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Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

It’s hard to draw comparisons to the major commitment to long-form storytelling that the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has dabbled with over the course of ten record-shattering years of success. I can think of movie franchises that have been popular over long periods of time, like James Bond, but rarely do they keep to continuity. It’s been 18 movies and ten years since the caddish Robert Downey Jr. first stole our hearts in the original Iron Man, and its stable of heroes and villains has grown exponentially. Looking at the poster for Avengers: Infinity War, it’s hard to believe there’s even enough space just for all of the actors’ names. Infinity War feels like a massive, culminating years-in-the-making film event and it reminded me most of Peter Jackson’s concluding Lord of the Rings chapter, Return of the King. After so long, we’re privy to several separate story threads finally being braided as one and several dispirit characters finally coming together. This is a blockbuster a full decade in the making and it tends to feel overloaded and burdened with the responsibility of being everything to everyone. It’s an epic, entertaining, and enjoyable movie, but Infinity War can also leave you hanging.

Thanos (Josh Brolin) has finally come to collect the six infinity stones stashed around the universe. With their power, he will be able to achieve his ultimate goal of wiping out half of all life in the universe. Standing in his murderous way is a divided Avengers squad, with Tony Stark (Downey Jr.) still on the outs with a wanted-at-large Captain America (Chris Evans) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). One of the in-demand infinity stones resides in the head of the Vision (Paul Bettany), who is in hiding with his romantic partner, Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen). They know Thanos will be coming for Vision eventually. On the other side are the Guardians of the Galaxy who have a few personal scores to settle with Thanos, the adopted father of Gomora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillan). Elsewhere, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) strikes out looking for the key to defeating the big purple menace. Thanos’ loyal lieutenants attack Earth to gather the remaining infinity stones, drawing the attention and push-back of Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Peter Parker (Tom Holland). The various heroes of Earth and space unite to eliminate the greatest threat the universe has ever known.

Avengers: Infinity War serves not as much a series of payoffs as it is climaxes, with climactic event right after another, and this time it’s for keeps (more on that below). There are moments that feel like major payoffs and moments that feel like shrug-worthy Last Jedi-style payoffs. Infinity War is the longest MCU movie yet at 149 minutes but it has no downtime. That’s because it has to find room for dozens of heroes across the cosmos. With the exception of three super heroes, everyone is in this movie, and I mean everyone. This is an overstuffed buffet of comic book spectacle, and whether it feels like overindulgence will be determined by the viewer’s prior investment with this cinematic universe. If this is your first trip to the MCU, I’d advise holding off until later. Any newcomer will be very lost. I’ve deduced the seven MCU movies that are the most essential to see to successfully comprehend the totality of the Infinity War dramatics, and they are Iron Man, The Avengers, Captain America: Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy, Captain America: Civil War, Doctor Strange, and Thor: Ragnarok. Naturally, being intimately familiar with the previous 18 movies will be best, but if you don’t have thirty hours to spare then please follow my seven-film lineup and you’ll be solid.

As far as the stakes, the MCU has been notoriously reluctant about killing off its characters, but Infinity War is completely different. I won’t spoil circumstances or names, of course, but the march of death happens shockingly early and carries on throughout. There are significant losses that will make fans equally gasp and cry. This is a summer blockbuster that leaves behind an impressive body count across the known universe and ends in a downbeat manner that will naturally trigger reflexive Empire Strikes Back comparisons. It’s hard to feel the full impact of the drastic decisions, and the grief over their losses because I know there is a Part Two coming summer 2019, and with that comes the almost certainty that several important events will be diminished or straight-out reversed. After all, in comics, nobody is ever really dead, though with movies the heroes have the nagging habit of aging. With that said, you better believe I was holding my breath during some standoffs, tearing up at some sudden goodbyes, and reflecting upon journeys shared.

This is very much Thanos’ movie, which was one of the bigger surprises for me. Beforehand, our exposure to the big purple guy has been relatively minor, a brief moment here or a cameo there during a post-credit scene. Considering Thanos is supposed to be the universe’s biggest bad, it makes sense to finally give him his due, and that is what Infinity War does. Thanos gets the most screen time of any character and is given an honest-to-God character arc. He’s a villain who goes on an actual emotional journey as he follows a path that he feels compelled to even as it tests him personally. He finally opens up as a character rather than some malevolent force that is oft referred to in apocalyptic terms. We get his back-story and motivation, which is less a romantic appeal to Death like in the comics and more a prevention of the apocalypse reminiscent of the Reapers in the Mass Effect series. Thanos sees himself as a necessary corrective force and not as a villain. He’s never portrayed in a maniacal, gleeful sense of wickedness. Instead he seems to carry the heaviness of his mission and looks at the Avengers and other heroes sympathetically. He understands their struggle and defiance. Having an actor the caliber of Brolin (Deadpool 2) is a necessity to make this character work and effectively sell the emotions. Thanos is the most significant addition to the MCU appearing the latest, so there’s a lot of heavy lifting to do, and Infinity War fleshes him out as a worthy foe.

As an action spectacle, however, Infinity War is good but not great. The action sequences are interesting enough but there’s nothing special and little development. There’s nothing that rivals the delirious nerdgasm of the airport battle in Civil War pitting hero-against-hero to dizzying degree. The characters are separated into units with their own goals leading to a final confrontation that feels more climactic conceptually than in execution. That’s because this is an Avengers film that falls into some of the trappings of the glut of super hero cinema, namely the army of faceless foot soldiers for easy slaughtering, the over exaggerated sense of scale of battle, the apocalyptic stakes that can feel a bit like a bell rung too many times, and even minor things like the lackluster supporting villains. Thanos’ team of lieutenants are all the same kind of sneering heavy with the exception of one, a sort of alien cleric heralding the honor of death from Thanos. Carrie Coon (HBO’s The Leftovers) is generally wasted providing the mo-cap for the Lady Lieutenant That Sounds Like a Band Fronted by Jared Leto, a.k.a. Proxima Midnight. There are far too many scenes where characters reluctantly strike a deal to give up an infinity stone if Thanos will spare the life of a beloved comrade. The film’s greatest point of entertainment isn’t with its action but the character dynamics. The fun is watching years-in-the-making character interactions and seeing the sparks fly. There’s more joy in watching Downey Jr. and Cumberbatch try and out smarm one another than with any CGI collision of a faceless army of monsters. There are so many characters that few are given fully defined arcs. Most are given beginnings and stopping places. Though the eventual sequel will have fewer characters needing to share precious screen time.

The standouts on screen are Hemsworth (12 Strong) carrying a large portion of the movie and not missing a beat of his well-honed comic rhythms from Ragnarok, Bettany (Solo) brings a sad soulfulness to Vision as a man who knows fate is likely unavoidable, and Dave Bautista (Blade Runner 2049) is perfectly deadpan as Drax and has the funniest lines in the movie followed closely by the exuberant Holland (Lost City of Z). To even say which characters deal with more complex emotions might be a spoiler in itself but there are several actors showing an emotive level unseen so far in the bustling MCU.

Avengers: Infinity War marks a significant concluding chapter for one of cinema’s most popular series, until at least the next movie possibly makes it feel less conclusive. I pity Marvel because expectations are going to be astronomical for this climactic showdown. There are so many characters, so many crossovers, and so much to still establish, like Thanos as a character more than a spooky force of annihilation, that it feels rather breathless even at nearly two-and-a-half hours. You may be feeling a rush of exhilaration on your way out or an equally compelling sense of exhaustion. Infinity War doesn’t have the imaginative highs of a Dcotor Strange, the funky personality and style of a Guardians of the Galaxy, the wonderfully thought-out structure of a Spider-Man: Homecoming, the adroit weirdness of a Thor: Ragnarok, or even the hero-against-hero catharsis of a Civil War (still my favorite). What it does have is a sense of long-gestating finality, of real stakes and dire consequences. It’s not all pervading doom and gloom; this is still a fun movie, buoyed by crackling character team-ups and interactions. While, Infinity War won’t be all things to all people, myself included, it will please many fans, casual and diehard alike.

Nate’s Grade: B

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Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

15 years. 6 movies. 3 different lead actors. 2 reboots. I wouldn’t be surprised if a majority of the American public likely knows more about Spider-Man than their relatives. In 2002, the first Spider-Man movie kicked off the new century by affirming to studios that superhero movies are a sound financial investment. Director Sam Raimi and Tobey Maguire kicked off the glut of superhero cinema, paving the path for the massive Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and its own unparalleled run of financial and critical success. Then the overreach killed off Raimi’s Spider franchise in 2007 and overreach again killed off Sony’s Spider reboot in 2014. Sony wisely sought out an assist from the gurus of Marvel, striking a deal and having the web-slinger return to the MCU. Fans rejoiced. Spider-Man: Homecoming announces itself as a brash, exhilarating, hilarious, and amazingly assured film that immediately lines up with the upper tier of the MCU. Marvel should use this as Exhibit A, submit it to Fox, and say, “Here’s how we can do your franchises better.”

Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is your ordinary 15-year-old from Queens, New York who was given amazing powers after being bit by a radioactive (or genetically modified) spider. It’s been weeks since he was called into action by Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) to thwart Captain America (Chris Evans). Now Peter is back home and waiting for his literal call to adventure, for Stark to officially call him up to join the Avengers. Peter anxiously waits for school to end so he can don his Spider-Man suit, modified by Stark Industries, and fight local crime and injustice. This mostly amounts to stopping bicycle thieves, helping old ladies with directions, and other inglorious tasks. Peter’s Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) would prefer he focus on his studies rather than the time he’s been spent on the “Stark internship” (his fib to cover said crime-fighting). New weapons begin appearing on the streets, built from the discarded alien technology from The Battle for New York. Spider-Man investigates the source, Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton), a pilot who adopts the moniker of The Vulture while in the sky with his winged jet pack. The formidable weapons pose a real pressing danger to society, and Peter pushes further, at his own peril, to confront the Vulture and stop the flow of high-tech weapons.

For many fans of the webhead, this will feel like the first time they’re watching the Spider-Man of the comics on screen. This is the first film incarnation where Peter remains in high school for the entire duration of the movie, and it’s also thankfully the only telling that eschews an origin story. He just is Spider-Man, however, the arc of the movie is him settling into that identity. It’s in many ways a coming-of-age story for the superhero set, as Peter has to come to terms with his earnest desire to help others and his own maturation, both as Spider-Man and as a high school sophomore. He’s learning just as much to be Peter as he is Spider-Man. Just because he has these powers doesn’t mean he’s ready for the rigors of the world. Homecoming is very much a high school movie. There are familiar John Hughes influences throughout, and the film smartly subverts certain high school tropes (driving lessons, prom dad from hell). It presents our hero struggling with asking the cute upperclassman (Laura Harrier) to the dance just as much as the demands of being a fledgling local superhero. His interior life is much more available and relatable but he’s still a teen navigating the world. Also, by having Peter be the youngest film incarnation yet, it allows for the satisfying indulgence of superhero wish-fulfillment. Whereas the X-Men powers are naturally linked to the progression of puberty, those are usually portrayed as a curse, something that ostracizes, confuses, and produces great anxiety and fear. With Spider-Man, being a superhero is the coolest thing in the world. He’s not consumed with angst like Andrew Garfield’s broody Peter Parker and his weirdly special DNA (what was the deal with his parents and that conspiracy? Oh well). Watching this exuberant Peter Parker embrace his new abilities with glee is a great way to keep the movie light and bouncy.

This is also, bar none, the funniest film yet in the MCU (yes, even dethroning Guardians of the Galaxy). With the lighter tone, the movie finds consistent opportunities to inject comedy, from the irony of Peter trying to lead a normal life, to the awkwardness of Peter’s attempts at crime-fighting, to his over eager demeanor, to misunderstandings and hasty excuse-making to conceal his double life, to the sterling supporting cast of characters that contribute different flavors of jokes when called upon. If anything there is so many talented supporting players I wanted even more time with them (Donald Glover, Hannibal Buress, Martin Starr). This cast is a comedic embarrassment of riches.

I was laughing pretty much from beginning to end with Homecoming. Just thinking back on the school’s morning announcements (complete with anchor Betty Brant) makes me giggle. Peter’s best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) is the movie’s chief source of comic relief, and in less careful hands he would become rapidly annoying. Instead, he’s a reliable presence and given a character arc with a payoff of his own, his desire to be Peter’s “guy in the chair.” It’s genuinely impressive screenwriting when even the comic relief sidekicks have arcs. Zendaya does an impressive job of selling every one of her jokes, which traffic in a very specific smart-aleck, apathetic tone. She’s graduated from the Disney Channel to the bigger leagues. There’s a hysterical series of inspirational education videos featuring Captain America, and if you stay past the end credits there’s a great payoff for that. There’s even some sly meta jokes calling back to Raimi’s Spider-Man. Every joke at least lands and most of them hit hard, benefiting from strong development and timing.

Nevertheless, just because it happens to be one of the funniest movies of the year, Spider-Man: Homecoming still finds plenty of space to be dramatic and thrilling. The comedy doe not tonally detract from the other elements. This is not an insubstantial movie just because it knows how to have some fun (take notes, Zack Snyder and DC). This is not a flippant movie because of tone or the heavy joke quotient. There are sincerely sweet moments born out of the characterization, like when Aunt May takes it upon herself to teach Peter how to dance (this would not be possible with a geriatric Aunt May). Director Jon Watts (Cop Car) has a steady command with his high-flying visuals and maintains the tight walk of tone that allows all the elements to work together as a blissful whole.

There are superb action sequences that advance the story forward and allow for the characters to grow. It’s exactly what good action is supposed to do, besides, you know, quicken the pulse. The humor can also arise naturally from these set pieces. Take for instance Peter suiting up while attending a suburban house party. He spots some alarming energy discharges on the other side of the suburb, but without any tall buildings for him to latch onto, he has to hoof it the whole way on foot. It’s a smart comedic aside and it helps to remind us that this Spider-Man isn’t an instant pro after getting his powers. It all comes together best in a D.C. rescue at the Washington Monument. It bridges the personal with the action. The bifurcated ferry set piece serves as the Act Two break and it’s a killer segment that pushes Peter to his limits to solve a dilemma that seems incapable of being fixed. There may not be any action scene to rival Raimi’s finest but the character-centric action and the organic development of the complications lays a foundation for a consistently entertaining film littered with joyful payoffs.

The biggest fear I’ve read from Spidey fans was that the involvement of Robert Downey Jr. would tip the scales, turning a Spider-Man movie into a defaco Iron Man sequel. Considering America loves Iron Man, I don’t see how his inclusion is a problem. Civil War was still very much a Captain America film even though Iron Man was the co-lead. Tony Stark represents a distant mentor for Peter and also the gatekeeper. Peter is anxious to become an Avenger and looking for Stark’s approval, which brings an enjoyably unorthodox paternal side from Downey. If there is a complaint I can foresee, it will be that Spider-Man is too similar to Iron Man thanks to the special suit. Spider-Man’s suit has its own Jarvis-style A.I. program (adeptly voiced by Jennifer Connelly, wife to Paul Bettany, former voice of Jarvis) and extra special gadgets including a spider drone and unusual web shooting options. It provides a new sense of discovery for the character since we’re already starting with him powered. The second act is Peter getting accustomed to the boost his suit gives him, becoming reliant upon them, and then having it stripped away as a natural Act Two break so that the conclusion has even more stakes without the security of the suit. It makes Peter much more vulnerable. The Iron Man parts are more a background motivational force and this is still very much a Spider-Man film.

Holland (The Lost City of Z) is already my favorite Spider-Man. Period. He made such an immediate and strong impression in Civil War that I was greatly looking forward to his first big starring venture, and Holland does not disappoint. This is the first Spider-Man that doesn’t feel crushed by the heavy burden of being a superhero. He’s a kid eager to grow up and join the world of other caped crusaders, but he’s modeled his crime fighting from what he’s seen on TV. He doesn’t really know what he’s doing. He’s still an awkward kid, and Holland brings great authenticity to the smaller character moments and the bigger heroic strides (while maintaining a convincing American accent). This is a more relatable, vulnerable, and interesting Peter Parker. Even though he thinks he should be beyond the mundane life of high school, he doesn’t ever act pompous or look down on other characters, which is endearing. At times Holland feels like he’s going to explode with energy, as if life is too much to process in the intermediary. He’s a teenager and the world feels so big and open. It’s an instantly engaging and likeable portrayal that wonderfully capitalizes on the introduction from Civil War. This is a Spider-Man, and his spider world, that I want multiple sequels to further explore and challenge.

Keaton’s Vulture already ranks as one of the best villains in the MCU (a low bar, I admit), and that’s because the movie humanizes him and gives him significant moments. He’s just a regular working-class man trying to provide for his family. In fact the first five minutes of the movie focus exclusively on Toomes and explains his sticky situation. He feels cast aside by those in the upper echelons of power. His eventual “you and I are the same” speech to Spider-Man has credible points. You can see, from his perspective, how he’s an underdog sticking it to the rich elites. Shockingly, there’s only one death in the entire movie and even that is an accident. Toomes is not your standard comic book villain, and there’s a brilliant third act twist that makes him even more centrally involved in the narrative. That opens a delicious sequence of dramatic irony. Keaton has a quiet menace to him that’s very unsettling. It’s all in the lower register. His character doesn’t blow up. He just narrows his brow and intensifies that scary stare. I’m glad the filmmakers realized that more Keaton was an asset to the film.

Let’s also take some time to celebrate the sixth Spider-Man movie for having a diverse population of characters that would actually represent Queens. Peter’s best friend is of Filipino descent, the girl he crushes on is biracial, the loner girl is biracial, and even the high school bully, Flash Thompson, is Hispanic, played by Tony Revolori from The Grand Budapest Hotel. This might be Marvel’s most diverse cast yet, though “yet” being the operative word considering that Black Panther is arriving in early 2018.

This movie is a total blast. Spider-Man: Homecoming actually manages to give new life to a character that has already appeared in five other movies. That’s an amazing feat. Another amazing feat is that six different screenwriters, including the director, are credited with this movie, yet it feels fully coherent in its vision and presentation. This is Peter Parker, the teenager struggling with self-doubt, hormones, and an eagerness to grow up, and the movie feels much more human-scaled, forgoing giant CGI smash-em-ups for something more grounded, personally involving, and ultimately successful. Just because Homecoming is fast-paced and funny doesn’t mean it lacks substance. I was elated during long portions of this movie, impressed by the steady stream of setups and payoffs, the incorporation of the many characters and comedic voices, and the varied action set pieces that were focused on character progression. If you are tired of superhero stories, I’d still heartily recommend this movie. Dear reader, I feel like I’m failing you and turning into a frothing fanboy because I can only think, at worst, of negligible quibbles against the film. Everything in this movie works. Everything. It’s everything I was hoping for and then some.

Nate’s Grade: A

Captain America: Civil War (2016)

captain-america-civil-war-15Think you were disappointed by last summer’s Avengers: Age of Ultron? The pressure-packed experience broke writer/director Joss Whedon who swore off being the creative shepherd of the Marvel cinematic Universe (MCU). Enter the Russo brothers, a pair who were widely known for their work in eclectic TV comedies like Community and Arrested Development before blowing away all modest expectations with 2014’s Captain America: Winter Soldier. I can say that the Russos are more than capable for the challenge. My simplistic blurb for Captain America: Civil War is thus: everything Batman vs. Superman did wrong this movie does right.

After the cataclysmic events of multiple movie climaxes, the world governments are wary of the power wielded by the Avengers. Secretary Ross (William Hurt, the lone returning element from 2008’s Incredible Hulk) is pushing the superheroes to sign the Sokovia Accords, which would put them under the control of a U.N. joint panel. This panel would decide when and where to deploy the Avengers. Captain America, a.k.a. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), is worried about a group of people taking away their choice. Iron Man, a.k.a. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), believes that they need to accept limitations and that agreeing to these terms staves off something worse later. This division becomes even more pronounced when Rogers’ old friend the Winter Soldier, a.k.a. Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), reappears as the chief suspect in a U.N. bombing. Black Panther, a.k.a. T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), swears vengeance against Barnes for the bombing. As the assembly of heroes squares off over the fate of the Winter Soldier, Baron Zemo (Daniel Bruhl) is tracking down classified Hydra documents to uncover pertinent information that will topple an empire.

Captain-America-Civil-War-Team-Cap-attackingWhile I don’t want to turn every new film review as an opportunity to beat a dead horse, I cannot help but draw immediate and stark comparisons between Civil War and the earlier titanic superhero slugfest, Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice. Let’s take this case point by point so there is no reasonable doubt left for the jury of ticket-buyers.

Batman vs. Superman doesn’t set up its conflicts with enough time to develop them and it lacks real emotional stakes.”

With BvS (I’m saving my fingertips some drudgery), we hadn’t known these characters for more than one movie at best, and in the case of Bruce Wayne less than one. When they fought there wasn’t any real stakes despite the apoplectic marketing because we hadn’t built relationships with these characters. In the case of Henry Cavill’s Superman, many were turned off entirely by the guy (not necessarily by Cavill’s physique, though). Did anyone really care who won? The filmmakers relied on the audience to supply their pop-culture good will for the characters instead of proper characterization and development. In the case of Civil War, we’re dealing with the cumulative effect of having twelve movies to build up storylines and character relationships. We’re invested in these characters and their friendships, so when they fight it actually does matter. You feel for both sides and multiple characters and the movie does a good job of providing each side a credible motivation. It’s a political thorny issue but it’s kept very streamlined, focusing more on the characters. If the MCU has had one nagging problem throughout its history it has been a dearth of good villains. There’s Loki and… Loki. One solution is to just pit the heroes against each other and this produces as many fist-bumps as winces. My audience was gasping at reveals and twists and turns. They weren’t doing that with BvS. And wouldn’t you know Civil War actually has a climax that’s more than just an increasing series of punches and kicks (though plenty of those are featured); the climax is an emotionally grounded confrontation that cuts to the core of the group. The events of this movie matter and while obviously it can’t follow its divisions to an irrevocable end, I appreciated that not everything is resolved. These storylines and the conflicts between characters will carry onward when we pick up the pieces in 2018.

Batman vs. Superman is too burdened with setting up an array of other film franchises that it loses badly needed focus and momentum.”

Captain-America-Civil-War-images-previewTo be fair, this charge can also be laid at the feet of Age of Ultron, which buckled under the heavy weight of setting up multiple other future movies rather than telling a completely satisfying movie in its own right. Once the franchises gave birth to mega-franchises, the wheels-within-wheels of moneymaking, now the studios require a lot of heavy lifting from our entertainment. They’re investments in futures and if done improperly can easily crumble under the failed execution like the Amazing Spider-Man series (R.I.P. 2012-2014). Miraculously, Civil War finds ways to involve every member of a large ensemble cast into the story in ways that matter. The movie finds small character moments that make them feel better rounded, like Vision (Paul Bettany) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), and it introduces featured supporting players with great care. Black Panther is a terrific addition and brings a quieter intensity that contrasts nicely with the more colorful characters. Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) introduces himself and Black Panther curtly says, “I don’t care” and goes back to fighting. Boseman (ageless I tell you!) is smooth and magnetic. Then there’s everyone’s favorite neighborhood Spider-Man (Tom Holland), or whom I’m already referring to my pals as “best Spider-Man.” It’s another incarnation of Peter Parker but the first that feels like an actual teenager, a bundle of adolescent energy and excitement. He’s the voice of the fans and during the big battle he can’t help but gush that he gets to be involved alongside the big names. Spidey’s a fanboy too. He also has a few choice meta one-liners that had me cackling. Holland (The Impossible) makes an immediate impact and, unlike BvS, finds new ways to make us care. I’m genuinely excited for solo Black Panther and Spider-Man adventures with these characters. Even the more traditional villain of Civil War, Baron Zemo, is handled in a way that provides an emotional motivation for his character that is sincere rather than mustache-twirling villainy. In a lot of ways this feels like a third Avengers film just with the size and scope alone. The dozen characters are juggled skillfully but the emphasis is always on Rogers and Stark and their significant personal conflicts.

Batman vs. Superman’s action sequences are repetitive, joyless, and dank.”

I challenge some enterprising soul to even try and decipher what is happening during the climactic three-on-one monster battle in BvS. I was sitting in the theater and just gave up. I wasn’t having any fun and I couldn’t even literally tell what was happening onscreen with all the confusing CGI obfuscation. The action droned on and on with little variation and was at pains to include certain members and storylines (Lois, maybe don’t get so hasty with that kryptonite spear). It was all just one big overwrought mess that made you question whether anybody on that film production actually liked these superheroes. With Civil War, the action sequences are smartly conceived and choreographed, making excellent use of geography and adding organic complications. The standout is the 20-minute superhero-on-superhero brawl at the Leipzig airport. It is nothing short of nerd nirvana. The characters use their powers together in exciting ways and it further helps them feel like an actual team taking proper advantage of their resources. It’s the culmination of a child’s imagination at play, the living embodiment of smashing action figures against one another and flying around the room. I was thrilled that the Russo brothers found ways to incorporate all the heroes into the action. The specific powers are taken advantage of in fun and surprising ways. The action changes as the stakes keep getting more complicated as more heroes enter the fray. It’s a set piece that will become legendary within film geek circles and it provides payoff after glorious payoff.

Batman vs. Superman is devoid of all fun and takes itself far too seriously. You feel beaten down, exhausted, and punished by film’s end.”

captain-america-civil-war-spider-manThe Marvel movies have earned a reputation for their brisk and breezy nature, which has unfairly been labeled as “weightless” and “silly.” I challenge someone to watch Civil War and tell me just how weightless and silly it is. The Russo brothers and the screenwriters take these characters seriously and their care shows. While there can be plenty of rapid-fire quips and one-liners, the movie’s sense of humor does not detract from the emotional weight of its dramatic shifts. There are political and thematic overtones, mostly the costs of vengeance and culpability, that provide extra depth to the onscreen derring-do. However, Civil War understands that an audience wants to be entertained as well with their heavy-handed messianic imagery. There are payoffs galore in this movie. Some are several movies deep from set up. It all comes together to make a thrilling and highly enjoyable movie experience that plays to its audience in the best way possible. It’s an expert summer blockbuster that packs its own punch. There’s a reason I have already seen Civil War three times already. There is so much to enjoy and it’s so tightly packed and structured that you can jump right in and go for the ride. This is the movie fans were hoping for. This is the movie that washes out the bad taste of the dreadful BvS. If one of my lasting disappointments with BvS was how it made me lose hope for future DC movies, Civil War has cemented my anticipation. The future creative direction of the MCU is in good hands with the Russo brothers. This is the movie that reminds you just how damn good superhero movies can be when they’re at the top of their game. I’d place Civil War right up there at the top of the MCU, though at this time I’m still holding Guardians of the Galaxy as the apex. They’re still achieving this high level of quality after a dozen movies, people. I would not have thought that Captain America would become the gold standard of the MCU but there it is. I felt beaten down by the merciless end of BvS. I felt the elation of an adrenaline-rush from Civil War.

I’ll conclude this unorthodox film review with my in-summary blurb: everything Batman vs. Superman did wrong Captain America: Civil War does right. Do yourself a favor and start the healing process from BvS and enjoy Marvel’s latest cinematic gift to its fans.

Nate’s Grade: A

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-

Chef (2014)

chef-posterChef must have been something of a needed break for its star, writer, and director, Jon Favreau. He’s directed three large-scale Hollywood sci-fi mega movies in a row, a long way from Favrieau’s first big break, Swingers, which he wrote for himself. It was time for something a little smaller, quieter, and more personal, and Chef is just the ticket, a familiar but still greatly satisfying slice-of-life movie about a frustrated chef finding his mojo. Favreau plays a famous chef who cracks under the pressure of delivering the same safe food day in and day out. He loses his job after an increasingly hostile Twitter war with a food critic who calls him out for his safety in blandness. This pushes Favreau out of his comfort zone; he starts an independent food truck, bonds with his son, and generally begins to embrace his new invigorating freedom. Don’t see this movie on an empty stomach because it will be torture. The food preparation shots are tantalizing as are the general discussions over the adoration of food, the heavenly feel of a good meal (an aspect that’s even utilized as foreplay in the film). The entire film is stoked by a laid back charm, an amiable camaraderie between Favreau and his cast, so much so that we don’t care when the film sort of stalls. It’s a far lengthier period between Favreau losing job and getting the food truck than necessary, and the ending is abrupt with an almost absurd amount of resolution tie-ups crammed together without additional progression. The characters are likeable enough, funny, and their passions have a way of enveloping the audience, so much so that a fairly predictable plot is excusable. Chef is a lovely little palate cleanser at the start of the summer movie season and an enjoyable excursion. Just fill up before seeing it or else.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Iron Man 3 (2013)

1967Third movies in superhero franchises always seem to be a precarious proposition; X-Men 3, Spider-Man 3, Superman 3, all graveyards of rushed productions, artistic compromises, and general complacency. Usually the third movie is when the hero has what he or she (but mostly he) has built up stripped down. It’s the same case with Iron Man 3, which short of a noisy finale has a surprisingly small amount of actual Iron Man, much like the scant amount of Batman in last year’s The Dark Knight Rises. That’s fine with me because the appeal of this franchise has been Tony Stark the character, not the mechanical heroics. Iron Man 3 is co-written and directed by super Hollywood scribe Shane Black, the man who gave us Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, The Long Kiss Goodnight, and the 2005 gem that resuscitated Robert Downey Jr.’s career, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. It was this fact alone, especially after how disappointing Iron Man 2 was, that got me jazzed about a third outing. Black’s characteristic sense of humor, genre blending, and mass appeal thrills helps to make Iron Man 3 an enjoyable if flawed movie-going experience and a suitable kickoff to the summer movie season.

Tony Stark (Downey Jr.) is having trouble sleeping, haunted by the near world-ending events in New York City from his time with the Avengers. Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), head of Stark Industries and Tony’s main squeeze, wants her man to take a mental health break. He’s spending as much time as possible in his lab, concocting a whole army of different Iron Man suits. His latest invention allows him to control a suit prototype with his body, compelling pieces of his amour to his person with a wave of his arms. He’ll need the help because the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), a fearful terrorist leader, is staging a series of bombings around the United States, leaving behind videos taunting his foes. After an attack that hits close to home, Stark challenges the Mandarin and the bad guy brings the fight to the man of iron, decimating his home and forcing Stark to flee. In Tennessee, Stark unravels the mystery behind the Mandarin, which involves a brilliant scientist (Rebecca Hall), a nefarious biotechnology businessman (Guy Pearce), and even the president of the United States himself.

95182_galThe best part of the first film was watching a brilliant guy become Iron Man; sure the superhero stuff was fun but it wasn’t what made the movie special. Downey Jr. as a charismatic, egotistical, self-involved but ultimately redeemable middle-aged playboy is what made the movie special. With Iron Man 3, he has to rely on his wits for large portions, which are still considerable. It’s a clever way to make a billionaire playboy with out-of-this-world technology empathetic. He’s never going to be an everyman but that doesn’t mean we can’t empathize. With that said, I still find his whole PTSD ordeal after events from The Avengers to be shaky. He’s already had near death experiences before so unless we get a bigger explanation (proof of alien existence and superiority? Knowing a return is inevitable?) I find it hard to fathom that a guy as outwardly unflappable as Tony Stark would be hobbled by his super team-up activities. Also, now that we exist in a post-Avengers universe, wouldn’t the ongoing attacks by the Mandarin warrant some sort of S.H.I.E.L.D. response or monitoring?

Likewise, I really appreciated how Black developed his action sequences, routinely giving Stark limitations. The concept of a suit that can assemble by itself and fly hundreds of miles is silly, sure, but it also opens up fun possibilities and questions of identity. At one point, Stark has one arm and one leg of his suit, allowing him to fight back but having to get creative with his moves. A fight while he’s handcuffed also provides enjoyable thrills. During the home attack, Stark’s suit is a prototype and will not allow him to fly, so he has to get inventive, literally shooting a grand piano at a helicopter. The best action scene is when Iron Man has to save a dozen people from plummeting to their deaths after being sucked out of Air Force One in midair. I wish the solution hadn’t been so quick but it’s a thrilling sequence with terrific aerial photography.

Until the finale, which is all-robot action, you could accuse the film of being too shrift in its action sequences, rarely lasting longer than a few brief minutes. They’re still quite entertaining, and well directed, with Black nicely drawing out organic complications and making good use of geography. We know that Black can write a glorious action sequence, but unless you were one of the lucky souls who saw Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, it’s a surprise that the man can direct one so well. There’s a nice sense of style on display but it never becomes overpowering, and thankfully it’s presented in a manner that you can, shocker, tell what is happening onscreen. Black definitely has a good eye for visuals and scene compositions but he also knows how to deliver great crowd-pleasing moments that we want in our summer movies. The climax is pretty busy with lots of keen Iron Man suits that you just know are there to be purchasable toys first and foremost. The sustained action is pretty involving, and Black is an expert at establishing mini-goals and developing naturally. Even as it starts to devolve into a hectic video game-like frenzy, there are enough changing goals and reversals to keep you satisfied for the long haul.

The movie’s villains are somewhat nebulous and employ an Evil Plot that is too convoluted by half. The Mandarin is an intriguing figure but undergoes some changes that will surely leave fans of the comic steaming mad. I accept that movies are an adaptation from the source material, and have no real personal affinity for Iron Man or his rogues’ gallery, so I wasn’t bothered by the notable change. It fits the tone of the movie as well as becomes another plot point in a convoluted Evil Plot. I will agree with detractors on this point: after the invasion in The Avengers, alien technology, the source of the Mandarin’s powers in the comic, is credible. I don’t really understand the political commentary at play with the Mandarin either. More so, and I’m trying to be delicate with spoilers, Iron Man 3 is really a movie about Tony Stark versus… lava people. Sure they have superhuman brains that provide regeneration and superior human ability. It just seems that all these super humans decide to do is… heat things up. They glow red, melt through walls, and are essentially lava creatures. Apparently Tony Stark needs to take some cues from that old U.S. Marines ad where the guy fights a giant lava monster (“Have you been attacked by a lava monster recently? No? You’re welcome – signed, the Marines”). The villains, while weak, are still probably the best in the series. It’s been a fairly weak franchise for antagonists.

95820_galComing from Black, you’d expect an increase in the implementation of comedy, though Iron Man 3 probably walks just up to the line. It almost gets too jokey but pulls back enough. Adam Pally’s (TV’s criminally underseen Happy Endings) small bit as an obsessed fan of Stark is probably the testing point. Tony Stark has issues sure, especially if Disney will ever let the movies explore his history with alcoholism, but the man is never going to challenge Bruce Wayne for the brooding loner throne. Stark is a quipper, a loudmouth who uses humor as a weapon and a shield, and brought to vivid life by Downey Jr., the man will always be a comedian. That’s not to say that the drama lacks proper seriousness. However, Black pushes a lot more comedy into the film than we’ve seen in the earlier installments. Most of it is welcome and even when the movie goes into mass appeal mode, especially in Act Two when a plucky kid aids Stark, Black covers the familiar without losing his edge. You’ll likely recognize the buddy cop patter from Black’s other movies but it still works. There are several setups that look like we’re getting Big Hero Moments, and then Black decides to undercut them for a good laugh. Iron Man 3’s consistent sense of humor makes the movie feel even faster paced.

Downey Jr. (The Avengers) is still the MVP of the modern Marvel-verse in my eyes, and even two years removed from 50, he’s still got enough energy to power a small army. He’s still pulling the same schtick so to speak, which may wear thin for others after four starring appearances as Tony Stark, but I still find him naturally appealing. Paltrow (Contagion) gets a chance to do more than the standard damsel in distress that the women function in these movies. I regret that after being given a tantalizing new direction the movie reverts her back to standard damsel sidekick so speedily. Ho hum. Kingsley (Hugo) just seemed wrong for the part from the start, never mind the nebulous ethnicity issues. His vocal fluctuations and strange emphasis proved too distracting for me. However, he proves to be a better match after the Mandarin’s twist. Pearce (Lawless) is a pretty solid, smarmy bad guy and man has he got an impressive physique going on. It’s just nice to see great character actors from Hall (The Town) to Miguel Ferrer (Traffic) to Dale Dickey (Winter’s Bone) in a high-profile mega blockbuster. Even little Ty Simpkins (Insidious) is pretty good as the kid who helps out Stark. My tolerance for child acting has gone downhill as I have gotten older, but the kid is genuinely good without falling into the common trappings of being cloying or overly precocious.

Iron Man 3 is a definite improvement over the overstuffed, undernourished 2010 sequel. It ends on a moment that feels like something close to closure, but you know, as the credits helpfully indicate, that Tony Stark will appear again, at least in 2015’s Avengers 2. The bigger question is can this franchise exist without the participation of Downey Jr.? I’m sure we’ll all find out eventually considering the character is too profitable to simply retire once Downey Jr. decides he’s had enough. We’ve had five Batmans after all, not counting Adam West. However, never has a character seemed so intrinsically linked with an actor before. Downey Jr. just is Tony Stark, and while some capable young male lead out there in Hollywood will put up a valiant effort, it will never be the same. Iron Man 3 is further proof that the appeal of the franchise is not the explosions and action set pieces, which it does a fine job with; it’s the man inside the suit and the formidable actor that gives this franchise its juice. Spending more time with Stark is a bonus, and Black’s zippy sense of comedy and acute knowledge of the architecture of popcorn thrills allows the movie to fly by with ease. While the first film reigns supreme, Iron Man 3 is a fitting and pleasurable enough blockbuster that reminds you why we still love this guy.

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+

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011)

Delivering pretty much more of the same, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows isn’t exactly an improvement over the classic detective’s first foray into out-and-out Hollywood action cinema. The real treat of the budding franchise is the comic interplay between Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) and Watson (Jude Law). Their harried banter makes for the best moments. Once again the plot is overwrought, the side characters underdeveloped (poor original dragon tattooed girl, Noomi Rapace, given absolutely nothing to do but run in a gypsy skirt), mysteries that you give up and just wait for Holmes to explain, and a villain that proves to be lackluster. For Moriarty (Mad Men’s Jared Harris) to be the nemesis, the intellectual equal of Holmes I’m going to need to see much more than this. There is a fine sequence at the very end where Holmes mentally envisions the steps of his attack and then Moriarty joins in: “You think you’re the only one who can do that?” They hold an entire duel fought step-by-step in the imagination. I wanted more experiences like this, but director Guy Ritchie (Snatch) falls back on his signature stylized action sequences of fast whooshing and quick spinning. The action is a step up from the first Holmes, and that will be enough for most ticket-buyers. I’ll admit there is a certain meta-literary charm at watching Arthur Conan Doyle’s signature detective fighting his way through an armed body of baddies. Whatever your feelings were for the 2009 Sherlock Holmes, I’m fairly certain you’ll revisit them in their entirety with Game of Shadows. I know I did.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Due Date (2010)

Due Date feels less a wholesale rip-off of 1987’s Planes, Trains, and Automobiles and more of a full-blown film inspired by the one sequence where Steve Martin unleashes a profane tirade at an airport clerk. It has two talented actors (Robert Downey Jr., Zack Galifiankas) in situations that should come across as funny, but the movie only gets so many laughs. The road trip angle has been done to death but the mismatched pairing of Downey, acerbic anger, and Galifianakas, continued goofball man-child, should have compensated for any stale genre formula leftovers. I think Due Date, under the direction of Todd Phillips (The Hangover, Old School), really just doesn’t know what to do with all its misplaced mean-spirited rage. So we end up with kids getting punched, people being beaten by disabled veterans, multiple cars crashing in spectacular fashion, public masturbation with dogs, people enduring great injury, and somehow the characters bond through all the adversity, even though neither changes at all. The comedy setups are all fairly transparent and can only deliver medium-sized payoffs; when a man’s ashes are kept in a coffee can, you know it’s only a matter of time before the inevitable occurs. For better or worse, this is a two-man operation; the supporting actors are all wasted, particularly Downey’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang co-star Michelle Monaghan (Eagle Eye) as Downey’s pregnant wife. She isn’t even given one funny thing to say or do the whole movie. Due Date is a comedy that will make you laugh sporadically but it should have performed better. It’s a mid-level comedy with medium-level payoffs that ultimately prove to be underwhelming given the upper-level talent involved.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Iron Man 2 (2010)

Iron Man was a fresh surprise in the summer of 2008, offering a superhero movie dominated by a middle-aged man’s personality and not the special effects. The story was not overwhelmed by all the demands of what we expect in a glorious summer popcorn experience. Marvel was smart to sign on the same team behind the first film, including director Jon Favreau, but setting a deadline exactly two years after the first film made me worry. There wasn’t much time to get everything together, and it should be no shock that Iron Man 2 feels rushes and absent the finesse of the first film. As much as it pains me to say it, Iron Man 2, while fun in spots, doesn’t come close to the original. You can trace much of it back to the sequel ethos that you take what worked in Part 1, make it much, much bigger and louder, and now you have Part Two. But what worked so exceptionally well in the first Iron Man movie was not the action sequences but the characters, so guess what happens when you pollute the narrative with more characters and disposable action sequences?

Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is a self-made superhero and now the world knows that he is indeed the metallic warrior, Iron Man. Stark refuses to hand over his technology to the government, saying he has “successfully privatized world peace.” He appoints his girlfriend/loyal assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) to CEO so he can devote his time to ridding the world of evil and lapping up the fame that goes with being Iron Man. Lt. Col. James Rhodes (Don Cheadle replacing Terrence Howard) is concerned for his buddy but also eager to help play around with that super suit. But not everybody loves Tony Stark, notably Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), a rival weapons dealer aiming for a Pentagon contract, and Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), a Russian scientist who blames his father’s exile from America and Siberian internment on the Stark family. When Hammer sees Vanko’s attack at a Monaco speedway, he knows he has found an ally against Stark. Hammer whisks his newest Russian friend to New York and enlists his expertise in creating an army of super mechanical fighting suits.

The screenplay by actor-turned-writer Justin Theroux (Tropic Thunder) is overstuffed with people and events all fighting for screen time and narrative dominance that it starts to become unintentionally comical after a while. There are too many storylines jostling for control when any one of them could have comprised a whole movie: military demands to have the suit, Tony deals with blowback from being the most famous man in the universe, and escalation (others trying to top Stark). Don’t even get me started on how Iron Man 2 bends over backwards to advertise that future Marvel Avengers movie lead by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). I mistakenly believed that the trailers ended before my movie started. There’s a storyline where Tony’s blood is becoming infected with a dangerous chemical every time he uses the Iron Man suit, so being a superhero is literally killing him. You can work with that for some pathos, debating the needs of one man vs. the needs of society and the greater good, personal sacrifice, mortality, legacy, but it all gets way too easily resolved in an absurd way (all I’ll say is, thanks Mad Men‘s Roger Sterling!). It tries to up the ante when less would have been considerably more.

Most of the new characters feel poorly integrated, further causing distraction to any attempts at narrative cohesion. Iron Man 2 also pushes Johansson into the mix so that she can shake up the Tony/Pepper relationship and, plus, she looks good in a skintight cat suit. But her third wheel/love triangle status is barely touched upon and Johansson gets one solid action sequence where she takes out a litany of goons in a hallway with the amazing power of her spinning thighs. Johansson is mostly just another assistant to take notes in the background, although she does it beautifully. The Rourke scenes are few and far between. They establish him as an intimidating force and then he pretty much sits in a room tinkering with stuff, garbling Russian, and feeding his cockatiel for the rest of the movie. He never feels like a real threat or a true match for Tony. Rockwell is the more appealing, slimy villain of the duo, aided by Rockwell’s exasperated bellowing and desperation for the spotlight. Hammer is more interesting to me than a Russian ex-con that rarely speaks, let alone speaks in English. He’s given so little opportunity to develop Vanko as a character. And yet Gary Shandling, as a smug senator trying to make Stark accountable to the U.S. military, might be the film’s best villain of the bunch (curious side note: Shandling and Rourke look oddly similar).

The personal relationship between Tony Stark and Pepper Potts was the heart of Iron Man. They had that snappy, droll, screwball comedy-esque give-and-take, with hints of something more underneath. This time, the movie doesn’t even speak about their relationship at all, like it never happened in the first film. That scene where she kisses his Iron Man helmet, tosses it out the belly of a plane, and he dives off uttering, “You complete me”? Not in the film. You start to wonder why the movie is being purposely vague and it gets maddening. Their relationship lacks the frustration tinged with flirtation and replaces it with agitation. Both Tony and Pepper are harried and on each other’s last nerve, which doesn’t make for much romantic traction. Their chemistry seems to have dampened. I’m kind of with Pepper on this one because Tony Stark might be even too obnoxious in this movie. Following the sequel-it is code, Tony’s egotistical behavior is expanded and he becomes prone to self-destructive behavior, getting riskier and riskier, pushing others away including, perhaps, decent portions of the audience. He’s stopped being the cocky, likeable arrogant playboy and transformed into a bit of a rich douchebag. Part of this is related to the storyline about the suit literally killing Tony, and his character’s alcoholism featured heavily in the comic books, but it’s just another plot element that feels like it was put in for momentary conflict and then easily resolved or dropped. I understand Tony will be his biggest antagonist but that didn’t stop the first Iron Man film from flying high in entertainment.

The first Iron Man had an unexpected low level of action for a summer movie, but because of the characters you didn’t care. It was that rare comic book movie where you wanted more dialogue and fewer sound effects. To be fair, Favreau and crew saved a pretty nice Iron Mano y Iron Mano fight sequence at the end. Following that narrative lead, Iron Man 2 is structured pretty much like the first when it comes to action. There’s the attack at the Monaco raceway, which features an unrealistic, cartoonish tone that conflicts with the rest of the flick. But the film’s biggest moment of sustained action is the climax involves Tony Stark versus a bunch of silly killer robots. Soulless robot drones don’t get very compelling, plus haven’t we seen a thousand movies where people combat killer robots? What’s more disappointing is that Favreau incoherently stages the action. It’s not due to any sort of hyperactive editing, no, the culprit is that the onscreen action is just moving way too quickly. As a result, much of the action feels like whooshes of color. It’s hard to adjust your eyes to the rapid movement and process what exactly is going on. Because we can’t follow the action the whole thing lacks tension, danger, and drama. I wanted to be blown away by the action, which has several trailer-ready moments of awesome, but mostly I just wanted to be able to understand what I was watching.

Despite all my complaints, Iron Man 2 still manages to be a fun time out at the movies. Downey is always immensely talented and brings great amounts of energy to the role, centering the movie on his witty charms. While his character is less engaging this go-round, Downey is still on top of his game. Rourke, Rockwell, Paltrow, and Johansson all contribute fine performances when they’re on screen. The low output of Iron Man in suit is compensated by having TWO Iron Men, thanks to Rhodes donning the metal gear and fighting alongside his pal. The opening of this movie captures your interest fairly well, though it loses it again thanks to slack pacing and an influx of new faces. The tone of the movie takes a cue from Downey and the movie as an agreeable, comedic feel without seeming overly glib. And hey, the special effects are pretty nice, too. Iron Man 2 is an adequate popcorn movie but the tragedy of the movie is that the first film was much more than adequate. I think the Iron Man film franchise is in need of a slight upgrade.

Nate’s Grade: C+

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