Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

2017 #94
Jon Watts | 133 mins | cinema | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12A / PG-13

Spider-Man: Homecoming

This review contains spoilers for, like, everything.

When Marvel Studios began their grand experiment in revolutionising the Hollywood blockbuster landscape with Iron Man, I began my review with an hysterically funny (and totally under-appreciated) riff on the famous cheesy Spider-Man theme song, which was once buried at the end of the credits of a Spider-Man film as a joke. Nine years later, not only is Spider-Man joining the MCU, he’s doing so with the support of Iron Man — both in the film and in its marketing — and that cheesy song has been rendered in epic orchestral style to open the film. My, how times change.

This is the second big-screen reboot for the Spider-Man franchise, but Sony and new production partner Marvel Studios aren’t keen for us to dwell on that (because the last reboot being such an unpopular move is the reason this one’s happened). So, following this latest incarnation’s soft introduction in last year’s Captain America: Civil War, here we pick up where that left off. 15-year-old Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is now hanging out back in New York, dealing with normal high school things like homework, parties, and casual bullying, and being just a friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man by stopping bicycle thieves and giving old ladies directions. He waits for a call from Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) about their next big mission — a call that never comes. But when Spider-Man attempts to stop a bank robbery where the crooks are armed with suspiciously advanced tech, Peter finds himself on the trail of Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton), a former salvage worker who uses bits and pieces recovered from Avengers battles to build dangerous weapons that he sells to criminals.

He's some kind of... Bird... man...

MCU films are renowned for having a “villain problem” — their films’ antagonists are often little more than human MacGuffins; someone for the hero to punch in the third act after they’ve undergone their own journey. Recent films have sought to rectify that (Zemo in Civil War being perhaps the best example), and Homecoming continues the trend. It hasn’t gone full-on pre-Nolan Batman — this is still very much Spidey’s movie, most concerned with our hero’s psychology and his personal arc — but Toomes (aka the Vulture) is a more well-rounded character than most Marvel movie enemies. Indeed, he’s a pretty relatable figure he lost his livelihood due to government backroom deals forcing him out, since when he’s just tried to provide for the family he loves. In another version of this story, he’d be the hero.

Although he’s not afforded an abundance of screen time, this is where having an actor of Keaton’s calibre pays off, as he effortlessly sells both Toomes’ everyman humanity and his threatening villainous side. He gets an interesting final beat, too: locked up in prison, he refuses to give up Spider-Man’s identity to a fellow inmate. I’ve read some interpret this as being because he wants to kill Peter himself, but I don’t think that fits with the rest of his arc. I saw it as he’d been reformed by Peter saving his life and was doing him a favour. It wouldn’t be the first time he’d spared his life, after all. It could go either way I guess, but there are so many good Spidey villains who haven’t made it to the screen yet that I hope they don’t intend to waste a chunk of Homecoming 2 on reheating the Vulture.

It's mentor be

As everyone well knows by now (thanks to it being repeated ad infinitum in the previous Spidey movies), the catchphrase of the Spider-Man franchise is “with great power comes great responsibility”. However, it’s not said once in this film. Instead, it’s threaded through the very core of the film’s story and character arcs. It’s the lesson everyone comes to learn. It’s what Stark is trying to teach Peter by giving him a fancy suit with a lot of its special features disabled, and by discouraging him from biting off more than he can chew. When Peter gets himself in too deep, as he does repeatedly, it always comes close to costing innocent lives. It’s a lesson Stark learns too, though: he’s trying to be a mentor, a father figure, and do a better job of it than his own father did, but he still doesn’t set the right example for Peter — until, of course, he does.

That’s very much a subplot, though. Iron Man isn’t in the film as much as the trailers made some fear — this isn’t The Spider-Man and Iron Man Movie; indeed, that shot I’ve used for this post’s banner image isn’t even in the finished film. While Stark’s place as a mentor figure makes him important to our hero, this story is still all about Peter. Tom Holland is excellent, immensely likeable as both the socially awkward Peter Park and the wisecracking, overambitious Spider-Man. You want to hang out with him more, he’s such a nice guy. It’s also clear he’s got the acting chops to carry off some of the more emotional dilemmas and realisations that hit Peter. As I said, he goes through the arc of realising his powers come with responsibilities — to himself, his family, his friends, and the people he’s trying to protect — and Holland navigates that while making it look effortless.

Every superhero's gotta brood sometimes

It naturally brings Peter to a place that, when he’s finally offered one of the things he’s most wanted — membership of the Avengers — he turns it down because he’s not quite ready. That scene, with the modest hero and the gag about the journalists actually being there, is… kinda obvious, even if it’s a strong character moment. But it’s quite interesting on an extra textual level: as it stands, it’s a good setup for future Spidey solo movies, but we’re not getting another one of those until after the big two-part Avengers extravaganza is over and done. Kevin Feige has talked about this being a five-movie character arc for Spidey, implying he has a major role to play in those two Avengers flicks, even though he’s just turned down joining that team full time. Really, it’s nice they haven’t just used this film’s ending to set up / trail their next one, which has been another common MCU problem. Maybe the honchos at Marvel Studios are learning some lessons about power and responsibility too…

Further feeding into the focus on our hero, the movie spends a lot of time on Peter’s school life. All the “typical high school experience” stuff brings a different flavour to the Marvel universe; and, indeed, to Spider-Man movies, which have only passingly used it in previous incarnations. Although it’s ultimately used a bit repetitiously (Peter tries to attend something high-school-y; has to run off to be Spider-Man instead), what there is of it works nicely. Peter’s best friend, Ned (Jacob Batalon), drops neatly into the comedic sidekick role and is a very likeable presence. There’s a neat reconfiguring of Flash (The Grand Budapest Hotel’s Tony Revolori) from his usual depiction as a stock football jock into a kind of nerd-bully.

Class of 2017

There’s an attempt to add some depth to the object of Peter’s affections, Liz (Laura Harrier), in the third act, but she’s mainly called on to be beautiful, then sweet, then scared, then sweet again, so… Meanwhile, there’s the much-discussed casting of Zendaya (are we meant to know who she is? I don’t) as a character who isn’t Mary Jane Watson, honest, but who does like to be called MJ. She’s mainly there to be sarky, and is presumably in place to be used next time. The same might be said of Angourie Rice, who demonstrated her considerable talent in The Nice Guys but is here wasted as A.N. Other Schoolmate. Her character name is familiar from the comics, so hopefully they have future plans for her too.

Reading this review so far, you might be forgiven for thinking Homecoming was some kind of character drama. Not so, of course — there are plenty of the requisite blockbuster action scenes. I’ve seen criticism of them for being typically characterless Marvel fare, lacking in either distinctiveness or palpable stakes. While that’s not necessarily untrue of a couple of sequences, I think the Washington Monument sequence at least is mightily effective. I’m certainly looking forward to re-experiencing some of its dizzying heights in 3D when the Blu-ray comes out. The one I did find disappointing was the climax on the outside of the ‘invisible’ plane (“invisible” in the same way Die Another Day’s car was invisible, but executed a bit more realistically, so Homecoming isn’t getting the same degree of flak for it). Taking place in the night sky, aboard a vessel whose lighted surface is constantly flickering and changing, and with the requisite action-scene fast cutting, it was both too dark and too busy, the effect being just a blur of illuminations. I dunno, maybe that works better in 3D too…

Monumental action

And if we’re talking criticisms, I have to have a quick rant about how the trailers gave away the whole movie. Maybe I should be used to that by now — it seems to be happening a lot — but it’s still irritating. So, okay, Homecoming’s didn’t include everything — one pretty big twist was saved for the final film — but most (perhaps all?) of the best gags were included, and so many big scenes were featured that, at times, watching the full movie felt like working through a checklist of bits we’d seen. The most egregious was when it came to Peter failing at the ferry, then Tony taking his suit away, then Peter proving himself by rescuing the plane suit-less as the climax — that whole sequence of events easily deduced from the trailers. Yes, this is a fault of the marketing more than the film itself (or possibly of my brain having deconstructed the trailer and reconstructed it into a film), but it would be nice if the trailer editors could keep some stuff a bit more secret. It’s not as if there was a shortage of visually impressive action moments to hint at them without using significant chunks. And “Spider-Man tries to stop Vulture while Iron Man both mentors and ignores him” would’ve been fine for the plot. (Though, how much do you need to sell the story of a superhero blockbuster? Would “this famous character does cool things with superpowers” actually be adequate?) I’d like to say I’m going to start avoiding trailers in future, but I have no willpower; I just can’t resist.

Finally, a quick word on the post-credits scene. As I left the cinema after it, the usher commented, “isn’t that the worst credits scene ever?” Well, I can see his point — it’s frustrating to have waited around just for that. At the same time, that’s kind of its point. And its point is bang on: it perfectly described how all of these credits scenes feel to the viewer; or, at least, how they feel to me. They’re pretty much never worth it, are they? And if filmmakers think it actually makes people read the credits… well, I dunno about you, but I turn my phone on and update Letterboxd and check Twitter until the scene turns up.

Spider-American

Ultimately, Spider-Man’s first full-blown outing in the MCU is… an MCU movie. Oh, sure, they’ve made inroads to fixing things like their weak villains, but the general tone — the lightness, the humour, the hero-focus, the style of the action — is all MCU stock-in-trade. Fortunately, they’re good at what they do, and that means this is a very good blockbuster movie. It’s entertainment value is consistent and high. For me, it lacks the kind of iconicity that mark out Sam Raimi’s first two Spideys as foremost examples of superhero movies — although it’s not as wedded into the ever-developing MCU storyline as some of their other movies, it’s still Marvel Cinematic Universe Episode XVI, to an extent. But, eh, when it gets so much right, what does that matter?

4 out of 5

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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

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.

Avengers Confidential: Black Widow & Punisher (2014)

2015 #59
Kenichi Shimizu | 83 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA & Japan / English | 12 / PG-13

Avengers ConfidentialAnime take on Marvel properties. S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Black Widow teams up with vigilante Frank Castle, aka the Punisher, to investigate a threat to global security.

A clichéd, heavy-handed screenplay and stilted line delivery tell a rote story through talky exposition scenes and uninspired action sequences, with little joy to be found in the design or animation either. Some bigger-name Avengers turn up for the climax, but they’re a motley crew of random choices (Captain Marvel?), most of whom don’t even get any dialogue.

Marvel may own the live-action superhero arena right now, but DC remain the clear frontrunner in animation.

2 out of 5

Avengers Confidential featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw in 2015, which can be read in full 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.

Marvel One-Shot: All Hail the King (2014)

2014 #70
Drew Pearce | 14 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12

All Hail the KingPresently it looks as if Marvel’s burgeoning TV empire (as I write, seven distinct series are in the works) has taken over the kind of short-form storytelling that had previously been the preserve of these DVD/Blu-ray-debuting One-Shot short films; which, if true, will leave this as the last one. That’s a shame, both because they have such potential, and because I don’t think All Hail the King is a particular high.

Set sometime after the end of Iron Man 3, we catch up with ‘villain’ Trevor Slattery (Sir Ben Kingsley) to see how his prison life is going. As you might imagine from the chosen lead character, it’s primarily a comedy. Kingsley is surprisingly adept at this humorous role, but it’s a little rehash-y of the main film’s greatest hit(s). The best bits are fan service: placation for vocal critics of how Shane Black’s movie treated one of Iron Man’s more iconic foes, and a witty closing cameo (after the one in Agent Carter, that looks to become a signature move of these shorts).

As an entertaining and brief diversion, All Hail the King is fine if you have access to it, but not particularly worth seeking out. I doubt we’ll be getting a spin-off TV series this time.

3 out of 5

All Hail the King is available on the Blu-ray release of Thor: The Dark World.

Iron Man 2 (2010)

2011 #56
Jon Favreau | 125 mins | Blu-ray | 12 / PG-13

With Thor out a couple of weeks ago and Pirates of the Caribbean 4 just hitting cinemas, 2011’s blockbuster season is well and truly underway. While you all head out to the cinema and enjoy this year’s delights (or disasters), I intend to do some catching up on the tonne of stuff I’ve missed from the last year or two (or three, or more).

Starting, naturally, here…

Iron Man 2I’ve always contended that the first Iron Man film was overrated. That’s not to say it was a bad film — I gave it four stars and, having re-watched recently, I liked it even more — but I think it took critics and audiences by surprise and that led to a level of praise from both sets that was unduly high. It’s not unreasonable: who would’ve expected anything special from the movie adaptation of a B-list superhero, helmed by a low-recognition director, starring a one-time leading man just about on his comeback? When it turned out to be both fun and funny, I think people overreacted. I saw it later, after hearing all that praise, so I think (without wishing to sound immodest) my view was slightly more tempered.

It’s for similar reasons I think Iron Man 2 has been underrated — I would contend that it is, more or less, as good as the first film. That didn’t seem to be the consensus at the time of release, which ranged from mediocre to rubbish. I don’t agree at all — and, again, I think this is in part due to viewers’ expectations. When one thinks a first film is better than it is, expectations for the sequel are heightened; when said sequel is only as good as the first film really was, it looks a lot worse by comparison — it fails to reach the audience’s over-raised expectations.

That’s my take, anyway. This being a review, I shall now offer more thoughts on why I think it’s a good action-adventure flick.

Techy techFor starters, it relies on the story rather than the action. There are certainly some good sequences of the latter (more about those later), but there’s also a lot of story in between them — it’s not wall-to-wall explosions and punch-ups. Neither was the first, if you remember, and so it fits in that respect. It’s helped along by the ending of the first film, in which Tony Stark revealed he was Iron Man. That’s not something you do in superhero movies, which immediately lends this one a few new plot devices to play around with. Considering the burgeoning critical assessment that all superhero movies ever only tell the same two or three stories (an argument I think has a lot of validity), it’s nice to see anything to challenge the norm.

So does the reliance on technology. Yes, Batman uses kit rather than powers gifted via supernatural or ‘scientific’ means, but even Christopher Nolan’s real-world version of that character takes the tech as read and gets on with some moral-based superhero antics. Iron Man does less of the hero stuff (see again: fewer action sequences; also, Stark’s self-centred character) and indulges a little more in arms-race tech-development, a very plausible side effect of this superset being unveiled to the world. The development of the technology is as much part of this story as the genre-typical mental anguish of the hero(es) and/or villain(s), which, again, makes it a little different.

This time, Iron Man faces two enemies. A recipe for disaster, some would say — look at Batman & Robin or Spider-Man 3. That conveniently ignores Batman Returns or The Dark Knight though, doesn’t it. Here it works because they’re two notably different characters and they complement each other — Villainous Vankoit’s the Penguin and whover-Christopher-Walken’s-character-was rather than Mr Freeze and Poison Ivy, if you will. They play to different sides of the hero: one is fighting Stark, one Iron Man (though there is naturally crossover); though they’re both intelligent, one functions as the brains and the other as the brawn. Mickey Rourke may go slightly underused, but it’s also part of the character, a quiet, thoughtful, intelligent hulk partnered with Sam Rockwell’s jabbering wannabe-Stark.

Turning to the action sequences, I think they’re better all round than the first film’s efforts. Iron Man comes up against things that are his match, rather than just the occasional virtually-unopposed rescue of a third-world village or what have you. The climax is certainly better than that in the original. Iron Man 1‘s climax was a brief encounter lacking punch, literally; here we have a more advanced villain with some variety in his weapons — it makes for a more visually interesting affair. Both films have been criticised for being just robot-on-robot fights, the same fault that riddled Transformers. I disagree. In Transformers you couldn’t tell who was who; in both Iron Mans, you can — that’s kinda important. Sure, a non-robot-suited villain would make even more of a change, but I don’t think it hampers this finale too much.

I also wonder if some negative reaction stemmed from being shown too much in the trailers. I distinctly remember how underwhelming I found Wanted at the cinema because I felt like I’d seen it all; watched again later on Blu-ray, I enjoyed it a lot more. With Iron Man 2 I’m obviously distanced from trailers by a good year or so, and though one of their best moments is missing from the final cut, and the suitcase-suit is unavoidably spoilt by being so thoroughly screened during the promotion, watching now doesn’t have all the trailer-generated expectation to live up to. That famous Onion spoof about the first film’s trailer is, perhaps, even more applicable to the sequel.

Despite that cut I mentioned (the whole little sequence where Pepper throws Iron Man’s helmet out of the plane, for the interested; which, actually, would make a nice counterpoint to one of the final scenes — maybe that cut is a fail after all), other nice moments abound — Rhodey’s opening line, for instance, which acknowledges the change in cast member without harping on about it. Admittedly, however, there’s no comic highlight quite as memorable as the best bits from the first film, though I did laugh out loud plenty often throughout (when I was meant to, I hasten to add).

The greatest negative reaction, however, seemed to be reserved for one subplot: some called the film little more than a two-hour trailer for The Avengers. That’s unfair. Furious FuryAside from one unnecessary scene featuring Captain America’s shield and Agent Coulson leaving for New Mexico, and the fact that the film assumes everyone will know who Nick Fury is despite him being introduced fleetingly after the credits of the last film, the whole S.H.I.E.L.D./Avengers Initiative thing is worked into the plot well. If we didn’t know it was the beginning of the build-up to The Avengers, I think it would have sat much better with viewers. Even if it does end up blatantly laying the foundation for further stories, that’s hardly uncommon in franchise films of all kinds these days — at least we know this series will definitely pay it off, unlike so many franchise-wannabes that don’t make it past their first film. Plus, the film’s primary plot has its own villains and comes complete with a resolution; Fury, S.H.I.E.L.D. and co are a subplot that feed other subplots.

Naturally the film isn’t perfect — it’s a bit slow in the middle and some bits could stand to be chopped — but overall I think it stands up much better than the critical and audience consensus implied. While watching I kept waiting for it to turn sour; to suddenly see what everyone had moaned about. Halfway through the screen fades to black, then fades back up to introduce Nick Fury — “oh, here we go,” I thought, “everyone moaned about the Avengers stuff; this must be where the whole film goes south; and handily marked by that fade too” — but no, I kept on enjoying it. The clock kept ticking, it kept not getting bad.

I enjoyed Iron Man 2 more or less as much as I enjoyed Iron Man, and that’s rather a lot.

4 out of 5

Iron Man 2 begins on Sky Movies Premiere today at 3:45pm and 8pm, and is on every day at various times until Thursday 26th May.

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.