The Marvel Studios brand is even more powerful than any of the superheroes in its stable. The mere association of the studio with an untested property is enough to spin offbeat ideas into gold, and their risks are getting gradually more exciting. So ever since kicking the doors down with 2012’s crowd-pleasing The Avengers, Marvel has premiered a surefire box office smash in the front half of a year, followed by something weirder in the back. In 2013, the billion-grossing satirical action comedy Iron Man 3 was followed by the cosmic portal-hopping fantasy of Thor: The Dark World. 2014’s espionage thriller Captain America: The Winter Soldier was succeeded by the acerbic space opera of Guardians of the Galaxy. In 2015, the thematically rich and aurally deafening team-up Avengers: Age of Ultron was complemented by the small-time heist comedy Ant-Man. And this year, the superhero masterpiece Captain America: Civil War gives way to the infinite magical dimensions of Doctor Strange. Marvel has effortlessly produced another entertaining, well written, light on its feet origin story with a compelling actor holding it all together, plus the added twists of stunning trippy visuals and an exhaustive magical mystery tour through obscure mystical realms.
Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a world-class neurosurgeon with an equally world-class ego. But when his negligence behind the wheel leads to a crash, the hands that had been so vital to his career and identity can never operate again. After exhausting his fortune on moon-shot surgeries, a desperate Strange travels to the Nepalese sanctuary Kamar-Taj to find a more mystical cure. There, he studies under the tutelage of the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and her fundamentalist lieutenant Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), even as the wayward sorcerer Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) threatens the fabric of reality. Strange will need help, including from former colleague Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), to wrestle with this new world of magic and monsters and nothing he was ever trained for.
On paper, Doctor Strange comes armed with the best cast in a non-team-up Marvel movie. That comes in handy, because seeing as this is the MCU’s full-blown introduction to interdimensional magic, boy howdy there is a lot of magixposition to get through. But the cast elevates the material, and make up for some of the imperfections of the screenplay. I do find the film very sharply written on a scene-to-scene basis, but connecting the dots is sometimes a stumbling block, as there is a lot of exposition, and side characters that do stand out but are nonetheless underwritten. So, sharply written, but maybe not the most tightly written.
Those supporting characters are out of focus at times because the film is rightfully keen to keep a laser focus on its lead. It would be easy to point out similarities between Strange and Tony Stark (rich, arrogant luminary brought low and humbled) and even Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes (no social niceties, uncomfortable with hugging), but these are surface level. What makes the character work so well (besides the magnetic performance) is that he’s given a beautifully plotted out, movie-long redemption arc wherein Strange learns to accept the things he had always rejected (and I don’t mean the existence of magic). No quick fixes; this is refreshingly gradual.
Strange is the audience surrogate into a new world, and has to soak in all that exposition I mentioned before. But Strange is not a mere vessel, and his dynamic character helps to keep the film engaging. Also, the characters that inhabit this magical world are all performed exceptionally. Ejiofor sells the hell out of what is a really tough and ambiguous character in Karl Mordo, the kind of man who dangerously overcompensates in atoning for his past sins. Swinton constructs a playful and enigmatic Ancient One, and Benedict Wong as… Wong makes for a valuable and entertaining presence. In the case of the film’s villain, Kaecilius, smart choices off the page help to sell an underwritten character. Cosmetics help. The makeup on his and the other Zealots’ faces resemble a grotesque extension of what happens when you weep your eyes out. They wear their brokenness for all to see. It’s on the nose, but it works. And, Mads Mikkelsen’s menacing screen presence does a lot to animate the semi-flimsy role (his role as Le Chiffre in Casino Royale also has an eye condition, where he cries blood!).
A big draw of Doctor Strange is its visual effects. Director Scott Derrickson’s vision of reality manipulation is truly delightful to look at, and an interesting balance is struck where the gonzo visuals don’t go too far into craziness where a general audience won’t follow. Even so, the film might have been helped by going even further in its imagination. A couple really pivotal scenes play out with people in their spectral form, and the artificiality there goes some way to undercut the emotion and tension. Also, the Zealots’ weapons are almost invisible. I get it, they’re drawing on power from another dimension, but this uninspired and at-times confusing design seems less like a creative decision and more like a PG-13 compromise so as not to “see” blade pierce flesh.
As for the magic itself, it’s strikingly done with geometric shapes in place of beams of light, delivered with Wanda Maximoff-like hand gestures. The magic aesthetic (oddly foreshadowed by this year’s semi-noble semi-failure Warcraft) is complemented by a healthy dose of defying gravity, which is what really livens up the action scenes. But while the magic action is great, the hand-to-hand fights remind me of the cluttered choreography of something like Batman Begins. (And of course, some of the city-bending visuals are reminiscent of a brief scene in another Christopher Nolan movie, Inception, albeit taken to a whole other level.) There’s also a fair bit of magic-as-Buster-Keaton-slapstick, which is unexpected but welcome.
In a lot of ways, Doctor Strange is a full-blooded medical drama as well as a magical extravaganza. This brings needed attention to Christine Palmer, who is easy to lose in the greater tapestry of the plot, and it gets at a really great aspect of Stephen Strange’s character. He’s not going to stop thinking like a doctor after his magical training. The tension between the medical and the mystical is laid bare in what I’ll call the “do no harm scene”, and it could well be the standout of the entire picture.
Michael Giacchino’s score is solid, but feels a bit like a missed opportunity. The end credits music (“Master of the Mystic End Credits”) is a fantastic slice of trippy progressive-rock, throwing organs and sitars around with abandon. But by being so distinctive, it gives a tantalizing glimpse at what the whole score could have been – indeed, the main Doctor Strange theme heard throughout the film is oddly similar to Giacchino’s own Star Trek fanfare.
Doctor Strange is a really solid magical action movie, with wonderful kaleidoscopic visuals, a fascinating central character, a great cast, and a partially-genius high concept finale. It’s very much a familiar template for an origin story, and the film has its shortcomings, but they don’t spoil the whole. The world of Doctor Strange is an interesting space to play in for two hours, a unique story about accepting mortality and where men are allowed to cry. 8/10.
P.S.: Paul McCartney walked into Abbey Road Studios during the mixing of the score. Upon hearing Giacchino and Derrickson working on “Master of the Mystic End Credits”, McCartney observed, “Shades of ‘Walrus’…”
P.P.S.: *THE SPOILER DIMENSION* So Kaecilius works to serve the dread Dormammu. And the finale in the Dark Dimension is a provocative one, providing a unique climax to the conflict. Strange’s time loop of self-sacrifice certainly one-ups Tony Stark’s “sacrifice play” through a portal in The Avengers, and is a tidy bow on Strange’s arc to boot. The entire theme of the film is the acceptance of failure and death. Kaecilius refuses to accept the concept of time and thus mortality after death “insultingly” ravaged everyone he loved. For a long time, the Ancient One held onto artificially extended life, before finally accepting her legacy and the end of her story. In his career as a surgeon (being the best means juggling the highest stakes) Strange was motivated by his fear of failure. Strange’s willing submission to an eternity of skewering is one of those perfect metaphors that crop up in fiction sometimes. He embraces failure and mortality stubbornly, sacrificing himself with the same tenacity he had used before in his years of medical study. The very pathology of Strange’s arrogant past is redirected, aimed differently, to save the world. And in choosing to wear the broken watch that was Christine’s gift, Strange signals his knowledge that everything must eventually come to an end. Whether it’s a life, a world, or a relationship.
Oh, and the CGI monolith of Dormammu gives me bad flashbacks to Parallax in Green Lantern and Galactus in Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer.
2000’s X-Men is an important film. While Blade creaked the comic book movie door ajar, X-Men blew it off its hinges. A great financial success at the time, it directly led to greenlights for Spider-Man, Hulk, and Daredevil, and generally signaled a new era for the superhero film. (The next paradigm shift: Batman Begins.) Additionally, the franchise that grew out of the original film can boast incredible longevity – the multiplex-ruling Marvel Cinematic Universe has only been around half as long. From 2000 to 2016, the X-franchise is still going strong (-ish), with the same continuity (-ish). Of course, the timeline is tortured within an inch of its life to accommodate this, but that doesn’t invalidate it – no true reboot has wiped the slate clean. And with X-Men: Apocalypse currently wandering its way out of theaters, we can look back on the film that started it all. Much and more came from X-Men, but what’s the deal with it? Does it hold up? Is it special in itself, beyond its place in film history?
The X Factor: A Comic Book Film About Something
I think X-Men is special, because this is a superhero movie with ideas, fully aware of the potential social commentary inherent in its source material. It paints simplistically, in broad strokes, but elegantly. It feels small-scale but full-bodied, and it takes storytelling risks. I mean, the damn thing opens on a concentration camp. The main characters being mutants, discriminated against by “normal” people, gives the screenplay the opportunity to use this as a catchall allegory. Any feared or shunned group of people can find familiar themes at work in the world of the film. No doubt the concept spoke to director Bryan Singer, who is openly gay.
The opening fifteen minutes or so is a dizzying tour of everything that works about the film. We open on the villain’s backstory as a Jew separated from his parents in a Nazi death camp, establishing Erik Lensherr/Magneto’s (Ian McKellen) motivation. Then, straight into Marie/Rogue (Anna Paquin) traumatically discovering her power – it’s hard puberty imagery, adding another layer to the film’s relatability. Next comes the Senate committee scene, giving a potted sociopolitical overview of the stigma around mutants. And as the cherry on top, we proceed to a dynamite scene between Erik and Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) commenting on humanity, flaunting the incredible acting talent on hand. This is all in the opening salvo of the film! It’s a great statement of purpose.
This desire for meaningfulness is not forgotten afterward, as the finale takes place on Ellis and Liberty Islands in New York, these loaded symbols of the immigrant experience. Speaking of loaded images, a young mutant walks on water with his power. And another fun and unique thing is that the X-Men superheroes themselves are professors. There’s a great moment when their X-Jet takes off from the school and the students look up in awe. Give Ms. Grey an apple.
The People Behind the Powers
So the overall scheme of the film is unique and meaningful, but your X-Men movie also needs some X-Men, so let’s talk characters. The duo of Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and Rogue provide an excellent outsider’s view of the X-Men and Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters. Logan’s more feral side is contrasted well by his tender elder-brother-like relationship with Rogue, and their relationship is central to the arc of the film. And Logan’s adamantium claws are a cool power and all, but they are brought down to earth and a human level when he says as an aside that every time they come out, they hurt.
That idea is mirrored in Erik’s eeeevil plan, as his use of the mutant-creating device hurts him terribly. The strength of his convictions outweighs his regard for personal safety. Ian McKellen’s characterization instantly makes Erik an all-timer comic book movie villain, and his antagonistic yet respectful relationship with Charles is the entire franchise’s not-so-secret weapon. Each of the three scenes the two share in this film are brilliant, leaving the audience wanting more. The first posits the two as aloof observers of humanity, Erik the cynic and Charles the optimist. (In a different Marvel universe, this exact dynamic plays out in the brief gem of an exchange between Ultron and the Vision.) Their second scene is the train station showdown, a compelling setpiece where the two generals are buffeted by a force of cops, with a complicated human argument at its core. And the third scene is iconic, two old rivals sharply musing over a game of chess.
But not everyone in the cast is given attention. The weak link is ironically the main X-Men trio of Scott Summers/Cyclops (James Marsden), Ororo Munroe/Storm (Halle Berry), and Jean Grey (Famke Janssen). Scott… is a plank of wood. And he refers to himself as “a boy like me”? What? Ororo doesn’t have an accent, until she does, more than halfway through the film. Jean’s “romance” with Scott is downplayed to make room for a forced attraction with Logan. So it’s not a great showing for the flagship X-Men. A shame, because most of the characters work a charm.
Is there a Script Doctor in the House?
Most fans of Joss Whedon know that he was brought in to punch up the third act of X-Men, that he went above and beyond the call of duty with a complete pass on the screenplay, and that only a few of those beats were retained in the finished film. And let me tell you, those Whedon-y lines stick out like sore thumbs. “This certainly is a big, round room.” “You’re a dick.” But of course, the most infamous is Storm’s one-liner, “You know what happens when a toad gets struck by lightning? The same thing that happens to everything else.” Halle Berry spectacularly misread the line, proclaiming it grandly rather than throwing it away. This sounds silly, but if I could change one thing about the film, that might be it.
There’s a lot of silly stuff in X-Men. While some of the action has a low-budget elegance to it (especially the way the powers flow into each other in the train station fight), other elements haven’t aged well – blobby Y2K CGI, for one. But other things just need to be preserved as weird little, did-you-see-that moments: The way Toad’s super-jump just crushes a dude into a puddle of mush on the ground! The adamantium middle finger! The look on Logan’s face as he rides Scott’s motorcycle! Mystique morphing from Bobby to her natural state, lingering on a hybrid of the two! Ray Park as Toad referencing his role as Darth Maul in Star Wars Episode I – The Phantom Menace! The takeaway is that while X-Men is dealing with weighty themes, it’s also a movie where Toad can spit dumb Nickelodeon green gunk at Jean Grey.
Drawing a Line to the Apocalypse
The original film’s Cerebro sequence is still a great effect, prefiguring the IMAX theaters that are showing 2016’s X-Men Apocalypse today. The latest X-offering is at once an inert and busy film, and one thing it’s juggling is putting a bow on the entire franchise. As such, the original X-Men is explicitly referenced several times (the concentration camp, the mutant cage fight, Charles’ baldness explained just like Rogue’s white streak was, a direct quotation of the “great swell of pity” exchange). And looking back on the original with the knowledge of eight subsequent movies yields enough inconsistencies to fill a whole other essay (that Mystique voice modulator!).
But most of all, reflecting on the first X-Men solidifies its status as not just a prelude of better things to come, but as quite a strong movie in its own right. After seeing the franchise move the Golden Gate Bridge, travel decades in time, and resurrect an Egyptian god, it’s refreshing to rewind to this one humble tale of “the not too distant future”. The 2000 film has a great lo-fi charm to it, while at the same time being lent gravitas by McKellen and Stewart’s war of wills. It holds up not just as a curiosity, but also as a well-told story of mutants and morals.
There has never been a superhero movie like Captain America: Civil War. Weighty character drama, politics, gritty action, comic-booky action, and humor are all pushed to the limit and brought into harmony. The film contains a moment that might be the funniest in a Marvel movie, alongside the most gut-wrenching drama. It can do both, folks. Characters who have been around forever in this cinematic universe have emotional stories, while two important new heroes are debuted. How does this movie even function? That Civil War works at all is impressive. That it works this well is incredible.
After an Avengers mission in Nigeria results in 26 civilian casualties, the superheroes are brought up to speed on the Sokovia Accords, a United Nations document bringing the Avengers under bureaucratic oversight from a UN panel. The heroes are split on the issue. Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) is in favor of any measure to legitimize Avengers operations, both for professional accountability and personal guilt. But Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) would rather cut through the bureaucracy to ensure that the Avengers can always go where they deem themselves most needed. Both are trying to save lives and serve the greater good, in their own way. But their disagreement over the Accords, as well as Steve’s need to protect formerly brainwashed best friend Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) from the arrest Tony and the UN know is rightful, ends up drawing battle lines. Tony and Steve each find support from five allies, and the stage is set for catastrophe. And all the while, the unassuming Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl) has his own mysterious agenda.
What grounds the central battle of wills is that both Steve and Tony are right, and both are wrong. That makes it the most satisfying kind of heroic conflict, because both perspectives are aired throughout the film in smart conversations and through their actions. The actors are up to the challenge, as Evans plays respectful defiance really well, while Downey Jr. is like an exposed nerve, so open and vulnerable. It all explodes in a notably contained (not necessarily restrained) climax featuring the marquee fight between Captain America and Iron Man. But the thing is, during this title bout, we are internally begging Steve and Tony to just – stop – fighting. Our emotional investment in the characters in some way eclipses the obligation for an action-packed finale. It’s character before blind reliance on cool spectacle. And that, in microcosm, is why the Marvel Cinematic Universe works.
A big reason why Civil War is so successful as drama is that the huge ensemble is humanized and many have their own character arcs. Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) faces the consequences of the Nigerian disaster, which she feels is her fault, and must come to terms with the power inside her that she doesn’t understand. The Vision (Paul Bettany) begins to explore his own “humanity”, but might not be thrilled that he did. Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) brings in an everyman perspective. Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) plays diplomat and constantly tries to prevent violence between the factions, using her skills of manipulation from a genuine emotional place. So all these established characters are served, while two new heroes complement the story without overshadowing it.
Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland) is not shoehorned into the proceedings. He’s presented as the uncompromised vigilante. When Tony looks at him it’s like he’s seeing a glimmer of where Steve Rogers came from, and the nobility that still defines him. Tony’s desire for conciliation with Steve makes Tony’s relationship with Peter, and the movie’s use of the web-slinger, more integral to the story than a because-we-can cameo. In a movie that throws around big concepts like UN oversight and accountability, Peter’s inclusion is a show-don’t-tell reflection of what a superhero is at the core, and his streetwise perspective grounds the larger-than-life conflict.
If Spider-Man’s is well done, then the introduction of Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa is perfect. Everything about his role in the film impresses. Boseman brings a quiet gravity to his scenes, his Black Panther costume is one of the best comic book translations on screen, his fighting style is instantly distinctive, and most important of all, his character arc cuts right to the heart of Civil War’s thematic core. What is one’s duty to family? To friends? Can the cycle of revenge and trauma be broken? Where does a superhero’s responsibility to the world conflict with other agendas? Civil War’s mature screenplay asks these questions, with the film being nonetheless appropriate for kids who just want to see well-drawn heroes in entertaining fights. It’s a balancing act that other contemporary superhero movies bungle.
The villainous side of things is a rewarding slow-burn mystery story, of all things. Daniel Brühl does great work as Zemo, giving a disturbing portrait of the kind of person who can present a genial face in public, while building a bomb in the closet. Zemo is a very singular kind of comic book villain, defined by subtlety, intelligence, and persistence. Has anyone noticed that previous Marvel villains Alexander Pierce, Ultron, and Loki (in The Avengers) all have the same motivation? They rail against the chaos and infighting among humans, and set out to bring order on a global scale – ending war with a violent cleansing that the heroes must stop by blowing stuff up real good. There is no such bluster in the ending of Civil War, as an intimacy of setting and stakes reap a lot of dramatic rewards. The way Zemo interacts with the story as a whole, and the finale in particular, quells any fear that he’s one antagonist too many in a busy movie, as his subtle machinations and shadowy menace complement the themes of the film very nicely.
At the end of the day, while Captain America: Civil War has a lot going on under the surface, it’s still a seriously kick-ass action flick. The four action scenes in the film escalate in meaningfulness, until the finale goes for the emotional punches by way of actual punches. But the crown jewel action centerpiece is the airport sequence, half-cartoonish, half-intense, and all incredible. It’s like a twenty-minute comic book come to life, but one informed by the very specific characterization and precision-strike humor we’ve come to expect. Dizzying choreography, dynamic pacing, and well-judged match-ups make for an absolutely spectacular showdown. While not everyone gets a big show-stopping moment, each of the twelve heroes contributes to a sequence that will go down as an all-timer in the comic book movie canon.
A small detail I pick up on is that the film takes potential weaknesses and turns them into strengths. The less significant example is that the physical resemblance between Bucky and Zemo (potentially confusing for general audiences) impacts the plot at one point. The more significant is that Bucky wonders aloud if he is worth all the trouble his presence causes. Now, of course he’s worth it to Steve and that’s the whole point, but the line plays with the fairly bare bones way his connection to Steve played out in the first Captain America movie. Civil War’s depiction of Bucky, brought to life with broken dignity and wounded charisma by Sebastian Stan, retroactively makes his setup in previous films better by association.
On the subject of negatives, the most I can come up with is a subjective one. A lot of the setup for the film is predicated on the “downer” reality check of civilian casualties of previous Marvel movies, particularly Avengers: Age of Ultron. There’s something a little dramatically convenient and obvious about this, like being lectured after eating a cake about how many carbs are now up to no good in your body. (It’s an interesting choice because the whole point of Ultron‘s ending is to reconcile Avengers and civilians.) But the way the theme is actually implemented in the film works a charm and adds to the complexity of the story.
There are many ways Civil War is unique among superhero movies, and its ending is no exception. If it’s not a spoiler to say that Civil War is smart, then it’s not a spoiler to say that the ending is not pat and wrapped up in an artificial bow. The emotional wounds have not been healed, the ideological conflicts of the film have not been resolved, and the film leaves the story in a rich place for other stories in this universe to pick up on. Captain America: Civil War is a globe hopping, down-to-earth political thriller, which is also a character-driven drama, which is also a superhero extravaganza with effective incidental humor, and which also contains an all-timer comic book action scene. What other movie can claim this? What other movie can claim this and be this good? 10/10.
Despite Ant-Man being a founding member of the comic Avengers, and also despite a power set opening the door to fun/creative/unique action, the prospect of Ant-Man the film was met with more than a little skepticism. What Marvel Studios has crafted is a well-cooked palette cleanser after the operatic mayhem of each of their films since 2012’s The Avengers. Ant-Man scales back on scope, but that doesn’t mean it scales back on quality or payoff.
At San Quentin, petty thief and absentee father Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is being released, ready to reconnect with his daughter and former partners in crime including Luis (Michael Peña). Nearby across the San Francisco Bay, Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) watches as Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) is shown the fruits of technology he created back in the Cold War era, now weaponized by unbalanced mogul Darren Cross (Corey Stoll). And plans are drawn up to bring everyone together in a web of superpowered shrinking suits, heists, daddy issues, and wacky comedy.
Straddling all four of those elements is Rudd, anchoring the film with his everyman Scott Lang. As both the butt and deliverer of jokes, he’s an appealing lead, equally at home showing off MacGyver-esque chops in a remarkable heist sequence as he is internalizing more dramatic beats. As Ant-Man, his power set is used brilliantly for visual gags and straight action. And no spoilers, but the shrinking and enlarging mechanism of this power is used for a couple extraordinary, punch-the-air moments in the Third Act. You’ll know them when you see them.
As an ant does, the supporting cast also carry more than their weight and taken in ensemble make for an impressive wall of protagonists. Douglas is not trotted out for a few token scenes, but rather given a full, vital, present and active character with an edge and an arc. Lilly is given a strong character in Hope – often female characters in tentpoles are presented more as archetypes than realistic people; to be crude about it, either cuddly or cold. But Hope is in the middle spectrum; confident, knowing her own value, with her ultra-competence offset by snarky as well as warm humor. And let’s just say she looks to have a bright future in this universe. Leading the comic relief, and stealing every scene he appears in, is Peña as Luis. Having established dramatic chops elsewhere, Peña is the MVP in bringing a great Ant-Man-specific comedic energy to the film, precisely because his character is so broadly played.
Speaking of broad performances, Stoll as the villainous Darren Cross fits into this. The only real fun to be had with Cross is with Stoll’s performance. For example, he’s given the ridiculous-as-scripted line, “You tried to hide your suit from me, and now it’s gonna blow up in your face”, and delivers it like a petulant child, making the line sort of work on that level. The big problem here is indeed the character as written. Stoll has said in interviews that Cross’ motivation changed from draft to draft, and boy howdy does that show. There are facets of his character we are constantly told about without being shown; he doesn’t convince as a scientist, and much more importantly, neither as a mentee of Hank Pym. And there are twists in the Third Act about Cross’ character that are worth as much as the added-in-post flimflam that they are.
The villain is weak, and so are parts of the screenplay’s setup and structure. In the early section of the film there are a handful of on-the-nose lines that land with a clang as clumsy exposition. But the bigger picture problem I have with the First Act is that it feels like there are two movies being run in parallel: the hi-tech machinations of Cross with Hank Pym’s countermoves, and the story of Scott Lang and his band of “cute criminals”. And rather than having them symbiotically feed on each other, they feel like each is paying for the other. As if the screenplay wants to counterbalance the straight-faced with the wacky, rather than bringing them into harmony. This is not to mention the half-assed shoehorned romance, which feels profoundly unnecessary.
So with the bad out of the way, Christophe Beck’s score is pretty great. It supports the heist element, and when the main theme is aired, parts of it are like Lalo Schifrin writing for a Disneyland roller coaster! Returning to the use of Ant-Man’s unique power set, its use is really a lot of fun (particularly in a Second Act training sequence) and I feel comfortable leaving the thrill of the ride to the viewer rather than describing it on the page.
Ant-Man is a very enjoyable action-SF-comedy that inverts the stakes of more typical Marvel movies (just look what happens to a big building towards the end). It gets by on plenty of heart and even more humor that together create a fairly unique tone among superhero films, plus it’s not afraid to get a little weird, with sequences that resembles Interstellar and The Rocketeer of all things! Especial props go to the cast, with Rudd, Douglas, Lilly and Peña making for a formidable bouquet of likable heroes. Ant-Man admirably fills in its little corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and its small hero accomplishes big things. 8/10.
P.S.: Edgar Wright, bastion of visual humor and my personal favorite living director, was for the better part of eight years attached to Ant-Man, eventually forced out through creative differences with Marvel Studios. Obviously I would have preferred he stayed on; equally as obviously, I can’t compare the finished product to a movie that was never made.
P.P.S.: I want to talk a bit about the interesting way that Ant-Man is at war with its marketing. We heard over and over again in the trailers jokes that were pretty much saying, “See Ant-Man! And yes, we realize that name sounds ridiculous!” There was even a version of the gag where Scott Lang says, “Iron Man was already taken”. It was a bit savvy, but also more than a little insecure. Now observe how in the film proper, jokes of that type are nowhere to be found! Another fun undermining of the marketing: you see “tough-guy” shots in the trailer of Scott in the prison brawl, but the movie turns that on its head for a neat little gag.
P.P.P.S.: The MCU’s “second phase” closes with Ant-Man, and I noticed something sort of interesting about my opinions of the Phase 2 films’ villains. Iron Man 3‘s Aldrich Killian (good villain); Thor: The Dark World‘s Malekith (bad villain); Captain America: The Winter Soldier‘s Alexander Pierce (good villain); Guardians of the Galaxy‘s Ronan (bad villain); Avengers: Age of Ultron‘s Ultron (good villain); Ant-Man‘s Darren Cross (bad villain).
In 2012, young filmmaker Josh Trank directed the excellent Chronicle, a found-footage tale of three teens who unexpectedly gain superpowers. It’s one of the greatest “off-brand” superhero movies out there, and Trank has continued the theme of his career with Fox’ reboot of the Fantastic Four. But the game is different now – cinematic experimentation must marry with adaptations of Marvel’s First Family. The question of the film’s success in flaunting a stretchy dude, a partially-visible woman with mastery of force fields, a man on fire, and a rock monster with many chips on his shoulder, is polarizing. But in a binary world, sometimes it’s best to inhabit a middle ground.
Reed Richards (Miles Teller) has a dream: to crack teleportation technology. Supported by his best friend Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell), his prodigious efforts get the attention of the Baxter Foundation’s Dr. Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey). Dr. Storm’s adopted daughter Susan (Kate Mara), his biological son Johnny (Michael B. Jordan, formerly of Chronicle), along with his wayward genius protégé Victor von Doom (Toby Kebbell), help in the project, and the path to another dimension is opened. A new world, and a new life for all concerned, awaits.
The greatest resource in this science-heavy blockbuster is the super-talented and rising-star cast. Teller (Whiplash) plays both foppish wunderkind and newly-minted authority well, with the best comedic timing of his peers. Mara (House of Cards) and Bell (Snowpiercer) are given the weakest material, but make an impression nevertheless. And Jordan (Fruitvale Station) brings as much energy to the traditionally bombastic Johnny Storm role as he can given the film’s grounded context. Tying everything together is Cathey as Dr. Storm, even as his role as the team’s father figure is all but drilled into our heads. It’s a shame that the team dynamic is overall under-nurtured, as I do believe this cast is capable of much greater and more effervescent things given more screen time to win the audience over.
A film about the Fantastic Four carries some basic connotations to the average moviegoer, who likely expects a fun super heroic adventure. This Fantastic Four goes for a different tack entirely, a David Cronenberg weird-science-body-horror theme. And there are scenes in this film all but stolen from Scanners and The Fly, but still working in this context. So this is fine by me, because I’m a fan of Cronenberg, but if the SF-horror conceit had gone even further the film could have really worked for those looking for a good film in and of itself irrespective of the Fantastic Four.
And even so, this is not Fantastic Four in name only. Dude’s name is Victor von Doom. Dude says, “Flame on” without irony. There’s an undeniable moment of chills when all four zoom into frame with their powers set. However, all these elements are hung on the framework of an origin story, which at times doesn’t feel fresh. It feels like this movie would have played better five or six years ago, which isn’t a strike against the film itself, of course, but our reaction to it. And Fantastic Four more than most comic book movies ends up insecure about our reactions; the corny, chaotic, rushed and admittedly entertaining finale is wedged in seemingly as a sop to certain Avengers fans who might have been bored by all the science-whyency stuff.
Not that the setup is flawless either, though. The lead character being the ridiculously stretchable Reed Richards is appropriate, because the storytelling apparatus of Fantastic Four is pulled in different directions to gymnastic effect. The narrative is made to contort to accommodate a leisurely-then-fast-forwarded origin story, plus complications along the way. At the film’s midpoint there’s an obvious trick to fold the story into a 100-minute runtime, with the consequence of short-circuiting a few character arcs. The mess left by the cutting-room is regrettable.
Fantastic Four is too abstract and colorless for kids, too divergent from super heroics for comic book fans, and too simplistic and rushed for Cronenbergian film aesthetes. It ends up being a film for no one, but that does not mean it’s bad. Parts of it work quite well, particularly the moments where it does lean into body-horror. Indeed, strong genre identity is what’s needed to pre-empt comic book movie fatigue among audiences. And this cast is solid as the superhero team that had formed a bond before their powers lumped them together. It would be a shame if this was all we got of them, since now that everything’s set up, the story could go anywhere. Fantastic Four is not fantastic, but neither is it terrible. And I’m not looking for a different film at the core, but a better version of what we got. A strong 5/10.
P.S.: Remember that scene in CRAPPiE where Hippo steals a bunch of PS4s, and that other scene where Chappie uses a PS4 console to transfer a sentient consciousness? Well, there’s actually a similar moment here where a totem of N54s are used as part of young Reed’s teleportation device. Also, the use of a test chimp for inter-dimensional travel is appropriate given the presence of Toby Kebbell, who played the villainous ape Koba in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Longtime readers will know I’m not a fan of the character, but Kebbell’s performance as Koba is unimpeachable.
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.
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.
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.)
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).
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.
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?
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!)
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.
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.”)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.