Captain America: Civil War (2016)

2016 #92
Anthony & Joe Russo | 147 mins | cinema | 2.35:1 | USA / English, German, Russian, Xhosa & Romanian | 12A / PG-13

This review contains spoilers.
(because, at this point, I’m not sure there’d be much point writing about it otherwise)

We’re now on to the 13th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and while you don’t need to have seen all 12 preceding movies to follow the events of Civil War, you do need at least four — and, to get everything, a further four or five beyond that. (Don’t worry about the four TV series — it’s increasingly clear that they’re only notionally connected to the movies.) So the Marvel model for a “shared universe” is not discrete stories that take place in the same world, but a series of ever-more-connected narratives. It’s working for them, though, as the continually stellar box office totals prove.

Ostensibly the third Captain America movie, Civil War is as much a sequel to Avengers: Age of Ultron as it is to The Winter Soldier: it throws us straight in to action with the new Avengers line-up established at the end of Ultron, as they battle what turns out to be a villain from Winter Soldier. As I said, ever-more-connected. This particular mission goes disastrously wrong, bringing to a head plans that the governments of the world had been cooking up for a while: the Sokovia Accords, a way to control the Avengers and give them some accountability. Team leader Steve Rogers / Captain America (Chris Evans) isn’t keen — he’s worried political interests will conflict with the Avengers’ ability to do good. Bankroller Tony Stark / Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) is on board, however — spooked by having created Ultron, and after being confronted by the mother of an American lad who died in Sokovia (because the Sokovian deaths didn’t matter enough, I guess), he thinks the Avengers need reining in. The burgeoning conflict is clarified when Rogers’ childhood friend Bucky Barnes, aka Soviet agent the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), emerges from hiding to attack the signing of the Accords — Rogers wants to save him; Stark needs to bring him in, dead or alive. As most of the other heroes we’ve met in the preceding 12 movies (not to mention a couple of new ones) pick sides, battle lines are drawn for an almighty clash.

As complicated as the plot sounds once you start trying to succinctly summarise it, Civil War is easy to follow as it unfurls. In fact, it’s to its credit that it can’t be readily summarised in any more detail than “Cap and Iron Man disagree; fight” without really getting into it. Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely have followed up the political thriller of Winter Soldier with another global thriller storyline, again bringing different genre textures to the superheroics that are nonetheless present and correct. The film’s style mixes in just the right amount of realism — no one’s pretending this isn’t a comic book movie, with some elements of comic book logic and a casual acceptance of people having world-changing powers; but if such people did exist, this is the kind of way they would be handled by the authorities.

So while Civil War does work as a popcorn-guzzling action spectacular, the themes it raises — primarily of how we oversee and control those who claim to protect us — are relevant to real life, if you want them to be. The film attempts to make it a genuine debate by placing Cap and Stark as the figureheads of each side. Sure, that’s borrowed from the original comic book storyline that inspired the film, but it works perfectly for the movies: Iron Man is the basis around which the whole MCU was originally built, while Captain America is almost its break out star, emerging from the mess of The First Avenger to become one of the shining lights of every film he’s starred in since, at least two of which commonly compete for the crown of the MCU’s best movie. So who better to place at the heart of the conflict? Who better to present viewers with a genuine choice?

Well, maybe. But the debate is partially stalled by the fact this is a Captain America movie rather than an Avengers one. Yeah, you can side with Tony Stark & co, but you know Cap’s going to come out to the good, one way or another. As it pans out, it’s not a total victory (Team Cap are all now fugitives, presumably until Infinity War), but, morally, Cap wins, and even Tony knows it. Would it have been better to frame the political/thematic issues in an Avengers movie, to make it a genuine contest? Maybe. It’s almost hard to imagine it divorced of this context now, and a lot of that context is Cap-based. The rest of the cast of The Avengers may be hanging around, but the narrative drive comes back to Steve and Bucky, a throughline that belongs to the Captain America trilogy. You can’t doubt that this is a Captain America film — tonally, it fits better with The Winter Soldier than Age of Ultron — even as it is, really, also an Avengers one.

If we’re talking about hero-vs-hero conflicts and movies that give you something to think about, it’s only fair that we drag this year’s other big silver screen superhero battle into the fray. There’s little doubt that Civil War is a more readily entertaining film than Batman v Superman, and clearly a more popular one, but it left me with less to think about. That’s not to say there isn’t thematic weight here — I’ve just spent a couple of paragraphs referring to its attempts to engage with such debates, after all — but I felt like the film kinda covers what there is to say. Maybe Batman v Superman leaves its issues more open; or maybe they’re less well conveyed; or maybe we struggle to read them into it because they’re not actually there. Whatever the truth, I came out of Zack Snyder’s movie with lots going on in my mind and wrote 2,500 words about it that contained half or less of my thoughts. I came out of Civil War thinking, “well that was fun.”

On that visceral level, there are a couple of stunning action sequences. The car/foot chase between Cap, Bucky and Black Panther is fantastic, casually throwing in cool moments like the way Bucky steals a motorbike. The climactic two-on-one fight is also a sight, throwing in strong choreography and seamless effects work to create a battle that has a real ebb and flow, a back and forth over who has the upper hand. And the centrepiece of it all, of course, is the two teams facing off at the airport. For fans of superheroes, this is pretty much the ultimate expression of the genre yet brought to live-action moviemaking. For my money, the antics of Ant-Man — and Giant-Man — are by and large (pun very much intended) the best bit of it, but maybe I’m just a little biased. Certainly, that everyone’s favourite webslinger is in the mix is the icing on the cake, and Tom Holland seems to have quickly nailed Spidey. Personally, I still find it a bit odd him turning up, especially in such a minor role. There’s still a slight sense that the MCU is made up of second/third-string heroes, who needed that shared universe to kickstart their big-screen life. Spidey most certainly does not need that… or didn’t before Sony effed it up with the last two movies, anyway. Maybe he does now.

And while I’m talking about Spider-Man, let’s talk about those post-credits scenes. Peter Parker is the star of the second one, and it’s Marvel Studio’s usual kind of tease, though perhaps less teasing than normal — “hey, remember that kid who was Spider-Man? He’s Spider-Man!” Thanks, guys. Before that, though, the mid-credits scene is a mid-credits scene for the sake of a mid-credits scene. By establishing where Bucky ends up, it’s surely an essential part of the overall narrative. Okay, it has the requisite teaser properties, hinting at where we might find Team Cap come the start of Avengers 3; and it teases Black Panther too, but only very, very mildly — like the Spidey scene, it’s basically saying, “hey, remember that foreign prince who was Black Panther? He lives in a foreign country… where he’s Black Panther!” Other than that, it’s kinda important to answer the question of “hey, what happened to Bucky?” next time Cap turns up. So why isn’t the scene just in the film? Well, it is in the film — just after a few of the credits — so what does it matter, right?

As I was saying — there’s plenty more action in the movie. Sadly, much of it falls foul of the dreaded ShakyCam. Watching Civil War just days after The Raid 2 made that especially frustrating. With all the time and effort they put into training actors these days, plus all the effects technology they have at their disposal to paint out wires or replace faces (something they’ve been able to do unnoticeably since Jurassic Park, for pity’s sake!), you’d think a $250 million movie could manage better. (If you’re wondering what they did spend $250 million on, it was stuff like, “eh, we may as well just use CGI for the close-ups, too”.)

One thing the film definitely gets right, in my view, is its villain. So central is the Cap/Iron Man conflict that it seemed any villain would be an afterthought, at best; and it doesn’t help that the MCU is renowned for having weak antagonists. Indeed, for most of the movie Zemo seems like the expected nonentity; a villain for the sake of a villain, who’s being seeded earlier in the film just so he doesn’t come completely out of nowhere at the climax. But then, when his whole story and plan is revealed, it turns out that all along he may have been one of the most interesting villains the MCU has yet offered. His motivation is simple but effective; his methodology cunning and almost successful — even after the heroes know what he was trying to get them to do, they do it anyway! His final scene with Black Panther may be the best part of the entire movie. Nice work, Daniel Brühl.

In the end, Civil War leaves plenty open for future Marvel movies. Well, of course it does — half the time MCU movies are feature-length trailers for the next MCU movie. Where Civil War is really clever, however, is that it does that stage-setting while also feeling conclusory. As the third part in the Captain America trilogy, it actually makes a pretty satisfying end to that narrative. As the third part in the “trilogy in five parts” that is The Avengers trilogy, well, it’s clearly not the end, but it’s a fairly discrete segment.

It may well also be the best MCU movie so far, too. There aren’t many 13th films that can say that.

4 out of 5

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Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

2015 #130
Joss Whedon | 141 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Avengers: Age of UltronIt feels kind of pointless reviewing Avengers: Age of Ultron, the written-and-directed-by Joss Whedon (and, infamously, reshaped-in-the-edit-by committee) follow-up to 2012’s “third most successful film of all time” mega-hit The Avengers Marvel’s The Avengers Avengers Assemble Marvel Avengers Assemble. In terms of consumer advice, you’re not going to watch this sequel without having seen the first, and therefore “more of the same (more or less)” will suffice for a review. In terms of a more analytical mindset… well, what is there to analyse, really? I’m not sure this movie has anything to say. “Of course it doesn’t, it’s a blockbuster,” you might counter, which I think is unfair to blockbusters. Not to this one, though. Nonetheless, I have a few thoughts I shall share regardless.

Firstly: Marvel’s initially-stated goal of keeping each of their film series separate enough that you don’t need to watch them all has clearly gone out the window by this point. Okay, you really needed a fair bit of knowledge from The First Avenger and Thor to fully understand Avengers Assemble (indeed, as I noted at the time, that first team-up movie is practically Thor 2), but I reckon you could get by without. In between, things have got worse: jumping from any of the pre-Avengers films to their post-Avengers sequel without viewing the team-up movie renders them semi-nonsensical, and now swathes of Age of Ultron make little sense without at least having seen Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which fundamentally shifted the status quo of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

That’s not all, though, because Age of Ultron is also concerned with setting up the future. Far from being self-contained, there’s heavy-handed set-up for Avengers 2.5: Civil War Captain America: Civil War, Thor: Ragnarok, and the two-part Avengers: Infinity War. Titular threatEven though the first half of that is still three years away, we’re still very much on the road to it. Heck, we have been practically since the MCU began, thanks to those frickin’ stones (if you don’t know already, don’t expect me to explain it to you), but now it’s overt as well as laid in fan-friendly easter eggs. The titular threat may rise and be put down within the confines of Age of Ultron’s near-two-and-a-half-hour running time, but no such kindness is afforded to the myriad subplots.

Said threat is Ultron, a sentient robot born of Tony Stark’s work, who seeks to make the world a better place by obliterating humanity. As played by James Spader, it seems like Whedon has created a villain in his own image. Oh sure, every character speaks a little bit Whedon-y, but Ultron’s speech pattern, syntax, tone, and sense of humour is often reminiscent of how Whedon himself sounds in interviews; and if you told me Spader was doing a Joss Whedon impression for the voice, I’d believe you. Considering the well-publicised behind-the-scenes wrangles the film went through, especially in post-production, it does make you wonder how conscious it was — Whedon casting himself as a villain with good intentions who’d like to destroy the Avengers. Something like that, anyway.

A behind-the-scenes story Marvel Studios are more keen to emphasise is how they did a lot of real-world-related stunts for real, like in the Seoul bike/truck/Quinjet chase, for instance (you know, the one where Black Widow is on the bike in the film but controversially not in the toy because of the “no girl toys!” rule). Behind-the-scenes features on the film’s Blu-ray detail the extent they want to in closing down real locations, performing dangerous or hard-to-achieve stunts, and so on and so forth. You have to wonder why they bothered, because there’s so much CGI all over the placeNo one wants to play with Scarlett Johansson (not just obvious stuff like the Hulk, but digital set extensions, fake location work, even modifying Stark’s normal Audi on a normal road because it was a future model that wasn’t physically built when filming) that stuff they genuinely did for real looks computer generated too. All that time, all that effort, all that epic logistical nightmare stuff like shutting down a capital city’s major roads for several days… and everyone’s going to assume some tech guys did it in an office, because that’s what it looks like. If you’re going to go to so much trouble to do it for real, make sure it still looks real by the time you get to the final cut. I’ll give you one specific example: Black Widow weaving through traffic on a motorbike in Seoul. I thought it was one of the film’s less-polished effects shots. Nope — done for real, and at great difficulty because it’s tough to pull off a fast-moving bike speeding through fast-moving cars. What a waste of effort!

Effort invested elsewhere has been better spent, however. For instance, this is a Joss Whedon movie, so we all know somebody has to die. Credit to Whedon, then, for investing in a thorough attempt at misdirection. He goes all-out to imply that (spoiler!) the bucket shall be kicked by Hawkeye: the archer has suddenly got a bigger role; we get to meet his family; every time there’s a montage and someone starts discussing sacrifice or the inevitability that they won’t all survive, it’s Barton who’s on screen; he’s the most sacrificeable Avenger anyway, the only one with neither his own movie nor fan demand for one; and Jeremy Renner’s dissatisfaction with the role he got in Avengers 1 has been well documented. If anything he goes too far in that direction — it’s so obvious Hawkeye’s for the chop that it’s not wholly surprising when there’s a ‘twist’ and (bigger spoiler!) the even-more-dispensable Pietro Maximoff (he apparently has just seven lines in the entire film) is the one who make The Ultimate Sacrifice. Which is… neither here nor there, really.

Double troubleThe really daft thing is, Whedon specifically added Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver… wait, are Marvel allowed to call them that? I forget. Anyway, Whedon added the Maximoff twins because, as he said himself, “their powers are very visually interesting. One of the problems I had on the first one was everybody basically had punchy powers.” I know Hawkeye’s power is more shoot-y than punchy, and we all know X-Men used the silver speedster even better, but still… Well, I guess it’s not his problem anymore. Nor is the fact the film ends with a radically new status quo, including most of the big-name heroes having sodded off to leave a 66%-replaced Avengers line-up… which will be completely shattered almost instantly in next year’s Captain America: Basically The Avengers 3. But hey, nothing lasts forever, right? Or even a whole movie, it would seem.

Other people’s opinions, and the expectations they foster, have a lot to answer for when you first watch these films months after release. I found the first Avengers to be massively overrated — only sporadically fun; not that funny; in places, really quite awkward, or even dull. I couldn’t really enjoy it; it just was. This sequel, on the other hand… isn’t underrated, but comes with so much negative, niggly baggage that, with lowered expectations, I was able to just enjoy it on a first viewing. I found it funnier than the first; I thought the characters and their relationships were smoother. It’s still flawed (the Thor arc is clearly bungled; the climax is too much; stuff they did for real, at great expense and difficulty, looks like CGI; and so on), but no more than the first one. I think people’s over-hyped memories make them think it’s worse than it is by comparison. Then again, there’s no accounting for taste — there are definitely things people have criticised about the movie (the level and style of humour; the focus given to Hawkeye) that were actually among my favourite parts.

Some assembly requiredAt the end of the day, what does it matter? Age of Ultron isn’t so remarkably good — nor did it go down so remarkably poorly — that it deserves a reevaluation someday. It just is what it is: an overstuffed superhero epic, which has too much to do to be able to compete with its comparatively-simple contributing films on quality grounds, but is entertaining enough as fast-food cinema. Blockbusterdom certainly has worse experiences to offer.

4 out of 5

Avengers: Age of Ultron is on Sky Movies Premiere from Boxing Day.

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

Next Avengers: Heroes of Tomorrow (2008)

2014 #50
Jay Oliva | 75 mins | DVD | 1.78:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

Next Avengers: Heroes of TomorrowNo, not the ’70s spy-fi series The New Avengers (is there no way for Marvel’s superheroes to avoid sounding like that franchise?), nor the sequel to the third highest grossing film of all time (but you knew that), this direct-to-DVD animated movie follows in the footsteps of the two Ultimate Avengers animated movies (though not in the same continuity… I don’t think…), and concerns… the children of the Avengers! How kids’ TV can you get, eh?

So, there’s the son of Captain America and Black Widow; the daughter of Thor and Sif; the son of Hank Pym and Wasp; the son of Hawkeye and Mockingbird; and the son of Black Panther. (Aside: in the live-action movie universe, 100% of those men have or will soon appear; only 50% of the women, though.) These kids must work with the still-living members of the original Avengers to fight… Ultron, the villain of this summer’s Live-Action Avengers 2! (Do you ever feel like the Marvel universe goes round in circles? I suppose that’s not fair — DC does it too.)

I’m being snarky but, actually, this oh-so-childish-seeming cartoon is surprisingly good. Sure, the animation and voice acting is all very ’00s Saturday morning kids’ cartoon, but there’s a moderately solid story in there, and some great new characters. Well, some good interpretations of old characters, and one great new character: Thor’s daughter, Torunn. Her character arc is a good’un, and teen voice actress Brenna O’Brien does good work with her too.

Torunn, James, AzariThe rest of the new characters are largely fine, and while they’re clearly grounded in their parents’ personalities, they’re not just carbon copies — Cap’s son James is less worthy than his father, for instance; Black Panther’s son Azari is less elbows-out; and so on. Though Hawkeye Jr. is a little skeevy… Writer Christopher Yost has done a fair job of crafting realistic-enough kids, and in an era when superheroes seem to spend more time fighting amongst themselves than they do against villains, it’s nice that this team largely get on — though not in an overly-rosy “it’s all happy families” way, thankfully.

As for Ultron, they’ve modified his creation story: he was now built by Tony Stark. That’s where they’re going with it in Avengers 2, funnily enough. It gets hardcore fanboys in a tizzy, but clearly it makes far more sense that the inventor of Iron Man would also create a sentient robot (that does look a little bit like Iron Man, kinda) than that the inventor of a miniaturisation suit would.

It’s quite nice to see a new set of characters and a new ‘world’ within a familiar universe — it feels less re-hash-y than the comics and the longer-running movie franchises can. Rage of UltronCoupled with a good plot, which keeps moving and developing rather than setting up one threat and meandering along until a big fight, as well as a few cameos and maybe even surprises along the way, Next Avengers is the kind of movie you expect to be pretty awful kids-only dross, but turns out to actually be pretty darn good.

4 out of 5

Avengers: Age of Ultron is out in the UK tomorrow.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

2014 #109
Anthony & Joe Russo | 136 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Captain America: The Winter SoldierAfter the dullest, messiest movie of their first phase, and his goody-two-shoes depiction in The Avengers, Marvel finally nailed Captain America earlier this year with his second solo outing. Sadly, it’s still undermined by its share of niggles.

The Winter Soldier picks up two years after the Avengers assembled, with man-out-of-time Steve Rogers, aka Captain America (Chris Evans), a fully-fledged member of Team America: World Police S.H.I.E.L.D., working alongside Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) to run all kinds of black ops missions. But when the life of director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) is threatened by a mysterious assassin known only as the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), Cap begins to uncover a massive conspiracy of nefarious nastiness…

To say much more would be spoilerific, though chances are you’ve heard what happens even if you haven’t seen the film, because it’s had major implications for much of the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Still, I’ll assume you don’t know, just in case.

That said, the problem with Marvel’s massive shared universe (where the events of one film impact not only on future films but tie-in TV series, etc) is that, watching Cap 2 just seven months after its release, the film already feels like very old news. It was dissected into the ground by bloggers and commentators while it was still in cinemas; it had a huge effect on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which by now has rolled past it into new territory; and it feels like Friendly argumenteverybody moved on to being more excited about Marvel’s end-of-summer new-franchise-launcher, Guardians of the Galaxy. Cap 2 still has things to offer as a standalone film, but watching it now feels like watching a press conference after you’ve read a summary of the key points: there’s probably something to be gained from experiencing the whole thing, but it’s also like a slow-paced unveiling of surprises you already know.

It’s probably best to put aside the parts of Winter Soldier that have an impact beyond the film itself and just focus on it being a story in its own right, then. They promised us a ’70s-style conspiracy thriller, and there’s some of that DNA in there, although it’s been cleverly reworked to fit the slick CGI-filled world of the modern epic action blockbuster. So the conspiracy plot is actually not too complex, but there’s enough of it to give the film a different flavour. Many bonus points are earnt for trying to do more things with superhero narratives. It’s been widely noted that there are only about three or four superhero plotlines (and that’s if we’re being generous), so it’s good for Marvel — who are currently churning out two superheroic movies a year, and before long will be upping that to three — to be bringing something new to the table.

The style of story also becomes the springboard for a different tone to the action sequences: grounded, almost gritty, with practical effects and stuntwork — it could almost be a Bourne movie rather than a superhero one. They even manage to take a minor and silly Marvel villain, Batroc the Leaper, and turn him into a cool and worthwhile adversary. Until the climax, anyway, which is your usual CGI blow-out — an increasingly familiar pattern for Marvel films (and one we’ll come to again soon in Guardians of the Galaxy).

Fully-formed FalconAlso introduced is sidekick hero the Falcon (Anthony Mackie), who I have little to say about directly. He’s a sidekick who’s introduced fully-formed — he’s been using his ‘superpower’ for years as just part of the military; it’s not new or exciting to him, which lessens some of its power for the viewer too. “Origin story” may be the most over-used of all the superhero stock stories, but there’s a reason for that. If you skip it then you cut to the chase, that’s true, but does it also lessen the impact of characters to not see how they started? Maybe storytellers just need to come up with fresh ways of giving origins, rather than skipping them altogether.

Despite his presence in the title, the Winter Soldier also has a fairly small part to play in the final mix. He’s a henchman, not the main villain — but he’s an important character in the comics, so naming the film after him is really a signal to fans. Unfortunately, the Big Reveal of who he is has been a little bungled: comic book fans already know, so it doesn’t matter to them; and the element it ties back to in The First Avenger was so throwaway that casual viewers aren’t going to remember it. The Winter Soldier does its best to retrospectively big up the necessary elements, with callbacks to the first film and new flashbacks to bolster relationships. Whether it’s too little too late is perhaps a matter of personal preference.

Talking of that shared universe again — well, it’s hard to avoid, because Winter Soldier is every inch grounded in what has come before and what will come after. Mackie described the film as “Avengers 1.5”, and that’s pretty true. It picks up on events and characters from both The First Avenger and The Avengers, some of which have very significant roles to play in the film’s own storyline; Who is the Winter Soldier?and then it refuses to wrap everything up, putting certain things in place ready for Age of Ultron and leaving still other doors open for Cap 3 — including the bloody Winter Soldier, despite his name being in the title! Goodness knows when or how they’re going to deal with that, considering the next Cap film is based on another highly significant comic book story arc, Civil War.

For me, however, the way it ties in to and impacts on the wider Marvel universe is when the film is at its weakest. There’s a benefit in utilising our relationships to these characters for emotional or dramatic effect, and at times it does that well, but when it’s raising more questions than answers, and when it can’t even complete the storyline that’s in its own title, is that a good thing? This isn’t part of a TV series, it’s a movie — is it so much to ask for a complete experience, one that builds on previous movies and has teases for the future (if it must), rather than just the latest segment of an apparently-never-ending story? Marvel’s shared universe is turning out to not be a group of films which happen to feature the same characters crossing over, but ones where the status quo between a film and its own sequel can be completely changed by events in a ‘separate’ series. Is that OK? It seems to work for them, and many people are getting a great amount of enjoyment from spotting the links and piecing together the arcing stories, so I guess it is.

The audacity of certain twists, plus the unusualness (for a superhero movie) and quality of the action sequences, is likely responsible for the massively positive reception that greeted The Winter Soldier on its cinematic release. With the surprise value of the former removed, and arguably exposed as just another round of questions to be answered in future instalments, Captain America re-Bournewhat’s left? There is strong action, albeit undermined by muddled character investment; and there is an interesting thriller/conspiracy story, albeit undermined by a feeling of “once you know it, you know it” — it’s not all that complicated or all that surprising, including the revelation that the one character significant enough to be behind it all is behind it all (gasp!)

Believe it or not, I did quite like The Winter Soldier while I was watching it; but the more I write, the more it frustrates me. There’s undoubtedly some quality filmmaking here (as far as superhero blockbusters go — it’s never going to please a sniffy cineaste), so perhaps I need to stop getting so hung up on its connections to other films. Or perhaps Marvel need to stop tying all their movies so tightly together. There’s surely a reason this doesn’t have a number in the title — it’s meant to be Captain America vs. the Winter Soldier, not Marvel’s Avengers Universe: Episode 9. But, however many borderline-unique elements it’s at pains to include, the latter is what it is.

4 out of 5

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is on Sky Movies from Boxing Day.

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2014. Read more here.

Ultimate Avengers II (2006)

aka Ultimate Avengers 2: Rise of the Panther

2008 #83
Will Meugniot & Richard Sebast | 70 mins | DVD | 12 / PG-13

Ultimate Avengers IISome things in life baffle me. Form dictates I now list a couple of humorous examples, but we’ll skip that and get to the point: why would you make a direct-to-DVD movie that has a subtitle on the box but not on the film itself? I can understand why titles get tweaked on cinema-release posters and/or subsequent DVD releases — for marketing purposes, say; or clarity — but why, when your title is going direct to the DVD stage, do the titles not match? And why does the box add the subtitle rather than remove it for on-shelf simplicity? I have no answers — it baffles me, remember — but this is the sort of thing I sometimes muse about. The sort of thing that most other people don’t even notice, never mind care about.

Insignificant title issues aside, the fact that (as of writing) 2,365 people have bothered to rate the first Ultimate Avengers on IMDb, while only 1,325 have bothered to rate this second, suggests many were so disappointed by the initial film they didn’t bother with the sequel. Which is something of a shame, because it’s a lot better. Problematically, it’s heavily grounded in the first, picking up several threads that were left hanging — enough so as to make that weak franchise opener required viewing, sadly.

Why’s it better? We’ll get the obvious out of the way: yes, it’s a modern genre sequel, so yes, it’s ‘darker’. In this case that means “more adult”, touching on issues you might not expect in superhero animation with such a low certificate — marital problems, survivor’s guilt, political isolationism, even vague allusions to alcoholism. None are dealt with in any great depth I should add, but it will likely please adult fans wishing for something more “grown-up”. There’s also a greater amount of violence, though much of it is implied, or just off screen, or against bug-like aliens. The animation still isn’t great, though at times seems improved. Equally, while both script and story are better — there’s no pace issue this time — there’s still plenty of clanging dialogue, and the adult subplots aren’t exactly subtly executed.

The climax also has its share of flaws. While most of the story is nicely balanced, it’s over-efficient in wrapping up, in the way that only animation seems allowed to be — for whatever reason, this exact story would comfortably fill a two-hour live-action version. The worst effect of this is that some points aren’t treated with their deserved weight — the death of a major character is so hasty and glossed over that I didn’t even realise it had happened until a brief shot of a memorial in the closing scene. On a less pressing note, the giant alien robots of the final battle leave the film just one leg (per robot) away from becoming a total War of the Worlds rip-off. But this tale is of American origin, so the aliens are defeated not by a clever plot twist, but by brute force.

Despite my attention to the film’s weak points there’s actually plenty to enjoy here, provided animated superhero movies are your thing. There’s more action than the first instalment, a more interesting story, more character development… Even if it’s done at quite a basic level it’s still adequately entertaining, enough that you might wish there was a third. An improvement then, if still flawed, but — ultimately — enjoyable.

4 out of 5

For my review of the first Ultimate Avengers, please look here. Live-action sequel Avengers: Age of Ultron is in UK cinemas from this Thursday, 23rd April 2015.

Ultimate Avengers (2006)

2008 #82
Curt Geda & Steven E. Gordon | 68 mins | DVD | PG / PG-13

Ultimate AvengersWith the big-screen live-action Avengers movie on its way in just two-and-a-half years — once we’ve had a variety of tie-ins to lead into it, of course — now seemed as good a time as any to check out this direct-to-DVD animated version (and its sequel).

I won’t say too much about the plot because, if the rumours are true, the live action film may follow it fairly closely — indeed, the first 15 minutes of Ultimate Avengers presents a roll call of elements already introduced in this summer’s Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk: the Avengers Initiative, a super solider serum, a black Nick Fury, Captain America frozen in ice (OK, so that was only in a deleted scene…) But to follow this story wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing… as long as there were some tweaks.

The primary problem is balance. Ultimate Avengers spends the entire first half assembling the team, the story crawling along at a snail’s pace; consequently, there’s nothing like enough time to do the remaining plot justice, leaving much of it to feel rushed. However, the tale itself retains an appropriately comic-book feel — no surprise considering it’s adapted from a specific storyline — while still containing just about enough information to keep newcomers covered. Were it properly paced, and bolstered by the main characters being introduced in their own films, there’s no real reason this wouldn’t suffice in live action.

On the other hand, in its current incarnation it’s very much Captain America’s story — possibly a problem for the 2011 version, as it will follow Cap’s debut feature by just two months. If his solo outing isn’t a success — particularly if whoever plays him is no good — it would likely sink an Avengers movie that was as focused on him as this. Not encumbered with such problems here it works fine, though it’s disappointing how little we see of other major players — Tony Stark/Iron Man barely features and there’s even less of Thor. That said, Bruce Banner/Hulk gets a key subplot which could be even better if fully developed.

Dodging further predictive comparisons for a moment, the animation quality is variable. Some is very good — mainly the opening World War II-set action sequence — but most is no better than you’d expect from a kid’s TV cartoon (unless they’ve got even worse recently). It does the job adequately, but there’s little exemplary. If there’s a theme emerging it’s this: promise is shown, but not fully realised. That’s not the fault of the medium of course, but rather the brief running time and unbalanced structure.

When the live-action Avengers reaches our screens, I suspect this animated outing will be of greater interest — an intriguing point of comparison between a direct-to-DVD fan-aimed version and a Summer Blockbuster mass audience version of (possibly) the same story. Of course, by that point, Ultimate Avengers will be half a decade old and no longer such a contemporary — or memorable — example.

3 out of 5

Ultimate Avengers II will be reviewed tomorrow, Tuesday 21st April 2015. Live-action sequel Avengers: Age of Ultron is in UK cinemas from Thursday 23rd.