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……

It’s generally accepted that film critics must maintain a high, if not absolute, degree of detachment and objectivity when evaluating a film. A critic, it is thought, must “leave their baggage at the door” and review a film dispassionately, not letting their personal biases, impressions or background influence their feelings on a film.

I think it’s a load of old bullshit, myself.

Granted, a film can be evaluated purely on its formal merits, and a degree of objective evaluation is possible, but the reason I prefer writing in the first person (and in my particular hyperbolic, snarky style) is that my impressions of a film are generally that: my impressions. If I like a film it’s just as often because it appealed to something of my personal taste or sensibilities as because I can appreciate it’s formal qualities objectively.

And while I do try to maintain a degree of this supposedly essential critical detachment, there are certain films that I know going in that I cannot be objective about. Films that I want to be good, that I want to like. Guardians of the Galaxy is one of these films, which means you should probably take it with a grain of salt large enough that Grand Admiral Thrawn is liable to fit it with a cloaking device and park it next to Coruscant (Christ, that’s an obscure reference, even for me) when I say that I loved it to little bitty bits.

Guardians posterAnd those who know a thing or two about my personal tastes should understand why, I mean a movie directed by a former Troma Studios writer about a guy who was abducted by aliens in the 1980s and went on to become a wannabe space adventurer, all the while endlessly listening to a mix tape of 70s classics? A movie that completely and utterly shirks any aspirations toward realism and high cinema with its crass humor, a gun-toting talking raccoon and more space opera adventure and excitement than has generally been seen on movie screens in bloody decades? Of course I’d want to like this movie, it might as well have been made for me!

But while I went in hoping that Guardians of the Galaxy would at the very least be good, imagine my delight when it turned out to be not just good, but great, and for reasons I wasn’t even expecting. By now much fuss has been made about the film’s action, comedy, likeable characters and direction laden with personality and charm by Director James Gunn. But what made Guardians connect with me more than any of that was how once in a while it would gently pull back the fun, jokey atmosphere and actually get serious for a moment.

Oh sure, most of the time things are all quips and wisecracks, but once in a while the facade will drop away and you’ll realize that that raccoon is dealing with some serious emotional trauma. The biggest example of this is, though, is Chris Pratt’s character Star Lord.

The film starts with a pretty serious emotional gut punch that, for very personal reasons, hit pretty close to home for me and made that personal connection even stronger. See, I told you, I’m biased. Guardians is one of these increasingly rare summer blockbusters that not only asks its audience to form a connection to the characters, but succeeds in doing so, and doesn’t feel phony or pandering with its attempts. That alone makes Guardians a triumph.

But on top of having more emotional chops than any other blockbuster on the, well…block, Guardians succeeds by just being fun. The action is crisply filmed and creatively executed, and cast in something other than the usual sci-fi colors of gunmetal gray and rusty brown. The soundtrack, as has already been talked about to death, doesn’t just do the usual thing of ape Hans Zimmer or John Williams, but uses actual songs to give mood and character to scenes.

The characters actually enjoy themselves from time to time rather than go through the whole thing with determined grimaces and heroic stoicism. There’s a sense of fun and enjoyment that permeates every single frame of the thing and makes it almost impossible to leave the theatre without a smile on your face.

Much of this comes from the cast, who all deliver excellent performances, and beyond obvious favorites like Vin Diesel’s Groot and Bradley Cooper’s future fan-favorite character Rocket, I found myself having far too much fun with supporting cast members like Yondu, played in full hillbilly glory by Michael Rooker.

Guardians Yondu

And no, it’s not perfect. The main villain, Ronan, isn’t exactly the most exciting bad guy ever. Another adversary using ill-defined bowers and legions of dull-looking footsoldiers to obtain the all-powerful cosmic mcguffin du jour, but he has enough presence and enough of a theatrical, operatic charm that puts him leagues above Thor: The Dark World‘s Malekith and whoever the fuck Guy Pearce was supposed to be in Iron Man 3. And sure, once in a while a delivery will feel a bit flat, but those moments are few and far between in a sea of fun, interesting performances.

But whatever scant flaws the film may have are vastly outweighed by everything I just adore it for. It feels fresh and dynamic, with real personality in its direction and some of the best sci-fi visuals in years. Everywhere that Man of Steel was drab, dull and joyless, Guardians is vibrant, exciting and utterly joyful.

But importantly, it doesn’t let that joyfulness keep it from trying (and succeeding) to have some emotional depth. And it’s that depth, more than anything else, that makes Guardians an absolute treasure, undoubtedly one of Marvel’s best films yet and so beautifully unlike any other blockbuster you’ve seen all year.

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.

I don’t think I’ve ever been as excited and as scared at the same time as I am for Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy. Not just because the movie so far has all the elements in place to be a flying touchdown of awesomeness that raises a jubilant middle finger to the notion that you just can’t translate some things to film, but because it could just as easily be an unholy disaster that completely validates that same notion.

No mistake, Guardians is Marvel’s riskiest project to date, not just because of the subject matter, but also because…who the fuck are the Guardians of the Galaxy? People say Iron Man was an obscure character before his own breakout movie, but there’s obscure and then there’s being obscure, and the Guardians are definitely that second, bolder one.

Even to casual comic fans, a cursory glance at the few pieces of art, production stills or that 30 seconds of glorious comic con footage you can find on YouTube if you look really hard often yields more confusion than anything else. Who are these people? What’s going on? Is that a raccoon?

Well, as always, consider me your tour guide to this strange new cinematic world about to be unleashed upon us like a cenobite on an unwary occult/S&M freak. Just how much director James Gunn has changed most of the characters that make up the world of Guardians is still largely unknown, but assuming they bear at least -some- resemblance to their comic counterparts, this helpful rundown should make things less confusing.

Star LordStar-Lord

Short version: Space adventurer with bitchin’ mask

Long version: Star-Lord, real name Peter Quill, was first introduced in the 1970s as a space-faring adventurer in the mold on Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon. A Human/Alien hybrid (though, for all intents and purposes, functionally human), Quill spent some time living the dream of bombing around space having daring space adventures and wooing the occasional space princess, before an encounter with a character called The Fallen (who would take waaaay too long to explain here) caused him to renounce the Star-Lord mantle and become imprisoned in a space jail called The Kyln.

Like almost every character in Guardians, Quill came back into the spotlight in the mid-2000s in a crossover event called Annihilation, Marvel’s successful attempt at relaunching the more space-centric side of its universe. After spending some time as plain ole Peter Quill, he finally re-assumed the name Star Lord, trading his original and pretty damn lame costume for a new, more military looking outfit and an awesome helmet/mask, only part of which is making it to the screen, because it’s apparently very necessary that we see Chris Pratt’s hair.

By all accounts, the film is playing Quill less as a daring space adventurer and more as a smart alec bumbler who -wants- to be a daring space adventurer, though hopefully not in a Lone Ranger or Green Hornet kind of way.

Drax the Destroyer

Short version: Muscle-y, green space man with a penchant for stabbing things

Long version: Ok, so remember that purple smiling guy at the end of Avengers? Ok, that guy’s Thanos, and the short version is he’s a big purple space despot. Not doing the long version on him. That’s basically half the damn column right there.

Drax was a normal human (with the much more boring name of Arthur Douglas) who, along with his family, was killed by Thanos and later remade into a being capable of killing Thanos by Thanos’ own father.

For reasons never properly explained, Drax got another makeover in the early 2000s, ditching his purple cape and skullcap for some knives and combat pants, because someone apparently saw Pitch Black and thought Marvel needed its own version of Riddick, just green and only marginally less interesting.


Short version: Sultry green space lady with a penchant for stabbing things

Long version: Gamora is the last surviving member of a species called the Zen Whoberi, taken in by Thanos and trained as his personal assassin after her race was exterminated by a species called The Badoon (or another group called the Universal Church of Truth, though that was later written out of continuity) and gaining the title of Deadliest Woman in the Galaxy.

Gamora actually has a fairly long and involved history, being a central player in writer Jim Starlin’s many space-centric Marvel comics in the 1970s and 80s, but like I keep saying we’re on limited time here. What you really need to know is that she’s basically Red Sonja in space, a sword-wielding, often skimpily dressed warrior princess type, who by the looks of things will be trading in the swords and swimsuits for much more sensible guns and outfits for the film.


Short version: Angry Space Tree. No, really.

Long version: Groot is actually the oldest character to appear in Guardians, originally appearing in 1960 as a villain in Tales to Astonish as The Monarch of Planet X, a fairly generic tree monster who menaced the Hulk once or twice before more or less being forgotten by everyone involved.

But, again, during the second Annihilation crossover event, Groot resurfaced as part of a covert commando team lead by Peter Quill, a team which would largely form the basis for the Guardians. For reasons that were never really explained, somewhere along the way Groot went from fairly eloquent to being mostly incapable of saying anything other than “I am Groot!” Vin Diesel recently signed up to voice Groot in the movie, though given that he’s played at least one mostly monosyllabic soft-hearted giant before, how varied his vocabulary will be in the film is still up in the air.

Making-of-Rocket-Raccoon-in-Marvels-Guardians-of-the-Galaxy-2014Rocket Raccoon

Short version: Gun toting space raccoon. No, really!

Long version: Rocket Raccoon, also called The Guardian of the Keystone Quadrant, is one of many genetically manipulated animals created as companions for the inmates of Halfworld, a colony planet partially used as a home for the mentally ill. Yeah, that’s his origin. He was basically created to be a small, fuzzy version of Nurse Ratched, but went on to serve as Halfworld’s sheriff before leaving to pursue a life as a space adventurer.

Alongside Groot, Rocket later reappeared as part of Peter Quill’s commando team during the second Annihilation crossover, proving himself to be a master tactician and heavy weapons expert. Ever play the Ratchet and Clank games? He’s like Ratchet, but with a personality more akin to Leonardo from the Ninja Turtles.

Rocket’s Origin will likely receive a huge overhaul for the movie, eliminating Halfworld and having Rockett be the result of someone else’s demented genetic tampering. But then again, director James Gunn has put crazier things on film, so you never know.