Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) – Movie Review

avengers age of ultron

The original line-up of the Avengers are back for another go: Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, Hawkeye and Black Widow and a whole bunch of new heroes in Joss Whedon’s final turn in the director’s chair for Marvel’s ensemble franchise.

What’s the story about? Well it’s pretty simple, in the wake of Loki’s attempted invasion of New York City, Tony Stark attempts to create an artificial intelligence whose sole task is to protect Earth against future threats. Of course, this backfires and the Avengers end up creating their deadly enemy, Ultron. The rumors are true: one Avenger will die and it might not be who you expect.

Is it worth watching? Well, first the good stuff: the battle between an enraged Hulk and Iron Man in an unnamed African city is the highlight of the movie and it happens around the midpoint. Supporting characters in the first film like Hawkeye, Black Widow and the Hulk finally get center stage though at the expense of old stalwarts like Thor (who becomes an inadvertent comic relief throughout most of the movie) and Captain America (who turns into a one-dimensional boy scout). Iron Man is the Jimmy Neutron of the team- a tortured genius who tries to create a solution to a problem that has yet to exist and ends up creating a Frankenstein monster of sorts- it’s not that Tony Stark is the villain but this does tie in nicely with the upcoming Captain America: Civil War movie.

This brings into focus the central weakness of the movie: namely too many characters and not enough screen time for each one to be fleshed out. The movie not only serves as an origin story for Ultron as well as new Avengers Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver and the Vision but it ends up making the story a paper thin pastiche of short character building vignettes around huge swirling chaotic battle scenes- many of them too enamored with fast editing to the point that they are almost too quick to follow with the mind’s eye. Additional cameos by the Falcon, War Machine and Nick Fury only adds to its ad-hoc nature and myriad narrative.

In the end, Avengers Age of Ultron is ultimately satisfying but if you look closer, it seems to be nothing more than a placeholder for future plot lines in the upcoming Marvel Universe movie franchises.

 

7 out of 10 stars

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Ant-Man (2015) – Movie Review

ant man

When I first heard the news that Marvel was producing a film about “Ant-Man,” I thought that there was no way it could be good. How could a movie about a superhero who can control ants be interesting at all? Furthermore, my doubts on how well the movie would do were further diminished when I found out that Paul Rudd, a comedian, was going to play the lead role of Scott Lang who would eventually become “Ant- Man.” I never thought Rudd was a poor actor, just not one who could pull off a comic book hero role. I entered the theater with low expectations, but left pleasantly surprised.

“Ant-Man” turned out to be a fun, different, and off-beat film. It tells the story of a master thief named Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) who has just gotten out of prison and is trying to make amends and keep a job. Lang is divorced but has a young daughter who idolizes him. Lang eventually comes in contact with a mysterious man named Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) whose plans for Lang end up changing his life. This film develops each one of the main characters fairly well. It shows us that although Scott Lang has a criminal background, he still generally means well. It also builds on Douglas’s character as well as on Evangeline Lilly’s character, Hope Van Dyne, although in this review I don’t want to give away too much.

There are also many little things that make this movie charming. Paul Rudd ends up playing Scott Lang wonderfully. He delivers his lines well and plays the character exactly the way he should. Douglas is great as he normally is, and Lilly portrays her serious character quite well. Corey Stoll’s “Darren Cross” is a generally interesting villain, although there wasn’t much that made him stand out from other villains in the Marvel universe. The comic relief character, Michael Peña, is spot on. His character is a silly, small-time thief who is a friend of Lang’s and who accompanied him on his past crimes. Overall, the casting choices proved to be effective.

In conclusion, “Ant-Man” is a film that I believe anybody can enjoy, superhero fan or not. The characters are likable, the story is different enough from a standard Marvel film to make it interesting, and there’s plenty of humor, character development, and action to make this movie worth seeing again. I’m looking forward to seeing more of Paul Rudd’s “Ant-Man” in movies to come.

 

8 out of 10 stars

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Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) – Movie Review

captain america winter soldier

Directed by the sure hands of Anthony and Joe Russo (TV’s Community) from an excellent screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is easily the best of the stand alone Marvel films and a thrilling action film full of big surprises and twists with far reaching consequences. A superior sequel like X Men 2 and The Dark Knight, it raises the stakes of good story telling and intricate adaptations of its comic book origins in the guise of a political thriller.

Steve Rogers AKA Captain America (Chris Evans) continues his adjustment to 21st century life after his thaw from the deep freeze (in Captain America: The First Avenger) and befriends a fellow veteran, Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie). On a typical mission for S.H.I.E.L.D., Cap and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) lead a team of agents to rescue a pirated ship which turns up an interesting bit of information. Meanwhile, as S.H.I.E.L.D. readies the major launch of a defense system in Washington, D.C., there are growing concerns expressed by boss Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) to his superior, Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford). As suspicions multiply, all hell breaks loose when there is an assassination attempt on one of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s own. The conspiracy leads Captain America to a confrontation with a mysterious, formidable figure, The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), whose strength and skills are extraordinary. With only a small circle of comrades, everything Cap has come to value comes crashing down. Loyalties are tested and just who will survive a major shift in the world order is just the beginning of an insidious plot.

For fans of Cap, these are grand times as the filmmakers have chosen a major story arc (The Winter Soldier) from his comic books and incorporated Silver Age characters like The Falcon (Mackie) and Batroc (GSP). Recently, super hero films have chosen to bend the rules and take chances with tradition. This film goes much further than any previous Marvel adaptation. It features a good mystery, topical subject matter on individual privacy, and significant plot twists so much so that it is essential for the viewer to watch them unfold without any spoilers. The smart script contains witty lines amid a pervasive feeling of mistrust and paranoia. When Cap responds to Fury’s state of the art weaponry to combat threats and says, “This isn’t freedom. This is fear,” it sums up the theme of the story. Think of this as homage to 1970s conspiracy classics like Three Days of the Condor, The Parallax View, and Marathon Man. The film also employs moments that references Mission Impossible, The X Files, RoboCop, and 24.

Acting is uniformly strong as some old, familiar faces return, and a few new ones get introduced. By now Evans has become the embodiment of the iconic hero, retaining his sense of justice, duty, and morals, virtues which are downright refreshing in a post 9/11 world. Rogers is a Rip Van Winkle out of his time and still learning to assimilate to changes in the world, and cultural references, with amusing results. Evans’ chemistry with Johansson is believable yet ironic since their two characters have vastly different backgrounds. In a co-starring role, Johansson’s Black Widow is resourceful, smart, and deadly as a S.H.I.E.L.D. operative whose history is only beginning to be explored. Jackson’s Fury has an expanded role and reveals more facets of his mysterious background. Robert Redford (All the President’s Men) has a significant, atypical role as a high level government official, and he is outstanding. His presence alone adds legitimacy and authority to the film. Mackie (The Hurt Locker) is an ideal buddy in arms to Evans. Emily VanCamp makes a good first impression as a young agent, and Cobie Smulders (returning as Agent Maria Hill) provides solid backup.

The many impressive action sequences are noteworthy for their ferocity and meticulous detail, but the standouts are a mad, opening car chase through the streets of D.C., and a remarkable fight in a glass elevator that surpasses the gem in Die Hard: With a Vengeance. There are moments of intense hand to hand combat that recall the best moments of the Bourne films on steroids. You’ve also got to love that shield; the film wisely displays all the creative ways Cap’s shield is employed in combat. The violence here is realistically depicted and not cartoonish which pushes its PG-13 rating. Extensive use of hand-held cameras and more live action special effects than CGI lend a stronger sense of realism. D.C. locations make a splendid backdrop for much of the film.

Taking super hero filmmaking to new heights, Captain America: The Winter Soldier successfully interconnects what we know from previous films and effectively challenges you to re-evaluate everything in the Marvel Universe. It certainly helps to have seen the previous films, but there is sufficient background and context that a casual viewer would still enjoy it. (Fans of TV’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. will have a field day as the events tie in directly with the show.) Though the film ends with open ended story threads that beg for another installment, consider this as The Empire Strikes Back of Captain America. That’s not such a bad place to be.

 

10 out of 10 stars

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Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) – Movie Review

captain america first avenger

Perhaps no member of The Avengers would seem more difficult to introduce to a modern audience than Steve Rogers aka Captain America. Seen as perhaps something of an artifact from a time gone by, here was a character whose jump to the big screen had long been stuck in development hell. Despite a somewhat ironic title (the irony being that this would be the last of the origin films released before The Avengers), 2011 saw Cap make the leap successfully to the big screen, bringing with him an interesting new angle in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

A large part of the success was due to the choice of leading man. Chris Evans was an initially controversial choice to play the role, due in large part to his already having played another notable Marvel hero in the two Fantastic Four films some years previously. Yet like Daniel Craig’s James Bond, once given the chance to see him in action the criticisms were largely silenced. Evans managed to successfully play not just the almost superhuman commando we’ve come to know and love, but also the man Steve Rogers was before that: a puny, young guy from Brooklyn who seemed to embody the old saying about nice guys finishing last. Evans keeps that good guy aspect of the character throughout the film, which is present in his interactions with fellow characters and his reactions to events. Evans managed to take a potentially clichéd superhero from another time and make him into a genuinely likable character.

For that matter, the film all around has a strong cast. Hugo Weaving makes a fine nemesis in the form of Hydra leader Johann Schmidt, bringing a suitably sinister air to the character right from his very first scene in the film to the dramatic moment about midway through when he reveals the Red Skull persona (itself a triumph of prosthetic makeup). Sebastian Stan’s Bucky Barnes is notable as well both for his chemistry with Evans’ Rogers which makes their friendship believable even when their roles are reversed but for also firmly establishing an idea of the character in the mind of the audience (something even more important in light of where the character would eventually be developed in the future). Filling in more traditional roles with memorable performances are Toby Jones as Hydra scientist Arnim Zola, Tommy Lee Jones as the initially skeptical commander of the Strategic Scientific Reserve and Stanley Tucci as ex-pat German scientist Dr. Abraham Erskine who recruits Rogers.

Though the film’s setting during the Second World War means that female characters are fairly few, the character from the film besides Rogers that stands out the most is Haley Atwell’s Peggy Carter. While she does, as she did in the comics, become something of a love interest for Rogers, thankfully there’s far more to the character than that. Atwell in interviews described the character as “She can do everything Captain America can do, but backwards and in high heels,” and the action sequences in which Carter appears certainly prove that point.

The film’s production values are strong, especially given its Second World War setting. Through its combination of script, production design and costuming, the film successfully blends the technology and weapons of that conflict with aspects of the previously established Marvel universe (both comic and cinematic, the latter perhaps being more as a result of Joss Whedon’s uncredited work on the script). In fact some of the seemingly more outlandish designs form the film such as the rocket like craft Schmidt uses at one point or the large flying wing plane where the film’s climactic confrontation takes place are in fact based on real life plans drawn up by the Germans during the war (the Triebflügeljäger fighter plane and the Horten H.XVIII respectively). Director Joe Johnston, whose previous films include period set works such as the cult film The Rocketeer and October Sky, was a perfect choice to direct the film which combines period setting and characters with action sequences (indeed The Rocketeer arguably bares some similarities to the film itself). The icing on the cake might well be the score from Alan Silvestri which manages to be exciting and yet timeless at the same time. The results make the film as strong as it is.

Despite the film really being done to establish the Captain’s origin story, The First Avenger is book-ended by two very important scenes in the present day. The first of which reveal the discovery of a mysterious object between Arctic ice (revealed late in the film to the Hydra flying wing) that sets up the journey the viewer is about to go on while the latter presents us with a sequence where Rogers finds himself in the present day which, as well as giving us the seemingly pre-requisite appearance by Samuel L Jackson’s Nick Fury, also firmly establishes that other iconic aspect of the character: that he is a man out of time. With that complete, the stage was set for The Avengers and the rest, as they say, is history.

First Avenger on its own though holds up quite well. Of the phase one Marvel films it’s one of the most successful in bringing its characters story to life while also presenting a genuinely enjoyable film in the process. The result is a strong, period based action film and one of the best Marvel films to date.

 

8 out of 10 stars

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