Avengers : Age of Ultron

It’s what NASA uses.

Avengers : Age of Ultron (2015)

All of Marvel’s movies are treated as big event movies, but Age of Ultron is a special case. Perhaps it’s the wrong way of thinking, but people automatically want to know if Age of Ultron is better than the first Avengers. My answer is an annoying “kind of”.

Born out of Stark A.I. meddling, the Avengers have to face a new threat to global safety, a rogue program calling itself “Ultron” (voiced by James Spader) that has concluded that humanity’s extinction is the only logical outcome. He recruits two superhuman experiments in the form of the Maximoff twins, Pietro and Wanda (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen), better known as Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, to aid him in stopping Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. As is often the case with sequels, Age of Ultron is darker than the first. It explores the personal fears of each Avenger and leaves them broken and scarred. That’s not to say it tips the balance into all-out ludicrous grimmery. At its core, the film is still a fun, comic-book adventure with plenty of gags and moments of levity.

Age of Ultron certainly starts better than the original Avengers did. We open in medias res, with the team waging an assault on a Hydra castle deathbase to retrieve Loki’s series-important mind-control sceptre. It was so comic-booky and fun, it immediately brought a smile to my face. Loathe as I am to use the word, the banter between the team was like putting on a comfy pair of slippers. I genuinely love these characters and it’s great to hear them bounce off each other. As someone who has sunk many hours of the Marvel: Ultimate Alliance games, the little team-up attacks will always delight me on a level I can’t quite explain. In comparison, Avengers 1 took a while to get up to speed. The first 20 minutes or so feel weirdly low-rent and out of place when held up against the rest of the film. Lessons have been learned with Age of Ultron and it shows.

After being shoved to the sidelines in the first film, Age of Ultron finally spares some focus for Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye. Joss Whedon delves into the character’s personal life and he becomes the heart of the film. What I love about this is that he’s used as the necessary humanity in a team full of overpowered supermen. You can have your big personalities doing loud and awesome things, but you still need something to ground it. There’s a surprising budding relationship between Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow and Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner. It’s a strange pairing but it makes total sense. I found it all to be rather sweet. There’s one scene at the Avengers HQ bar where Romanoff flirts shamelessly with the awkward Banner that completely sold their relationship to me. It’s like a film noir exchange and the Whedonness of the writing came through strongly. He loves damaged characters and putting unlikely couples together and having you root for them is kinda his thing. I have to say, I’m liking Tony Stark less. It’s completely intentional too. Stark sees the Avengers as a stopgap solution to Earth’s problems and is working on an endgame. He’s trying to cut the barbed wire again. His shortsightedness leads to Ultron. Although it isn’t directly his fault, he definitely has to shoulder some of the blame. His talk with Cap whilst chopping wood definitely shows the fissures appearing in their ideologies that will lead to Civil War. I can’t wait.

Ultron is a fascinating villain. He has Stark’s wit hardcoded into his programming and so he ends up with just as many one-liners and witticisms as our heroes. His monologues are perfect for James Spader’s amazing voice and as a result Ultron is utterly compelling. The film has a running theme of evolution and Ultron embodies that. There’s one scene where Ultron destroys his body mid-speech with a newer, more powerful form without pause that is just a fantastic moment. This is an odd sentence, but despite Ultron’s desire to wipe out humanity, he didn’t seem that evil to me. Part of it is his cold, robot logic. He’s not evil because he enjoys it, but because it makes sense to him. Part of it is the fact that he’s so damn entertaining. It all adds up to him being insanely misguided rather than straight-up evil. I can appreciate that it’s a more interesting take on villainy, but it didn’t have the immediate, visceral appeal of someone who is an out-and-out bastard. However, I expect this to become less of a problem on repeat viewings.

Whedon is a master of the ensemble piece. He manages to accommodate a whole bunch of new faces whilst keeping things balanced with more familiar ones. Nearly all the characters are well served by the script and they all get moments to shine. Reviews have already levelled their few criticisms of the film at there being too many characters, but I think it’s a lazy criticism. It’s like the similar “too many villains” problem that is often brought up. For me it doesn’t get to the root of the issue. Game of Thrones manages to balance a crazy amount of characters and plotlines each week. The execution is the problem, not the idea.  Age of Ultron does incredibly well with sharing focus. The only real casualty (and there’s bound to be one in a film like this) is that the film has to set up more universe building things with teases for Black Panther and future Avengers films. Thor gets a largely pointless subplot to find out about the Infinity Gems and to me it took away from the main narrative. It fucks with the pacing sightly and makes the film baggier. Having said that, I liked Andy Serkis turning up as Ulysses Klaw, an arms dealer with a deep fear of cuttlefish.

I’m going to spend a paragraph talking about The Vision because I can. The stakes feel higher when Paul Bettany steps up. He’s such a great character. He’s the opposite side of the coin to Ultron. He’s got the robot logic, but he also sees the value of humanity. Bettany plays him as a gentle, ethereal being and it completely works. As I watched the caped Vision float in mid-air, delivering beautiful monologues, I came to a bit of a realisation. Vision is a better Superman than the current version of Superman. That’s not a tough feat, but Vision embodies everything I like about a God-like figure trying to teach humanity rather than destroy it. His final dialogue with Ultron is also incredibly well-written and it shows you can have your huge, destructive setpieces as well as have time for simple conversation about differing ideologies.

Those destructive setpieces I mentioned? Age of Ultron has bucketloads of them too. My favourite was the scrap between an enraged Hulk and Iron Man in his purpose-built Hulkbuster suit. The finale is the single most comic-booky thing I’ve seen on screen to date and I loved it.

Age of Ultron falls just shy of The Avengers’ greatness for me. It’s a better made and certainly a better realised film than the first, but I didn’t experience as many air-punchingly great moments as I did with the original. However, that’s not to say the film fails because it doesn’t. It’s another excellent Marvel film. The cast are great, the film is visually spectacular and it’s very well-written. It’s funny, but when I’ve discussed Age of Ultron with people, it’s the little character beats that I talk about rather than the impressive action sequences. More films should be made like that. Character resonates for so much longer than explosions do. I’ll give it four stars, but will qualify it’s a very high four. As I feel that half the country has already seen it, it seems moot, but the film gets a huge recommendation from me.

Guardians of the Galaxy

 
I am Groot.
 

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

I’ve said it before, but it doesn’t get any less true: it’s crazy to think that back in 2011, Thor was considered a “risk” for Marvel. Two solo films and a billion dollar team up later and the God of Thunder is right at home alongside more “classical” heroes like Iron Man and Captain America. Anyway, the point of all this is that in 2014, Guardians of the Galaxy really feels like a proper gamble: a bold step into the whole “cosmic” element to the Marvel universe and a departure from the costumed heroics we’re used to seeing by now. Whilst I have a working knowledge of Marvel stuff, having read Spider-Man comics for years, I must admit I wasn’t too familiar with the Guardians, only having heard of Rocket Raccoon before, so this “going in blind” to a Marvel movie is a new experience for me and one I relished. Anyway, blah blah blah- point being is that the film is awesome and, if you’ll allow me, I’ll endeavour to tell you why.

“Why would you want to save the galaxy?”

“Because I’m one of the idiots who lives in it!”

Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) was abducted from Earth by aliens at a young age and now lives life as a Ravager, a kind of space pirate. Quill finds a mysterious orb and steals it, unaware that he’s setting wheels in motion that may have huge, and possibly genocidal, consequences. Kree terrorist Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) sends a green-skinned assassin named Gamora (Zoe Saldana) after him to retrieve the orb. Unbeknownst to Quill, his boss Yandu (Michael Rooker) has also put a sizeable bounty on his head, leading two bounty hunters, a talking raccoon named Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and a humanoid tree named Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) to pursue him. By chance, we also meet Drax (Dave Bautista) a muscled madman with only vengeance against Ronan on his mind. After the group are captured and thrown together, they soon decide to put aside their differences and put a stop to Ronan’s nefarious plans. Sound complicated? It isn’t really. I just wanted to fit in as many of the principal cast as I could and I still missed out Benicio Del Toro, Glenn Close and John C. Reilly!. It’s mostly a fast-paced chase for the all-important orb and that’s fine. All the cast are fantastic. Chris Pratt is just teetering on the edge of serious superstardom and watching this, you can tell it’s well deserved. The guy is likeable and charming but can bring the emotional heft when needed. Peter Quill (or Star-Lord) is an interesting concept. Being a product of the ’80s, it’s like he’s emulating Han Solo, but not quite pulling it off. Both Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel do stellar voice work as Rocket and Groot, especially Diesel, who does a lot with very few words. Pleasant surprise of the film is pro-wrestler Dave Bautista’s Drax the Destroyer. He gets most of the film’s biggest laughs, usually involving his race’s inability to understand metaphors and his propensity to take everything literally. Bautista plays it perfectly and is a joy to watch. The film does a great job of balancing these big personalities, but some do slip through the net. Zoe Saldana’s Gamora seems to not be given as much attention as the rest of the Guardians. She’s still a solid presence, but I get the feeling a lot of her stuff ended up on the cutting room floor. Big baddie Ronan wasn’t quite as menacing as I’d have liked him to be. He’s no Loki, but he’s no Malekith (the elf guy from Thor: The Dark World who was fucking rubbish) either. He’s more of a Vader to Thanos’ Emperor. Karen Gillan’s Nebula also gets slightly lost in the mix. Let’s hope the sequel does Gillan’s performance justice.

A lot has been made of the more comedic tone of Guardians in comparison to the more straight-faced Marvel stablemates. When the lights went down in the cinema, I plastered a pre-emptive smile on my face, just to save time for when the laughs started. The film then cold opens on a young Quill, in a hospital at his mother’s deathbed. My face fell. It’s a genuinely moving scene and I soon realised that Guardians may not quite be the lark-about space opera I thought it was. Don’t get me wrong, when the film gets going, it’s a blast, but it has the balls to strive for something deeper than that. Now, I have reservations in telling you this, for fear of some bigger boys coming to my house and beating me up for being a wuss, but I teared up at several points during the film which was unexpected to say the least. Guardians is brave as hell in the way that despite having a CGI raccoon and tree monster as part of the main cast, it never once treats them as two dimensional cartoon characters.They all feel like real people, not just caricatures spouting witty one-liners. It should come as no surprise to fans of The Iron Giant, but the combination of Vin Diesel and some seriously impressive animation manages to make Groot a hugely sympathetic character, despite being limited to three simple words.

The rest of the film is fast, fun and furious. The action is varied and exciting, the attention to detail is awesome and it all adds up to a hugely enjoyable experience. There’s a brilliant prison breakout sequence and some thrilling aerial dogfights that are just delights. I’m trying hard to not spoil specifics, but this is one of the most visually inventive films I’ve seen in a long time. There’s a goddamn planet that is the severed head of a humongous ancient beast, just floating through space. The Collector’s huge collection has some great visual gags and brilliant attention to detail. Every dollar of the budget seems to have been put up on the screen and that’s to be commended. Marvel Studios has learned the lesson that Hollywood in general consistently fails to take on board: if you’re going to hire a talent like James Gunn, Shane Black or Joss Whedon, for fuck’s sake step back at let them do their thing. In the same way Iron Man 3 was undeniably a Shane Black film, Guardians is definitely a Gunn production, complete with his trademark dark humour. The screenplay, co-written by Gunn and Nicole Perlman, is smart as anything and doesn’t feel meddled with. It’s not perfect, as there are some clunky attempts at theming etc, but the very fact that a film with a budget this big, based on characters even the hardcore nerds are only vaguely aware of, has such an uncompromising script is nothing short of miraculous. Also, the soundtrack is amazing.

“Metaphors go over his head”

“NOTHING goes over my head!… My reflexes are too fast, I would catch it.”

People who complain of superhero fatigue (dumb people, but entitled to their opinions nonetheless) just won’t have a leg to stand on with this one. It’s a fun space opera that is more sci-fi than anything else. It’s exactly what blockbuster entertainment should be- a fun adventure with characters you can (G)root for. I can’t express this enough- I am now a huge fan of these characters and can’t wait to see where they take them next. The already confirmed eventual meeting of the Avengers and the Guardians has me positively salivating at the prospect. This may just be my new favourite Marvel film. I will have to watch it at least 7 more times before I can be sure. Highly recommended.

X-Men: Days of Future Past

 

Singer of praises

X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)

I’ve been looking forward to this one for a while. I loved First Class and whilst The Wolverine had its charms, it’s been many long years since we’ve had a “proper” X-Men film. I was cautiously optimistic, but the whole “team-up” aspect of it, meshing the old cast with the younger versions of themselves had me worried that the only reason it was being made was a knee-jerk reaction to The Avengers and Marvel Studios’ universe building, with Fox desperate to put out their own branded version of a Marvel universe to grab several slices of the ridiculous money pie that’s rapidly cooling.

“The future: a bleak desolate, place. Mutants and the humans who helped them, united in defeat by an enemy we could not stop. Is this the fate we have set for ourselves? Could we have done nothing to stop it?”

The Future. Giant, nigh-on unstoppable robots called Sentinels, specifically designed to eradicate mutants, roam the Earth and have brought on an apocalypse, full of ash, rubble and rapidly declining pockets of survivors. Tracing the devastation back to a single moment in the 1970’s involving the assassination of Sentinel inventor, Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) by blue shape-shifter Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), the current remnants of the X-Men, including Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) engineer a way to send a mutant’s consciousness back in time and the ageless Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) is the perfect candidate. Logan’s troubles don’t just extend to preventing a murder, however, as whilst their present selves (Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen) have put aside their differences, ’70s Prof. X and Magento (James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender) are at loggerheads, meaning Logan will have to convince them to sing from the same hymn book as well.

So, the cast. They’re all brilliant. It’s a genuine thrill to see old and new faces thrown into the mix together.Both versions of Prof. X and Magneto are a joy to watch. DoFP can have its cake and eat it, cutting from the future versions talking to each other with mutual respect and Shakespearian gravitas to the young, angry versions, played fantastically by McAvoy and Fassbender. McAvoy gets a special shoutout as he gives a great performance as a jaded junkie Xavier, complete with a thousand yard stare and addiction to painkillers. Hugh Jackman is always fun to watch as Wolverine and nailed it fucking yonks ago, but still manages to be just as entertaining as he always was. Jennifer Lawrence also gives a nicely nuanced turn as Mystique. Of the new blood, Peter Dinklage is great as Trask and the new mutants are a blast, especially Evan Peters’ Quicksilver. Fans of the series like myself will be delighted with the various character cameos and references.

I’m so glad this didn’t turn out to be the clusterfuck it could have so easily been. When I sat down and the classic X-Men theme started playing, I smiled. I realised that I’d genuinely missed the franchise and was struck by a sudden need for the film to be awesome. Luckily, it is. It’s a well balanced film with just the right amounts of humour, action, suspense and all that good shit. It’s basically a First Class sequel with the “classic” cast serving as a framing device. It just works. Part of the reason for this is Bryan Singer’s direction. The guy gets characters and narrative arcs. All of his films have shown a great understanding of the basics and an insane amount of talent and skill when it comes to throwing it up on a big screen. Thankfully, he’s on form here and keeps the pace quick, but not at the expense of quieter moments. The script is also solid as hell, with the normally shitty Simon Kinberg doing his best work since ever. The story actually has weight and stakes to it. The finale, cutting between the future and past is one of the most exciting things I’ve seen this year. Funnily enough, the film is fairly light on action, but when it hits, it hits solidly. The best sequence in the film by far is a bit at the Pentagon where the super-fast and funny Quicksilver really comes into his own.

My only real problems with the film are more niggles than anything else. My major qualm is with the decision to basically make the film another Wolverine-centric story. Singer does his best to juggle focus, but at its heart it’s still episode #7353 of The Wolverine Show. All of the X-Men films so far have been Wolverine stories, with the exception of First Class, which still includes a small cameo by the Clawed One. I like the character and Jackman, but one of my favourite things about the X-Men is how diverse they are. There are any number of characters that could carry the main narrative successfully. The original comic is told from Kitty Pryde’s point of view and I could see that working. My other problem is with a minor plot point. I’m not a big “movie logic” guy and inevitably problematic time travel stuff didn’t bother me. So, the Sentinels are basically unstoppable thanks to adaptive technology, being able to use a mutant’s weakness against them. So, for instance, one ends up using fire powers against Iceman (Shawn Ashmore). They’re like the ultimate Pokemon. However, the film tells us they got these powers thanks to Mystique. Thing is, she only shapeshifts. She doesn’t gain any powers by turning into someone. Series regular Rogue has that power- surely she would be more fitting? Fuck- there was even that Darwin guy in First Class who could do exactly that. Why not him? My guess is is that they needed to give Lawrence a meatier part,with her having become a megastar inbetween First Class and this one. Funny, as the same thing happened with Halle Berry between the first and second films of the X trilogy.

“All those years wasted fighting each other, Charles.”

Days of Future Past is one of the most satisfying films I’ve seen in a while. It just does everything it needs to with wit, intelligence and style. It’s a fantastic blockbuster that doesn’t forget to tell a good story in amongst the big action setpieces and CGI- something which I’m still incredulous is a real issue in this day and age. It’s also a bold step into the future of the franchise, with various happenings in the film rendering events and entire previous films uncanonical. If the quality is maintained, I’m unbelievably excited about the both the sequel, Age of Apocalypse, and their wider plans for a franchise spanning universe.. It’s going to be a long two years.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2

 

 The Raging Spider-Fan 2

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014)

 
 

Nothing in recent cinematic memory has incensed me more than 2012’s The Amazing Spider-Man, a film that not only turned my favourite character of all time into a self-centred, jumped-up little prick and gave us a weak rehashing of a great origin story but also had the gall to not even properly tell a story, period. I have talked the ears off of anyone who would listen about how it’s a complete failure of a film and how Marc Webb is a gormless guffbag, but eventually even I got sick of hearing myself talk about it. So why can’t I just ignore it? I don’t know. I’m a glutton for punishment. Despite having had my fingers burned, I was compelled to see how bad the sequel would be. It’s messed up, I know.

“Nothing is what I thought it was.”

Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) is still trying to find a balance between his personal life and his spandexed hero one. Things are ramping up as he’s graduating high school and college beckons. Parker is also struggling with his promise to Captain Stacy (Denis Leary) about staying away from Gwen (Emma Stone). Things get kicked up several notches when nobody electrical engineer Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx) has a terrible industrial accident and becomes a purely electrical malevolent being known as “Electro”.  To make things more complicated, Peter’s old BFF Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan) returns from his travels abroad, literally after Spider-Man’s blood. OK, here’s where it’s tough. As with the first film, the actors are all great, but either given fuck all to do or insanely miscast. Garfield is still OK as Parker, although I swear to Christ he’s playing the guy as autistic. Emma Stone is also fine as Gwen and the banter between the two is still one of the film’s only charms. Jamie Foxx does good work, but is let down by the shoddy script. Sally Field is again the film’s MVP as Aunt May and Dane DeHaan is a fantastic Harry, although the less said about his “transformation”, the better.

Here’s the thing. This rebooted series has no backbone whatsoever. It has no goddamn dignity. It’d bend over and spread its arsecheeks whilst singing a medley of the current top 40 if it thought it could make an extra ticket sale. I may have hated the ridiculous Dark Knight lite aesthetic of the first film, but fuck me if they haven’t slammed the tonal lever in the opposite direction and given us a goofy-as-fuck Spidey with primary colours and dumb-as-hell happenings. This may as well be another reboot. Sequels are often overreactions to criticisms of the preceding films- we know this to be true, but this is beyond the pail. Why can’t we have a happy medium? Why does it always have to be absolutes? Sam Raimi’s films are strangely timeless because they took place in a weird ’60s/modern day hybrid world. TASM 2 is doing all it can to pander to today’s youth and will be dated by the time it hits DVD shelves.

For a while, I thought I may have to choke down some hefty helpings of humble pie when it started trying to make sense of the tangled mess of story the first film left on. It was almost like it was taking my personal niggles and checking them off one by one. Stupid suit? Replaced with a much better one. That shit about Peter going back on his promise to Captain Stacy? Carries over and is being dealt with. The mystery of Parker’s parents that was dropped unceremoniously halfway through the first film? Also carries over. Peter used Bing to search the Net? He now uses Google like a normal person. It was uncanny. However, I realised that just because they were addressing these things, it didn’t mean they knew where to go from there. There is still no understanding of who the Spider-Man character is and why he and some of his iconic villains have stuck around for so long.

This whole situation reminds me of where Warner Bros. were in 1995 when Batman Forever came out. After the huge success of Batman in ’89, Tim Burton was given free rein for the sequel, Batman Returns. The film ended up being too damn weird and dark for its own good and caused many a furrowed brow,  basically boiling down to not being marketable enough for the suits. Joel Schumacher was brought in for Forever and turned the colour saturation and the camp factor up to 11 and changed it from a dark, moody piece to a screaming neon toy advert. Same basic thing here. Sony were reportedly unhappy with the final version of TASM and so it makes sense they would want to change writers and flip the tone. They’ve got a whole contrived universe to build after all.

I’m reminded of Batman Forever in another way when it comes to Electro. If you remember, Batman Forever featured Jim Carrey’s Edward Nygma, a deranged superfan of Bruce Wayne’s who decides to become his mortal enemy in the form of The Riddler after an imagined slight. Guess what Max Dillon’s story is. At the base of it, I could see it working. Max is an invisible nobody- a loser so kicked down and pushed around, he’s taken aback when somebody remembers his name. He’s a sympathetic character. Thing is, this is waay too broad and they squander any dramatic potential. He sports a greasy combover and is bespectacled. He’s turned his home into a Spidey shrine. He has imaginary discussions with Spider-Man. He’s a Hollywood nerd from a frathouse comedy. It’s honestly like he’s stepped straight out of an ’80s cartoon. Fuck me. It was embarrassing to watch. We’ve had over a decade of proper superhero films now. We’ve had The Avengers. We’ve moved past this shit now.

As with the first film, the main problem is the script. Having booted James Vanderbilt, Sony made the questionable decision of hiring the dumblefuck Transformers scribes to write this one. The tone flits from one thing to another, killing any resonance the scenes on screen could have had completely dead. Yeah, there’ll be stupids laughing and crying, but for the rest of us thinkrights, it’s a confusing affair. Don’t understand where I’m coming from? You try telling a joke immediately after a mass kitten burial and see how well you get on. Try giving directions to a stranger after slapping your bum and blowing raspberries at them and see how long they stick around.  A lot of emphasis has gone into making Spider-Man “funny”, but dear Lord is it painful. Humour is part of the Spider-Man character, sure. However, I must have missed the run of issues where he trots out rapid-fire unfunny quips until your knuckles are white and your teeth are cracked and bloody. It was fucking agonising. Apart from the “humour”, the film struggles with basic storytelling. Characters have no arcs, basic motivations are fucked and it’s all just a noisy light show of a spectacle inbetween. Baffling changes are made. Stuff from the comics that I figured would have been too cheesy or ridiculous for the big screen are replaced by even wackier things.

I honestly tried to like this film. I’m the forgiving sort. It took the Fast and Furious series five films to start actually being good. The sticking point for me is that (to my mind at least) they’re completely fucking up my favourite superhero. They’re mucking up opportunities left, right and centre. What’s worse is that they’ve got no plans to give the franchise back to Marvel. They’re too busy setting release dates for future films and writing spin-offs. What pisses me off is that I could have written both this review and the basic plot on a napkin just after the first trailer was released and barely had to change anything. It’s that lazy. Also, despite having talented people like Johnny Marr and Pharrell contributing, Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack sucks a fat one. Just listen to the main theme and tell me it doesn’t sound like the farted out music for the bonus features on a Superman DVD.

“I once told you that secrets have a cost. The truth does too.”

So yeah, I didn’t care for The Amazing Spider-Man 2. Fucked up fact of the matter is, it doesn’t care for anyone. It didn’t want to tell a good Spider-Man story or bring an iconic villain to life. All it is interested in is wringing out as much cash as it can from suckers before the superhero bubble bursts. Whilst there has been more effort this time round, it’s still a fucking car crash of a film. It’s a whole different kind of awful. It’s just scraping a two star rating because I know, deep down, it isn’t the worst thing ever. It’s at the very least competent in some areas, but boy did I struggle with the whole “personal bias” thing.

Earth’s Mightiest Xeroxes: The Unfortunate Legacy of The Avengers

“We’re surrounded by shitty knock-offs!”

I’ve spoken before about studios learning the wrong lessons from box office megahits and trying to apply said lessons to whatever franchises they have, whether it suits or not. In the past few days, it’s been announced that Wonder Woman will appear in the still untitled Batman vs Superman film. The first trailer for The Amazing Spider-Man 2 also hit, giving us not one villain as previously thought, but multiple bastards to deal with as well as massive hints at an expanded universe to come. Plus, we have X-Men: Days of Future Past and as of yesterday, X-Men: Apocalypse in the pipeline, the former promising an all-star mash-up of the established cast of the original trilogy with the swingin’ ’60s versions of the characters from First Class. I should be dancing about my room, yelling about how we live in the golden age of comic book films, but I can’t shake the feeling we’re in danger of having some monumental clusterfucks on our hands.

I’ll take them on in order. Firstly, that whole Wonder Woman thing. I’m happy that she finally gets to make an overdue appearance, but I’m pissed off that she’ll be playing third fiddle to Bats and Supes. Obviously, I have no idea how much she’ll appear in the film, but I’m pretty sure she isn’t going to be taking too much attention away from the two beefy boys. I’ve said it before, but D.C.’s attempts at creating a cinematic universe to rival Marvel’s are a fucking mess. Wonder Woman deserves her own film, not just a glorified cameo. Yeah, they may do a solo outing later on, but my guess is that they’ll be steamrolling ahead with all this Justice League stuff for the foreseeable future and are only cramming Ms. Prince in because people expect some form of introduction to the character before the big team up film, thanks to the groundwork laid by The Avengers. Warner Bros. are grasping at straws and forming a film completely out of knee-jerk reactions. All it is is a shaky response to Marvel’s throwing down of the (Infinity) gauntlet.There’s nothing to go on so far apart from internet tittle-tattle and scant announcements, but I can already feel my caution starting to overtake my anticipation. As with all these entries, I want them to be good and would be delighted if they turned out that way, it’s just I feel that Man of Steel 2: Bruce and Diana Too is not being given the care and attention it needs. We’ll see.

Onto my pet subject: Spider-Man. I’m being honest here, I haven’t had high hopes for this one at all. The first one left me angry and it seems they have no interest in righting their wrongs. Some terrible CGI, rubbish dialogue and the baffling return of bullet time aside, there are more troubling things contained in the trailer below:

If you haven’t spent whole stretches of your life dedicated to the adventures of a smartass, spandex-wearing teen like I have, let me fill you in on what’s going on. Around the 1:14 mark, there are some recognisable villain hallmarks to be seen in the background, namely Vulture’s wings and Doc Ock’s tentacles. It seems like the trailer’s setting up the appearance of The Sinister Six, a supervillain group, pretty much the anti-Avengers, who team up to take down their common arachnid enemy. The roster has changed over the decades so it’s tough to say which line-up they’ll go with, but they could have given us the answer in this trailer and have Doc Ock, Electro, Lizard, Vulture, Rhino and the Green Goblin for their sickening sextet. If you’d have told the 10 year old me that not only would there be loads of Spider-Man films one day, but one featuring The Sinister Six, I think he would have flipped his lid. Thing is, adult me has been hurt before by Spider-Man 3 and more pertinently, The Amazing Spider-Man. Marc Webb et al have already showed they don’t “get” Spider-Man and it’s only going to get worse. I would have liked to have seen at least one more film where Spidey takes on a singular villain without the constraints of being shackled to a spider origin story before we barrel in to a big “event” picture. Having multiple villains can work, but only if a deft touch is used. They couldn’t even handle The Lizard on his own without ballsing it up, so I doubt that they’ll be able to handle three in this sequel and six in future films. They’re trying to run before the can walk. Christ, they can’t even wallcrawl properly yet. I will say this though- Dane DeHaan looks like he’s nailed Harry Osborn and I’m looking forward to see where he takes it.

The X-Men franchise is the one I’m least worried about. I believe in Bryan Singer. Whilst I would have liked another film focused on the First Class lot, I think Days of Future Past is going to be good. Singer cares about character and will hopefully be able to balance all the spinning plates. Besides the time-twisty adventures planned, there’s still a Wolverine sequel to come and spin-offs in the form of an X-Force feature, which could possibly set up a spin-off of its own in the form of a long-awaited standalone Deadpool film. There’s even talk of merging the X-Men and Fantastic Four universes, creating a Fox branded take on the Marvel universe. It’s pretty damn likely to happen too. As you may have noticed- everyone has to have their own version of The Avengers paradigm by law, apparently. If you’re still with me at this point and your brain hasn’t dribbled out of your nose, good on you.

I think the thing that annoys me is the reactionary nature of it all. Studios see the opportunity to sell 5 times as much merchandise and have jumped all over it, not taking time to figure out what made The Avengers good. It’s a fucking miracle that The Avengers worked at all and they need to respect that. In my opinion, they hired the right guy for the task. Joss Whedon had a history of making ensemble things work, from his stint as a writer on the X-Men comics to his TV shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly. He has a great knowledge of team dynamics and has a wonderful inclusionary way where you as the reader/viewer/whatever feel like part of the team and share in their triumphs and losses. The lesson to be learned isn’t “Team-ups are in right now. Let’s copy The Avengers and cram as many fucking characters in as the screen can hold and set up our next 70 films”. It says a lot that The Avengers doesn’t work nearly as well as a standalone film as it does as a sequel to all of Marvel’s “Phase One” films up to that point. I realise they’re all rushing these things into production and trying to strike whilst the iron’s hot. Here’s the thing- that particular iron cooled a while ago, it was struck at peak heat to the tune of a billion dollars, and if I may stretch this metaphor to near-breaking point, it might be a better idea to focus on creating their own iron doodads fit for heating purposes. Marvel Studios doesn’t and shouldn’t have the monopoly on superhero team-ups, but it went about it the best way, took its time building the foundations and has already started manufacturing a second iron thingamajig (sorry, I’m swear I’m completely done with that analogy now). I think that’s the lesson that studios should be taking away from the success of The Avengers. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to team up with several other crappy little movie blogs and together, we’ll write the biggest and bestest review you ever did see. Be sure to buy the tie-in video game where you get to play as me and struggle to get over a handful of daily views!

Thor: The Dark World

 
“Doth mother know you weareth her drapes?”
 

 Thor: The Dark World (2013)

It’s odd to think that a few years back Thor was one of Marvel’s riskier properties. Thankfully in 2011’s Thor, they got the tone and characters just right and sprinkled the film with some fun moments and genuinely funny fish-out-of-water gags. I suppose the one criticism of the original film is that when shaken down to its elements, Thor is basically the same film as 2008’s Iron Man in terms of narrative (cocky hero gets everything taken from him, has to undergo massive personal change to be worthy of the power he initially had.) Of the Marvel canon, Thor offers a lot more possibilities than most as it has a whole Nine Realms to explore. The Dark World ups the ante considerably and has a lot of fun doing it. It’s a blast.

“You must be truly desperate to come to me for help. What makes you think you can trust me?”

Taking place years after he first came to Earth and helped defend New York from alien invasion, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) returns to our humble planet after learning that love interest Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) is in danger, possessed by a previously dormant ancient evil known as Aether. Dark elf leader Malekith (Christopher Ecceleston) also finds out about the Aether’s reappearance and vows to use it to restore the universe to its original dark state and exact his vengeance against Odin (Anthony Hopkins) and the Asgard legacy. Out of desperation, Thor turns to his traitorous brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) to help fight this new threat to Asgard and the Nine Realms. The story expands on Thor’s world well and gives us a fun realm-hopping adventure, ranging from the rock monster inhabited Vanaheim to good ol’ 21st Century London. All the actors are on top form here. One of the things I love about Hemsworth’s Thor is that there’s no ego in his performance. He embraces the inherent silliness of the character and as a result is a joy to watch. Natalie Portman is somewhat sidelined, but manages to resist many of the damsel in distress trappings. She’s smart and capable and I could have done with seeing more of her. Christopher Eccleston doesn’t leave much of an impact as Malekith, but this is due to poorly sketched motivation rather than any fault on his part. Despite being the main villain of the piece, it feels like he’s barely in it.  Eccleston does a good job with the barely-there character and made me wish he was better written so he could have something significant to build on. Talking point is obviously fangirl favourite Loki, who is focused on more than the actual bad guy. Loki is a textured, complex villain and Hiddleston nailed it right out of the gate. He’s still hugely fun to watch and it’s great not knowing which side he’s on from one minute to the next.

The film moves at a fast and furious pace, chopping and changing locations and storylines. Director Alan Taylor brings his Game of Thrones skillz to the party and as such the impressive battle sequences and general world building have proper heft to them and are certainly an improvement on the occasionally stifled first film. Unfortunately, the film fails to capitalise on these gains and contains a generic villain with vague revenge plans and little to no palpable beef with our hero. Malekith is angry at Odin’s father Bor, meaning that Thor inherits the rivalry third hand, rather than having any new and solid motivation to kick his Elven teeth in. Of course, Malekith kidnaps Jane along the way, but that shit’s so played out by this point, you’ll be forgiven for glazing over and checking the elasticity of your socks. The original Thor kept things nice and tight and only threatened a small American town in the arse end of nowhere. The Dark World puts the entire Universe in danger and as such it’s hard to get a feel for the stakes. The film is pacy to a fault and has barely any time for quieter character moments. Whole subplots are dropped at a moment’s notice (the Thor/Sif relationship for one) and it can feel like its in a rush to get to the climax. All the best little moments belong to Loki, including some genuinely fun banter between the two and an awesome cameo I wouldn’t dare ruin.

I’ve just this minute realised I sound like I’m slating the film. I’m really not. It’s insanely entertaining and another fine addition to Marvel’s ever-growing cinematic universe. I constantly complain that blockbusters are way too serious these days and The Dark World is the antidote to all that shoe-gazing poncery. It’s funnier than the first film too, with some cracking one-liners and gags to keep you chuckling in your seat. The fights are enjoyable and the final battle between Malekith and Thor is inspired and almost certainly the product of someone on the crew playing too much Portal.

I might be alone in this, but I felt the film had the horrible, sweaty stench of fan service about it. Loki is again the focus, which is fine, but I think it’s to the detriment of the film. My guess is a lot of Malekith’s stuff was shoved to one side so that the moistest of “Loki’s Army” fanclub have more bits of Jotunheim’s favourite son to make insipid gifs out of. Same is true of blatant fangirl insert character Darcy (Kat Dennings) who has evolved from “young person mentioning things like Facebook and iPods” to “fucking annoying presence with way too much screentime”. Some fan service is a given in films like these, but I think they got a little carried away with it in this one and as a result it’s a weaker film. Having said that, Darcy does get a nice callback joke that made me laugh quite a lot in spite of myself. I could have done with seeing more of the Lady Sif and the Warriors Three as well my personal favourite character, Heimdall (Idris Elba). They all get a token moment each, but they really could have spent more time exploring some of the more interesting side characters. Here’s hoping there’s an extended cut when the DVD/Blu-ray rolls around.

“It’s not that I don’t love our little talks, it’s just… I don’t love them.”

The Dark World is damn good fun. That’s enough for most people and I can’t argue with that. Despite being funny and enjoyable, I think it comes up a little short when compared to its predecessor. The story’s a little baggy and meandering and we have a villain who should be a total badass, but fails to deliver any real threat. A lot of the good outweighs the bad considerably and I am aware very few people care about narrative structure and all the other nerdy shit that I’ve been spouting over the past year. You’re damn near guaranteed to walk out of it with a smile on your face, like I did. There are not one, but two post credits scenes here, so strap a catheter on and lose yourself in Thor’s world once again. Recommended.