Age of Ultron, the review

avengers

So I went with some friends to see Avengers. We went full hog and saw it in 3D with excellent front and center seats. The screen curved around our location… so I had an optimal view of the action.

Yes, I have good friends.

Unlike most Hollywood ventures, I went in with high expectations. The original was a truly excellent movie. And so is about everything that Joss has set his stamp on in the Marvel franchise. As a matter of fact, everything the Marvel studio has put forward has an enviable track record for quality storytelling. There has been some sideline noise and nonsense that will be addressed on, but I’m mostly focusing on the work itself.

The first scene drew me in with a sense of deja vu, yet tinged with tension. Yes, we’ve seen this set before in previous movies, but there was more. The fight scenes were… different. I don’t know how someone watching this on a conventional screen would see it, but there was a fourth dimension to battle that I hadn’t noticed before. It stirred older memories, those of me reading this very sequence in the comics as a child. He’d captured them so well the panels they were based on flickered in my brain. The fight scenes were as punchy, smooth and vivid as if I’d imagined them. This is the best use of 3D technology I have ever seen. There was no color bleed, there was no gratuitous projectiles grazing the audience. Never the less, you felt a part of the action. Granted, I had the front and center seats of platonic ideal, but even in the back the framing was so perfect it was seamless.

Right away we introduce two new characters, and with a stab of your heart you realize they are villains. Yet you want to like them, you want to identify with them, even as they side with Hydra–, that is, nifty Nazi analogues. For a while I thought it was because of my fondness for Eastern Europeans, especially Croatians, but it was also the deft way the characters were defined through the way they used their abilities in the fight scenes themselves. Quicksilver and The Red Witch are fun both to watch both as an audience member and from the writer’s perspective, so much potential for harm, and trouble.

These storytelling assets were used powerfully throughout, and with deep seated plot based consequences. This is a bold, refreshing move. With mind altering characters, they most often come off as cosmetic, a bald excuse for character development that skims the surface of the plot, or as a diversion. Any similarity between a red herring and the Red Witch is entirely coincidental.

And this is not just the usual “beginning fight scene to whet your appetite and draw you in” either. This is a setup for a twist of the knife that directs the thrust of the entire rest of the film.

Because our mind meddling witch twists the perceptions of all of our heroes, and curses them with premonitions that reveal their darkest fears. The tone is prophetic. The results are devastating.

Stark is racked by self doubt, a convincing reversal of his cocky nature. Because of that nature, his introspection powers are… crippled.

Though Bruce Banner is stronger with introspection, he literally becomes his fears and destroys a neighborhood– and a building. Stark –with all his resources — can only stop him by literally dropping a skyscraper on him. I know you are screaming about spoilers at this point– but seeing how he does it is the real payoff. Trust me.
Stark taps on the fourth wall by proclaiming themselves mad scientists, and furthers his journey into dubious territory, by building the solution to “all our problems”… and quotes the great Quisling proclaiming “Peace in Our Time”. Those scare quotes should be scary. These troubling words echo the peace treaty undermined by Adolf Hitler. Funny how comic books are more culturally literate, yet tell better stories than many ‘sophisticated’ arthouse efforts.

The secret: Joss hasn’t forgotten that strong characters have to overcome difficult circumstances. They have to move past thwarted hopes, broken dreams, and tear free from some serious shit. The development of Black Widow through out the film, happily spurred on by meddling courtesy of the Red Witch. Her addition to the mosaic is a dark lace throughout the film. The flashes and implications of her history make La Femme Nikita – or even Dark Angel — look like a jaunt through happy land.

The effect on Captain America is subtle, but has strong implications for later movies. He becomes more introspective, less receptive to friendship from his compatriots, and gives up hope on ever finding love. Yet this is subtle background to the “Empire Strikes Back” of the Avengers canon. Like the original Empire, it is even better than the first film. Yet the film owes it’s stunning success to the effective build up from it’s predecessor.

We could not understand the mayhem or it’s consequences, or even the dramatic shift in Stark’s character– had we not had the previous movies giving us a clear picture of the limits of his introspection. The companionable bonding between him and Dr Hulk makes no sense without the tension they fought through earlier in series. Even Black Widow’s apparent insanity– falling for Hulk– is a dramatic non-sequitur had we not seen her flirting with Captain America. Indeed, it doesn’t make sense until we start thinking about the effect of her nightmare journey through her past, and remembering the path she was denied.

Though these choices, we start seeing the character of the Red Witch in stark relief, as a wounded shadow in the background of every hero. Between this and her playful banter with her beloved brother Quick Silver, we know she is not only likable, but disturbed. And this carries through to the end game, where we see her innate fragility that allows her to sniff out weakness behind the toughest exterior. Look out for the scene where we see a brilliant stroke from the only hero she did not damage– that affects her deeply, likely for movies to come.

For all that it is a wide ranging ensemble piece, Joss is very good at ensembles. This is tightly written, and not a single detail goes unused throughout. I haven’t even started on the movie’s namesake… who, as mostly a voice and a rendered CGI figure, whose skillful delivery and clever dialogue would have stolen the show in a lesser film. Though he did get close more than once. You won’t find a stereotypical, emotionless AI here. He is snarky, alternating hot and cold in stunning vivid fashion.

Even through crippling and betrayal, he manages to score one last gambit.

Despite plenty of foreshadowing it comes as a surprise. It gives plenty of scope for both kicking ass and heroics– and is utilized to it’s fullest. They do things that they would have only hinted at in any other film. The final fight scenes have the same 3D quality to them as the beginning, except on a grand scale. The action is so fast you are afraid to blink, lest you miss something. Each and every detail pulls you closer to a satisfying finish.

There is a bit of a hint at the end of the film, that I’m afraid only comic book nerds would get the reference… and I’m not one of those nerds. I did not follow the whole Marvel opus closely, and my access was sporadic at best.

One last bit I’d like to highlight is the development that goes into Hawkeye, that comes as a great surprise, even to fans of the comic books. Well, I hate to destroy the surprise, but, well, let’s just say you see him in his home environment. Had the timing been better, I would have snarked that Joss’s choices hinged on the popularity of American Sniper. Yet… it couldn’t have. The timing on production is literally impossible for this to be true. No, it is just Joss’s innate knowledge of character chemistry and delivering exactly what our pot of heroes needs to function. That is, a leader, someone who knows what they were fighting for, and came home to it when work lets him. You see that leadership shine in several beautiful and unexpected moments, but it is never contrived, or spelled out in a definitive scene. Also look for a surprising but pleasing quote from one of the greatest unsung feminine heroes in American History, Abigail Adams. Joss’ degree in Women’s studies has some meat.

The last thing to mention was the eminently likable scientist, and her girl crush on Thor, and how you desperately hope she’ll come back in a different film. She played a small but vital role in the mosaic. It would not hold together without it.

Oh, and I haven’t seen such great use of parties to build character since True Lies. The sort of drunken games that men and women play are used to great effect, and a surprising cameo leaks some nerdy goodness that refers back to the original comic source. It is even used to pull in some old friends in the form of side kicks, and adds a little tension and humor later on– in the middle of a fight scene.

Stay tuned.

Suffice to say, a cosmic Gauntlet has been thrown.

infinity-war

Speaking of gauntlets, I guess I have to talk about the Pyrrhic twitter barrage. Update: Not chased.

Joss is so not one of my political compatriots. Yet these women… can’t even wrong properly. Seriously. Why attack and devour one of their own? They call that a win? If they think they scored points in the culture war, well, let’s just say they were engaging in some deliberate friendly fire, just because.

Hell of a way to lose, mon cheri. Godspeed, and enjoy those ashes in your mouth. If this keeps up, those of us in the “leave me alone” contingent won’t have to fire a shot.

I have more to say. Same blog time, same blog topic.

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