It took me somewhat longer that expected to get to Avengers: Age of Ultron, the finale to the “second wave” of the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies and the informal beginning to Summer Movie Season for this year. In the time since it hit screens, Ultron has been a tad divisive, and people continue to argue about it on forums, Twitter, and nasty messages left on bathroom stall walls. The argument has been on two fronts: the first being the actual quality of the film, the second being the possibly troublesome gender politics behind a scene involving Scarjo’s Black Widow.

The gender politics debate is ongoing, and something I’m still in the midst of considering, having finally seen the film. As for the quality debate, I knew almost immediately after the credits rolled that I stand with the side arguing that while Age of Ultron is definitely fun, oftentimes clever and an all around solid entry in the MCU, it’s also as clunky and badly formed as main baddie Ultron is when he first appears as a shambling mess of parts that don’t quite fit together.

Age of Ultron posterThough there is a lengthy lead-up involving the team mopping up what appears (for now at least) to be the last remnants of HYDRA, the action really gets under way when Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark and Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner use an artifact from the previous Avengers flick to create Ultron, a peacekeeping AI intended to bring about world peace. Of course, Ultron goes the way of pretty much every fictional AI ever developed and immediately announces his intent to bend humanity over his metal knee and make it think about what it has done.

From there, about a million different characters and plot threads weave in and out of each other as the Avengers try to stop Ultron from destroying the world, even as internal tensions threaten to tear the team apart.

As critics before me have pointed out, Ultron‘s biggest failing is an over-stuffed script crammed to the brim with new characters and action set pieces. Even though the franchise already has a dearth of characters to draw on, writer, director and fanboy messiah Joss Whedon uses Age of Ultron to introduce a whole whack of new blood to the MCU, and very few, if any of them, seem to get much screen time.

First there’s the twins, Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, arguably the most important and developed new characters besides Ultron himself. While Elizabeth Olson and Aaron Taylor-Johnson both get some good scenes in, they only just feel interesting and developed enough that I want to see more of them.

Paul Bettany also makes his debut as the friendly, cape-sporting android Vision in the third act, and boy howdy, did he feel like he didn’t need to be there. I like that they brought in the character and all, and Bettany certainly feels right in the role, but both his character and what he brings to the table powers-wise feel so woefully underdeveloped that the whole thing screams missed opportunity. We never get a sense of what his powers even are beyond flying, smashing stuff and occasionally shooting a laser from his forehead, which is a shame since his actual powers of density control (which allow him to phase through solid objects or become an ultra-dense immovable object) could have been used for some really great visuals.

Age of this guy

The look of the film over all felt very cluttered and unfocused. Fight scenes often have multiple characters elbowing each other for room in the frame, and the 3D (as usual) makes things look so much more messy than they should. I feel like this is yet another one of those movies that will look better on the small screen and CHRIST am I getting tired of saying that about effects blockbusters.

Another thing that kept bugging me about the visuals was the editing, which often has this disjointed feeling, like certain shots were missing. Nothing huge, just small insert shots during action sequences. As a result, things often feel jerky and chaotic, two qualities that you don’t want in your action scenes, despite what anyone tells you.

But back to the script. Even with the burden of new characters to support, Age of Ultron bears the signs of a lot of hasty re-writes, missing scenes, and other behind the scenes problems. Plot beats will feel either unnecessary or like they aren’t there when they should be.

I completely believe it when I hear that this flick has like an hour of extra footage that got left on the cutting room floor for time. It feels like there’s a lot of connective tissue missing, which makes it feel rushed and disjointed overall. Sort of similar to that editing problem I mentioned. It isn’t smooth or streamlined in even the vaguest sense and while the plates more or less are kept spinning, they aren’t kept in the air with anything I’d call grace.

Age of Ultron WidowBut then again, there’s a lot to like. The dialogue is quick and snappy with Whedon’s trademark landslide of zingers and jokes, and there are enough fanboy geekout moments that I giggled like a child on numerous occasions. James Spader’s Ultron is a treat to watch, playing that old “serious villain who occasionally breaks character for a snarky one-liner” fiddle so hard the strings superheat and melt through the Earth’s crust.

Series regulars like Chris Evans, Robert Downey and Chris Hemsworth all feel comfortable and at home in their roles, trading jibes and kicking ass just like we expect them to. The action scenes work as much as they feel cluttered and busy, and there are some great action beats in there. There’s a great little sub-plot with Hawkeye, too, the only downside of which is that it makes any hope of an adaptation of the wonderful version of the character that Matt Fraction wrote in his fan-favorite Hawkeye series basically impossible.

Everything you liked about Avengers is back for the sequel, and it feels just as much like pure nerd-porn as ever. It’s just messier nerd-porn, nerd porn that’s maybe taking on too much and flying too close to the sun. It needs less of everything, less script, characters, maybe even take out an action scene if it means giving the thing some more breathing room.

In the spectrum of the Marvel Studios canon, Age of Ultron sits somewhere in the middle. It has enough fun to put it above the solidly “meh” entries like Thor: The Dark World, Incredible Hulk and the Iron Man sequels, but it is bogged down by enough script issues that it it gets left in the dust by the proud, magnificent stallions of Guardians of the Galaxy, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and the first Avengers.

As a start to Summer Movie Season, it does what you want it to, delivering fun and laughs, but I have a feeling Age of Ultron is already set to be overshadowed as the king of 2015 blockbusters……

I remember back when Twilight was the big thing and vampire romances were more popular than God’s own bacon, and I would smugly present Let The Right One In to my Twi-Hard friends to show them what a vampire romance with some actual teeth looked like. These days, in the wake of the massive success of Hunger Games, vampires would seem to have been knocked off their pedestal as the number one tween fiction genre of choice by dystopian futures with a-bit-too-obvious allegories for class inequalities and social upheaval. And just like I was waving Let The Right One In around to show people how cool and with it I was in the then-current cultural landscape, I expect I’ll be telling more than a few rabid Hunger Games fans about how Snowpiercer is so much better and that I’m better for knowing it fairly soon.

Snowpiercer posterDirected by South Korea’s Bong Joon-Ho and starring Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton and John Hurt, Snowpiercer takes place almost entirely on a train containing the last dregs of the human race after an attempt to halt global warming backfired and caused the next ice age. The rich, affluent and corrupt get to stay at the front of the train, give themselves stupid hairstyles and dress like idiots while the noble working classes are exiled to the back end of the train, and forced to endure sensible haircuts and functional, stylish trench coats. Of course, this doesn’t sit well with Chris Evans’ character Curtis, who mounts a revolution to take the front of the train from the mysterious owner and his Thatcherish henchwoman played by Swinton.

I’d be hard pressed to think of another recent film that embraced a linear story structure so fervently as Snowpiercer. Of course, given the setting it’s hard not to. But still, just like Curtis’ mantra of always moving forward, once the revolution starts and the action kicks in, Snowpiercer only ever moves forward, never going back to previous locations and never staying in one place too long. There’s always a sense that things are going somewhere, a thrust in the story that never seems to stop until the last fifteen minutes or so. This isn’t one of those films that seems to wander or lose track of itself, it does a fantastic job at staying on point, at least until that ending.

The cast all outdo themselves, with special accolades going to Swinton and Evans. For the most part Evans is wearing out the “reluctant leader” trope until it’s down to a few clinging fibers, like the pair of underwear you keep forgetting to throw out. But towards the end during a moment of quiet Evans delivers what may be the best dramatic monologue I’ve seen him ever do. Tilda Swinton does exactly what we’ve all come to expect of Tilda Swinton at this point: completely vanish into a role to the point that the fact that she recently played an ethereal rock n’ roll vampire sex queen seems completely inconceivable. I don’t even know how it’s fucking possible that she played both Eve in Only Lovers Left Alive and the prim, sexless, post-apocalyptic Thatcherite shrew she plays here, but there she is, all false teeth and inch-thick glasses, as icy and villainous as Eve was sexual and beguiling.

The visuals are another major strong suit for the film, and as odd as this may sound coming from me, it’s one of the only films I’ve seen recently that makes shakeycam work. Things never seem so out of control that we can’t tell what’s happening, and Joon-Ho adds these quick little zooms to the mix to zero in on important elements. It’s an ingenious little solution to one of shakey-cam’s major problems, one that I can’t help but feel that lesser directors will try to emulate and ultimately misuse in the future.

Snowpiercer tilda

Where things get a big wobbly is the script, unfortunately. I have friends who tear their hair out at the most piddling little scientific inaccuracies in films, and Snowpiercer will probably have the lot of them looking like, well, me. But where as other films make these mistakes out of ignorance, I got the sense with Snowpiercer that it was more of a case of the allegory of the whole thing weighing down on the science of it like a fat man in the top of a bunk bed slowly crushing the person below them in the night.

Whenever a new piece of information comes our way about the workings of the train or the universe we’re in, odds are that a few perfectly plausible but much less allegorically interesting alternatives to that problem or design will occur to you immediately. I can’t help but feel that maybe Snowpiercer would have turned out a bit better if they’d just dropped any pretense at hard science fiction and gone full-on expressionist. The film is already pretty much Metropolis on a train, just go nuts with it.

But I can’t disparage Snowpiercer for just how damn cynical it is, towards not just the class inequality the whole thing is built around, but the uprisings and revolutions it seems at the outset to be espousing. The protagonists, as we learn, are hardly the saintly messianic figures we’ve come to expect from these kinds of dystopian shindigs. There are no heroes in the eyes of Snowpiercer, just people who the world hasn’t had a chance to fuck up yet, and maybe people marginally less fucked up than the people around them.

And even though it may be flawed, and goes a bit off the rails by the end (HAH, I didn’t even mean to make that one), it’s a hell of a fun ride and has more ideological teeth than all the Divergent Games and Hungry Givers you can mention, and that counts for a hell of a lot in my books.

So far the second wave of this whole Marvel Studios thing is more miss than hit for me. Thor: The Dark World was by far the most middle-of-the-road, unremarkable film the young studio has produced to date, and Iron Man 3 tripped on a rock, hit its head and critically injured its tone. So understandably I had high hopes for Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and while I admit placing the burden of redeeming this second round of movies was a lot to put on one film, I’m happy to report it was well up to the task.

Picking up a year or so after The Avengers, Winter Soldier finds Cap, now a full S.H.I.E.L.D agent, running covert ops alongside Black Widow, or as covert as you can get when everyone on the damn planet knows who you are and you wear half of your initials on your forehead like you totally misunderstood how monogramming works. But when Nick Fury is attacked by a mysterious assassin called The Winter Soldier, and Cap learns of a sinister conspiracy lurking within S.H.I.E.L.D, he and the Widow go on the run to uncover the truth, joined along the way by The Falcon, a random dude Cap happened to meet jogging, who by happy chance happens to know how to work a set of high-tech mechanical wings.

WinterSoldierposterBy admission of the film makers, Winter Soldier is going for a very Robert Ludlum political conspiracy thriller vibe, less brightly colored superhero action and more shadowy backroom deals and secret government shenanigans. But what I think works about it is how it never totally forgets that it is still ultimately a comic book movie, and once in a while something completely and utterly ridiculous will happen to offset all the serious talky talky drama and Bourne-esque triller fair. One minute Robert Redford is giving some spiel about government oversight and the cost of freedom, the next someone’s pulling off a perfectly realistic face-changing mask like it’s an episode of Scooby Doo, and it turns out it was Old Man Backhoff all along. It strikes a really nice balance between the kind of “nothing we’re doing is even remotely realistic so let’s just run with it” Marvel Studios ethos and the political thriller vibe the Russo brothers were clearly going for.

The big problem though is that the script is a bit of a mess. It’s got that Christopher Nolan problem of being too full of story and characters, to the point that at any minute it seems ready to burst like one of those fat Left 4 Dead zombies. The real casualty of this is that the film’s title character, the mysterious Winter Soldier, is barely a presence in his own movie. For the first two acts he just appears out of nowhere to shoot someone and look enough like James Franco in Spiderman 3 to give everyone in the audience uncomfortable flashbacks. And after his true identity is finally revealed, the film dashes through his origin story at breakneck speed. In the course of one act we’re supposed to learn who he is and what he means to Cap, and even start sympathizing with him, and if that seems like a tall order, you ain’t wrong.

What they should have done, really, is just rename the damn film and save the reveal of Winter Soldier’s true identity, both to the audience and Cap, until the very end, and leave the fallout from the reveal for the already announce third movie so that it can be given the pacing and weight it deserves. As it is, it feels uncomfortably akin to Aaron Ekhart’s Two-Face transformation in The Dark Knight: truncated and unsatisfying, though without spoiling anything there will be room to flesh out his origin and character more later.

The exposition also comes fast and hard, often woven into the narrative with all the care and skill of someone playing Surgeon Simulator 2013 with their feet. Other supporting characters, like Emily Van Camp’s Agent 13, might as well not be in the movie at all for how marginalized they are.


Aside from that, the only real problem I can bring up is that the fight scene photography wavers between barely “acceptable” and “complete and utter arse”. Look, you’re trying to go for a Bourne thing, I get that, but that doesn’t mean you have to film it with a GoPro strapped to the head of a convulsing ostrich. Granted, this was probably made worse by the fact that I was exiled to the front two rows, but more often than not the hand to hand fight scenes were completely incomprehensible. The best fight in the whole movie is a brawl in the first few minutes between Cap and walk-on villain Batroc ze Lepair, played by local boy George St. Pierres. But Cap’s first proper fight with Winter Soldier was a bloody mess. The larger, effects laden stunt sequences and CGI set pieces fared much better, though, with Falcon’s scenes being a highlight.

But these problems aside, enough about the film worked for me to keep me thoroughly entertained through the entire run time. The chemistry between Chris Evans and his co-stars, particularly Anthony Mackie as Falcon and Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, is great, and the film is full of fantastic character moments and sharp back-and-forth dialogue. The fanboy-pleasing namedrops are plentiful and there’s tons of world-building crammed in, ranging from small references to major revelations and status-quo shifts. It’s also undoubtedly the best filmed wave two film by far, largely avoiding the occasional “TV-ish” look that hurt Iron Man 3 and Thor 2.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier isn’t without a few major problems, but for my money is still the most satisfying wave two Marvel movie so far, and may even end up as one of my favorites of the lot. For all its lofty aspirations of political intrigue, it never take itself too seriously, and isn’t afraid to throw something completely nuts in just for the fun of it once in a while.