Category Archives: Editorial Corner

Why the Songs in Frozen are Great

Frozen spoilers follow.

Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez’ songs in the animated smash-hit Frozen are great. On the face of it, they’re great because they’re catchy and fun as hell to sing along with. But more than that, these songs are complex. I don’t mean technically or musically complicated – they hide layers that only become clear once the audience is aware of the complete picture of the film’s story. They work in the moment in their immediately apparent modes, but each takes on a new resonance when considering the broader story. In most Disney musicals, the songs are straightforward; what you hear is what you get. Not so here – this is multi-level storytelling, so thrilling when pulled off well. So what’s going on beneath the surface of this story of two regal sisters and the nature of true love?

storybook-romance

Let’s start by looking at Frozen’s two traditional ‘I Want’ songs, Anna’s “For the First Time in Forever” and Olaf’s “In Summer”. Anna sings of her perfect romantic night with a sophisticated stranger now that Arendelle’s gates are opening, and throughout she mimes the poses of women in paintings. She wants a storybook romance. For the first time in forever / I’m getting what I’m dreaming of / A chance to change my lonely world / A chance to find true love. And so, even as we’re caught up in the beauty of the song, we’re also being told exactly how she’s exposing herself to Hans’ manipulation. And sure enough, she chooses to marry a man she has just met. Meanwhile, Olaf the guileless snowman spends a whole song wishing for the thing that the other characters know will kill him.

olaf-in-summer

Anna and Olaf achieve their basic goals, but not in the way they intended. Anna ends up neither married nor engaged, and furthermore enters into a relationship not with the charismatic fairy tale prince Hans, but with the humble and antisocial snow merchant Kristoff (whose existence outside the castle was thus outside anything she knew her whole life). Olaf sees summer, but would have melted there and died if not for Elsa’s intervention. Life gave Anna and Olaf not what they wanted, but what they didn’t know they wanted, which is a beautiful endpoint to an arc.

a-higher-power

And I stress, this isn’t how ‘I Want’ musical storytelling usually goes. Quasimodo wants only a mundane life “Out there”, and gets it by movie’s end, vindicated by his friends. Ariel wishes simply to be “Part of Your World”, and has entered the human world as the credits roll. Moana burns to voyage on the ocean and see “How Far I’ll Go”, and, you guessed it, embarks on a grand seafaring adventure. The desire is fulfilled, like an empty box being filled with a checkmark. In Anna and Olaf’s cases, they discover how much stranger life is than they thought, through realizing that what they wanted was in a lot of ways ignorant and naïve, but no less worthy of respect. This stuff is mature. The ‘I Want’ pieces are tinged with the bittersweet, even if that’s only noticeable to the viewer. It makes the story more human.

frozen-happy-ending

The blissful ending means more because of what it took to get there.

In the reprise of “For the First Time in Forever”, sisters Anna and Elsa have a roller coaster of a communication breakdown. There is misunderstanding on both sides, and the conflict is on the surface. Whereas in the case of Anna and Hans’ duet “Love is an Open Door”, it only comes out in retrospect how the two singing partners are at cross-purposes. The conflict is veiled and obscure, but with hindsight adds a layer to the song and its function. And so every real-life couple who duets the song has to think in the back of their minds, “Does one of us have an agenda here?”

proposal

An indecent proposal.

What further complicates the song is Hans’ enigmatic character. A usurper of the crown he is, but the film concisely portrays Hans as a natural leader and an effective monarch… who happens to use evil means to gain a throne. He’s not just the one-dimensional villain; left to his own devices, he would have been a decent king. But his path to power is ruthless. He wants it too much. To him, the opportunity for power, the open door, is a lovely thing indeed. You can subtly see this in the song.

Anna: But with you –

Hans: But with you – I found my place.

Anna: I see your face.

Both: … and it’s nothing like I’ve ever known before!

In the same moment: Anna focuses on Hans. Hans focuses on his position. And yet the clumsy romantic and the charming conspirator still harmonize beautifully in song. “Love is an Open Door” is an obvious but significant example of a song taking on multiple dimensions with the benefit of hindsight.

hans

And this brings us to the biggest showstopper of them all, Elsa’s “Let it Go”. Not so much an ‘I Want’ number, it’s more like a ‘Maybe I Don’t Want the Thing Everyone Said I Should Want’ song. Its placement in the movie also serves as the audience’s first meaningful insight into Elsa’s character, as this literal ice queen had predominantly been seen through Anna’s eyes. Taking on this burden, “Let it Go” makes an interesting choice: it’s achingly personal, but also universal. Anyone who’s ever been made to feel different, or repressed, or closeted, has an empowering anthem in “Let it Go”. Let it go, let it go / And I’ll rise like the break of dawn / Let it go, let it go / That perfect girl is gone.

elsa-empowered

Still, some have said that this über-popular karaoke staple is about abandoning responsibility, an act of selfishness. While on one level that’s true, I think of the song as representing something that is not only worthy of championing but also ties in perfectly with Frozen songs having multilayered themes. You as the viewer can project any baggage of your own onto “Let it Go”, as long as you’re breaking free of it; it does have a plot function of abandoning the queenship; but above all, it represents Elsa’s right to make her own mistakes.

elsa

As a musical, Frozen is unique, in that the film deploys its songs without being overwhelmed by them. The songs are mostly confined to the first act, setting them up to be subverted or further toggled with later. (The songs are frontloaded. First act: four full songs and a prologue. Second act: two full songs, a ditty, and a reprise. Third act: no songs.) “Frozen Heart” is a Greek chorus that foreshadows the larger story. “Do You Want to Build a Snowman” begins in childhood innocence and ends in suffocating depression. “For the First Time in Forever” is a joyous ‘I Want’ song that nonetheless sets up exactly how to take advantage of Anna. “Love is an Open Door” is a romantic duet and a clockwork manipulation. “Let it Go” is a swirling anthem that on some level is about shutting out the world. “In Summer” is a ‘be careful what you wish for’ song with a singer who’s none the wiser. These are significant choices, the choices of a film that’s going for your brain just as it’s going for your heart and your funny bone. Frozen is a phenomenon, a cultural touchstone, a subversive 21st Century fairy tale. I think it happens to be an ironclad masterpiece, with a nonetheless humble scope, where there are always new things to discover. And the Lopez’ songs are music that keeps on giving.

The State of the Disney Remake

Disney’s live-action division has been rolling out remakes of beloved animated films for the past several years. The Mouse House sees dollar signs, and oftentimes the public greets the news of a newfangled remake with a roll of the eyes. But when diving into these films proper, an interesting narrative that’s downright chronological emerges: Disney has gotten better at these remakes. But why is that the case? Let me show why quite recently all hope seemed lost, and how things have turned around so now the future looks very bright indeed.

disney-remake-future

The Disney remake’s dark past, and bright future.

The Case Against

In 2010, Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland hit theaters. So how does the 1951 original hold up? Well, it’s an insane animated fantasia depicting an anarchic land where anyone can be a cabbage or a king. Filled with great characters, it inadvertently invented the Shrek dance party finale, and climaxes with Alice gaining the upper hand by eating shrooms. It features the most wonderful and hilarious subversion of the classic “Princess sings in the woods and attracts cute animals” trope, as Alice attracts them, but they’re all grotesque hybrids of animals and tools. These are just some of its wonders. The early Disney tendency to have a bunch of vignettes orbiting a thin framework fits like a glove with this concentrated randomness. In short, it’s an all-time great.

alice-in-wonderland

Now, it’s not strictly accurate to call the 2010 Alice a remake, as the film makes a contorted attempt to describe this journey into Wonderland as Alice’s second. But the implication that the original’s events are in continuity here becomes laughable in context. We enter Wonderland and hear words like… Prophecy? Chosen one?!? The very idea of anything being “foretold” in Wonderland is a bad joke. Narrative logic is one thing, but the storytelling becomes bogged down in politics and pretense. What was once a land of chaos becomes a bombed-out shell of its former self, populated by irritating nuisances in place of characters. Even the gruesomeness on display (three characters get stabbed in the eye, not to mention the decapitation) just comes across as desperate. Despite the one area of improvement over the original being Mia Wasikowska as an engaging protagonist, what we end up with is a poisonously boring film that represents the absolute nadir of the Disney remake. This is what not to do.

alice-in-wonderland-war

As it turned out, this black hole of entertainment was an enormous financial hit, to the tune of over a billion dollars. But it’s what I’d call an accidental billion-dollar movie, as it rode the crest of the Avatar 3D wave.

To play fair, things get significantly improved in the 2016 sequel, Alice through the Looking Glass. Despite a sickening insistence on pitching Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter as the emotional center of the film, small steps are taken in the right direction. It’s set in a bright and colorful Wonderland for a change, it’s got a solid villain in Sacha Baron Cohen’s embodiment of Time (“And I… must find… the kindergartner…”), some of the jokes land (the frog dude!), violence is used more constructively (the Humpty Dumpty gag is fantastic!), the art direction is superior (the Chronosphere is a clockwork astrolabe you can fly in!), and in Alice’s role as a dauntless seafaring explorer, she foreshadows Disney’s upcoming animated musical Moana. (And bonus points for using Alan Rickman as a voice of comfort, in his final film role.)

time-sacha-baron-cohen

So many time-based puns, it would make Mr. Freeze blush.

But overshadowing everything is the root problem of these modern Alice films: they get stuck on portentous exposition when they should just be parading charming nonsense. They’re boring because they never resolve the tension between the potential of their setting, and their need to inject drippy drama into it. Put it this way; the Mad Hatter’s dad is a textbook strict Victorian father. In Wonderland.

alice-in-wonderland-albino

Albino = Good Guy??

Next, in 2014, the Angelina Jolie vehicle Maleficent went back to the roots of the 1959 Sleeping Beauty. In the original, Maleficent is a legitimately scary villain who capitalizes on her small sliver of screentime to make a huge impression. She’s such a representation of pure evil that it feels like the film doesn’t give her much airtime for fear of kids being traumatized by her menace. She can also turn into a dragon.

sleeping-beauty-maleficent

Come the modern reimaging of the story, Maleficent is no longer evil, no longer the villain, and no longer can turn into a dragon. Sigh. Jolie is an unimpeachable casting decision, but the material she’s saddled with plays it safe even while making truly odd choices. Maleficent is made a victim, and the way her wings are violated is coded in a deeply uncomfortable way for a family movie.

maleficent-violated

Less of this…

Where this remake shines are only in stolen moments. The recreation of the famous throne room scene is by far the best bit of the film, because it’s the only time Maleficent is allowed to be true to her name. For the rest of the film she’s not even an anti-hero. She’s just the hero. Maleficent is let down by nonsensical plot devices, a pantomime villain, truly embarrassing versions of the original fairy characters, but above all the softening of an iconic Disney villain. I assume that choice is to make Maleficent palatable as a lead, but what’s the point of doing it if it’s not to be done right? When it comes to putting a villain in the lead role, I’m not expecting Man Bites Dog or A Clockwork Orange. But I do expect an understanding of why we were drawn to the character in the first place.

maleficent-throne-room

… more of that.

So the Alice films and Maleficent, while definitely fitting into the macro trend of Disney remakes, are more like hybrid reboot/reimaginings, and as we’ve seen, have failed to make new ideas work. Don’t get me wrong, outside-the-box ideas are great for remakes, but the choices made in these two stories have fallen flat. When in doubt, both Alice and Maleficent portray pitched battles between armies that come off as Lord of the Rings-lite, seeming desperate for an edge they just can’t sharpen. So post-Maleficent, things aren’t looking so great at the moment for this remake experiment. But, just around the corner in 2015…

 

The Case For

The 1950 Cinderella stars cutesy mice as much as it does the title character, and sets up a familiar fairy tale framework. Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella takes it and runs with it, filling in character depth, casting impeccably, and ending up with an intoxicatingly beautiful film. Cinderella (Lily James) and Prince Charming/Kit (Richard Madden) are both rounded and their courtship is played for real, none of this snap-of-the-fingers romance of the original. No longer colorless paragons, both characters feel alive as well as noble. But even as the characters are respected, the more lavish and glitzy elements of the story are channeled as well; the dance at the ball is pure movie magic that gets me every time.

Dutch

We saw in Maleficent the hesitance Disney had in placing a properly characterized villain in a lead role. Cinderella is a gold standard in updating a vintage villain correctly. There is no redemption for Cate Blanchett’s wicked stepmother Lady Tremaine, but at the same time there are moments of subtle sympathy for the character. The impeccably dressed Tremaine is defined by her ambition and cruelty, but equally her intellect.

Horatio

Taking an old-fashioned fairy tale and populating it with strong characters, Cinderella is a platonic ideal of the Disney remake, respectful of the original but updated in enough respects that the 21st Century version has a life of its own.

Dress

Cue 2016’s Jungle Book. So how does the venerable animated original look today? The 1967 Jungle Book feels more like a loosey-goosey hangout movie than anything else. Laid back and virtually plotless, it’s sedately entertaining but struggles to cohere into a story. Its themes of man’s relation to nature are crippled by portraying most of the animal characters as oddly specific human caricatures, often out of swinging clubs or the British Raj occupying government of India; figures of white imperialism march in proximity to scat-singing jazz musicians.

jungle-book-jazz-lounge

Jon Favreau’s Jungle Book ditches the dated elements of the original to tell a straightforward adventure story with a precocious Mowgli traversing an actual plot, threatened by a vicious villain in Idris Elba’s Bengal tiger Shere Khan. This version, however, is first and foremost a technical marvel, using only the bare necessities of live-action elements in a lavish CGI production that as near as damn it convinces you it’s all happening for real.

Shere Khan Water Truce

With interesting themes of technology, an impressive ensemble cast playing the animals (the trio of villains are the best characters), and a believable jungle society that wasn’t there before, this Jungle Book improves on the original. And again, like Cinderella, it succeeds by using the original as a clear template and filling in the corners with innovation.

 

The Flavor of the Day

Which brings us to the tale of a boy and his dragon. In the 1977 Pete’s Dragon (distinct from the other originals discussed here because the dragon Elliott is the only animated element), the actors gurn and mug their way through a sub-Chitty Chitty Bang Bang musical which has its charms but is more weird than wonderful. The 2016 remake likewise features a boy named Pete and his pet dragon Elliott on the fringes of a small town, but otherwise there’s virtually no connection. Indeed, the remake represents a 180-degree about-face, as the over-the-top acting of the original is replaced by director David Lowery’s indie naturalism. The scatting, mumbling Elliott is replaced by a dignified furred dragon tailormade for plush merchandise. The pratfalling Mickey Rooney is outclassed by the wizened charms of Robert Redford.

pete-and-elliott

Sonically, the off-off-Broadway musical numbers are ditched, but the original main theme’s rustic tenor is still appropriated in Daniel Hart’s score. (The only other link to the past is that the remake might’ve taken Elliott’s color-changing fur from an animation error in the original.) And the set-up of a boy and his pet dragon is raised to the level of high spectacle, as Hart’s indescribably soaring dragonriding theme scores Elliott’s triumphant flights.

elliotts-triumphant-flight

The film isn’t trying to rock anyone’s world, but to tell a simple and emotional story. When it gets sentimental, it earns it. And when it just wants to get to the pure Disney magic of Elliott in flight, it’s flawless. (The ending, in particular, rates high on the “tears of joy” scale.) Pete’s Dragon represents an outlier in the world of Disney remakes. Like Alice and Maleficent, it absolutely distinguishes itself from what came before. But much more importantly, like Cinderella and The Jungle Book, it’s an upgrade in quality from the original and continues the studio’s winning streak.

 

Music as Metaphor

All five original films that have been remade are musicals. This is an interesting baseline because gradually more and more original songs are finding their way into these remakes. Alice in Wonderland uses none of the myriad throwaway songs from the original. Maleficent and Cinderella use the properties’ most iconic tunes only as end credits songs (From the former, “Once Upon a Dream” is hauntingly sung by Lana del Rey; From the latter, “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes” and “Bippity Boppity Boo” are sung by the actors in character). The Jungle Book continues the end credits tradition, but for the first time includes (incomplete) versions of original songs in the movie proper, sung by the actors.

While Pete’s Dragon is an anomaly in this progression, the future holds plenty of interest for Disney music fans. The imminent Beauty and the Beast, plus recently announced remakes of The Little Mermaid and The Lion King (the latter directed by Jungle Book helmer Favreau), will take the plunge into being full-on musicals. And not only will they include the original songs, but also bring back original composers such as Alan Menken and enlist hot new talent like Lin-Manuel Miranda to develop more songs in the established style.

The gradual willingness to integrate more and more classic songs into Disney remakes is a narrative that runs parallel with the way these 21st Century reimaginings have increased in quality. As they practice fidelity to the originals balanced with modern and welcome twists on character and story, they also incorporate more and more of the original sonic landscapes that have charmed generations. Don’t reinvent the wheel (narratively tortured Wonderland, goody two-shoes Maleficent), but complement the source material with the benefit of intelligent storytelling. As long as Disney learns from what didn’t work in Alice and Maleficent, and keeps striking the healthy balance of respecting originals and original thinking in Cinderella and The Jungle Book, their remake hot streak will continue. And it doesn’t hurt to put in the songs we all know and love to whistle while the movies work.

In the Hogwarts Apocalypse, Silence is the Greatest Weapon of All

This is a deep dive into the minutia of Harry Potter, so spoilers for the entire series follow.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 represents something extraordinary, as it sticks the landing for an eight-film saga of consistent quality. As the series aged up with its viewers, the stories became heavier and all-out war ravaged the wizarding world. But the way the concluding film provides a fantasy action climax is fascinating. It’s pyrotechnic, it’s sweeping, but it also relies heavily on silence or near-muted action carried by visual storytelling. Sometimes words are passed over in favor of powerful images, and the unfolding drama tends to be grand but not particularly loud. There are sequences of great volume, don’t get me wrong, but they are used as emphatic punctuation rather than the norm, and this dynamism creates a unique feeling for this finale.

severus-snape

The opening sets the tone; Severus Snape as the aloof headmaster, with Dementors hovering over the formerly friendly confines of Hogwarts – silence to convey a brooding atmosphere. The infiltration of Gringotts is loaded with pregnant pauses – silence used for conventional tension. After Harry Potter’s watery vision of the Horcruxes, cut to Voldemort, and the sound noticeably cuts out – silence to convey shock or desperation. The Quidditch pitch is immolated as a muted afterthought. This blink-and-you-miss-it image efficiently communicates that this the days of the relatively freewheeling earlier films are gone – silence as swift visual storytelling.

quidditch-pitch

The death of innocence. And politics, as when Voldemort kills Pius Thicknesse to test the Elder Wand, he kills even the pretense of political structure.

In a poignantly quiet moment, married couple Remus Lupin and Nymphadora Tonks reach out to each other at the outset of the battle, but can’t quite reach each other – silence to convey longing. It’s only in total silence in the Room of Requirement that Harry can hear the insidious whisper of the diadem Horcrux – silence offering clarity. When Voldemort arrives at the courtyard with Harry’s “corpse” in tow, the oppressively muggy atmosphere makes it feels like something out of Braveheart – silence as dread. And after the first wave of battle is over, Harry and his friends find the dead and wounded in a softly wrenching scene, all the more effective for being underplayed. Silence to break our hearts.

remus-tonks-hands

Backtracking a bit, pay particular attention to the first scene in the Great Hall (that hollowed out and forbidding room which used to host Technicolor feasts). We start in quiet, as Snape ultra-methodically asks for information as to Harry’s movements. He makes two words, “equally guilty”, feel like a complete sentence in and of themselves. Harry steps out and monologues, revealing that Snape killed former headmaster Albus Dumbledore. In Minerva McGonagall’s best moment of the film (better than Piertotum Locomotor), she hears this and immediately, without saying a word, attacks Snape and drives him out of the Hall. Loyalty to Dumbledore doesn’t need to be explained. Cue triumphant music (the main fanfare of the series, in fact), and the Hall’s fires are lit… for about three seconds. If the students thought Snape’s words were intimidating, Voldemort’s will learn them. Silence, scream. Silence, scream. And then the Dark Lord speaks. In contrast to the silence that has come before, his words are physically harmful to the listeners. After he’s done, we’re back into more straightforward narrative momentum. It’s an utterly dynamic scene, but more of an eerie dark ride than a roller coaster. And it all relies on carefully modulated silence and the briefest diversions into conventional conversation.

minerva-mcgonagall

No words required.

A big reason why director David Yates and his team of sound mixers are free to get more experimental is their faith in composer Alexandre Desplat. Desplat’s score for the film is extraordinary, whether it’s the mournful “Lily’s Theme”, the painful pathos of “Severus and Lily”, or the way in “The Grey Lady” cue that he turns Helena Ravenclaw’s tossed-off line that Harry reminds her of Tom Riddle a bit into a sweeping and crucial moment.

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A beautiful callback.

But the crown jewel of Desplat’s sonic tapestry is his elegiac “Courtyard Apocalypse” cue, which weaves the Battle of Hogwarts into a bleakly cohesive whole. As the diegetic sound is nearly muted and this theme dominates the soundscape, entire character arcs are paid off just with visuals. Aberforth Dumbledore steps out of the shadows to join his brother’s war. As Fenrir Greyback is eating Lavender Brown’s lifeless body, it has to be Hermione Granger whose outrage protects the dignity of Lavender’s corpse, given their romantic rivalry in Half-Blood Prince. Part of what motivates some of the visual storytelling is the need for storytelling economy, but it’s a great example of necessity breeding invention.

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Wow, writing out this scene brings home how heavy the film can get.

It’s all the more striking that silence plays such a key role in the film, given that Steve Kloves’ screenplay must acrobatically jump through hoops to juggle three Deathly Hallows, the explanation of who has mastery over the Elder Wand, four Horcruxes, and four ways to destroy each Horcrux. This is not to mention the Prince’s Tale sequence, which must convey a huge amount of information all while putting the emotion of it first. There are so many McGuffins in play that the screenplay actually does get in a tangle of exposition with regard to the number of Horcruxes. Harry states, “The last one’s in the castle”, referring to the diadem. Then he says, “Nagini is the last Horcrux”. Then, of course, it turns out that Harry himself is the last one. But in the end this inconsistency is forgiven because of the artistry on display.

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Perhaps the most striking image of the movie. Voldemort will burn out, but not with the power of a supernova.

And what considerable artistry. The film would be striking enough just on a visual level, but as it caps an eight-film fantasy series, it takes an exhilaratingly unconventional approach to delivering a climax. Contemplative conversations are followed by long stretches without dialogue, with bursts of noise popping on screen all the more due to the build-up. The death of Voldemort plays out not with a bang, but as a silent unraveling. Transformers: Dark of the Moon was nominated for the Best Sound Mixing award at the 2012 Oscars, while Harry Potter was nowhere to be found… there are no words. At a crucial but low-key emotional moment toward the end of the film, Albus Dumbledore says that he believes “words are our most inexhaustible source of magic”. Indeed, but as Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 shows us, true greatness can also be found in the magical spaces between words.

2015: The Year of the Spy

2015 was the year of the spy. No less than five major studio films operated in the high-stakes field of the spy-action genre: the subversive Kingsman: The Secret Service; the comedic Spy; the thrill ride Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation; the 1960s throwback The Man from U.N.C.L.E.; and the latest installment in the venerable James Bond franchise, Spectre. (I’m not including Bridge of Spies, as my focus here is on the action side of spy stories.) So how does each take on the genre fare? And who will take pole position in this game of cinematic espionage? Spoilers for this quintet of movies follow, but after all the work of spies is to discover secrets…

Napoleon

The square-jawed hero of another era.

Out of the five films, two pairs can be created based on the movies’ agendas relative to the genre and similar themes. This leaves an odd duck out, so let’s deal with The Man from U.N.C.L.E. first. A movie in passionate love with the idea of capturing 60s cool, U.N.C.L.E. is all flash and style with little substance. This wouldn’t be an issue, though, if it didn’t keep building up villains who turn out to be nothing-characters, or had the action chops to back up its sense of groovy fun. The film is a likable enough romp that gets by on the chemistry of its leading actors, but its slavish devotion to the tropes of the spy genre isn’t matched with the ingenuity to justify its swagger. This is spy movie as schematic, but dressed up in conspicuous fashion. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is a fun time with good elements to recommend it, but it’s like gravy with no meal to put it on – and so it is not the best spy film of 2015.

Kingsman

What hides behind the impeccably tailored exterior?

The first pair we deal with balances love for the genre with the wits to amplify, undercut, and poke fun at it as well; both Kingsman and Spy play with the iconography of spy movies (and particularly Bond movies) in really cool ways. Co-writers Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman make sure Kingsman is doing a hell of a lot thematically. Just to scratch the surface: the posh and familiar title disguises a strident satire of class politics, presenting heads of state and the 1% as monstrous and selfish hypocrites. The titular agency uses codenames out of Knights of the Round Table, but this picture of British upper crust stateliness is revealed through Michael Caine’s “Arthur” character to go beyond elitism into true corruption. The working-class hoodlum Eggsy (Taron Egerton) is the one to see through the B.S. and save the organization from itself. As Eggsy emerges for the third act dressed in a bespoke suit, the film re-appropriates the idea of the gentleman spy as something open to all. As for the Bond nods, Kingsman takes several of the series’ standbys (the supervillain’s plan, the lethally equipped henchman, the idea of a sexual reward for Bond at the end) and dials them up to 11, lifting the veil from them. So as the film celebrates spy tradition, it also challenges it constantly. Kingsman: The Secret Service is thematically rich, imbued with bold comic book-y sensibilities, and bolstered by great action – but it is not the best spy film of 2015.

Susan Fight

Writer-director Paul Feig’s Spy, meanwhile, takes the Bondian archetype and lampoons him in the form of Jude Law’s bumbling but lucky agent Bradley Fine. In this comedy, Melissa McCarthy’s Susan Cooper is a competent agent constantly underestimated and disrespected by her peers and supervisors because of her appearance and gender. The arc of the film brings the put-upon Susan into the field on a technicality, and as she saves the day in place of the gentleman spy parody Bradley Fine (not to mention in place of Jason Statham’s tough-as-nails action hero parody Rick Ford), the film deftly juggles the basics of the genre while having fun doing it. And from another angle, by championing Susan after the more conventionally attractive female agent (Morena Baccarin) has been revealed as traitorous, Spy once again subverts the genre, this time its desire to flaunt exotic and beautiful women. Spy is a solid action-comedy, showcasing Paul Feig’s reliable ability to both get laughs and craft memorable characters to deliver them – but it is not the best spy film of 2015.

James Bond Death

And then there were two. They feature certain elements in common… a rogue shadowy organization creating international chaos, an effort on the part of the establishment to shutter the good guys’ antiquated intelligence agencies which forces the hero to go rogue to get the job done, and a crucial trip to Morocco. Spectre has a couple good setpieces and a handful of effective moments, but is crippled by major storytelling problems. An irrelevant personal connection between Bond (Daniel Craig) and the villain, a weak and uninspired finale, limp action sequences such as the remarkably boring car chase in Rome, an unconvincing romance, hollow piggybacking of plot points from previous films, and an M-defends-MI6-from-bureaucrats subplot recycled without passion from its much better treatment in the prior installment Skyfall. Spectre coasts on the James Bond name when it should be blazing its own trail, going through the motions despite being one of the most expensive films ever made – and it is not the best spy film of 2015.

I’ll tell you what is, though, and that’s Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation. Every element of this thing sings. (And in fact, my original review really didn’t give it the credit it deserves.) Clockwork plot and structure, consistently excellent action setpieces (go to the opera!), warm but brittle character dynamics amongst the IMF team, airtight control of tone and tension. Writer-director Christopher McQuarrie’s pulpy epic feels like a perfectly pulled off mission in itself. And then there’s Ilsa Faust.

Ilsa

The one, the only, the best.

Played with precision by Rebecca Ferguson, Ilsa is the key to it all. When Ilsa is introduced and helps breaks Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) out of the Syndicate’s clutches, she feels like a plot device, a spy defined by McQuarrie’s scripted web of triple-crosses. But we later see that this scene comes wholeheartedly from character. Ilsa is a ruthlessly competent specialist, who also has this crazy idea that spies of allied countries have a responsibility toward each other. Her statuesque beauty paired with her matter-of-fact moral conviction makes Ilsa an incredibly magnetic character. In the year of Mad Max: Fury Road, Creed, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Ilsa Faust surpasses Imperator Furiosa, Adonis Creed, Finn, and Rey as the breakout action hero of 2015.

Motorcycle Chase

Mission: Impossible leaving dust in its wake. Not pictured: the competition.

It’s strange how things work out sometimes, as I would never have thought that the latest James Bond film, coming off the heels of the hypnotically great Skyfall, would be my least favorite spy movie of 2015. But even so, it fills a corner of the genre. Spectre is spy film as portentous drama. Kingsman: The Secret Service is spy film as anarchic statement. Spy is spy film as wacky satire. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is spy film as rosy-eyed throwback. And Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation is spy film as immaculate time bomb. Light the fuse…

Spies of 2015

Editorial Corner – My Least Favorite Scene in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

This editorial contains spoilers for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

It’s the calm at the beginning of the third act. We cut to a wide shot of a snowy mountaintop in what look like the Himalayas (but who can say?). It’s a vision or hallucination, because Superman comes upon his late adoptive human father, Jonathan Kent, tending to some farm business. Pa Kent begins a monologue – he explains how when he was younger, he saved the Kent family farm from flooding. He was rewarded with cake. But in the process, he had inadvertently flooded the next farm over. Pa Kent would go on to hear the screams of drowning horses in his sleep every night. He was a hero. But the collateral damage was a poor price to pay for that heroism. Then, it’s abruptly over. Our regularly scheduled build-up to an action climax continues.

Jonathan Kent

There are, unfortunately, lots and lots of candidates for my least favorite scene in Batman v Superman. In fact, on technical, visceral, emotional, and other levels, there are certainly worse scenes. But I’m writing about this one because, brief as it is, it actually represents several things wrong with the film, and I’ll use this scene (heretofore referred to as the Pa Kent Horse Bit) as a sort of skeleton key to unlock them. So let’s go down a few avenues the Pa Kent Horse Bit opens up, saving the worst for last.

Heroism Brood

It’s a non sequitur scene with no set-up, and cutting it out wouldn’t really affect anything. The Pa Kent Horse Bit comes and goes like a goddamn ninja. Where is Superman when he has this vision? Has he gone to sleep and had this dream? The film doesn’t care to lead into the scene in any fashion, and after it’s over, we again careen miles away in narrative space. The scene before doesn’t feature Superman; the scene after doesn’t feature Superman. It’s not just that the way the scene is framed is suspect; the scene is not framed at all. Indeed, the editing of this film as a whole is a train wreck. This manifests in several ways. The Batmobile car chase is a confusion of jagged cuts, and if you developed a drinking game based around every time the film fades to black and back in again, the personal consequences would be disastrous. Batman v Superman laughs at your mortal ideas of scene transitions.

It’s a dream/hallucination sequence in a movie drowning in them. In a related sense to the broken editing on display, dreams, time-travel dreams within prophetic nightmares, and hallucinations are everywhere in the movie. It’s lazy storytelling to rely so heavily on these, not just for the plot but also just to cut to something interesting. Despite coming out of nowhere, Bruce Wayne’s dream of a dystopian Earth marked by a tyrannical Superman is about ten times more interesting than what’s going on the film’s waking state. And I would advise the movie to do something with that nightmare from a character perspective (like to viscerally show and explore Bruce’s fear of what having a Superman can do to society), but it is more than likely meant just to set up future movies. But whether it is or not, more to the point, it exists outside of what is going on in this movie. And the story we’re supposed to care about is left limping.

It features dialogue which tries to trick the audience into thinking it’s profound and mature. Like a lot of the screenplay, the Pa Kent Horse Bit is serious-minded and trying hard to come off as meaningful. The mountaintop setting fits with the film’s lofty ambitions. But these ambitions are not matched by true exploration of issues that the film drops into a blender, and the result is an experience that just becomes inert for long stretches. And the entire crux of the screenplay relies on something deeply immature: the lack of communication between the heroes. When Batman and Superman meet after the Batmobile chase, they exchange scowls and petty threats. There’s no articulation of grievances. We get “The Bat is dead”, but not, “What do you think you’re doing, wantonly killing and branding criminals who may or may not end up dead in jail?” We get “Do you bleed? … You will”, but not, “Your being here led directly to thousands and thousands dead in Metropolis”. I get it, it’s hard to get them to fight unless they’re both jerks, but it’s still the opposite of maturity.

Superman Bleed

“Do I bleed? Gross!”

Superman is passive. In the Pa Kent Horse Bit, Superman walks up to the shade of Pa Kent, gets a life lesson dumped on him, and exit stage left. This illuminates a bigger problem: this sequel to Man of Steel suffers from a crippling fear of letting its Man of Steel speak. Throughout, Superman’s default status is brooding silently. There’s a montage where he saves people, which is rendered unintentionally funny by Superman’s apparent deep sadness in doing so… but we the audience are never privy to what Superman is thinking. We hear a whole bunch about what everyone else is saying, but what’s going on in that Kryptonian brain? There’s a scene where Senator Finch invites Superman to a Senate committee for a dialogue. This is it, this is the moment when we’ll finally hear Superman’s side of the story, his perspective! … And the scene is short-circuited by a terrorist bombing that serves no story function except to be hard-hitting and edgy. Go back to your daily brooding, Superman. Even though this is your own sequel.

sam_r4_v11c3_151002_17mj_g_r709f.362886.tif

“………………”

But here’s the point of no return. Its true sentiment is that heroism is not worth the trouble. The message in Pa Kent’s ghostly form is clear, and it reeks. But of what? Batman v Superman director Zack Snyder has publicly spoken of his admiration of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, a novel he intends to adapt for the screen. It’s a brazen beacon of Objectivist ideas, extolling what is known as “rational self-interest”. And this starts to make sense of what’s going on in the scene. You can be a hero, saving the farm. But the price of that heroism will sure learn you, son. Jonathan Kent’s widow is also a presence in the film, and judging by her big scene with Superman, Jonathan and Martha “You don’t owe this world a thing” Kent were made for each other.

Martha Don't Owe

“You don’t owe this world a thing. You never did. But use your powers to save me and Lois, mm-kay?”

As a side note: the way Jonathan Kent is set up as a presence before the Pa Kent Horse Bit is nothing short of baffling. After the Senate bombing, Superman tells Lois in a should-have-been-poignant scene, “I’ve been living my life the way my father saw it, righting wrongs” and being a hero. Okay, so he’s talking about Jor-El, his Kryptonian father, right? He goes on to say that the idea of Superman is “the dream of a farmer from Kansas”, his father’s dream. What??? Anyone who has seen Man of Steel saw Pa Kent sacrifice himself to keep his son’s superpowers a secret. I cannot emphasize that enough. So these lines of dialogue are bald-faced lies. And in service of what? The only possible reason would be to retroactively change Pa Kent’s outlook on Superman. But the entire sentiment of the Pa Kent Horse Bit is exactly the kind of subversion of heroism we got in Man of Steel. The screenplay is such a fumble that it can’t even stay internally consistent on major character moments.

So a short while after the Pa Kent Horse Bit, Superman sacrifices himself to destroy the abominable monster Doomsday. But here’s the thing – he sacrificed himself without having ever getting over the situation and being Superman. Because Snyder and the other filmmakers have created a world that makes the Superman concept untenable. Now, Snyder has a track record of using explicit Superman/Christ metaphors, especially in Man of Steel. Going with that, the Pa Kent Horse Bit should be Superman’s Gethsemane moment, the scene in which Superman despairs of his preordained responsibility before finally making the choice to face his destiny. But the film is inept. It can’t make the scene work on any level – it’s not meaningful, it’s not touching, it’s not relatable, and it carries a poisonous sentiment. The Pa Kent Horse Bit? Maybe I should call it the Pa Kent Horseshit.

No Gethsemane

In plain sight, the scene illuminates something weird. Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice are films that question the very nature of heroism, but not in a constructive way. Rather, it’s in a manner that promotes selfishness and complacency. The ideal of Superman is torn down. The DC cinematic universe, a series of superhero tentpole blockbuster films, is built on the foundation of stories that are essentially deconstructions of heroism. And that is insane to me.

Trinity

There’s even more wrong with the film that what’s illuminated by the Pa Kent Horse Bit. I would need to record an audio commentary to cover them. The raw deal is that, again, this universe of films faces an upward battle. Batman v Superman, a movie supposed to be selling the Justice League, features a rapport-free, virtually teamwork-free team-up of Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman, and the latter two heroes never speak a word to each other. Anything can be turned around, with the necessary resources and the right people guiding a film. But with Snyder prepping to shoot Justice League Part One within the month, I am worried. The DC universe can’t afford another $250+ million miscalculation. Suicide Squad looks interesting (and its multimillion dollar reshoots look to add character moments and humor), but I’ll be most looking forward to Wonder Woman in 2017. Not only is it the first high-profile female-led superhero film since Elektra in 2005, it also figures to be the first movie in this DC superhero universe not to be a deconstruction of heroism.

Editorial Corner – The Moral and Allegory of Zootopia

Contains spoilers for Zootopia (known as Zootropolis in some territories)

Zootopia is a very fine movie. Its lead characters are endearing, a lot of the humor is on point, and the video-game-overworld layout of the titular city leads to some eye-popping visuals showing off a fully realized world. But what does it have to say?

Zootropolis

Quite a lot, actually – too much, even, but I’ll get into that later. I separate the film’s moral from its attempt at allegory, so I’ll address the moral first. The moral/message is great and very timely. We’re in the midst of a 2016 Presidential campaign marked by some ugly, downright troglodytic racism and sexism on the part of a certain candidate, and Zootopia comes along with a healthy message of tolerance, hitting hard against xenophobia and prejudice.

Thinking Twice

Of course, it uses a city of anthropomorphic animals to make this point, illustrated in part by the two leads; we have female rabbit Judy Hopps and male fox Nick Wilde, who were in some way brought low by prejudice before rallying back to ensure a happy ending for the movie. They do this by circumventing a conspiracy to artificially make the 10% minority of predator animals go “savage” by introducing a drug into their systems. The plan was working for a while; “innocent prey” saw their worst prejudices realized with rabid killer predators on the loose, leading to panic, paranoia, and hate against the predators. Now for the film’s ending to be happy, the force of institutional racism is literalized and arrested in the form of the Mayor, a seemingly meek sheep named Dawn Bellwether who is behind the conspiracy. She rants about us vs. them and virtually declares war on the dreaded other. This is after making repeated comments earlier in the movie about how she and Judy need to “stick together”, but all the while orchestrating a fear monger’s campaign. She’s Trump if he kept it a secret.

Judy and Dawn

So we have a simple moral of anti-xenophobia, arising from a complicated allegory. When getting into the specifics of Zootopia’s allegory, I think it’s overcomplicated and incoherent. Let’s break it down.

The setup begins with mysterious incidents of certain individuals of predator species going savage. We learn that “Night Howlers” are involved somehow. Judy Hopps inadvertently stokes the racially charged fear in the city when she states in a press conference that these predators are going back to their “natural state”. (To the film’s credit, this shows how even a good person can say offensive things because institutional racism can sometimes run insidiously deep.)

Judy and Nick

Next we further the Night Howler mystery by learning that it’s a flower, and that consumption of it leads to an animal going savage under psychotropic influence. So something like a crack/meth epidemic is causing this – just say no, and cue cute Breaking Bad parody.

But then it’s revealed that Mayor Bellwether is on a zealous crusade. She has the drug concentrated into pellets, arms her officers with dart guns, and orders predators SHOT WITH THE DRUG. We went from social commentary about oppression, to social commentary on minorities and drugs, to social commentary on minorities getting shot by the authorities. Mixed metaphor, much?

Now, of course, traditional mainlining of drugs has no place in a children’s movie and the movie needs the drugs to get in the predators somehow. For an example of a plot point not taken, the writers could have, I dunno, put the drug in a liquid that only predators drink – this could at least take advantage of how the movie uses animal biology. But the choice to reverse-engineer this plot into a commentary on minority groups getting freakin’ shot is a decisive one.

Savage

Stacking these revelations on top of each other ends up turning a potentially compelling parallel to our world into a circus show. Are the predators going savage because they’re an oppressed minority? Because they’re taking drugs? Because they’re all getting shot? By pulling it in all these different directions, the allegory is diluted. The film finds a bunch of real-life things to “comment on” and puts them in a blender. This isn’t the best allegory, it’s the most allegory.

Indeed, maybe part of this is a consequence of how plotty, procedural and reliant on successive revelations Zootopia can be. (Clue leads to clue, and it’s kind of hilarious how many times Judy recording someone saying something incriminating is a plot point.) Also, Zootopia is keen to comment on all these racial issues that we face, but at the end of the day this is still an animated comedy with animals. While the film certainly chafes against stereotypes to a certain extent (Bunnies are coded as feminine in the movie’s world, so cue Judy’s annoyance at jokes about bad driving and being really emotional), most of the animals are given predictable behavioral traits (Timberwolves gotta howl). As (the extended Marlon Brando joke) Mr. Big says, “We may be evolved, but we’re still animals!” I totally understand why a weasel named Weaselton is there acting all “weaselly” – after all, this is an accessible family movie – but it makes a thematic graft between these races and our human races kind of a no-go. When you’re depicting an allegorical world where these predator species did in fact originally evolve to kill the prey species, can you really justify this as a parallel of our world?

Timberwolves

The place where Zootopia’s allegory was really helped out was with the pop star Gazelle. Just as Gazelle’s peaceful protest against racism was crashed, so did Beyoncé’s statement of solidarity with victims of police brutality at the Super Bowl face a big backlash. While I know Gazelle doesn’t know at that point that the predators are being shot, from the objective filmmaker’s viewpoint, that is a pop star protesting a minority group getting shot by authority figures. That’s timely as hell.

Zootopia

While it has a wonderful moral, Zootopia takes a sloppy path to get there, and stumbles as allegory. This doesn’t necessarily diminish it much – wearing its heart on its furry sleeve, it’s a great time at the movies in the company of likable characters living in an interesting world – but it shouldn’t be held up as some brilliant satire. It’s great on basic message. It’s just not so great as allegory.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

The Critique (*NO SPOILERS*)

In 2012’s The Avengers, the titular superhero team assembled and saved the world with all the flourish of a child’s toys crashing together in a sandbox. Now, it’s time for the team’s insecurities to drive them apart in ways both subtle and overt. The Avengers are comprised of Steve Rogers’ Captain America (Chris Evans), Tony Stark’s Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Natasha Romanoff’s Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Bruce Banner’s Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and Clint Barton’s Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). The team finds themselves pushed to their limits by the alliance of rogue A.I. Ultron (James Spader) and two humans enhanced by experimentation with an alien artifact: Wanda Maximoff’s Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Pietro Maximoff’s Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson)… together this trio conspires to tear the Avengers apart. All the while, an opposite number to Ultron lurks behind the scenes.

Avengers

The chemistry and clever dialogue binding the heroes is the main draw of these all-hands-on-deck spectacles, and writer-director Joss Whedon delivers this in spades. There is an overlap that connects the “marketable” iconography of the Avengers and numerous profoundly human moments that punctuate the film, in between bouts of action heroism. These things are inseparable, of a piece. Not only do the Avengers have the easy banter of people very familiar with each other, there is also a contrast with how the team is presented versus the previous film. In the 2012 film, each Avenger was an icon, an idol beholden to the symbols of their characters. But here, Black Widow wields Cap’s shield like a pro, and most of the Avengers try to pick up Thor’s hammer, Mjölnir. The larger point that details like these signify is an evolution of the team dynamic that feels appropriate and necessary for a sequel.

The Twins

So how about the new arrivals to the cast? Despite the Maximoffs’ accents being at times distracting,  consider their entrances an unqualified triumph. In last year’s Godzilla Olsen and Taylor-Johnson played the most milquetoast married couple you’re likely to see on screen, but here their chemistry is redirected to a sister-brother pairing, and they make a big positive impression. They always give a sense of weight and history to their parts, and commit totally to their arc over the course of the film. (They are also not a symptom of an overstuffed narrative, as they play a very significant thematic part in the story, as I will detail in my analysis section later.)

Ultron

Main villain Ultron is in the title, and he deserves the billing. Probably my favorite thing about Age of Ultron‘s trailers was Ultron’s voice, for the simple reason that I think it sounds just like Joss Whedon! In interviews Whedon has deadpanned things like, “I have a crush on Ultron”, and that sets the tone for the level of care given to this villain who could have easily been a static and generic threat. Look at the adorable moment when Ultron tells a character that he’s glad to have someone new to talk to; Spader’s motion-capture performance really enhances this petulant and quite funny character.

I made a veiled reference earlier to Ultron’s opposite number, and the dichotomy of the two reflects a novel approach to the A.I. movie. This year we’ve had great cinematic interest in artificial intelligence; we’ve had the movie where A.I. is cute and complementary to us (CHAPPiE), we’ve had the movie where A.I. is freaky as shit for a host of reasons (Ex Machina), and now comes Avengers, able to have it both ways. Ultron and his flip side represent negative and positive takes on A.I., but after both Chappie and Ava in their respective films integrate wholly into human mores and culture, the two in this film stand apart. There is a truly wonderful scene in which the two A.I.s meet in the woods and speak of their philosophical differences and reflect on humanity. It’s a scene that feels very fresh. Granted, if there’s a robot Bechdel test looking for a scene where two A.I.s talk about something other than humanity, it fails, but I’m just being a smart-ass. Also, the woods scene is set up much earlier by a bit in which these not-yet-corporeal matrices duke it out with digital tendrils. It’s an audacious scene, Whedon daring the audience to watch what looks like techno-spaghetti (albeit, techno-spaghetti voiced by considerably talented actors).

A.I.

I do have a couple issues with the film. There is a digression with Thor and a sequence introducing Andy Serkis to the Marvel Cinematic Universe that could have been folded to make for a more streamlined experience. But my biggest issue is that the climax is too long, and the resolution of the ultimate threat still confuses me after two views.

We Took a Hit

Now, I’ve said next to nothing about the six original Avengers and a whole host of other things. It’s time for the meat of this post, a spoiler-laden analysis of the film’s themes that will do justice to those core characters, take a moment to address the Black Widow controversy, and in general illustrate the very well integrated themes of Whedon’s screenplay.

The Analysis (*SPOILERS*)

The Avengers’ Witch-Induced Visions

Throughout the first act of the film, Wanda Maximoff afflicts all but one of the Avengers with disquieting visions. Tony Stark and Thor’s visions reflect insecurities regarding the future. Tony’s vision shows all the other Avengers dead, and the earth being subjugated by what appears to be Thanos’ fleet. Tony says that the death of all the Avengers, and the conquest of Earth, is “the end of the path [he] started us on”. Firstly this a meta line because he did start the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the build-up to the Avengers initiative, and the battle with Thanos, way back in 2008’s Iron Man. Tony calls it his “legacy”, and it is so typical of Tony Stark that he would put the responsibility for this fate squarely on his own shoulders. He has never been a man to do things piecemeal – In Iron Man, Tony was a man who didn’t give a crap about anything. Now, he’s the man who obsessively course-corrects, and gives a crap about everything… to the point where he styles himself single-handedly responsible for the world’s salvation via Ultron (“a suit of armor around the world”). This is a trait that is explicitly passed down to Ultron. When Ultron talks about extinction-level events in Dr. Cho’s lab, he says that “God is winding up” to throw another big rock at humanity. But it’s Ultron who is throwing the rock. God complex, much?

Scepter

Thor’s vision is one that relates to his own power run amok, bringing death to those “weaker” than him. Think about the moment in the Bartons’ house when Thor breaks the LEGO structure, and then tries to shift the damage away from view. That is Thor’s insecurity in a nutshell: his godlike powers are a great asset, but they are also volatile in the extreme. He is a force of nature that can all too easily be turned to destructive purposes. (Too bad he didn’t have this attitude in the last Avengers film when he recklessly attacked Captain America in the woods with all the power of Mjölnir!)

Core Three

While Thor and Iron Man brood on the future, Captain America and Black Widow are stuck in the past. Steve sees a vision of a post-WWII celebration, wherein he and Peggy Carter finally have their dance together. It’s a gorgeously filmed sequence, with every innocuous-seeming element of the party being tainted by an association with war (the spilled wine=gunshot wound, the camera flashes=bomb blasts etc – it’s really quite brilliant), but the main point is that in the end, Steve’s status as a man out of time is a source of major angst for him. In the absence of a healthy personal life, he commits himself to his team. And in his down time, what does he do but try to chase down the tainted “ghost” of his best friend from the 1940s, Bucky Barnes? Similarly, Natasha commits to work in the present to tip the scales of the past. After the Soviet Union’s covert agents did everything they could to make Natasha a killing machine, all Natasha can do is use those skills for good in the here and now.

Scarlet Widow

So we have seen how Thor and Iron Man’s insecurities court destruction, how Captain America and Black Widow’s insecurities hang them up on circumstances beyond their control, and how the Hulk’s South African rampage speaks for itself in pure volatility. It is incredibly significant, then, that the Scarlet Witch’s mind manipulation doesn’t work on Hawkeye. He stands apart from the team because he is by far the most well-adjusted (more on this later).

On the Black Widow Controversy

Natasha really didn’t grow as a character until she admitted she didn’t have a character in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which is kind of fascinating. But we know from The Avengers Natasha’s background as a Soviet spy with a ledger “dripping” in red. So I was, and am, so locked into the “monster” bit being because of the people she’s assassinated and the attendant collateral damage that anything else was simply not an implication that could have sunk in with me, especially not because she’s sterile. That Natasha would see her infertility as what makes her a monster is absurd. And that’s what everyone can agree with: it’s absurd. (Not to mention that every Avenger save Clint compares themselves to monsters at various points in the film: Tony and Bruce as monstrous mad scientists, Steve as the result of “mad science”, Bruce as the Hulk, Thor as a force of destruction, and Natasha as an assassin with the blood of innocents on her hands. As Ultron says, “How could you be worthy? You’re all killers.”)

Bruce and Natasha

Natasha Romanoff does not consider herself a monster because she can’t have children. If she did, she would be a pitiable character. No, she considers herself a monster because she comes from a place where monsters ruled the roost. They cut off all of the choices she could have made for herself, but now, Natasha is doing her best to mitigate that legacy. She chooses Bruce to romantically pursue. In the field, Natasha puts the mission first in two crowning moments. First, she secures the Vision’s Cradle on the Quinjet, facing the consequence of capture by Ultron. Second, she unleashes the Hulk and enters the fray of Sokovia to fight Ultron and save civilians, rather than choosing selfishly to remain with Bruce and make a discreet exit on the ground (which, I hasten to add, was Bruce’s suggestion). These are the choices of a hero, of a woman who is, has been, and will continue to be, one of Earth’s mightiest heroes.

Natasha Romanoff

Who is the “Character” in this Screenplay No One is Talking About?

or: Where Do We Fit Into the Avengers?

Many people are saying that there are too many characters overstuffing the film. I disagree, because every character’s insecurity informs the story. In fact, I identify another vital “character” that is very much a constant, vital presence in the film: the everyday civilian population of the earth. When the Avengers return to New York City, we see Whedon pan from a monument of the first film’s Battle of New York (featuring “ordinary heroes” such as firemen and police officers) up, up, up to the Avengers Tower. The message is clear: think about this divide between the Avengers and the “normal” people on the ground. As I will continue to explain, the film is extraordinarily preoccupied with the theme articulated very quickly and visually here.

Avengers Tower

As Tony Stark says, the Avengers live high in the sky, near the portal to space that was opened in the first film, and apart from the street-level crime that humanity visits upon itself. Look at Ultron’s initial “puppet in strings” scene after the party; the Avengers and their chosen elite allies are on a raised platform, and Ultron walks in downstairs. Ultron says something along the lines of, “Down here sometimes you have to make hard choices”. In an odd way, Ultron is speaking from a streetwise perspective that the godlike Avengers don’t experience. Also, remember that when Tony Stark sees the grimy smuggling operation Ulysses Klaw runs in South Africa, Tony remarks, “This was never my life”. Even when Tony was an arms dealer, he never got his hands dirty… until that fateful day when his humvee escort was shelled in Afghanistan.

Above it All

Here we see the Maximoffs’ vital thematic importance to the story. They were the civilians (“smallfolk” to the uncharitable) whose home was destroyed with the tools of Stark Industries’ former trade; they embody a consequence of the unchecked arm of the 1% finding a way to turn the lives of the 99 upside down. Remember that in Sokovia, there is graffiti of Iron Man with a dollar sign painted over his head. Because while intellectually they may know that Iron Man helped save the world in the Battle of New York, they cannot forget this billionaire’s questionable history. The Maximoffs then volunteered for enhancement to be like, and compete with, the mighty Avengers. Wanda and Pietro artificially made themselves powerful, but then they correct their misguided alliance with Ultron to eventually use their potentially monstrous gifts to change their worldview, save civilians and, in the end, help save the world. It’s an extremely rich arc for these characters, who come from the street and have retained their grounded humanity even as they enhanced it. Pietro died a hero’s death, of course, but Wanda will keep this important perspective on the team.

Scarlet Witch

Let’s apply this theme to the original Avengers, who consistently and with only one exception stand isolated from normal lives. Tony Stark has always been a genius, separated from an average life by excess and billionaire-sized defense mechanisms. Steve Rogers admits that he wanted a normal life back in his home era, but that a “different man” came out the ice, one who is stuck in the past. Just look at the shot Whedon gives us when, after Thor’s departure from the Bartons’ safe house, Steve looks back in the house and freezes outside the door frame. This is a super-allusive shot, hearkening back to the famous final frame of The Searchers, wherein John Wayne played another character who was a product of wartime, and now has no place among the people he has fought for. Bruce Banner is a man so insecure that after the Scarlet Witch artificially induces his South African rampage, a clear case of malevolent influence, he calls it “the real Hulk”; and if it wasn’t clearly evident, Bruce himself states that he can’t have a normal life. Natasha Romanoff learned from her training in the Black Widow program that “she has no place in the world”. Thor is an alien and harbors deep-seated fears as to the damage he can do to those without his power. The only original Avenger who can have a normal life is Clint Barton. His presence grounds the team – he has a wife, and kids who read Jeff Kinney. It’s a normality that all the other Avengers struggle with profoundly.

Hawkeye

Tying the bow on this theme, remember the shot panning up from the monument to the shining skyscraper Avengers Tower? Well, guess where the New Avengers facility at the end of the film is located? On. The. GROUND. So we have a payoff to this theme of the divide between the Avengers and “civilians”, and it is integrated beautifully into the screenplay.

Ultron and the Vision

Ultron is created covertly by Tony Stark and Bruce Banner. The Vision is a synthesis of all the Avengers, directly engaging with themes of legacy and parentage. In the case of Ultron, it’s after his creation that he starts resenting his “father” Tony, but also in a strange way emulating him. He’s got the trademark Stark wit and humorous barbs (observe that the omelette joke works as a gag and reflecting something more disturbing). Also, the climax of hordes of Ultron bots terrorizing Sokovia works as a dark mirror of the House Party Protocol climax of Iron Man 3, where a host of automated Iron Man suits arrived to save the day.

Vision

By contrast, the Vision comes from the whole team of original Avengers. Tony and Bruce created the framework, you have vibranium which is associated with Steve through his shield, Clint and Natasha act as midair midwives with what is actually called “THE CRADLE”, and Thor quickened the birth with his lightning and gives the Vision its name (not to mention the Vision creating a cape for himself based on Thor’s). Thus, the Vision is a synthesis of the Avengers (guess what the Vision’s life form is called in the comics? A synthezoid). And maybe that’s why the Vision is “good” and Ultron is “evil”. Teamwork versus isolation. The constructed family versus the sequestered megalomania of a scientist thinking he can save the world from his lab. And in the creation of the Vision, Avengers such as Captain America, Black Widow, and the Hulk, who struggle with their inability to have a normal life, now have something whose creation they collaborated on, that they have the grounds to be proud of.

Ultron Shadow

As a final point, contrast the first fully corporeal moments of Ultron and the Vision. The former: on a raised dias, on a throne of sorts, spouting the smug and aggrandizing words of a tyrant – King Lear with pistons. The latter: a poetic and understated moment high above the din of civilization, but making a silent connection. Ultron represents unchecked Avengers-level power, while the Vision declares quietly that he is “on the side of life”. So, two sides of the same coin. Like the tiny detail of showing the audience a sculpture in Seoul, as seen directly below.

Ultron Vision

The Significance of the New Avengers

The Avengers line-up revealed at the end is amazing. For one thing it’s diverse, with two women, two African-Americans, a synthezoid and only one white male. But the significance of this team runs even deeper on an emotional level. The first Avengers were brought together because they each happened to have exceptional talents or powers. Now look at the new recruits that co-leaders Captain America and Black Widow choose. You have a representation of the good the Avengers can do in a woman who pulled a heel-face turn to their side, and as we’ve established, comes from the ground-level, “civilian” perspective (Wanda Maximoff’s Scarlet Witch); a living embodiment of the positive collaboration of the previous Avengers team (The Vision); and two soldiers who have proved fierce and loyal friends to team members (James Rhodes’ War Machine and Sam Wilson’s Falcon). This team is bound by something more than being Earth’s mightiest heroes, making for a great dynamic. I dearly hope that this Avengers line-up has room to breathe amongst the chaos of Civil War! But in any case, I’d say this constructed family is doing just fine.

The Verdict

Sunset

Compared to the first Avengers, we are given better character work, more interesting themes, and more organic humor. The first one has more individual crowd-pleasing moments but in my eyes the sequel is richer. I don’t want to rag on the first one because I do love it, but my preference stands. Despite an overlong climax, this film brings it home with great performances and seriously deft writing and direction from Joss Whedon. The film does not feel overstuffed to me since every element serves a thematic purpose, as discussed above. So for those who are invested in these characters, Avengers: Age of Ultron is a gift. 10/10.

P.S. (*POST-CREDITS SPOILERS*): The Thanos reveal was a very underwhelming post-credits scene. It comes off like a pale repeat of the one three years ago; to make matters worse, to this day Thanos has given us next to nothing to latch onto, other than a bit of a wink-wink nudge-nudge to comic fans. Thus far Josh Brolin has played him very middle-of-the-road, with no sign of anything deeper going on. Hopefully Thanos will make more of an appreciable impact in the films leading up to Infinity War, because at this point his status as a Marvel Big Bad has been locked as a fait accompli with no real leg to stand on. I get that the point is to bring him into the foreground later, so my words may mean nothing in a few years – I just didn’t like this post-credits scene.

P.P.S.: Can’t wait for the extended edition later this year. Hopefully this opens the door for similar releases? Like, I dunno, director’s cuts for Iron Man 2 and Thor: The Dark World? In my opinion they need it more than this one.