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Justice League (2017)

The story behind the Justice League movie is one of turmoil and turnover. Zack Snyder has been the cinematic voice for the DC film universe (DCU) and, if you listen to enough critics and fans, the weight holding down the franchise. Justice League began filming in the spring of 2016, which means they had a considerable lead time before release. Either they went into production with a script they were unhappy with or they learned it. A year later, in the spring of 2017, Snyder bowed out of his directorial duties to spend more time with his family in the aftermath of his daughter’s suicide. Enter Joss Whedon, the wunderkind behind Marvel’s record-breaking Avengers. The studio was unhappy with Snyder’s rough-cut, deeming the footage “useable,” and tapped Whedon to make drastic reshoots. He rewrote the film enough to earn a writing credit from the WGA. Complicating the already pricey reshoots was star Henry Cavill’s mustache, a holdover from the filming of Mission: Impossible 6. He wasn’t permitted to shave his ‘stach, and so Warner Bros. was forced to pay likely millions… to digitally erase Cavill’s facial hair (DCU is 0-2 when it comes to mustaches this year). The final product is being met with great fanfare, hope, and curiosity. If anybody could save this project it’s Whedon, right? Well Justice League could have been renamed Super Hero Fatigue: The Movie.

Months (?) after the death of Superman (Cavill), Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) is traveling the world and recruiting a very specific group of job candidates. He needs serious help to combat an oncoming alien adversary, Steppenwolf (voiced by Cirian Hinds). The cosmic Big Bad is looking for three special boxes, a.k.a. mother boxes, to destroy the world. Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) helps Batman convince the half-man/half-machine hybrid Cyborg (Ray Fisher), underwater dweller Aquaman (Jason Momoa), and hyperactive speedster Flash (Ezra Miller) to form a league of sorts to thwart Steppenwolf.

Aggressively bland, lazy, and unmemorable, I was genuinely left questioning whether Justice League was somehow worse because it wasn’t worse. It’s not the aggravating stew that was Batman vs. Superman or Suicide Squad, but those weren’t exactly difficult hurdles to clear. To put it in another colorful analogy: while it may not be a flaming dumpster fire, it’s just a dumpster, something you wouldn’t give any mind to because, hey, it’s just a normal dumpster, and why would you even want to spend time looking at that anyway? That’s Justice League for you, a DCU super hero film that’s better by default and still disappointing to the point that you wish it would be mercy killed to spare us a prolonged death rattle. This movie is ground down to the raw pulp of a super hero movie. It lacks personality. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before from a modern super hero film. An ensemble of poorly developed characters must band together to stop a dumb villain from world annihilation with a giant energy portal in the sky. There have been now five DCU films in this sputtering cinematic universe and three movies fit that formulaic description. Even the 2015 Fantastic Four remake followed this. The draw of this film is its mythical heroes, yet they are so lazily developed that we rarely feel any sense of awe or reverence with them. The cast chemistry is relatively strong and the actors have been well chosen, but let’s go person-by-person in this league to determine just how poorly the story serves them.

Batman has become the Nick Fury of this new post-Superman world, taking charge assembling a team to combat a more dire, powerful alien threat. He’s the least super in many regards and has fleeting moments contemplating his mortality, but just when you think they might give the older Batman some depth, they pull back. His biggest relationship is with Wonder Woman and their central conflict feels contrived. He’s angry at her for not getting more involved (hey, Wonder Woman, you got out there for WWI but sat out the Holocaust?). It feels like a strange managerial tiff. Affleck (Live by Night) seems to have gotten more growly and smug. Gadot (Keeping Up with the Joneses) scowls and scoffs. Considering they’ve each lead a DCU movie, we should be more attached to them in this story. He’s not fun to be around and neither is she. The new members have some degree of promise.

Aquaman is a gruff, shaggy, tattooed loner embodied by Jason Momoa, and his performance works better than the character does. Momoa (Game of Thrones) is charismatic as a wild man but he comes across as a fraternity jock. His cocky, carefree persona and aesthetic are trying too hard to re-imagine Aquaman as a sexy superhero for today. The underwater action scene in Atlantis is so cumbersomely filmed and staged that I think I realized, in that moment, how visually dreary underwater fight scenes are. There goes any last shred of interest in the solo Aquaman film coming in 2018. Cyborg is basically a modern Frankenstein story and should have had affecting characterization about the battle over reclaiming his humanity. Instead he becomes the plot equivalent of a Swiss army knife, able to open any locked device or technological obstacle.

The Flash/Barry Allen is the best part of the film by default (a familiar term in this review). Miller’s (Perks of Being a Wallflower) extra jubilant performance feels like a course correction from the criticism of how unflinchingly gloomy BvS was. He’s the stars-in-his-eyes rookie who is also a fanboy first, geeking out about getting to work with legends. It’s not just that the fanboy-as-hero angle was already tackled better by Marvel in Tom Holland’s newest edition of Spider-Man, it’s also that the film doesn’t know when to stop. Barry Allen has to quip for every occasion. While some belie his insecurity and nervousness about being promoted to the front lines of hero work, several are forced. The coolest thing he can do is run so fast time slows down, yet we’ve already seen this displayed better and with more witty panache in the recent X-Men films with Quicksilver. Flash is the only character with anything resembling an arc, and this amounts to little more than not being as terrible at fighting and getting a job. He makes his dad proud… by getting a job, and this is sadly the best example of a character arc in Justice League.

Another course correction was ditching overly complicated plotting for simplification, which can be a virtue. With Justice League, simplicity gives way to a dispirited lack of ambition and effort. The plot is thusly: Batman has to recruit a team to stop a Big Bad from getting three boxes buried around the world. Perhaps some will characterize this as a facetious oversimplification, but that’s really all that’s going on for two hours. The only other significant plot turn is the resurrection of Superman. The concluding image of BvS was the dirt hovering over Clark Kent’s casket, heavily implying he was coming back, so this really shouldn’t be a spoiler. The heroes suddenly decide the mother boxes can bring Superman back, and they know how to do it, and then just do it, without any setup. If it had been Cyborg who came up with this plan since he shares the alien technology that could have made some degree of sense. No, it’s Bruce Wayne who comes up with this idea, a man with no experience with alien technology. The heroes use one of the magic mother boxes to bring Superman back from the dead and then, inexplicably, leave it behind for our villain to capture. Literally the characters look over their shoulders and, whoops, a giant energy vortex has sucked up the final item needed to destroy the world. Maybe one of you should have had somebody watching that important thing.

There are other moments that speak to the troubles of simplicity leading to laziness. The opening sequence with Wonder Woman involves a group of criminals taking hostages in a bank. Oh, these are sophisticated bank robbers you might guess. No, these are, in their own outlandish words, “reactionary terrorists,” and they’re here to set off a bomb. Why did you have to enter the bank, let alone take hostages, and call attention to yourselves then? Would a bevy of car bombs not get the job done? These guys are on screen just to be dispatched by Wonder Woman, but at least put some effort into them. Here’s another example of the effects of oversimplification. Steppenwolf’s base of operations is an Eastern European/Russian bloc city in the wake of an abandoned nuclear facility. We see one desperate family fret over the flying Steppenwolf hench-demons and barricade themselves in their home. We then keep cutting back to them again and again. Will they have a greater importance? Is the final mother box to be found underneath their home? No, they are merely an on-the-ground a perspective and offer no insights, complications, or interest. We just keep checking in with them as if they are the most irrelevant war correspondent. When the climactic battle ensues, they’re the sole lives we see in danger from the epic fighting.

The villain is also a severe liability, as Steppenwolf feels plucked from a mid 2000s video game. He feels like a mini-boss from a God of War game. Not a boss battle, a mini-boss. His entire character design is ugly and resembls a goat. He may be twelve feet tall or whatever he is but he is completely unremarkable and nonthreatening. He wants to bring about the end of the world by collecting his three world-destroying MacGuffins and making them cross the streams. His back-story happens midway through the film and is shockingly a rip-off of the Cate Blanchett-narrated prologue from The Lord of the Rings. All the races of the world and beyond teamed up against this dumb dude and then they took possession of his source of power, the three boxes to rule them all, and divided them up among the different races for safety. They’re even dressed like Middle Earth fantasy characters. They foolishly split up the boxes in a way that the bad guy would know exactly where they are if he ever came back. This lame villain is also hampered with a lame back-story. I don’t understand what about this character makes him invincible in the first half and what changes to make him beatable in the second half. His powers and potential weaknesses are ill defined and you too will struggle to work up any interest for what may be one of the most boring and useless villains in super hero film history. According to my pal Ben Bailey, Steppenwolf makes Malakeith (Christopher Eccleston) of Thor 2 look like Loki (Tom Hiddelston) in Thor 2.

Justice League feels like two movies indelicately grafted together, and if you have a trained eye for cinematography you’ll easily be able to spot the difference between the Snyder parts and the Whedon parts (final product looks 70 percent Snyder, 30 percent Whedon). Snyder is much more the visual stylist so his camera arrangements are far more dynamic, and his cinematography also makes more use of space within the frame, especially from the foreground and background. His scenes also have a more crisp, filmic look. By contrast, the Whedon scenes feel overly clumsy and with too much strained humor. The Whedon humor holds on a beat longer, as if it’s waiting for a canned laughter response to clear. Lois Lane (Amy Adams) remarks about how Superman smells, Martha Kent (Diane Lane) drops a malapropism about her son calling Lois the “thirstiest reporter,” Barry Allen’s inability to grasp what is brunch, which is the only thing shoehorned into the middle of Snyder footage. Then the brunch joke is brought up again in the first post-credit scene, which had me convinced that Whedon was going to produce some sort of meta moment with the Justice League final post-credit scene mirroring The Avengers, with the team out enjoying a casual meal together. Not only do I think I enjoyed the Snyder parts better but I think I also enjoyed the humor of the Snyder parts better.

The color correction is also completely different. Check out the Justice League trailers and you’ll see two different climaxes, one before Whedon that takes place in Snyder’s typical landscape of diluted grays and blues, and another after Whedon that looks to be set on Mars. An unintended consequence of altering the color correction so decisively is that the costumes suffer. These outfits were clearly designed for the landscape of colors for Snyder’s darker vision. Whedon’s brightening up makes the costumes look like discount cosplay. It’s not that the Snyder parts are that much better, it’s that the Whedon parts aren’t that great.

The action sequences are just as unmemorable as the rest of the movie. Action sequences need variation, they need mini-goals, and they need multiple points of action. There’s a reason many film climaxes involve different pairs or groups fighting different villains. It keeps the action fresh, involves all of the characters in meaningful ways, and provides more payoffs. The action becomes more dynamic and complex and simply entertaining. The action in Justice League is thoroughly underwhelming. With the exception of Cyborg being a hacker plot device, none of the characters use their powers in integral ways. All they do is punch and jump. When that happens the heroes are too interchangeable. They also don’t seem to do anything different in the third act nor does the climax require them to do anything different, so their victory as a team feels perfunctory and arbitrary. The special effects feel unfinished and unpolished for a $300 million movie. A sequence set on Wonder Woman’s home island looks like it was taken from a cheesy Dynasty Warriors video game. A montage during the conclusion has shockingly bad CGI of the Flash running in a goofy, gangly, leg-failing way that made me doubt Whedon’s eyesight. The most hilarious special effect, possibly of all time, is the fake Superman upper lip. It kept me analyzing every Cavill mouth I saw. His upper lip looked too waxy with shine and indented too widely. We are not there yet my friends for realistic mustache removal technology. We’ll just have to go back to old-fashioned razors and rue this primitive existence of ours.

Batman vs. Superman and Suicide Squad have already conditioned audiences to expect the worst, and the fact that Justice League is better may make some mistakenly believe this is a good super hero adventure. It’s not. While not the spectacular failure of its predecessors, this is extraordinarily forgettable and thoroughly underwhelming from top to bottom. I think I might have actually preferred Joss Whedon not being involved and simply releasing the full Zack Snyder cut. It would have been stylistically more coherent. Much of the Whedon reshoots do not feel like they are for the better. To be fair, he came in late and this franchise behemoth had already gone too far to fully alter its fate. There are small moments that work but the big moments are what fail. This movie is missing setups, payoffs, and character arcs. It’s missing pathos and emotion. It’s missing memorable action sequences that are exciting and varied. It’s missing basic internal logic. It’s missing a greater relevance. The villain is just an obstacle to be overcome without any larger thematic relevance. I struggled to care about what was happening. Ultimately, the finished product feels like Zack Snyder’s garage sale (“Here’s all the stuff you’re used to and maybe you’re tired of but I’m not gonna put that much effort into this so maybe we can haggle”). And then Joss Whedon bought it all, repackaged it, and sold it back to you, America. As dreadful as the previous movies were they at least had moments that stood out, many of them for the wrong reasons, admittedly. Justice League isn’t as bad and yet is paradoxically less watchable.

Nate’s Grade: C

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Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

10869325_591589580977275_2778898650041679518_oThe Avengers wasn’t just a blockbuster it was a mega-blockbuster and rewrote the Hollywood playbook in the summer of 2012. It wasn’t just about powerful franchises anymore. Now it was about franchises that would link into a super franchise. Sony got anxious to expand their Spider-Man universe in a similar fashion as Marvel had done in buildup to The Avengers. After one poor movie, that plan was scuttled and now Spider-Man is being rebooted for the second time in five years, this time with active help from Marvel itself (look for Spidey to appear in Captain America 3). Writer/director Joss Whedon (TV’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer) was the mastermind behind the jaunty smash-em-up fun of The Avengers and was quickly signed on for a sequel after the billion-dollar mark was crossed. With great success comes great risk of upsetting that continued success. It feels like Whedon’s hands were tied to the greater forces at work. As a result, I shouldn’t be surprised but I’m still disappointed with how muddled and overstuffed as Age of Ultron comes across.

The Avengers are cleaning up the last remnants of HYDRA, taking them to a castle in a fictional Eastern European country. The HYDRA doctor has been genetically experimenting on volunteers, birthing Wanda “Scarlet Witch” (Elizabeth Olsen) and Pietro “Quicksilver” Maximoff (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). She can tap into people’s minds and he can run super fast. They’ve got a grudge against the Avengers, particularly industrialist Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.). Stark takes a piece of alien technology and plugs it into his home system to build a super fleet of automated robots to patrol the world. In no time, the A.I. has taken form in the shape of an insane robot named Ultron (James Spader) whose mission is to save the planet by eliminating mankind. He builds an army of robotic soldiers with the assistance of the Maximoff twins. Tony, along with Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Bruce “The Hulk” Banner (Mark Ruffalo), must stop Ultron while not destroying much of the world themselves with their collateral damage.

avengers-age-of-ultron-trailer-hulkbusterEleven movies into the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), a movie of the size of an Avengers sequel cannot simply be a movie. It’s too important to the overall vision of the MCU, and so it has to set up and establish other characters, franchises, and the many monetary tributaries that keep the world of superheroes going. It’s already got a slew of superheroes and it adds even more new faces into the mix (I guess we needed an Avengers B-Team). The development of Ultron is also far too rushed; it’s literally minutes from being plugged in that he’s already settled into kill-all-Avengers mode. The movie barely has any time to even contemplate the perils of artificial intelligence before Ultron is already proving their fears correct. While Ultron is a fun villain (more on that later) his plan feels quite haphazard. His biggest strategic advantage is his duplication, the fact that he can exist without a physical body and can inhabit many bodies at once. Except for a hasty escape via the Internet and a climax stuffed with CGI robot mayhem, this advantage isn’t really explored. Why does a self-replicating creature beyond the bounds of physicality need or even desire a physical body? If you’re made from a nigh indestructible metal and can control numerous beings at once with a hive-mind intelligence link, why would you want to be turned into flesh thanks to what amounts to a 3D printer? The introduction of The Vision (Paul Bettany, this time in the flesh) is quite muddled and confusing. The incorporation of the Maximoff twins is awkward and they feel more like accessories than needed additions. This Quicksilver doesn’t come anywhere close to the memorable prankish Quicksilver from Days of Future Past. The pacing of the film is so ramped that it feels like the movie is falling over itself to get to the next large-scale action set piece. At 140 minutes, they could have removed one or two action pieces and devoted more time to streamlining and cleaning up the narrative.

And the action sequences start off with a bang but they invariably fizzle out. The opening sequence begins with a Birdman-styled tracking shot to connect all our fighters, and it’s a fun way to kick things off while visually tying together the team. The Hulk vs. Iron Man brawl is fun for a while, partly because it harkens back to the pleasures of the first film, namely watching our heroes battle each other as much as the villains. After a while, the CGI onslaught becomes overwhelming and just dulls the senses. You’re watching CGI smash into other CGI and then keep smashing, with little variation. The disappointment with the action is that it too often feels weightless and hollow. It has glimmers of fun but it can’t hold onto these glimmers because the action doesn’t change. It gets bigger and more chaotic, yes, but it doesn’t develop with organic complications and real attention to setting. These big battles could happen anywhere because they almost all descend into simply fighting amidst rubble. Even Iron Man 3 found ways to spice up its action set pieces through complications, limitations, and clear differentiation. Perhaps this is a larger outcry of fatigue with the overall state of CGI overkill in effects-driven films. The concluding fight versus Ultron and his many copies just feels like the same scene on repeat but in slightly different locations. Whedon has shown an affinity to coordinate exciting and satisfying action sequences, but you just feel like the pressure and demands get the better of him.

However, every moment with Ultron onscreen is a highpoint because of the malicious cattiness of Spader (TV’s The Blacklist). He’s a perfect fit for a character who is at turns childish and petty, bonkers, and condescending. In some ways he’s like a giant robotic teenager who thinks he’s just above the rest of these so-called adults. It’s such an enjoyable villain, an area of real need in most MCU films (Loki can’t be everywhere for every movie), that I wanted more and more of him. My friend and critical colleague Ben Bailey describes Ultron as the villainous alternative Tony Stark, and Whedon does a fine job of laying out the parallels, especially with regards to ego. It’s a weird reunion for the stars of 1987’s Less Than Zero.

The most boring characters, i.e. the humans, are the ones that get the biggest expansion for character development, with mixed results. Let’s face it, Hawkeye is never going to be anyone’s favorite Avenger. I think even he acknowledges this in a moment that almost breaks down the fourth wall (“None of this makes sense. I’m fighting with a bow and arrow.”). Hawkeye’s personal life is given a spotlight and it sets up an obvious worry that he’s going to bite it by film’s end. If there was an expendable member of this team, it would have to be Hawkeye. The added attention and personal attachments seem like a dead giveaway that he’s going to be dead. I don’t think I was any more invested in his character knowing about his hidden life outside the Avengers, but I certainly played a game of, “Is this gonna be it?” as the film continued. Black Widow started as an interesting character, a spy trying to make amends for her bloody past, or the “red in [her] ledger,” as they referred in the previous film. Her budding romance with Banner makes some sense but it still feels like the character is being forced into Romantic mode not because of her character but mostly because she has a vagina. Any romance with a guy who turns green and monstrous seems like it might be best as unrequited. She’s also defined by a past trauma that, while upsetting and cruel, is also a bit too tied into her identity as Woman/Mother. It’s an unfortunate positioning for what is an inherently interesting character (the slut shaming of the character in promotional interviews by certain Avengers cast members is also highly unfortunate). Can’t we get a Black Widow movie yet, Marvel?

The-Avengers-Age-of-Ultron-645x370An aspect of Age of Ultron I did enjoy was how conscious the heroes are about mitigating collateral damage and especially human casualties. At every turn, the Avengers are thinking about saving those caught in the cross-hairs first. They go out of their way to save those left behind. I think, and I’m not alone in this conclusion, that Whedon is directly responding to the disaster porn that was Zack Snyder’s miserly Man of Steel. The latest Superman movie bothered me with how callous it was with human life, treating devastating city-wide 9/11-style destruction as mere entertainment. As Superman and Zod were colliding through every damn building in Metropolis, you knew thousands if not millions of unseen people were perishing in this rather pointless melee. Whedon’s band of heroes places a priority on human life regardless of region.

It would be disingenuous of me to say Age of Ultron is not entertaining. Whedon is still a terrific storyteller and that still shines through the troubled areas and spotty plotting. The action makes good use of the various heroes and their abilities, providing fun combos like Cap hurling his super shield so Thor can redirect it further with his hammer. The use of humor was one of the bigger enjoyments of the first Avengers, and while it’s still abundant and enjoyable here as well I’d say it’s overdone. When every character is cracking quips every fourth line of dialogue, it pulls you out of the movie and the stakes feel lesser. The running joke where the Avengers make fun of Captain America for his prudish sensibilities on profanity is a joke that works at first but then loses all sense of fun as it’s pounded into the ground on repetition. The larger set pieces each have their moments to delight, especially the opening and the Hulk vs. Iron Man battle. Age of Ultron isn’t a bad movie and it has some truly great moments and great character moments and payoffs, but it’s only moments. The plot meant to connect the dots is too labored with the burden of setting up several Marvel franchises. In the MCU pecking order, I’d place Age of Ultron right around Iron Man 2 quality (another movie compromised by the extra burden of setting up other movies, namely The Avengers).

It’s sure to set box-office records and I imagine fans of the original will happily lap up another super team-up, but Avengers: Age of Ultron is something of a disappointment for me. The more I think about it the fun parts become a little duller and I find more areas of criticism. It’s just not as fun a movie experience, and that’s due to the rushed and muddled story and too many characters. After the critical and commercial success of the first film, I doubt that Whedon could have produced a film that would live up to the sky-high expectations, but that doesn’t excuse the finished product. It feels like Whedon had to struggle to pull this one off, especially with the added demands, and I can’t blame him for wanting a break from the MCU. The Russo brothers who so dazzled audiences with their direction of Captain America: The Winter Soldier will be stepping in to direct the next Avengers sequel(s). I hope they’re up to the task because the burden of carrying a billion-dollar franchise with its tendrils connected to other franchises appears to have been overwhelming for one of the greatest storytellers of a generation. Enjoy Age of Ultron but be wary of what the future holds for the larger MCU.

Nate’s Grade: B-

The Avengers (2012)

For the past four years, Marvel has been seeding its all-star super hero collective in the storylines of its summer blockbusters. And with six super heroes, The Avengers carries some super expectations. The creative mind behind the film is none other than Joss Whedon, best known for creating and shepherding cult TV shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Firefly. Not exactly the first name you’d think Marvel would assemble to front a $200 million movie. For geeks, Whedon has become a reliable standard of quality (the patchy TV show Dollhouse notwithstanding). Here is a man who can marry big ideas with sharp characterization and delightfully skewed dialogue. In Whedon, geek nation has a savior, and Marvel knew this. The Avengers is 142 minutes of geek arousal stretched to orgasmic heights.

Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), head of the agency S.H.I.E.L.D., has a dire need for Earth’s mightiest heroes. Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has traveled through a portal and plans on conquering Earth thanks to an approaching alien army. Fury has tasked Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) a.k.a. Iron Man, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) a.k.a. Captain America, and special agent Natasha “Black Widow” Romanof (Scarlett Johansson) with stopping Loki and rescuing one of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s own agents, the skilled marksman Clint “Hawkeye” Barton (Jeremy Renner), who is under Loki’s devious mind control. Loki’s brother, Thor (Chris Hemsworth), would like to cite jurisdiction and bring his wicked brother back to his home world. The only person who may be able to locate Loki’s path is Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), a guy with his own anger issues. With this many egos, it’s bound to get dicey. As Banner puts it, “We’re not a team. We’re a time bomb.” Can they put aside their differences to unite to save the Earth? Does a Hulk smash?

Whedon, the king of clever genre deconstruction last seen in the excellent meta-horror film Cabin in the Woods, plays it relatively straight, giving his big, effects-driven film a straight-laced sense of sincerity. It’s not making fun of these sort of big-budget, effects-driven smash-em-ups, it just wants to deliver the biggest smash-em-up yet. To that end, The Avengers achieves maximum smashitude (trademark pending). By its rousing finish, the movie has become so massively entertaining that you forget the draggy first half. The scope of this thing is just massive. The last thirty minutes is solid action across miles of crumbling, just-asking-to-be-exploded city landscape. But the trick that Whedon pulls off is how to orchestrate action on a monumental scale without losing sight of scale, pacing, and character. You’d think with a full deck of superheroes that somebody would be shortchanged when it came time for the rough and tumble stuff. Not so. Instead of fighting one another, the prospective Avengers work together in all sorts of combinations. The characters are well integrated into the fracas, making particular use of their abilities, and finding new locations of focus every few minutes. This expert hero shuffling keeps things feeling fresh amidst the constant din of chaos.

In fact, the movie finds time to give every hero his or her due, finding a small moment to reveal some characterization. I thought Whedon’s biggest challenge was going to be the juggling act of balancing so many heroes and so much screen time, but the man found a way, like he regularly does, to squeeze in character with ensemble action. The Hulk fares the best. After two movies, it feels like Whedon has finally nailed the character; granted, this success may be credited to the fact that Bruce Banner (all hail Ruffalo) is kept as a supporting character. The struggle of the character being likened to a recovering addict is a smart way to present the character without getting too morose (I enjoyed the revelation that the “Hulk” half prevented Banner from killing himself). When he’s told his mission is to smash, you can feel the exuberant joy of an unleashed Hulk id. The Hulk had two great audience-applause moments that made my theater go berserk. I also really liked the attention given to Black Widow and her lonely back-story. Hawkeye was a complete badass, though he only gets to do fun stuff in the madcap finale. The trouble with the hero team-up franchises is that not everyone’s on the same level of power. Thor is a god for crying out loud, Iron Man has super weapons, Hulk is Hulk, Captain America at least has superhuman strength but what do Hawkeye and Black Widow bring to the team? When you’re competing with all that power, being good with guns or a bow seems pretty puny. And with Hawkeye, there’s going to be a limit to his effectiveness unless he has a magic bag of replenishing arrows. Still, Whedon finds ways to make the heroes badass and humane in equal measure, and surprisingly funny, which is welcomed.

It’s hard to believe that Whedon had only directed one feature film before (2005’s Serenity, based upon Whedon’s canceled Firefly show) being given the keys to the Marvel universe. He’s directed several TV episodes of his signature shows but the man has never produced anything on this scale before. Given a gigantic canvas, Whedon delivers the goods. His action sequences are rollicking and fun and, best of all, shot and edited in a fashion where you can understand what is happening (take some notes, Hunger Games franchise). The action is well choreographed and elevated with organic complications and particular attention paid to location, like the Nicky Fury airship. Whedon is a master of the plot payoff, setting up his elements and then piloting the narrative to satisfying conclusions and integrations (Cabin in the Woods is also a pristine example of this gift). If you’re going to introduce an airship, you better believe that sucker is going to threaten to crash. I’m glad that Loki was brought back as he was the best Marvel big screen baddie yet, though I’m disappointed they essentially put him on ice for an hour.

The technical elements are ably polished even for this kind of film. The cinematography by Seamus McGarvey (Atonement) is terrific, utilizing bright color in a way that the visuals pop. The special effects are top-notch and you just feel immersed into the action. The destruction is cataclysmic but rarely does the movie feel phony. I was impressed by the Hulk designs and the sequences in inky space with our alien adversaries. For that matter, are these aliens robots? It’s unclear whether the giant flying centipede-like ships are creatures. The 3D conversion is one of the better outings due to the fact that it doesn’t keep throwing stuff in your face. Plus, viewing Johansson’s leather-clad assets in 3D certainly has its own appeal, as does Gwyneth Paltrow in jean shorts. Hey How I Met Your Mother fans, Cobie Smulders looks practically smoldering in her S.H.I.E.L.D. agent outfit too. Okay, I swear I’m done with the female objectification.

I hesitate calling The Avengers the greatest super hero/comic book movie of all time, as the teaming hordes of Internet fanboys foaming at the mouth are wont to do. If your definition of a comic book movie is a giant sandbox with all the coolest toys, then this is your film. This is a comic book turned flesh. The Hulk and Thor fight and prove who is the strongest Marvel man, that’s got to be a geek’s wish come true. Many of the infighting sequences felt like, servicing the tastes of the fanboys, and after a while the constant hero on hero action felt tiresome. I get that we have a clash of egos going on here, but the movie suffers from a lack of narrative cohesion, by which I mean that the first hour of the movie feels like a series of guest appearances by heroes on loan. The movie doesn’t fully come together until the point where the team comes together; I doubt Whedon intended that symbiotic relationship. The movie feels more like a patchwork of standout scenes and memorable moments that a fully formed and cohesive story. If you haven’t seen the previous four Marvel movies (Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Thor, Captain America), you’ll be pretty hard-pressed to follow the story. Loki’s motivation and plan seems rather sketchy other than causing discord amongst the heroic ranks. His powers seem inconsistent and vague. Also I found the musical score by Alan Silvestri to be bland and unworthy.

The Avengers is sure to be geek nirvana for many of the comic book faithful. It’s an audience pleaser of mass scale, and I’m sure that your theater will be cheering in abundance. Whedon has pulled off the near impossible. The movie is a thoroughly entertaining, exciting, and witty popcorn spectacle of the first order. But where the movie hits the ceiling, at least for me, is that it ONLY wants to be the best super hero movie and this seems like limited ambitions. It’s like making the very best possible women in prison movie (great, but is this really all you set your sights on?). I had a great time watching Whedon’s handiwork but I wish it mined the outsized territory for bigger themes, a little more than audience-satisfying pyrotechnics, something I feel that X-Men: First Class did a better job of handling. Don’t get me wrong, I greatly enjoyed The Avengers and it’s a fantastic start to the summer movie season, but by no means is it The Dark Knight or even aspiring to be, and that’s okay. Enjoy the busy escapades of Marvel’s next smash franchise. Who knows when they’ll be able to wrangle everyone together for another adventure, but judging by the sounds of ringing cash registers, the answer is sooner than we think.

Nate’s Grade: B+

The Cabin in the Woods (2012)

The Cabin in the Woods has been building an avalanche of buzz in the time it’s been sitting on the shelf. Originally filmed in 2009, the horror comedy from Buffy the Vampire Slayer creative heavyweights Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon has been patiently waiting to unleash its wicked Jack-in-the-box of surprises. Directed by Goddard, and written by Whedon and Goddard, The Cabin in the Woods is a brash enterprise, a blast of entertainment and a breath of fresh air in a genre that typically teeters into self-parody. If you haven’t seen the movie yet and have a strong, or even curious, desire to do so, then stop reading. Go in as blind and unspoiled as possible. Then you can come back and read my witty words. It’s okay. I won’t take offense. In the meantime, I’ll keep myself busy. Back? Good, let’s get started then.

You know the setup. A group of dumb teenagers spend a weekend at a friend’s cabin in the middle of nowhere. There’s the jock (Chris Hemsworth), the slutty girl (Anna Hutchinson), the stoner (Fran Kranz), the bookish one (Jesse Williams), and the mousy girl-next-door virginal type (Kristen Connolly). There’s the scary old guy at the gas station, there’s the promise of debauchery and sweet oblivion. But we’re not the only ones watching the gang. A group of lab techs, led by Hadley (Bradley Whitford) and Sitterson (Richard Jenkins), is watching their every move. They control the cabin and its surroundings and are manipulating events to lead to slaughter. But why are they going to all this trouble? That’s just the tip of the iceberg here.

The macabre sense of humor is what will immediately separate Cabin in the Woods from its blood-and-guts brethren. The sharp dialogue is routinely laugh-out-loud funny, absurd in the right parts. Whitford’s downbeat reaction during a joyous moment of celebration had me howling. The movie is so smart, sometimes too smart for its own good. If you’re going to level one major charge against the movie, it’s that it isn’t really ever scary. Oh sure it has some stuff that should be scary given the particulars, and its 31 flavors of horror should find something that tingles everyone’s spine on some level. But this is much more of a deconstruction of the horror genre and its audience than an actual horror movie. Whedon and Goddard undercut their horror almost at every turn, settling for the ironic laugh or satirical tweak and repeatedly cutting back to the lab guys to provide a few good laughs and commentary (Jenkins has a terrific foul-mouth rant aimed at children that left me doubled over in laughter). Do not be mistaken; the lab stuff is easily the best part of the movie. Upon my second viewing, I found myself growing weary with the teens-in-a-cabin stuff and anxiously waiting our next detour into the weird and wonderful lab. The duo of Whitford (TV’s The West Wing) and Jenkins (Friends with Benefits) makes for some terrific and biting middle management corporate satire, as well as satirizing the jaded, bloodthirsty audience of slasher movies. You can tell that Whedon and Goddard love horror movies and are frustrated with the nihilistic rut the genre has found itself mired in. And as a deconstructive exercise, Cabin in the Woods is first-class. Roger Ebert succinctly called the movie a “fanboy final exam.”

It can be a tad clinical at times, failing to give us any true attachment to the characters even in an ironic sense, but when a movie is this fun, this wild, and this clever with its deconstruction of genre, I concede the point of having to root for somebody. The characters break the stereotypical mold; the jock is on academic scholarship, the smart guy happens to also be a hunky jock, the slut isn’t really slutty, the virgin isn’t squeaky-clean, and the stoner is the smartest guy in the group, aided by his cannabis (As one character later reasons, “We work with what we got”). He’s the only one who seems to be able to notice the strange manipulations at work. Once you dig into it, the very nature of how and why we watch horror is analyzed by Cabin in the Woods (get ready for some voyeurism parallels). The nature of fear and sacrifice is given some thought, though this stuff gets a bit lost in the madhouse of a final act. The movie becomes a funhouse of horrors and the frenetic carnage and chaos elevates the energy level. I cannot think of a movie that ended in such a whirling dervish of excitement and deep, demented satisfaction. This is one movie that doesn’t just end with a bang; it ends with every bang you can think of. Horror fans are going to be hopping out of the theaters, foaming at the mouth, desperate to tell every one of their friends what they just witnessed. I wish several of my friends would hurry up and see Cabin in the Woods so I had somebody to talk about its many pleasures, thrills, and surprises with. The movie has several terrific payoffs. This is the most fun I’ve had with a horror movie since 2003’s Cabin Fever. Must be something about cabins that brings out the meta-ness.

Considering this was on the shelf for over two years while MGM worked out its bankruptcy dealings, it’s fun to see how fate has been to this lot of actors. The biggest name has got to be Hemsworth, better known as the flaxen, hammer-wielding God of Thunder Thor in the Marvel movies, and Whedon’s upcoming Avengers ensemble. He’s rather enjoyable onscreen and his hero moment is one that will definitely be a talking point. The two standouts from the cast, other than Jenkins and Whitford of course, are Connolly (“iGirl” on the Web series, iChannel) as the nubile Final Girl and Kranz (TV’s Dollhouse) as the clever pothead. Connolly has got a great face for movies, looking like the younger sister of Ellie Kemper (TV’s The Office) or Jayma Mays (The Smurfs), and I’m always a sucker for a redhead. Kranz is so good with the comedy that you may fail to notice all the work he’s actually putting into his role, which quickly becomes the audience’s voice of reason.

But the strangest quirk for a movie knotted with them comes to the casting of its resident  “slut” played by Hutchinson. The woman has a sultry side that comes through without going overboard into parody. Scanning through her resume, I see that Hutchinson portrayed the Yellow Power Ranger (Lilly) for 32 episodes in Power Rangers: Jungle Fury. Now here’s where things get interesting. Being the movie aficionado that I am, I recognize that Cabin Fever also had an actress, Cerina Vincent, who portrayed the Yellow Power Ranger (Maya) for 45 episodes in Power Rangers: Lost Galaxy. Here’s where it gets even weirder. Both Hutchinson and Vincent are the only cast members in their movies to go nude in their respective films. So two actresses, both different versions of the Yellow Power Ranger, both get naked and star in horror genre deconstructive movies with “cabin” in the title! Is this one of the Mayan signs? Should I contact Dan Brown? Does it say something that the yellow ranger appears to be the most comfortable with nudity? This may be the greatest and most obscure observation I’ve ever made.

Of course there are so many fun surprises that it puts me in a bit of a critical bind. I don’t want to go into too much detail because that would spoil the fun, though rest assured that The Cabin in the Woods does not live or die based upon unknown plot twists. You may think you know given what’s already been revealed via the trailers, but really you have no idea how deep this thing goes and to what ends. Unless you just happened to be me, which at last count there was only one of (my evil twin long since slain… or was he?). I say this not as some point of pretentious bragging, but it’s because I wrote a horror screenplay a year ago that also satirized the genre tropes (for those few interested, it was called Blood Wake). I won’t go into spoiler detail, but both of our bad guys were called into question as being bad, from a greater good standpoint, and the killers had more on their minds than simply punishing dumb, horny teenagers. Well, after watching Cabin in the Woods, I know that screenplay goes back in the shelf now where it will live in eternal slumber thanks to core similarities. But if somebody’s got to be wielding the knife, at least it’s my man crush Joss Whedon.

Nate’s Grade: A-

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