The Past Month on TV #35

In this month’s TV review: wah gwaan in Luke Cage season two, and “what’s going on?!” in Westworld’s finale.

Luke Cage  Season 2
Luke Cage season 2The ninth season of the MCU on Netflix takes us back to Harlem for the continuing adventures of the eponymous bulletproof black man. It’s hard to imagine a more timely superhero for America (maybe if he was an immigrant too), not that the series’ is actually all that concerned with such issues, aside from passing nods and references. Instead, it’s more of a gangster crime drama: the still-standing season one villains, underworld power couple Mariah and Shades, intend to go legit by selling their illegal gun business, using the profits to invest in social projects for Mariah’s beloved Harlem. Standing in their way is Bushmaster, a superpowered patois-speaking Jamaican gang leader, who has a long-held grudge against Mariah’s family — and he’s come for retribution.

This focus on the conflicts between the villains has led some critics to reckon that Luke Cage has been sidelined in his own show. That’s true to an extent: because we’re privy to Mariah, Shades, and Bushmaster cooking up and executing their separate schemes, Luke is left to kind of wander around, trying to figure out stuff we already know. At the very least, the series is as interested in its villains as in its heroes — I reckon if you totted it up, Luke and Marian’s screentime would be pretty comparable. On the bright side, this is a very character-driven season — it’s as concerned with who these people are and how they’re changed by events, rather than just the mechanics of the plot — and Luke is certainly no exception. For one, his estranged father is in town — a superbly nuanced turn from the late Reg E. Carney (who the season is dedicated to, appropriately), which lends a different perspective again.

Plus, picking up and running with a theme from the first season, Luke is now famous as “Harlem’s hero”, but this is going to his head a bit, negatively affecting his relationship with Claire. The series does a good job of reflecting the celebrity status of superheroes, something the other Marvel films and series haven’t really touched on. If these events were even vaguely real, there’s no way Luke Cage could hang out in Harlem without being noticed. So now there’s an app to track his whereabouts, merchandise, sponsorship offers, his actions make headlines, and wealthy fans are willing to pay for him to make personal appearances. Luke espouses an ambivalent relationship to all this: he’d rather it wasn’t happening, but it does have its uses — and those prove seductive.

Rulers of HarlemMike Colter remains a likeable lead, but, again, it’s a villain who steals the show: as Mariah, the brilliant Alfre Woodard is perhaps the best thing about the whole series. Her performance is consistently fantastic, selling every twist and turn of character the writers throw at her. The season is as much about what events do to her as it is about Luke. She isn’t entirely alone, though: there are plenty of great performances, and scenes to showcase them, throughout the season. Occasionally there are some really bloody terrible ones though, like the time detective Misty Knight and her captain argue loudly about a shared secret while they’re in a room full of other cops. Is that bad writing, bad acting, bad direction, or all of the above?

And sometimes the good stuff is spread a bit thin. There are points, especially midseason, where it feels so goddamn slow. Or maybe not slow, but long. Episodes seem to just keep going. One is called On and On, like some kind of joke at our expense. This is the case with so many of these streaming shows, though — most of them need more plot and/or tighter storytelling. I guess part of the problem is the 13-episode diktat, which presumably the showrunners have no say over. It’d be better if they could make the season the length it needed to be, rather than spin wheels to make it last as long as it has to. That said, most Luke Cage episodes use the full hour “time slot”, and a couple run over it, so if maybe they’ve kind of reclaimed the padding…

Talking of other shows, the last time we saw Luke Cage in Luke Cage he was headed off to jail, but he starts this season free as a bird. Oh, and another major character is missing an arm. MCU fans will know that, since the last season, The Defenders happened, in which we saw these major changes to these characters’ status quo. There are vague nods at explaining some of that for anyone who skipped the team-up miniseries, but, really, it assumes you’ve watched it; and that ‘issue’ crops up again later in the season, with a couple of guest appearances by characters from Iron Fist. If you’re not interested in any of the other Marvel/Netflix series and don’t want to invest eight hours to find out a couple of linking story points (because The Defenders’ main plot has nothing to do with Luke Cage’s storylines), then maybe you need to read a plot summary on Wikipedia or something.

Heroes for hireThe flip side to all that is that this interconnectedness will perhaps be comic book fans’ favourite thing about the show — the way it casually references other series, or suddenly brings their characters in for a guest spot, is just like how comic books operate. It’s pretty constant too: barely an episode goes by without a significant reference to or cameo appearance by someone from another Marvel/Netflix show; and these aren’t all mere Easter eggs, but sometimes quite important or vital pieces of plot or character development.

For all its variability, Luke Cage finds its groove as the season goes on, and the final few episodes feel like an improvement (though I’d still contend they’re longer than they need to be). It all builds to a finale that feels almost low-key — I mean, there’s war on the streets and a lot of minor characters die, but that’s almost incidental, because it’s all about the characters, their relationships to each other, and how those find (or fail to find) closure. No spoilers, but it ends in a really intriguing place for season three. That’s not been officially commissioned yet, but surely it’s inevitable. It’ll be interesting to see where they take things next.

Westworld  Season 2 Episodes 8-10
Riding into the sunset (metaphorically)And so Westworld’s sophomore run rides into the sunset, and I think it’s left behind more questions than answers.

When the show’s first season finally came to expose its secrets, there was a lot of oohing and ahhing — the twists and reveals, whether you’d guessed them or not, retroactively made a lot of sense, and suggested a good deal of cleverness on the part of the writers. Season two’s finale, on the other hand, seems to have been met with a collective “…huh?” Even plenty of people who enjoyed it confess to not understanding everything that was going on, while others have just given up at this point.

Personally, I’m somewhere in between. There’s a lot to like and admire about the closing hours of season two, not least the production values: the show looks fantastic, and the acting is top notch. But I won’t dismiss the argument that the writers have disappeared up their collective arse, because there’s a lot of tricksiness and jiggery-pokery going on here that is sometimes hard to unravel — a stark contrast to the end of season one, I think, which managed to make the games it had been playing clear. Perhaps in their bid to outwit Reddit users, Westworld’s second season seems to have been jumping through hoops merely to be cleverer than its viewers, and I’m not sure that’s paid off.

Dark DoloresExhibit A is the “Hale was Dolores all along” revelation. It’s a neat twist, almost up to season one levels, were it not undermined by the season’s own structure: Hale hasn’t been Dolores all along, and the muddled timelines make it hard to recall how many scenes we’ve had with “Halelores” (as the writers apparently dubbed her). In fact, one of the ways they hid her in plain sight was to limit her screen time: apparently she only popped up in episodes three and seven. Those scenes are littered with subtle clues to her identity, however, though I guess the Redditors missed them — probably because they couldn’t keep track of which timeline we were in either.

There’s so much else going on here that I don’t even know which bits to pick out. I guess that’s part of the problem: with so many conclusions saved up until the finale and then all stuffed in at once, there’s just too much to digest and process in one almighty hit. One of my long-held suspicions has definitely been confirmed though: despite the plot of the series’ movie inspiration, co-creator Jonathan Nolan isn’t really interested in making a thriller about a robot rebellion at a technologically-advanced theme park, but instead has set out to make Person of Interest 2.0, for good or ill. That’s only going to become more apparent next season, I think, which is set to leave the titular park behind entirely. It’ll be interesting to see how many viewers it takes along with it…

Things to Catch Up On
Preacher season 3This month, I have mostly been missing Preacher’s third season, which started this week. Well, I only watched the first two episodes of season two in the end, so I’m very far behind. There’s also another Marvel TV series, Cloak & Dagger (which is passingly referenced in Luke Cage, apparently). That’s releasing new episodes weekly (on Amazon Prime this side of the pond). So many of these weekly shows I now wait to be complete before I binge them, but then I don’t get round to it (cf. Star Trek: Discovery, Black Lightning, etc). Finally, I happened to spot there had been a French sci-fi series called Missions on BBC Four, just before it disappeared from iPlayer, so now I’ve got all of that downloaded too.

Next month… you know, I have no idea. I know it’s the summer, but there must be something coming up? Maybe I’ll finally take the chance to dig into my massive backlog.

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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.

Ant-Man (2015)

2015 #181
Peyton Reed | 117 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

The final film in ‘Phase Two’ of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is perhaps the most fun Marvel movie since Iron Man kicked off the whole shebang seven years ago.

It’s the story of a burglar, Scott Lang (Paul “he’ll always be Mike from Friends to me” Rudd), who is enlisted by ageing genius Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) to pilfer something from Pym’s old company, now controlled by his former protégé and villain-in-waiting Darren Cross (Corey Stoll). Pym discovered/created something called the Pym Particle, which changes the distance between atoms and allows objects and people to shrink or increase in size. He hid his dangerous technology from the world, but now Cross has developed his own version and is seeking to sell a weaponised version to the highest bidder — which naturally includes some very nefarious characters.

Marvel are currently fond of mixing “superhero” with “another genre” to produce their movies — which makes sense, given the standard two-or-three superhero narratives were already becoming played out by the time Iron Man came along, never mind in the raft of movies Marvel Studios have released since. Here, “superhero” is mixed with “heist movie”; more specifically, “heist comedy”. It’s superheroes by way of Ocean’s Eleven, basically. In the key position, you’ve got Lang in the Ant-Man suit, able to shrink, infiltrate places, and control ants to help him; but then he’s got a whole support team: Pym planning and overseeing; Pym’s daughter, Hope (Evangeline Lilly), the inside woman; and a gaggle of Lang’s criminal friends (Michael Peña, David Dastmalchian, Tip ‘T.I.’ Harris), brought in to help them hack security ‘n’ that.

Nonetheless, some have criticised the film for not being especially original. I mean, originality’s good ‘n’ all, but c’mon, what do you expect when you sit down to a superhero movie from the primary purveyor of superhero movies? Ant-Man may blend elements from a few other genres into the superhero mix, but, yeah, it’s a superhero movie that, at times, plays like a superhero movie — just like everything else Marvel Studios has produced (with the possible exception of Guardians of the Galaxy). If that’s not your thing, fine, but there’s nothing so spectacularly rote or generic about Ant-Man when compared to the rest of Marvel’s output that it deserves to be singled out. In fact, if anything, it has a higher dose of originality than its peers. And it doesn’t climax with a giant flying thing crashing to Earth, the first Marvel movie you can say that about for years.

Where the film really succeeds, however, is in being — as noted — fun. Sometimes the structure is a little wonky, sometimes the dialogue is a little off, sometimes it’s a little heavy on the exposition, sometimes this and sometimes that, but it never stops moving at a decent clip, is never too far away from a good laugh, and offers some strong action sequences too. The very nature of the titular heroes’ powers offers us something new. Okay, there have been plenty of shrinking movies before, but not like his. Macro photography and CGI have been used to great effect to bring us into his world, and the fact he can shrink and grow at will adds a real kick to fight scenes.

It remains tough to talk about Ant-Man without referencing The Edgar Wright Situation. I mean, you could ignore it, but then it becomes the elephant in the room. If you somehow missed it: writer-director Edgar Wright pitched Ant-Man to Marvel as a movie before Marvel Studios even existed, back in 2003, and had been developing it on and off ever since. The ideas he brought to the table — an action-adventure-comedy style, being a special effects extravaganza but with a lighthearted tone — influenced how the studio approached Iron Man and, consequently, the whole MCU. Nonetheless, Ant-Man wound up positioned as the 12th film in the studio’s slate, finally going into production after a decade of prep. Wright had a script almost finalised, he’d cast the film, a release date was set… and then he left due to “creative differences”. And the internet was on his side because Edgar Wright has made Spaced and Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz and Marvel are a studio and studios are always wrong.

The full extent of what these creative differences were hasn’t emerged yet, because it wasn’t that long ago (inevitably, they will one day), but it must’ve been pretty major to walk away from a project you’d been working on for so long and were so close to finally realising. Some reports say Wright wanted the film to be completely standalone, with absolutely no ties to the wider Marvel universe. I kind of hope there’s more to it than that, because while the final version of Ant-Man isn’t completely standalone, it’s one of Marvel’s less connected efforts. Okay, it references S.H.I.E.L.D., Hydra, and the Avengers, and there are cameo appearances by characters from other parts of the universe (including Lang having to fight an Avenger), but its story doesn’t feed directly from a previous MCU film, nor does it make setting up another one an inherent part of the plot. In short, it’s nicely connected — it’s definitely part of the universe — but you don’t need to know a great deal to enjoy it on its own.

After Wright left, the screenplay was rewritten by a host of scribes (far more than the two extra writers ultimately credited). Other things they’re responsible for include bulking up the supporting characters, especially Hope, which works pretty well, and Lang’s friend Luis (Michael Peña), which we should all be thankful for: Peña’s Luis is one of the best things in the movie, an enthusiastic motormouth who’s consistently entertaining whenever he’s on screen. He’s the standout from an ensemble that is generally strong, with Rudd proving a likeable lead and Douglas committing to the material in a way you wouldn’t necessarily expect an older actor to with ‘just a comic book movie’.

Would Edgar Wright’s Ant-Man have been better than Peyton Reed’s? We’ll never know. Well, one day we’ll have a good guess, because one day what changed will all come out. Wright still has a story and co-writer credit, so obviously a lot of his material survived. Nonetheless, the movie we’ve ended up with doesn’t feel like a compromised, homogenised, studio-controlled disaster. Chances are Wright could’ve brought greater visual and storytelling flair to proceedings, but Reed doesn’t do a bad job, especially when it comes to sequences in miniature. The final fight takes place on a children’s playset, doesn’t involve giant things falling epically out of the sky (is it the only Phase Two film to avoid that trope?), and is one of the best climaxes in the entire Marvel canon. Sometimes less really is more. Especially when “less” includes Thomas the Tank Engine. Whoever thought you’d see Thomas the Tank Engine in a Marvel movie?

I hope Ant-Man will be an important touchstone in what Marvel Studios do going forward. It proves smaller-scale adventures can work — not in the sense that it’s about a hero who shrinks to a few centimetres tall, but in that it’s a story focused on a couple of characters trying to steal something from a building and defeat one guy, not about saving an entire city or an entire planet. That doesn’t mean it’s a story that doesn’t have stakes, they’re just different stakes. It’s a refreshing change of pace at this point. It’s also pretty much standalone, with nice nods to the shared universe but without being dependent on other films (either before or to come) for its story. Guardians of the Galaxy did that too, but how many other recent Marvel movies is it true of? Even the highly-praised Winter Soldier is a long, long way from being immune to that fault.

Still, I doubt many people are going to call Ant-Man their favourite Marvel movie, although I think it might be the most pure fun I’ve had watching an MCU film since… well, ever. And I like fun.

4 out of 5

Ant-Man is available on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK now, and in the US from next week.

It placed 20th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2015, which can be read in full here.

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