

EPSON MFP image

One of the most wildly imaginative sci-fi films in recent memory, for my money, was the often-overlooked, “technophobic” film industry satire The Congress. In the film, Princess Bride actress Robin Wright plays a fictionalized version of herself facing an exponentially shrinking list of potential career options thanks to an industry that has a long history of underserving women as they age past their 20s & 30s. Wright’s agent uses this professional crisis to pressure her into allowing a major movie studio to digitally capture (or, in the movie’s lingo, “hermetically scan”) her very essence, essentially selling her tangible soul to a media conglomerate. This leads to a psychedelic existential crisis involving an animated wonderland of dystopian terror that makes The Congress one of the most visually bizarre films I can remember from the last couple of years.

As eccentric as The Congress‘s visual pallet can be, it isn’t exactly what’s been keeping the film fresh in my mind since I first reviewed it last year. There’s been a recent string of news stories reminiscent of the ways The Congress depicts movie studios owning actors’ likeness that feel oddly off-putting in a way the film seemed to forewarn, keeping it fresh in my mind. For example, during the press tour for the recent Zack Snyder debacle Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, eccentric Lex Luthor actor Jesse Eisenberg went into great detail about the fake Michael Shannon body double used in the film. Shannon, who played the villainous Emperor Zod in Snyder’s Man of Steel, didn’t fully reprise his role in the sequel as Zod’s corpse (who could blame him?), but instead allowed the studio to include him via lifeless dummy created based off his headcast. Where it gets really creepy is in Eisenberg’s description of the fake Michael Shannon, which appears in the film completely nude. According to Eisenberg, the Shannon doll was entirely, unnecessarily anatomically correct to the point where the detail was a little disturbing (long story short, he had a penis).

There are, of course, even more direct comparison points to Robin Wright’s fictional plight in the way celebrity actors are being represented & altered digitally. Actors appearing posthumously in commercials for beer, junk food, vacuum cleaners, etc. is crass enough of a concept in itself and has been around long enough to likely have influenced some of The Congress‘s digitizing paranoia. Things have snowballed even since the film’s production, however, including two high profile instances of actors being digitally inserted into feature-length works they didn’t live to see completed (Paul Walker in Furious 7 & Phillip Seymour Hoffman in Mockingjay Pt II). Even actors who did film their role to completion are being subjected to digital alterations in post-production. Sometimes this can be as simple as removing a pimple or a blemish or the effects of aging with computer magic (Paul Rubens in Pee-wee’s Big Holiday is a recent example) or as horrifying as the very recent reports of Paramount & DreamWorks allegedly testing a digital technique to make white actors appear “more Asian” in post-production for the already-controversial live action Ghost in the Shell adaptation starring Scarlett Johansson. Whether or not you agree with the actors’ decision to accept those roles/paychecks in the first place, you have to admit it’s super shady that the studio attempted to dress them in digital yellowface after the fact (presumably without their knowledge or consent).

The question at large here is what, exactly are celebrities selling to movie studios when they sign a contract for a big budget role? In the past (and, indeed, in smaller current productions) actors were strictly selling a performance, a record of work delivered. Modern celebrities, however, seem to be selling much more than that. They’re not selling a record of their work so much as the rights to their personalities & essence. This current era of digital recreation & the ownership of celebrity likeness is on much shakier, creepier ground and it’s difficult not to think of The Congress‘s sci-fi celebrity culture dystopia as each of these news stories crop up. The film didn’t do so well critically or financially upon initial release, but I find that its pointed satire about Hollywood’s future gets more eerily relevant on almost a daily basis. It’s difficult to say for certain exactly why The Congress failed to strike a chord with a larger audience. I’ll admit that it plays a little off-balance & unsure in moments, but if nothing else I greatly respect the film’s tendency to swing for the fences even when what it delivers lands way off target. I also am continuously taken aback by just how much the film has to say about modern celebrity culture, especially when I see modern celebrity culture talking back.

-Brandon Ledet

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

EPSON MFP image

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?

EPSON MFP image

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).

EPSON MFP image

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.

EPSON MFP image

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.

EPSON MFP image

 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.: Captain America 2 – The Winter Soldier (2014)

EPSON MFP image

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: Captain America: The Winter Soldier was very nearly a different kind of movie. Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely announced before the premier of the first Cap that they had already been hired to draft the sequel’s script, and there were three choices for direction: George Nolfi, F. Gary Gray, and sibling directorial team Anthony and Joseph Russo. Gray would certainly have been the most interesting choice, as he would have been the first person of color to helm an MCU film and have helped with Marvel’s ongoing diversity problem (as demonstrated just in the past week by the announcement that Danny Rand would be portrayed in the upcoming Netflix Iron Fist series by white Game of Thrones alum Finn Jones). To date, only two films based on Marvel properties have been directed by non-white directors, Hulk (Ang Lee) and Blade II (Guillermo del Toro), and only one has been directed by a woman, Lexi Alexander’s Punisher: War Zone. At present, Black Panther is set to break this white streak with director Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed), although the revolving door of directors (with Selma’s Ava Duvernay and Gray himself having been attached to production at different points) makes one wonder if there will be any more upsets between now and when production actually begins. Ultimately, Gray passed on the project in order to direct last year’s Straight Outta Compton, and the reins to the film were handed over to the Russo brothers, best known for their work on the early (good) years of NBC’s Community.

Those who are only familiar with the movies may be unaware, but S.H.I.E.L.D.’s contribution to the primary Marvel Comic universe took place largely outside of the context of superheroics. In fact, one could read comic books for several years without ever finding out that such an organization exists within that world; I certainly did. When interest in strong men and Amazons waned in the mid-Twentieth Century while the popularity of western, detective, and horror comics grew, S.H.I.E.L.D. took on prominence as a vehicle for telling stories about war and espionage, with books like Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos. The idea that S.H.I.E.L.D. should play a role in the founding of a superhero team is taken wholly from the Ultimate Marvel comics, a sub-imprint launched in the early 2000s to provide an entry into the comics world for new readers whose interest in the medium came as the result of the success of the Spider-Man and X-Men films. Forsaking the moniker “Avengers,” the equivalent team in the Ultimate books was known as “The Ultimates,” featuring a line-up of heroes that were brought together by Ultimate Nick Fury, who was consciously drawn to resemble Samuel L. Jackson in the hopes that he would be interested in the role should a film adaptation ever come to fruition. Many of the ideas that made their way into the MCU found their origins in the Ultimate imprint, with some scenes in the films even shot to be evocative of similar scenes in the comics (Thor’s visit from Loki, who lies that Odin has died in the first Thor film, is probably the most direct lift). The MCU has so far managed to mix stories from both the main books and the Ultimate line with new ideas to make sure that even comic book readers can never quite predict what twists the narrative will take. For instance, in the Ultimate Universe, Black Widow is revealed to be a double agent who turns on the rest of the team; non-readers who see Winter Soldier won’t have this knowledge and thus don’t know whether Natasha can be trusted, while readers who love the MCU Romanoff will constantly be anxious, wondering if she’ll follow in her ink counterpart’s footsteps, adding an edge to the movie.

Writing duo Markus & McFeely initially wanted to do an adaptation of Ed Brubaker’s Winter Soldier storyline (from the mainstream Marvel books) but were hesitant to commit to that idea, unsure if they would be able to make the story fit into the MCU while also doing it justice. Ultimately, with encouragement from MCU coordinator Kevin Feige, the two drafted the script as a political conspiracy thriller that incorporated elements of that plot but that also included S.H.I.E.L.D. in a larger role than in Brubaker’s story, given the greater prominence of the agency in the film franchise. Feige was quoted as saying that stories about Cap dealing with the fearmongering and political unrest of the seventies and eighties was “a hell of a journey” for the character. Although they couldn’t do stories set in that time period due to the fact that this version of Cap was frozen during that era, they “wanted to force him to confront that kind of moral conundrum, something with that ’70s flavor.” As such, the script was written with the intention of incorporating elements from political conspiracy thrillers of that era, like Three Days of the Condor and All the President’s Men.

To cement that connection, Robert Redford, who had appeared in both of those films, was cast to portray Alexander Pierce, the man to whom Nick Fury reports. Another new face in the cast was Anthony Mackie, who plays Sam Wilson, a character from the comics codenamed the Falcon. Cap and Falcon have had a long working relationship in the comics, with the Captain America comic even being retitled Captain America and the Falcon for 88 issues from 1971 to 1978, as the two duplicated the two-buddies-travel-the-world-and-have-different-social-perspectives narrative of the groundbreaking 1970-1972 Green Lantern/Green Arrow books. Emily van Camp was eventually cast as Agent 13, a longtime Cap love interest from the comics (originally introduced as Peggy Carter’s younger sister then later retconned as her niece given the nature of comic books’ static timelines) after beating out Alison Brie, Emilia Clarke, and Imogen Poots (among others) for the role. The film also introduced Crossbones in his civilian identity as a S.H.I.E.L.D. footsoldier revealed as a Hydra interloper; in the film, he is portrayed by Frank Grillo.

The nature of the time jump at the end of Captain America meant that most of Cap’s supporting cast would not be able to reappear in this film, although there is a heartbreaking cameo by Hayley Atwell as a very old Peggy Carter, and Sebastian Stan’s Bucky Barnes plays a prominent role. Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson, and Cobie Smulders reprise their roles from other MCU features as Black Widow, Nick Fury, and Maria Hill respectively. Maximiliano Hernández, who had previously appeared as S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Jasper Sitwell in Thor, The Avengers, and ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., also appears in the film as a turncoat, as does Garry Shandling’s senator character from Iron Man 2 (it’s a good thing that Stark managed to keep the senator’s hands off the Iron Man suit, then). Toby Jones also reprised his role as Hydra scientist Arnim Zola, both in flashback and as an electronic ghost.

So, what did you think, Brandon? Captain America got high praise from you; how does this one fare?

EPSON MFP image

threehalfstar

Brandon: I was head over heels for the first Captain America film, which played like a retroactively-perfected version of The Rocketeer. Captain Steve Rogers’ bully-hating, Nazi-punching earnestness was a much welcome antidote to the sarcastic, megalomaniacs like Deadpool & Iron Man who often test my completist patience. I was, of course, stoked to catch up with the second installment in the Captain America series not only because I found the found The First Avenger so perfectly sincere, but also because ever since this project began The Winter Soldier has been sold to me as the height of what the MCU has to offer. I don’t want to say that I was exactly disappointed by the film that was delivered after all that hype, but I will say that the burden of expectation definitely colored my experience in a negative way. From the outside looking in, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a fine action film, a perfectly entertaining superhero movie that does a great job of tying the Marvel mythology in with real-life political intrigue. However, I think the film stands as a dividing line between the franchise’s die hard fans who greedily eat up the ins & outs of the Marvel lore (particularly the narrative arc of S.H.I.E.L.D.) and the more casual observers such as myself who are mostly looking for an escapist spectacle with a cool hero in a kooky costume (which is more in line with what The First Avenger delivered). Fans who love the MCU enough to devotedly follow all of its short film bonus material & televised spin-offs are likely to love The WInter Soldier. The more detached devotees will enjoy the film’s action sequences & cool cat protagonists, but perhaps with less hyperbolic rapture.

Freshly unfrozen in the modern world, Captain Steve Rogers is simultaneously dealing with the post-Battle of NYC PTSD issues that Tony Stark wrestled with in Iron Man 3 & the same kind of fish out of water awkwardness as his Norse god buddy/fellow beefcake model Thor eternally suffers. Besides having to catch up with cultural markers like Marvin Gaye & Star Wars that he missed while taking an extensive nap on ice, Rogers also has to deal with the fact that his one true love (and ABC star) Peggy Carter lived a full life without him & is now spending her last days alone in a hospital bed. Friends & colleagues pressure Rogers to ask someone less geriatric for a date, but he refuses to move on. Of course, these small personal concerns are dwarfed by an evil world domination scheme Rogers has to put to a swift end. The Nazi offshoot Hydra from the first Captain America film is apparently alive & thriving, having successfully infiltrated S.H.I.E.L.D. & subtly influenced all of the world’s war & unrest from behind the scenes in the decades since the second World War. Can Rogers stop the Hydra from hijacking an advanced weapons system & using a sinister algorithm to destroy every one of its potential enemies in one fell swoop before it’s too late? Of course he can. He is The Greatest Soldier in History, after all (having now graduated from comic book hero status to living museum exhibit in his own lifetime).

What’s most interesting about The Winter Soldier is the way it complicates who & what is Captain America’s enemy. Rogers joined S.H.I.E.L.D. because it was partly founded by his one true love & he finds great value in reliving his wartime specialty: rescue missions. S.H.I.E.L.D. is too powerful to trust, however, especially since its participation in a worldwide (& maybe even intergalactic) arms race is what provides the weapon that Hydra intends to use the wipe out its enemies wholesale. By showing the faults of our modern day surveillance state by attaching a gun to each camera, The Winter Soldier approaches the most biting political commentary the MCU has offered yet, especially when Rogers criticizes his S.H.I.E.L.D. overlords for “holding a gun to everyone in the world & calling it protection” (a theme that will later be repeated in Age of Ultron). I don’t think the film’s political themes are ever explored any deeper or more thoroughly than they’d be in any other high budget, explosion-heavy action film, though. For MCU die hards who’ve been following every Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. episode & tangentially-related S.H.I.E.L.D. mythology-related media, the film’s big reveal that the organization has been hijacked by Hydra might’ve landed with massive impact, but the betrayal never feels too significant from an outsider perspective. It’s mostly a political thriller springboard for a cool action movie with a lovable hero & some of the best fight choreography in the MCU outside the Avengers films (including increasingly inventive uses of Captain’s shield in its hand-to0-hand brutality).

It feels almost like a betrayal to nerdom at large to say I really liked this movie but didn’t love it, but that kinda points to the way Marvel Studios have spread their properties so, so very thin. In the greater, 10,000+ hour span of MCU content, The Winter Soldier is a major turning point & a fulfilling payoff for irons that have been in the fire for years. As a standalone property surviving on its on isolated merits, its a very solid picture, but far from the pinnacle of any of its various genres: political thrillers, action flicks, superhero media, etc.

EPSON MFP image

fivestar

Boomer: I love this movie. It’s the MCU picture that I’ve watched and rewatched the most and the one that I find the most enduring, thoughtful, and well-paced; for my money, it’s the best of them all. It’s a testament to Winter Soldier’s excellence that, despite the fact that I got dumped two hours after I walked out the theatre on that 2014 afternoon, it wasn’t ruined for me (like so, so many things were in the wake of that breakup). I can look back on that day and say, “Hey, that was one of the worst days of my life, but I also saw Winter Soldier.”

I’m not ever sure where to start with all the things that make this film work for me. I’m a sucker for a good conspiracy flick (and even some bad ones), and the tonal similarities between Winter Soldier and things like Enemy of the State, The Manchurian Candidate, and most obviously (and explicitly) Three Days of the Condor hit all the right buttons for me. It brings Black Widow into the foreground in a way that the previous films attempted with mixed success and introduces a great new hero character to the mythos in Falcon, and both Johannson and Mackie bring a lot of energy into the mix that harmonizes well with Evans’s leading man charisma. Redford is perfect in his role as the turncoat leader of the World Security Council, and the film puts a lot of work into including and subtly commenting on contemporary issues of security, privacy, and systemic violence. Evans was serviceable in his previous appearances as Cap, but he clearly understands the role better here than in the earlier outings: Cap is a man who fought a brutal war that history has painted as a righteous one, and as such is best suited to remind those around him when they are repeating the mistakes of the past.

The film draws a clear line between itself and other films of the same genre that came before, both within the text (most notably with Natasha quoting War Games) and metatextually, especially with the casting of Redford. Although his most notable contributions to political thrillers were his roles in All the President’s Men and Three Days of the Condor, I also have a fondness for Sneakers, which shares plot elements like computer algorithms and heisty shenanigans with Winter Soldier. Of course, the movie to which I feel this film is most tonally similar isn’t your standard contemporary political thriller like your Sneakers or even your classics like The Parallax View: it’s Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.

I’ll keep this as brief as I possibly can, given that I have a (deserved) reputation of making everything about Star Trek, despite any obstacles. The Star Trek franchise was always about creating the rhetorical space that science fiction inhabits when it’s at its best: commenting upon contemporary social mores through a lens that provides the viewer or reader with enough metaphorical distance that he or she can see the absurdity and beauty of the human experience. (Last year’s Hugo Awards were undermined by a small group of rabid people who fail to realize that this is and always has been the purpose of the genre.) As such, the classic 1960s series created by Gene Roddenberry featured groundbreaking elements like people of color and women being treated as colleagues and equals by their white and male crewmen while also exploring the relationship between different earth cultures by projecting them onto extraterrestrial confederations.

Most notably, this was demonstrated by the way in which the Klingon Empire was a clear stand-in for the Soviet Union, and this was made all the more textual in The Undiscovered Country, which opened with a Chernobyl-esque disaster that places the Federation (the society in which Kirk and Spock abide) in a position to finally hammer their swords into plowshares… or bring their enemies to their knees. In the midst of all this is Kirk, who has fought the Klingons all his life and even lost his son to them; still, the Federation believes that, just as only Nixon could go to China, only Kirk can present the Klingons with a metaphorical olive branch. Unfortunately, Kirk ends up being framed for the assassination of the Klingon Chancellor and is assigned to a Siberia-esque gulag, while Spock works out the mystery. Working from opposite ends toward the middle, the two find a peace-endangering conspiracy that has wound its way around the heart of the seemingly-utopian Federation, fueled by long-stewing grudges, cultural fascism, and speciesist (read: racist) attitudes.

The Undiscovered Country is a fantastic movie, and although it’s not the best entry in the film franchise (Wrath of Khan is the undisputed champion), it’s a viable contender for runner-up. The Winter Soldier plays out similarly with its revelation that Hydra was never destroyed, but that it was instead reborn by planting its monstrous seeds within S.H.I.E.L.D. from its conception. Like ST6, this film also features the great and historical hero who finds himself framed and caught up in political machinations, dealing with strategic espionage maneuvering which is far outside of his control but in which he has a vested personal stake. Both films take the tropes and traits of the conspiracy narrative and add them to their respective genres, elevating both films to increased notability outside of their franchises.

And Natasha! Romanoff is back, baby, taking on heavier narrative lifting here than ever before and not only rising to the challenge, but killing it. Natasha never comes off as a sidekick here, instead acting as the perfect foil to Rogers. He’s the perfect soldier, and she’s the perfect spy: the focus on the ways that their respective skills and worldviews inscribe, complement, and conflict contributes to the film’s constant momentum. Johannson nails the small moments of vulnerability and the fact that Widow is always a few steps ahead of everyone else, like she’s accustomed to always being the smartest person in the room. This is just as much a story about her as it is about Cap, despite how much of the plot is devoted to his feelings of having failed Bucky. The film also does a better job of displaying professional respect and friendship between the two than most films are able to with a male-female friendship, and their emotional arc is perfect, forsaking the easy road of creating a romantic relationship between the two.

If anything, the titular Winter Soldier is the weakest link for me here. Part of that may be that his true identity as a brainwashed Bucky is no secret to comic fans (and it kind of surprises me that it was a shock to film-goers, given how recognizable Stan’s face is even with a mask on). It provides a counterpart to Cap’s friendship with Natasha, but it’s not as emotionally satisfying to me. Cap and Bucky’s friendship was built up in the first film, but it never quite clicked for me; I’m not as invested in the two of them as the franchise wants me to be, mostly because we actually see the two of them interact with each other much less than we see Cap interact with Natasha or even Tommy Lee Jones’s General in the first film. His involvement raises the stakes for Cap personally, but not for me.

That doesn’t make me any less invested in loving this movie, however. It hits the sweet spot for many in virtually every way, and I can hardly thing of a disparaging thing to say about it. Every few months, we see a new thinkpiece being published that asks if this genre is on its way out. Although I haven’t really seen any signs of slowing or stopping at this point, I’d wager that Winter Soldier will long outlive its peers in the public consciousness even if the MCU draws to a close.

EPSON MFP image

Lagniappe

Brandon: One thing that has been super impressive over the last few MCU features is how they’ve turned around my frustration with one-line cameos & half-assed tie-ins. I think that The Avengers, while not the height of the franchise, was an entirely necessary step in bringing this whole mess of a universe into an increasingly sharp focus & The Winter Soldier in particular is a great collaborative effort that directly reflects that shift. It’s doubtful that Nick Fury or Black Widow will ever star in their own standalone vehicles, but they’re both given way more to do in The Winter Soldier than ever before. Black Widow has already had ample time to show off her badassery in previous pictures, but her extended presence is always a welcome asset. This is really Nick Fury’s big break as a major player, though, and it’s fantastic to see him elevated form a walk-through cameo in a stinger to a fully-realized character. It’s also incredible how characters like Falcon & Bucky are shoehorned in there (even if I spoiled their individual reveals for myself by watching MCU content out of order) without ever cluttering up the film’s proceedings. Again, The Winter Soldier is a well made political thriller-leaning action flick that covers a lot of ground in its massive 2 1/2 hour runtime. I’m not sure that each of its characters & themes are given enough room to properly breathe & resonate, but there’s an impressive juggling act in how many personalities & plotlines get involved in the first place and the film delivers a wealth of entertainment in its genre-based treats alone.

Boomer: The furthest-reaching repercussions of this film on the franchise is the revelation that S.H.I.E.L.D. has been infected by Hydra from its very inception. For me personally, S.H.I.E.L.D. has always been a non-essential element of the MCU; sure, most of the stories would be different without their involvement, but not by much and not necessarily detrimentally. This reveal did end up creating more plotlines for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., with that series finally developing into something worth following in the wake of Winter Soldier, but it also annoys me. The rest of the MCU must now pay lip service to this development constantly, with references to Hydra showing up in shows and films that don’t really relate to S.H.I.E.L.D., if as nothing more than a bogeyman. Other than films where it wouldn’t make sense (such as Guardians of the Galaxy), all the villains relate back to Hydra now, if only tangentially. It makes me like past, unrelated villains like Jeff Bridges’s Obadiah Stane more in retrospect, since they weren’t required to tie in as heavily. It’s not that I feel the franchise is hamstrung by this revelation, but I find it weakens a plot when everything has to tie back into one evil mastermind or organization, limiting storytelling possibilities.

EPSON MFP image

Combined S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. Rating for Captain America 2 – The Winter Soldier (2013)

fourhalfstar

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

Hail, Caesar! (2016)

 

fivestar

Paying too close of attention to reviews & hype surrounding a film can sometimes lead you to miss out. Besides its release date coinciding a little too closely to Mardi Gras, I had put catching up with the latest Coen Brothers comedy, Hail, Caesar!, on the backburner due to the film’s somewhat tepid response at the box office. Hail, Caesar! is flopping hard right now, failing to find a significantly sized audience despite the prominence of Big Name movie stars in its advertising & the Coens’ loyal (though not gigantic) fanbase. Many major publication critics are also seemingly lukewarm on the film, often citing it an overstuffed mixed bag. That lack of enthusiasm & no basic knowledge of the film’s plot lead me to the theater with essentially no expectations, but Hail, Caesar! floored me anyway. Honestly, if I don’t see a better movie in the cinema all year I’ll still be perfectly happy. It was that much of a delight. I should have gotten to the theater a hell of a lot sooner.

Hail, Caesar! is firmly in the highly respectable medium of art about the nature of art. More specifically, it’s a movie about the movies. Much like with Barton Fink, the Coens have looked back to the Old Hollywood studio system as a gateway into discussing the nature of what they do for living as well as the nature of Nature at large. Packed with theological & political debate/diatribes and a sprawling cast of both Big Name movie stars & That Guy character actors, the film sounds like a lot more effort than it actually is. The plot is, in essence, the day in the life of a “fixer” for a major Hollywood film studio in the 1950s. Imagine if Pulp Fiction was centered on Harvey Keitel’s “The Wolf” character instead of the organized crime ring he was keeping steady & his work was in major film production instead of the murder & drug trade (on top of being oddly sweet instead of quietly terrifying). Josh Brolin’s protagonist, Eddie Mannix, provides such an anchor for Hail, Caesar! as a whirlwind of film production snafus swirl around him. Rampant addiction, a kidnapped star, unwanted pregnancy, secret Communist societies, gossip column vultures, and all kinds of trouble on the studio lot’s various sets turn Mannix’s typical workday into a laughable, Kafkaesque nightmare. It’s a testament to the Coens’ screenwriting talents that the film feels so smooth & effortless while Mannix’s webs become increasingly tangled and the general tone is a mix of subtle humor & broad farce instead of plot fatigue.

A lot of movies are effortlessly funny, though. What’s special about Hail, Caesar! is the way it perfectly captures Old Hollywood’s ghost. It reminded me a lot of the feeling of seeing Georges Méliès’s work recreated so vividly in the theater during Scorcese’s Hugo, except that Hail, Caesar! covered a much wider range of genres & filmmakers from a completely different era. Every classic Old Hollywood genre I can think of makes an appearance here: noir, Westerns, musicals, synchronized swimming pictures, Roman & religious epics, tuxedo’d leading man dramas, etc. Audiences sometimes forget that these types of films weren’t always physically degraded so it’s somewhat shocking to see the beautiful costuming & set design achievements of the era recreated & blown up large in such striking clarity at a modern movie theater. Besides the breathtaking visual achievements, it’s impressive how many other aspects of Old Hollywood cinema the film manages to include, both in its “real” setting & in its fake film shoots: close attention to lighting, a briefcase MacGuffin, sets that look like backdrop paintings, the threat that television will destroy the movie business, reclusive editors who act like chain-smoking psychos, talent that’s owned by the studio in what essentially amounts to indentured servitude, a sea of white faces in a world where everyone else has been locked out, etc. Even the smallest turns of phrase like “motion picture teleplay” & character names like George Clooney’s leading man actor Baird Whitlock feel perfectly in tune with the vibe of the era whether or not they’re poking fun at its inherent quaintness.

Speaking of Clooney’s wonderful turn as Baird Whitlock, Hail, Caesar! is at heart an ensemble cast comedy. It’s difficult to pinpoint any exact MVPs among the film’s long list of cameos & supporting players (Brolin undeniably takes the honor overall). Channing Tatum continues his nonstop winning streak here, dressing like a sailor & leading one of the most wholesomely filthy song & dance numbers you’re ever likely to see. Scarlett Johansson looks peacefully at home as a classic Hollywood starlet in a mermaid costume & hilariously disrupts the illusion with a brassy performance that allows her to refer to her flipper as a “fish ass.” Following up his delicately winning performance in Grand Budapest Hotel, Ralph Fiennes continues to prove himself as a stealthily comic force to be reckoned with. Relative unknown Alden Ehrenreich threatens to steal the show with an “Aw, shucks” cowboy routine & the similarly obscure Emily Beecham is a near dead-ringer for The Red Shoes/Peeping Tom star Moira Shearer (and I mean that as the highest praise). And all that’s just scratching the surface of how attractive everyone looks in this film, how effective the smallest of roles come across, and the sheer number of recognizable faces on display here.

So what’s keeping a smart, star-studded, intricately-plotted, politically & theologically thoughtful, genuinely hilarious, and strikingly gorgeous film like Hail, Caesar! from pulling in ticket sales? Who’s to say? I was a good three or four decades younger than most members of the audience where I watched the film (although it should be noted that most young folks were probably watching Deadpool that weekend), so maybe it’s missing an appeal to key money-making demographics? Maybe the advertising didn’t sell the more gorgeous end of its visuals hard enough, so a lot of folks are calmly waiting for it to reach VOD? I have no answers, really. I will, however, defend the film against the accusation that it’s overstuffed or unfocused. Hail, Caesar! chronicles a day in the life of a world-weary man who operates in an overstuffed, unfocused industry, so the various plotlines could be perceived as overwhelming as you try to make sense of them in retrospect, but on the screen they play with the confident poise of an expert juggler.

Like I said, Hail, Caesar! is not performing well financially & the reviews are mixed so it’s obvious that not everyone’s going to be into it. However, it’s loaded with beautiful tributes to every Old Hollywood genre I can think of and it’s pretty damn hilarious in a subtle, quirky way that I think ranks up there with the very best of the Coens’ work, an accolade I wouldn’t use lightly. If you need a litmus test for whether or not you’ll enjoy the film yourself, Barton Fink might be a good place to start. If you hold Barton Fink in high regard, I encourage you to give Hail, Caesar! a chance. You might even end up falling in love with it just as much as I did & it’ll be well worth the effort to see its beautiful visual work projected on the silver screen either way.

-Brandon Ledet

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

EPSON MFP image

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?

EPSON MFP image

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.

EPSON MFP image

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.

Lagniappe

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.

tumblr_m9u34z9opw1ry3tn5o1_250

(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)

EPSON MFP image

fourstar

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

Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X.: Iron Man 2 (2010)

EPSON MFP image

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 & has thus far 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: After the somewhat surprising success of Iron Man and the mostly tepid response to The Incredible Hulk, Marvel Studios allowed their product line to lie fallow for 2009. Instead, they spent most of their behind the scenes time conceptualizing and drafting the growing interconnected universe and putting forth just enough information to whet the appetites of the general public. Iron Man 2 in 2010! Thor and Captain America (which would later have the silly, unwieldy subtitle The First Avenger added to it) in 2011! Avengers in 2012! Iron Man 2 was heavily marketed in the U.S., but there was a distinct decline in the attention from film and comic trade papers compared to the whirlwind of publicity that surrounded the first picture. If anything, most of the hard copy from trade journals was less about the film itself and more about notable lunatic Terrence Howard’s exit and replacement by prestige performer Don Cheadle. Howard has claimed on separate occasions that he left the film of his own volition and that he was let go, the former statement having only recently become part of his repertoire of stories. Lately, his claim is that his departure was due to a vast pay discrepancy between himself and Robert Downey, Jr., but Howard is also infamously difficult to work with—just look no further than the madness that was his September Rolling Stone interview for proof. Imagine what it must be like to work with someone whose conceptualization of mathematics makes Time Cube seem straightforward in comparison. I would prefer working with class act Don Cheadle, too.

There’s not as much backstory about the history of this film, but the expansion of the cast is noteworthy. Of the four main actors appearing in the first film, only Gwyneth Paltrow and Downey reprise their roles, due to Howard’s exit and the death of Jeff Bridges’s character. Samuel L. Jackson’s role was expanded, and Mad Men actor John Slattery was cast to play Tony’s father Howard Stark in file footage. Sam Rockwell joined the cast as rival weapons mogul Justin Hammer, and Mickey Rourke, of all people, was cast as unrepentant Russian ex-con Ivan “Whiplash” Vanko. Even stranger, likable comedian Garry Shandling was brought on board to play blowhard politician Senator Stern. Most notably, the film introduced Scarlett Johansson as S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Natasha Romanoff, a.k.a. Black Widow, in a role that raised the profile of both actress and character significantly. Director Jon Favreau returned to helm the film and appear as Tony’s driver, “Happy” Hogan, and screenwriting duties were handed over to Justin Theroux, who is more recognizable as an actor in films like Mulholland Drive and American Psycho (and as the current Mr. Jennifer Aniston) than a writer. He also played the villain in Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle, following on the heels of Rockwell’s villainous turn in the first Angels film. Can the two of them working together make a decent Iron Man film? Read on for our reviews!

EPSON MFP image

twohalfstar

Brandon: Are we back to this dude already? Seems like just two films ago I was complaining about Tony Stark’s obnoxious rich boy D-bag fantasy fulfillment horror show of a personality. And here we are again, watching The Last of the Famous International Playboys work the crowd in his expensive suits & Guy Fieri sunglasses/goatee combos. As much as I would love to say I hated it even more the second time around, Jon Favreau’s second Iron Man film wasn’t nearly as bad as the first. Despite insistent warnings from friends that this would be the worst entry under the MCU brand to date, I found myself enjoying a great deal of the film, especially in moments where Mr. Stark was nowhere to be seen. Even though I could feel myself being won over, though, I think it’s much more that the MCU is growing on me & coming into its own than it is that this individual property is worth anything more than mixed praise.

The major improvement in Iron Man 2 is in the strength of its cast. Don Cheadle was a huge get in replacing Terrence Howard as Col. James Rhodes & it was super cool to see him fly around in a spare Iron Man suit, effectively establishing himself as the MCU’s first non-white superhero. Jon Slattery is as amusingly smug as ever in his role as Iron Dad. Gary Schandling & Sam Rockwell are always-welcome faces, even if the latter was asked to do such undignified things as blabbering about super-“cool”, super-deadly weapons to an obnoxious blues rock soundtrack. Scarlett Johansson is a refreshing glimpse into a better, future MCU in her kickass performance as the (undercover) Black Widow. Even the much-complained-about Gwyenth Paltrow gets a couple great moments in there, especially in her delivery of a particularly passionate line-reading of “ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR MIND?!”

The real MVP here, though, is Mickey Rourke. I suspect that Rourke’s performance as the oddly grandmotherly supervillain Ivan “Whiplash” Vanko wasn’t universally beloved by fans, but I was personally won over. I can’t be too objective about Rourke in this film because I’m pretty much on board with everything he’s done on film in the past 15 years or so. Even in dire properties that I have no patience for like Sin City & The Expendables, Rourke’s weird, hardened, subdued energy is a breath of fresh air. It’s hard to tell how much of this is leftover goodwill from how much I love him in Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, but it’s true all the same. Rourke’s softened, heavily tattooed Russian terrorist of a villain is easily the most deliciously over-the-top aspect of anything I’ve seen in the first three MCU entries. I loved everything about him, from his dumb girl’s-first-year-at-Burning-Man dreds to his fetish-inspiring lightning whips. When the film opens with Rourke’s oddly gentle brooding I was expecting to fall for Iron Man 2‘s charms . . . a feeling that lasted only briefly, as it was promptly interrupted by Iron Man flying around to AC/DC dad jams & my Iron Man 1 deja vu kicked in.

The problem with Iron Man 2 is not in the villains, but in Iron Man himself. I wasn’t convinced that Tony Stark’s reformed bad boy act in the first film outweighed his more unpalatable impulses as a rakish dick & he indeed dismisses his moral salvation in that film (an interest in renewable energy sources instead of military grade weapons) as a “liberal agenda” that he now finds boring here. I guess his new path to salvation is in his evolving romance plot with Pepper Potts. I’ll admit that I find the characters’ chemistry fairly compelling (way more than Ed Norton & Liv Tyler’s chemistry in The Incredible Hulk, at least), but there’s too much else working against Stark’s personality for it to save the movie for me. It’d be one thing if Stark’s go for broke narcissism were played as villainous, but it’s largely celebrated in the film. He’s applauded for “successfully privatizing world peace” without a trace of irony. He sexually objectifies the MCU’s first female superhero at first glance, joking “I want one of those” in ScarJo’s first scene, and the audience is supposed to think “Heh, heh me too”. And then there’s his love of a expensive-looking version of European NASCAR, Iron Gams chorus girls, and – worst yet – scratching records like an idiotic RoboDJ. Ugh. I’m surprised they stopped short of giving him a backwards baseball cap & a skateboard.

I could probably get behind Tony Stark’s persona if he were played as a villain, but he’s just too openly celebrated in the film for it to work for me. When he jokes about a beautiful woman standing next to his ride, “Does she come with the car?” we’re supposed to think “What a cool dude!” instead of “What a vile pig!”, which is the film’s main problem in a nutshell. Perhaps as his relationship with Potts develops the more grotesque aspects of his personality will soften, but for now I mostly find Stark to be a source of embarrassment. This isn’t helped at all by director Jon Favreau’s now-extended glorified cameo as Stark’s personal driver, since it confronts the viewer with the film’s oddly conservative power fantasy looking us in the eye, desperately hoping some of his creation’s supposed cool will rub off on him.

There’s so much going on in Iron Man 2 that had me rooting for the film – mostly in the superhero/villain antics of ScarJo, Rourke, and Cheadle. It’s just a shame that Iron Man had to get in the way of what makes Iron Man 2 work. When one character warns Stark, “The device keeping you alive is also killing you” I found myself thinking, “Would his death really be so bad for this franchise?” I doubt that was the desired effect.

EPSON MFP image

three star

Boomer: When Brandon told me that he had watched this film, I expressed my sympathies and referred to IM2 as the nadir of the MCU. Upon rewatch, however, this film was a lot better than I remembered, and outpaces The Incredible Hulk easily. The problem, I think, is that I had never actually sat through the entire film from beginning to end without commercial interruption, which bloats the already overlong film out to an interminable three hours and exacerbates the film’s pacing problems as well. It’s not great, but there were a lot more fun elements present than I remembered. Unfortunately, those moments are buried under a mountain of bizarre acting choices, miscast roles, and about 50% more subplots than any film should try to support.

How many subplots are there? Do we define the main plot as “Tony Stark attempts to find the cure for the blood toxicity problem caused by his arc reactor,” given that this would presuppose that “Tony faces off against the son of a man from whom his father may have stolen ideas” is not also the main plot? Of course, that would also further presuppose that “Tony faces off against the spoiled, rich weapons manufacturer who he could have been (and kinda is)” is not also the main plotline. Right away, the fact that all three of these ideas are primary narratives in their own right means that the film is overloaded. Then there are all the subplots: the Senate subcommittee hearings, the tension between Tony and Rhodey as the latter is pressured by the government to obtain an Iron Man suit, Pepper’s promotion to CEO of Stark Industries, the introduction and integration of Black Widow and the reveal of her true alliances, the uneasy alliance between Vanko and Hammer, Tony coming to understand his father’s real legacy and accept their emotional distance, and Tony forging a new element (“LOL” -everyone who paid even the barest minimum attention in high school chemistry). Every time the film changes scenes, you find yourself thinking “Oh, right, these people are doing things in this movie too; I forgot.” There are too many sequences in the film, and by the final act, there’s such a sense of narrative fatigue that you can hardly bring yourself to care.

A lot of the performances are flat and, frankly, terrible. ScarJo’s Black Widow had a lot of presence in the first Avengers film, and her appearance in Captain America: The Winter Soldier is far and away one of the best things in an inarguably fantastic film, but here, she’s wooden and unlikable. There are a few moments in which her emotionless seems like a façade (the way she drops her smile when Happy makes dismissive and sexist assumptions about her physical prowess is a nicely underplayed moment, actually), but it’s obvious that she had a hard time finding this character. Of course, given that her character seems poorly thought out on paper as well, this is hardly a surprise. Paltrow’s Pepper is also more of a damsel in this film than she was in the last, which is a disappointment, and Cheadle’s Rhodey is written as decisive in his actions but easily swayed in his motivations; both of them feel like they were written down in this installment in praise of the almighty Tony Stark.

Speaking of which, Tony Stark is a self-important blowhard who lacks humility, not entirely unlike Downey (who’s basically a white Kanye with an ego that the general public doesn’t police as heavily because of his whiteness); in order to make him more likable, his villains have to be utterly devoid of any redeeming features that could accidentally render them sympathetic. Ivan Vanko can’t just be a prodigal son seeking revenge on the child of the man who he believes stole his father’s legacy, he has to be a criminal who sold uranium to terrorists, and his father must also have been involved in wartime espionage. Senator Stern can’t possibly be presented as someone with reasonable objections to Tony Stark’s self-described privatization of worldwide peacekeeping; he has to be a barely-competent parody of fear-mongering, war-hungry senatorial arrogance. And Justin Hammer can’t just be a rival industrialist who wants to experience the successes that seem to come so easy to Tony Stark; he has to be a spoiled brat infatuated with his own decadent lifestyle and possessed of the misconception that he is capable of being intimidating, with occasional bouts of impotent rage.

Everyone in this movie feels like they’re slumming it, and the bad performances I mentioned earlier really show through in regards to the villains. Sam Rockwell is particularly terrible. I mentioned above that this movie has a longer running time than is necessary or warranted, and the film doesn’t have to be as long as it is, either. It’s unusual to feel a film’s length because of performative choices, but a good five percent of this film consists of Rockwell (and, to a lesser extent, Downey) repeating and repeating their lines, not for emphasis but as filler. Every scene that Rockwell is in feels interminable, and it only gets worse once he breaks Vanko out of prison and enlists him to make Hammer’s failed experiments moderately functional, with Rourke’s choices as the Russian criminal/mechanical genius almost (but not quite) working based purely on their sheer audacity. Without these two characters, almost nothing of substance would have been lost (less the Monaco racing/action sequence, which was a better set piece than the overloaded finale and a highlight of the film). Further, more time could have been spent focusing on the way Tony’s self-destructive behavior pushed his friends away, rather than abbreviating that plot point.

Overall, Iron Man 2 is a film that is overburdened by too many ideas, only half of which should have made it past the first draft. Returning characters are marginalized in lieu of introducing two major villains, when the plot of Tony’s poisoning and his completion of his father’s legacy would have been sufficient to carry a grounded and compelling film. Instead, those interesting narratives become so lost in the shuffle that by the time Tony invents his new element (LOL) you’ve already forgotten why he needs to. Still, I’d put it on nearly the same level as the first film, even if it doesn’t come together as coherently in the end.

Lagniappe

Brandon: Iron Man 2 feels like the MCU finally coming into its own. I get frustrated when the individual movies include references to other MCU properties with no in-the-moment consequence besides promoting The Next Big Show. There are indeed a few MCU calling cards left on the table here with no purpose for the task at hand – Captain America’s shield, Thor’s hammer, an envelope that reads “The Avengers Initiative” – but they’re isolated moments in a more general push to truly get the ball rolling. The biggest change here is that the characters of Sam Jackson’s Nick Fury & ScarJo’s Black Widow are given more to do than just to pop in & acknowledge their own existence. A move away from brief cameos toward active involvement is an important one. When Black Widow gets her hands dirty kicking nameless goons’ asses towards the film’s climax the crossover potential of MCU properties finally, excitingly sees some payoff. If it weren’t for Mickey Rourke’s lightning whips weirdness it would’ve been my favorite moment in a film that almost worked for me (when its titular “hero” protagonist wasn’t getting in the way).

Boomer: This film is really the first one in which a larger universe feels like it’s beginning to unfold, as evidenced by Nick Fury’s exasperation at having to deal with Tony Stark’s emotional problems when he has bigger fish to fry. Hammer and Vanko are distinctly disposable villains in a way that Obadiah Stane was not, which makes the decision to kill him off in the first film even more shortsighted; theoretically, we could see Hammer reappear, but it hasn’t happened yet, and I’m glad for it. Johansson will have solidified Natasha’s character by the time of her next appearance, and she definitely goes on to be one of my favorite things about the MCU as a whole. Even though I complained about the paper-thin characterization of Senator Stern above, I’m looking forward to his later appearances. Finally, one of the things that I really disliked about this film is that Tony, even when he is staring his mortality in the face, never seems to feel the weight of his impending death in a way that matures him; I’m looking forward to rewatching Iron Man 3, which I remember having the most depth of character of all three, despite its poor reputation.

Combined S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. Rating for Iron Man 2 (2010)

EPSON MFP image

three star

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