This may prove to be the most difficult review I’ve ever written in my twenty years (!) of reviewing movies. How do I ever begin to describe the events of Marvel’s culminating blockbuster Avengers: Endgame without stepping too far into the dark and dangerous territory of the accursed spoilers? I thought it would be difficult talking about last year’s Infinity War considering the shocking plot events and general secrecy, but this concluding chapter to a 22-movie journey is even more secretive (the trailer accounts for only footage roughly from the first twenty minutes). I’ll do my best, dear reader, to give you the clearest impression I can of this unique experience while respecting your need to be un-spoiled. In short, Avengers: Endgame is unparalleled in our history of modern popular blockbusters because it needs to work as a clincher to a decade-plus of hugely popular blockbusters for the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), and boy do they ever stick the landing.
The film picks up with our surviving Avengers picking up the pieces following the events of Infinity War, namely Thanos (Josh Brolin) eliminating half of life throughout the universe. The original six Avengers are all suffering through guilt, depression, and degrees of PTSD following their failure to defeat Thanos. Scott Lang a.k.a. Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) arrives after having spent time in the quantum realm and has a potential solution that will involve traveling through time to correct the mistakes of the past and bring everyone who vanished back to life. The remaining teammates assemble at the behest of Steve Rogers a.k.a. Captain America (Chris Evans), including Bruce Banner a.k.a. Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Black Widow (Scarlet Johannson), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Rocket Racoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper), Nebula (Karen Gillan), and War Machine (Don Cheadle). However Tony Stark a.k.a. Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) needs the most convincing, as he is most afraid of making things even worse and losing more people he feels are too precious to be casualties to their failures once again.
The thing to know ahead of time is that Endgame is not for the casual fan. This is a long love letter to the fans that have pored over all 22 preceding films, not just a scant one or two. Infinity War was accessible to relative newcomers because of the structure and focus on Thanos as the main character, providing a self-contained arc that lead up to his finger-snapping triumph. It also benefited from the fun factor of simply watching a bunch of popular characters interact and team up for the first time in MCU history. Now that a majority of those characters have turned to dust, the emphasis falls back on the original core of the Avengers, bringing things full circle. In several ways, Endgame is about bringing to a close this mammoth project that began with Iron Man, this decade of storytelling ambition that has stretched out into multiple inter-connected franchises. If you love these characters, then Endgame is a movie made specifically for you. There is a long stretch in Act Two that relies upon a decent amount of fan service and sentimentality, but I don’t think either is an automatically negative attribute. Before we reach the finish line it’s important to take stock of how far we’ve come and this goes for the essential characters and their long arcs. There are several fun cameos strewn throughout and the filmmakers even take an interesting tack of trying to reclaim and re-contextualize the MCU movies that fewer people enjoyed. It makes for a filmgoing experience that is heavy in references, in-jokes, Easter eggs, and cozy nostalgia, which will confuse and frustrate those not well versed in this big world.
The other thing to know, especially if you’re a long-standing fan, is that there will be tears. Oh will there be tears. I lost count of the amount of times I was crying, which was pretty much on and off nonstop for the final twenty minutes. I was even tearing up for supporting characters that I didn’t know I had that kind of emotional attachment for. The film is done so well that the first third actually could play as the MCU equivalent of HBO’s The Leftovers, an undervalued and elegant series about the long-term recovery of those that remain in a post-rapture world. The opening scene involves a character having to go through the loss of loved ones via Thanos’ snap, and it’s brutal as we wait for what we know is coming, dread welling up in the pit of your stomach. The Russo brothers, the returning directing team from Infinity War, know what scenes to play for laughs (the line “That’s America’s ass” had me in stitches), what scenes to play for thrills, what scenes to play for fist-pumping cheers, and what scenes to play for gut-wrenching drama. They allow the movie to be an existential mood piece when it needs to be, actually dwelling on the repercussions of a life post-universe culling. There’s a character who frantically searches to see if a loved one was among the missing, and that eventual reunion had me in tears. With the three-hour running time, the Russos have the luxury of allowing scenes to naturally breathe. This might be the most human many of these characters have ever seemed, and it’s after recovery and grief. Needless to say, the conclusion feels very much fitting but also unabashedly emotional, unafraid of diving deep into its feelings. I sobbed.
I was worried once the film introduced the time travel plot device that everything was simply going to be erased and invalidate the struggles that came before. The worst use of time travel is when it eliminates any urgency or danger, allowing an endless series of do-overs to correct the past. Fortunately, returning screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (Civil War, Winter Soldier) realize that in order for there to be a reversal, a glint of a happy ending, there must be a cost or else it all meant little to nothing. There are finite events in the movie that cannot change (as of now) and losses that will be permanent (as of now, if they don’t want to cheapen the journey). People died with Infinity War but we all knew, at least when it came to its dreary conclusion, that it wasn’t going to be too long lasting, which allowed the communal grief to be short-lived. After all, there’s a new Spider-Man film coming down the pike two months from now, so it’s highly unlikely the teenage web-head will remain dead. However, with Endgame, the deaths serve as the cost for resurrecting the MCU, and they will be felt for years. The screenplay provides limitations to the time travel mechanics, though I don’t think the collective hand-wave to the nagging paradoxes was as successful as the movie thinks it was. The film barrels ahead, essentially telling you to forget about the paradoxes and enjoy the ride, focusing on the characters and remembering what is really important.
Suffice to say Downey Jr. is once again his charming, self-effacing, and enormously entertaining self. The MCU began with this man and his contributions cannot be overstated. He is the soul of this universe. Evans is compelling as the straight-laced inspirational figure who takes stock of what he’s sacrificed over the years, Hemsworth showcases a potent mixture of comedic and dramatic chops, Johannson is definitely the Avenger going through the “bargaining” phase to try and make things right and she has some subtle emotional moments that belie her desperation and guilt, and Renner makes a welcomed return in a way that made me appreciate Hawkeye like I never had before. Brie Larson does reappear as Captain Marvel but the movie smartly puts her back on the sidelines protecting the many other worlds in the universe needing assistance because of how overwhelmingly powerful she can become. Larson filmed her scenes for Endgame before her own solo movie, released a month prior, so forgive the different hair and makeup, Twitter nit-pickers. I will say there is one scene that is a bit convoluted how it gets there but is destined to make women in the audience cheer with excitement as the MCU says, “Hey, that whole ‘strong female character’ thing? Yeah, we’ve had all that for years, and here you go.”
How does one properly assess a movie like Avengers: Endgame, a conclusion not just to an Infinity War cliffhanger but to a twenty-two movie prelude over the course of eleven years? The emotional investment in these characters, their journeys, has to come to something to be ultimately meaningful when it’s time to close the chapter on one massively ambitious story before starting the next. And there will be a next chapter; the MCU’s unparalleled financial success assures the fanbase they’ll have plenty more high-flying and wild adventures to come in the years, and more than likely, decades to come. Marvel had the unenviable task of wrapping up a major narrative in a way that would prove satisfying without devaluing the individual films and overall time investment. Hollywood is filled with trilogies that messed up their conclusions. Nailing the ending is just as important as getting things going right, because without a satisfying conclusion it can feel like that level of emotional investment was all for naught. Endgame reminds you how much you’ve grown to love these characters, what fun you’ve had, and genuinely how much you’ll miss these characters when they depart for good. It’s hard not to reflect upon your own passage of time with the ensuing eleven years, how you’ve changed and grown from the MCU’s humble beginnings in the summer of 2008. These heroes and anti-heroes can begin to feel like an extended family for many, and so fans desperately need the ending to do them justice. Avengers: Endgame is the ultimate fan experience.
Nate’s Grade: A
Coming off the cataclysm of Avengers: Infinity War, Marvel’s latest serves as a palate cleanser, a breezy and light-hearted comic adventure with little more on its mind than having fun with its possibilities and leaving the audience happy. The basic premise of a team of thieves that can shrink or expand at will calls for a light touch, and returning director Peyton Reed (Bring it On) and his team have a strong idea of what an Ant-Man movie should be. Ant-Man and the Wasp won’t blow anyone away with its story or characters but it hits a sweet spot of silly comic affability that kept me smiling.
Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is close to ending his two-year house arrest following the events of the Berlin brawl in Captain America: Civil War. His old partner Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lily) a.k.a. the Wasp is working with her scientist father, Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), to discover the location of the missing Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer), lost for decades in the subatomic quantum realm. They need Scott’s help to steal the final parts necessary to complete their quantum field transporter. There are other forces looking to make use of Hank Pym’s technology, namely Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), a woman who can phase through matter, and an unscrupulous local buyer (Walton Goggins) looking to profit. With the help of the Wasp, Scott Lang must protect his friends and allies so they can rescue Janet Van Dyne before she’s lost for good, and he cannot be caught before his house arrest period comes to an end or he’ll go to jail.
When any action movie has unique circumstances, especially those in the superhero realm because of their unique powers, I crave the proper development of the concept and the action sequences to make clever and imaginative use of their available tools. If you have characters that can shrink, that can make other objects big or small, and there’s a villain that can phase, then I expect a thorough and fun implementation of these elements to separate the movie from others. It takes a while to get going, but once the streamlined exposition is behind us, including multiple instances of explaining the plot to the audience, Ant-Man and the Wasp zips by on its sheer sense of sprightly whimsy and visual wonder. Paul Rudd (Wet Hot American Summer) is still as effortlessly charming as ever and elevates every scene partner. When it’s moving, the film does a fine job at entertaining, with funny quips and charming actors and visual panache. When it slows things down to explain or introduce perfunctory characters (looking at you, Laurence Fishburne) that’s when it becomes less than mighty. Ant-Man and the Wasp kept me laughing throughout, especially with the triumphant return of series MVP Michael Pena (CHIPs) as the energetic, motor-mouthed Luis. There are enjoyable payoffs strewn throughout and solid comic asides. It doesn’t feel too jokey to the point that nobody involved cares. It feels like everyone is united with the same mission statement.
The final act in particular is a blast, as now we have our MacGuffin and all of the various teams vying for it in an elaborate series of chase scenes. The cars are racing back and forth, under and over one another, with characters constantly jockeying for top position. It’s an exciting flourish to a conclusion, and every time a car went tiny for a split-second escape, or an ordinary item like a Pez dispenser went huge to form an obstacle, I grew happier and happier. The screenwriters unleashed a flurry of fun and zippy action ideas. Some will balk at the lower level of stakes in the Ant-Man films, or their general aw-shucks silly charm, but I view both as a virtue. Just because it’s a superhero movie doesn’t mean there can’t be a healthy degree of amusement, if properly executed and applied.
The villains are kept interesting enough, through concept or casting. With Ghost, here’s another character that can manipulate matter to her advantage. Her back-story is pretty ordinary (science experiment, looking for way to end pain/save her life) and kept mostly uncomplicated, as her plan is a matter of life and death. Hannah John-Kamen (Ready Player One) has a terrific look and physicality to her, but she’s lacking anything really memorable to do as a performer. Her character has some cool moves but that’s all. It feels like more could have been done with this antagonist. Then there’s genteel local criminal Sonny Burch who is given great gusto by Walton Goggins (The Hateful Eight). It’s like he simply plugged his Justified character’s smooth charisma. He’s a gentleman robber who has just enough self-awareness to acknowledge the absurd. A highlight of the film is an exchange between Goggins and Pena. He’s so good in such a relatively throwaway criminal role that I wish Marvel had saved Goggins for something grander down the line, something to really let his charisma seep into his wild, anarchic energy below the surface.
With all that said, the events involving the rescue of Janet Van Dyne are the weakest parts of the movie, and this saps the other Van Dyne characters as well. I just found myself caring very little for this excursion into the quantum realm, especially when we have fancy heists and opponents who can walk through walls. I understand the importance the rescue mission has with the other characters, but it didn’t feel that important to me. I was more invested in Scott’s ever-increasing near misses being caught breaking his house arrest, which was days away from being lifted by the FBI. Those scenes gave me the delightful Randall Park too (TV’s Fresh Off the Boat). Maybe it’s a casualty of the film’s genial tone, but I think the real culprit why I found myself unmoved is that the Janet rescue is the core storyline attached to Hope and Hank. Beforehand, Hank Pym served as a grumpy mentor figure for Scott, and now he’s mostly complaining about Scott’s exploits and how they invariably jeopardize the retrieval of his wife. Hope gets her spotlight, and name in the title, as Wasp, but she too is saddled with the same humdrum boring material. Lily (The Hobbit films) goes from scene to scene with a cloud of pinched annoyance. They’ve taken two characters who were more interesting in the first film, sanded off things that made them interesting, and bumped up their screen time, which is not a great formula. Everyone seems so irritable around this plotline, and when you haven’t invested much in it, that irritation becomes dangerously off-putting.
If you’re looking for silly, lighthearted escapism, Ant-Man and the Wasp is a superhero flick with entertainment as its top priority and enough infectious fun to achieve its more modest goal. It doesn’t follow the heist formula of the first film but it still finds room for comic asides and stacking payoffs for a lively, inventive final act. It’s definitely a lesser movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) but you need adventures in lower stakes too, especially after twenty movies and counting. Ant-Man and the Wasp could have used some fine-tuning and tightening, especially in its second act, and the quantum stuff definitely didn’t register for me, but it’s a mostly fun and acceptable summer escapade.
Nate’s Grade: B
For the longest time it looked like Ant-Man might be the first dud of the runaway successful Marvel cinematic universe (MCU), a film franchise that was practically printing money at its leisure. It’s a strange setup and the man responsible for the movie even existing, writer/director Edgar Wright (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), walked away six weeks before cameras were going to roll. Wright was a big fan of the character and has been working on and off on a screenplay with Joe Cornish (Attack the Block) for the past eight years. Before there was an MCU, there was Wright pushing for Ant-Man. I’m pretty sure Marvel execs weren’t thinking the relatively unknown character was worth sinking money into, but Wright kept pushing. I was far more excited for an Edgar Wright superhero movie than I ever was for Ant-Man, and then it all went away. Neither side has spilled too many details but it appears the divorce was a result of “creative differences,” which is odd since Marvel approved Wright’s script through eight years of development. Several directors were auditioned and Peyton Reed won the spot. The fact that Marvel has gained a rep for being a formula-driven creative committee and they literally hired a director with a film credit called Yes Man is an irony I don’t know that fully sank in. If Marvel was going to miss, this was the film. A funny thing happened in the ensuring year. Ant-Man is a visually engaging, energetic, and funny superhero caper that stays fun from start to finish and is a more entertaining movie than Avengers: Age of Ultron. Didn’t see that coming.
Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is a master cat burglar just finishing the end of his prison term. Lang was punished for a “cool crime,” stealing millions a large corporation had illegally bilked form customers and returning it to the very victims, but it makes it hard to secure gainful employment. Scott falls back with his old crew, lead by his pal Luis (Michael Pena), and break’s into Hank Pym’s (Michael Douglas) safe. Expecting cash and jewels, Scott is disappointed to only find a weird looking suit, which he takes anyway. Hank observes Scott and communicates with him about the power of the suit. The wearer can shrink down to the size of n ant with the push of a button in the glove. Hank needs a protégée to wear the suit now that he’s too old. His estranged daughter, Hope (Evangeline Lilly), is working for Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), a scientist close to breaking through on replicating the amazing shrinking formula of Pym’s. As soon as Cross cracks the code, he’s going to sell the technology to the highest bidder (hail HYDRA). Hank must convince Scott to become the Ant-Man and sneak inside Cross’ secured workshop and steal his technology before it gets in the wrong-er hands.
Arguably weirder than last summer’s Guardians of the Galaxy, which had a talking tree and space raccoon amongst its main characters, Ant-Man is the hardest property to sell by Marvel yet, and it smartly aims its sights lower and succeeds with the modest goal of just being a fun and enjoyable time at the movies. It helps that the movie doesn’t take itself too seriously and has characters pointing out the absurdity of its premise and developments, but not past the point where it would be detrimental. Let’s face it, a guy who can shrink down to ant-size isn’t that weird when you consider the applications, especially in espionage. The filmmakers do an admirable job of selling a superpower that pales in comparison to most other heroes on the market. However, the weirder power is that Scott has the ability to communicate and control ants via brainwaves. That seems like the even bigger superpower but it also begs the question, why simply ants? Of all the animals or living creatures who could be harnessed with this technology, we go with the tiny ones. There may be an explanation in the history of Ant-Man comics I’m missing but that doesn’t matter when we’re talking about the execution of the movie. The guy is able to control different species of ants with his mind. He is no Ant-Man but the Ant-King. Anyway, I think this power could be much more effective applied elsewhere. The ants are Scott’s friends and he has to train himself training them, getting them to coordinate and assist him properly, or else… there’s not much else at stake because they’re expendable. Perhaps their queen could have eaten Scott if he were unsuccessful.
On its surface, this movie should not work and is too goofy and insubstantial to engage, and yet that’s precisely what appealed to me. Not every superhero film needs to be averting a cataclysm that will destroy the planet. If the stakes feel big to our characters, and if the audience cares, then the stakes feel plenty big for us too. Scott simply foiling the corporate bad guy to be in a better position to see his daughter, that’s workable. Then the storyline is told through a heist, one of cinema’s most enjoyable plot mechanics. Heists are programmed for audience pleasure because it requires teamwork, which utilizes our cast in different and fun ways, it brings plenty of conflict and complications, and it lays out its steps one-by-one and provides a series of payoffs with the completion. It’s a tribute to Reed and the filmmakers that the heist portion of the film isn’t even the most fun part of the story. The majority of the middle is Scott coming to terms with the suit, his powers, his relationships in his life, and the mission. There’s probably one too many training montages (yeah, you get those sugar cubes you ants!) but the pacing is so breezy and the sense of fun so palpable, I didn’t mind. The use of humor never diminishes and Rudd is such a charismatic anchor for the movie, and yet he’s actually somewhat underplayed. He has it within him to be much funnier, but I guess he had to dial it down to effectively be seen as an action hero, hence the presence of newfound abs.
I didn’t have a lot of hope for the film once Wright left but I have to credit Reed for what he has achieved. It’s impossible for me to divorce myself from Wright’s involvement, and what kind of kinetic fireworks he would have birthed, but Reed manages to make Ant-Man come alive visually. Reed’s prior history shows an affinity for comedy but the films have never needed to be visually stylish, though I’d argue my super not-guilty pleasure Bring it On had an above average sense of visual spunk. Still, Ant-Man is a consistently visually immersive film that manages to find new perspectives. Scott’s first foray as a shrunken Ant-Man is an entertaining adventure through the dangers of a house party. The action sequences in miniature are treated just as we would expect a large-scale superhero epic to be treated, and then Reed pulls back at times for prime comic effect, like a battle atop a train that’s really just a child’s toy set. The visuals grandeur is patterned after the typical Hollywood action epic but the movie pulls back repeatedly to remind us how silly everything can be. The small world perspective opens up the movie in its storytelling and definitely in its action choreography. Because the Ant-Man has super strength when small, it behooves him to shift between small and human sizes when fighting. We’ll watch Scott race across the barrel of a gun in one second and then full-sized and hurling a security guard through a plate glass window the next. It provides a new sense of dynamism to basic fisticuffs. Reed takes advantage of the visual possibilities of his pint-sized super hero, like a clever battle that takes place entirely inside the contents of a briefcase. I chose not to watch this film in 3D, as my preferred option, but this is one I would almost consider going 3D. The shrunken worlds use a lot of macro photography to maximize the effect of depth.
The cast also seems to be perfectly attuned to the comic rhythms of the story and several supporting players make the most of their moments to shine. Pena (Fury) is hilarious as the easily excitable friend given to lengthy diversions when retelling his tales of intrigue. The two instances where Pena breathlessly recaps what so-and-so said to so-and-so are two of the most playful and comically fulfilling sequences in the movie. I also enjoyed the fact that he’s always making waffles for his friends but this is never overtly commented upon. While Pena provides another dose of humor, the heart of the movie is really the father-daughter relationship, and it’s nice that Lilly (The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies)’s character is given such prominence. She resents Scott because she feels like by every right she should be the Ant-Man; the movie presents the two like bickering rivals fighting for the approval of a father figure. Hope’s credible grievances with her father are treated with weight and her reconciliation is given as much screen time as Scott’s training, pairing the two more as equals. Douglas (Last Vegas) is a warm and welcoming presence as a mentor working through his regrets late in his life. The de-aging CGI effects are amazing early on, showing a 1989 version of Douglas that looks pristine. He looks like he just stepped off the set of Ruthless People. The only weak point is Stoll (TV’s The Strain) but that’s because his underwritten villain is just too generic to blend in amidst all the colorful characters and comic mayhem.
It’s impossible to watch Ant-Man and not try to imagine what it would have been like had Wright remained as its director. Wright’s presence is still felt in stretches and he and Cornish are still the top-billed screenwriters, with the addition of Adam McKay (Anchorman) and Rudd himself performing a rewrite. I’d love to one day read what Wright’s full script was like and what Marvel eventually decided they could not abide. Whatever the case may be, the Ant-Man that made it to the big screen across the world is a surprisingly entertaining and spry piece of work. Reed provides a nice dash of visual flavor without losing its sense of the comedy or drama, Rudd is effortlessly charming, and the structure provides plenty of payoffs. Above all else the movie maintains a sense of fun and a lightness in an arena too often overwrought with doom and gloom. I don’t imagine there will be any Ant-Man sequels soon since the character is rather limited, but expect to see Rudd popping up in other MCU titles (he’s already been spotted filming Captain America 3). Ant-Man is a fun diversion but even Marvel knows not to push its luck too far.
Nate’s Grade: B
With all respects to Ice Cube’s would-be family series, the subtitle of the third Hobbit film could have been “Are We Done Yet?” Originally planned as two films, the prequel series based upon J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel was expanded to three, and it’s clear what motivated this decision. Each Hobbit film has made at least $900 million dollars, but goodness has it padded an already bloated series beyond repair. The best part of the second film, which looking back is the best in the new trilogy, Smaug the dragon, is gone in the first ten minutes. What follows is a pointless and tedious series of events, mostly CGI armies crashing into other CGI armies. It’s hard to find much to care about after six plus hours especially when it amounts to squabbles over treasure. It’s also bothersome that the antagonist for a solid hour is Thorin who adopts… gold madness suddenly, and then loses it just as suddenly and as contrived. You can feel the weight of all this filler trying to stretch what amounts to a protracted resolution into a full-blown movie. The battles are relentlessly soulless and have lost any weight to reality. There’s one standout action sequence involving a crumbling tower acting as a makeshift bridge. Beyond that, get ready for overlong battles involving lots of fake soldiers and monsters. With no larger goal in motion, you’re just waiting for the bad guys to die so we can go home. While Battle of the Five Armies is the shortest film in the series, it’s still about 120 minutes longer than it needs to be. The business of the Hobbit has affected the artistry of The Hobbit, and only Tolkien apologists would lap up the extra time in Middle Earth.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Back to another three-hour trip to Middle Earth. While the second Hobbit film is an improvement in just about every way, it’s still a clear example of a franchise stretching to the breaking point. Peter Jackson gets the second installment moving a lot quicker, and there are several standout action sequences that are glorious on the big screen. Unfortunately it still takes almost two full hours to get to the dragon of the title, but when it does, oh does the movie become that much grander. Benedict Cumberbatch gives frightful life to Smaug (pronounced, for whatever reason, as “Smaa-oog”), and the special effects are top-notch. The last forty minutes of the movie are solid gold, as Bilbo and the dwarves work together to battle Smaug in a virtuoso development of imaginative action; it’s wonderful how many moving parts are involved in this action set piece. However, Hobbit 2 still feels needlessly padded to meet out a trilogy. Does Gandalf (Ian McKellen) need to just disappear on his own mission that accomplishes what? Do I care at all about the people of Lake Town let alone their populist revolts? Do I need a parallel storyline about an injured dwarf? And for that matter, do I need a budding lady elf-dwarf romance? J.R.R. Tolkien fans will be in heaven (though maybe just purgatory with all the changes) to gawk at the realm of Middle Earth, but I always feel antsy (“Get on with it already”). Still, The Desolation of Smaug is an entertaining and at times majestic fantasy epic, I just wish Jackson and company didn’t take so many pit stops. Well at least we won’t have to wait so long for the dragon in Hobbit 3.
Nate’s Grade: B
In the future world of Real Steel, set in 2020, robot boxing has become a huge sensation. It seems that audience bloodlust was not being satisfied with flesh and blood hitting the canvas, so robot brutality will do. Whatever happened to mixed martial arts, a sport arguably more popular than boxing in this day and age, popular enough it even got its own uplifting sports drama earlier this year (the overlooked Warrior). I strongly doubt that in only nine years we’d have giant fighting robots and that this “sport” would be nationally recognized. Did anyone see Comedy Central’s mechanical Coliseum showdown, Battlebots? There’s your answer, America.
In this future world where trucks have glass panels to show the world your feet (why? Because it’s “futuristic” you fool), Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) is a has been. He enjoyed a fleeting career as a professional boxer before the mechanical men came into popularity. Now he goes from town to town trying to scrounge up some petty money with small-market robot boxing rings. His only pal is Bailey (Evangeline Lilly), his former flame and the owner of the boxing ring/chop shop that Charlie calls home. Charlie owes plenty of money to plenty of not nice people. His solution arrives in the form of his 11-year-old son, Max (Dakota Goyo). Charlie ran out on Max and his mother when Max was a baby, but now mom’s dead and custody is being discussed. Mom’s aunt (Hope Davis) and her rich hubby want Charlie to sign away his parental rights, which he agrees to do for the right price. Max spends one last/first summer with his estranged father before going off to live with his auntie. The two bond when Max discovers a beat-up old sparring robot when father and son are skimming parts illegally at a junkyard. The old bot, which Max names Atom, becomes a champion fighter. Father and son ride the success all the way to a championship bout with Zeus, a legendary robot that destroys all challengers. Can they stun the world? Can father and son bury the hatchet? If these answers are in doubt, I advise you to see any sports movie ever released.
Just in case you stood clueless and slack jawed at the film’s storytelling prowess, you’re in luck because every character will take great pains to explain the significance of plot points, key metaphors and symbols, and personal motivations. Usually this stuff is tucked away as subtext, but Reel Steal decided that it would rather rub the audience’s nose in the architecture of its screenplay. Characters will just go around speaking blurting out their feelings in the most transparent way possible: “I can’t be with you again, I’m afraid of being hurt again, and seeing you in that ring is like seeing my father again in that ring, and fighting this fight is your attempt to regain redemption and prove yourself wrong, and the robot is old and busted but still has some fight in it left, just like you Charlie…” It gets tiresome. Max squeals, “All I’ve ever wanted was for you to fight for me!” Your dad’s kind of a lout, kid. You’d be better off being adopted by your preposterously rich aunt, which is really the moral we learned from Annie. Who talks like these people? It’s astounding how blatant the film is about explaining its sotry mechanics so that the dumbest common denominator in the audience can walk away feeling like Roger Ebert (“Did you notice how the robot was a metaphor for Charlie? I did.”).
Never in my life would I have anticipated that someone would watch Over the Top and say, “What if we added robots?” This movie essentially is a souped-up version of Sylvester Stallone’s 1987 flick where a dad fights for the custody of his kids through the weirdly court-approved process of the gentleman’s game of arm wrestling. First off, who in their right mind would make a movie about professional arm wrestling? There’s a reason this specific sports genre still stands with one entry. Charlie finds redemption over one summer spent with the kid he abandoned and then sold. The strange thing is that Max knows from the start that he’s more a commodity than a valued son. Yet he still bonds with dear old dad though he’s still going off to live with his rich aunt by the end. The father/son relationship becomes the heart of the movie, but what good can come from two annoying characters learning to get along? They’re still too annoying for me.
Charlie’s fight to become a better father is hampered by the fact that I wanted to strangle his kid. There was rarely a moment that passed where I didn’t want to punt this little brat. From the moment he first steps on screen, Max is surly and aggravating. Given that he’s meeting the father who abandoned him, I’d expect some confrontation but this little twerp cops a bratty attitude throughout. He hops on the boxing ring mic and walks around with a phony swagger and challenges the biggest baddest robot. The kid seems like a chip off the ole block, falling victim to hubris just like dead. When Goyo (Thor) screams it becomes a high-pitched caterwaul that caused me to writhe in physical pain. The subplot of Max teaching the robot how to dance is just embarrassing. You better believe the kid teaches his metal friend how to do the robot. The young actor deserves a fair share of the blame. Goyo flounders, overselling every emotion and hovering at a persistant petulant level of acting. I do not advocate the endangerment of children, obviously but I’d be lying if I failed to admit that I would have slept soundly had Max tumbled to his death in the robot junkyard. Goyo is so powerfully awful that he may well be the tarred as the Jake Lloyd of this decade (Lloyd infamously played the twerpy kiddie Darth Vader in the first of the regrettable Star Wars prequels). It’s hard for me to root for the reunion of father and son when I’d rather see father bury son in the ground.
Real Steel is littered with nonsensical or dropped subplots, the worst offense being Atom’s secret. It’s revealed midway into the film that Atom is not just a sparring robot but a sentient being. It’s faking that it can only shadow human movement. When Charlie “teaches” Atom how to box he really is teaching the robot, though conveniently Atom seems to keep this knowledge to itself. Even when it’s being battered mercilessly, Atom doesn’t employ the skills it’s been taught. Maintaining his cover is more important than self-preservation, so suck on that Asimov. The fact that Atom is sentient is the filmmaker’s desperate attempt to add empathy to the robot. Without sentience, the robot is just a junky avatar that can be scrapped. It’s a piece of equipment but if sentient it becomes a character we can feel for. You don’t share empathy with a coffee maker. I kept waiting for this secret to somehow get out because it’s kind of a monumental deal. But it never does get out. The story never once revisits this gigantically important revelation. What does this mean about other robot boxers? Are they too sentient? What do they think about destroying each other for sport? There are important questions here that are ignored. What’s the point of making Atom sentient if you never do anything with it? It’s only a ploy to drum up empathy, but at no point does Atom feel like a character, only a collection of parts. It’s a coffee maker on steroids.
The movie borrows liberally from other sports movies, taking the emotional beats from Rocky and the family drama from a film like The Champ, though loses the downer ending. Everything is too recognizable, too formulaic, as if it was assembled on a factory floor. The only points of surprise are when Real Steel just carelessly drops plotlines, as mentioned above. What’s the point of introducing a plot point like the robots can malfunction if hit correctly in Act One and not have it resurface in Act Three? Jackman (X-Men) acts with all the power his neck veins can afford. He seems to be constantly growling or on the precipice of said growling. The romantic subplot with Bailey is an undeveloped thread only meant to tie back together into a pretty bow at the plot’s earliest convenience. Lily (TV’s Lost) plays the “girl,” which means all she’s given to do is remind the hero of his potential and be the warm body waiting in bed. But this is a family film, so we stop at late-night cuddling. Then Max ends up being a savant at mechanical engineering and electronics because… he plays video games? Give me a break. And it just so happens that every character we’ve been introduced to will be in attendance for the big fight, even the Texas bookie (the great and underutilized Anthony Mackie). Wouldn’t Detroit bookies take umbrage to this?
Do you like reaction shots? Real Steel is chock full of them: people wincing, people yelling and clapping at TVs, people muttering under their breath the optimistic instructions, “C’mon, c’mon, c’mon.” You accept some reaction shots as part pf the terrain of the sports movie, but when they’re presented in excess then it becomes a crutch, the director reminding the audience what to feel with the subtlety of a sharp stick to the eye. Then again subtlety was never the forte of director Shawn Levy, he of Date Night and Night at the Museum fame. The special effects are strong and the boxing sequences even have some livened suspense to them, though why would anyone build a robot boxer with two heads? What advantage does that offer other than two things to hit? Levy gets lost in the special effects and treats the actors with the same indifferent level of care that the humans show the robots.
Real Steel wants to be a rousing, family-friendly crowd pleaser; it just won’t ever let you forget that this is its primary function. This outlandish sports flick is much like its robotic pugilists: big, dumb, loud, and prone to malfunction. The film has no faith in its audience’s intelligence so every feeling and symbol is plainly explained with unwanted diligence. The characters are unlikable or underwritten, the story is shackled by lockstep devotion to formula, and Goyo’s wretched performance makes it damn near impossible to sympathize with the father/son reunion. Filled with unresolved plot setups and a mystifying similarity to Over the Top, Real Steel is just like every other boxing movie on record except this one has robots. I’m fairly certain the screenwriters were robots too. Why else would they make a robot becoming sentient seem like no big deal? Obviously this is propaganda to lull us into complacency before the impending robot war. Real Steel is a classic example of a movie done by committee; it feels like it was crudely assembled from the spare parts of other, better movies.
Nate’s Grade: C