Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

2018 #87
Anthony & Joe Russo | 149 mins | cinema | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 12A / PG-13

Avengers: Infinity War

People are incredibly wary of Infinity Wars spoilers right now — understandably — so here’s the deal: this review starts off completely spoiler-free, until a clearly-marked move into spoiler territory. Then the last paragraph (after the picture of Thanos and right above my star rating) is everyone-friendly again. Get it? Got it? Good.

Ironically, it’s actually quite easy to give a fair summary of the plot without spoiling anything that’s not already been teased in previous films: alien warlord Thanos (mocapped and voiced by Josh Brolin) is out to collect the six Infinity Stones, crystals from the birth of the universe with unique powers, which when amassed together will grant him ultimate power. Out to stop him is pretty much every hero introduced in the previous 18 MCU films.

I confess, I was all prepared for Infinity War to fail to live up to the hype and hyperbole of the reviews that have swarmed over the internet in the past few days, just like happened for me with Avengers Assemble six years ago. In this case, there’s so much going on, the experience is such a huge rush, that it’s almost hard to get your head around what to think of it. I don’t believe there’s ever been another movie quite like it — so many disparate primary heroes, all needing time, and facing a single huge villain, who also gets plenty of focus… Setting aside any of the usual quantifiable elements, reviewing the film comes down (as it really always should) to one simple question: did I enjoy it? Yes, I did.

Avengers (partially) assembled

Like the first Avengers, it’s certainly a great event of a movie — but more so, natch. It trades off that event status too: the stakes are huge, the pace and size relentless. It could’ve been like a Transformers movie — “a beginning, then AHHHHH! for another two hours or so”, as someone once described them — but thankfully it’s not so one note: as well as big action, there’s room for humour (plenty of that, it being a Marvel movie, but never ill-placed) and emotion (some affecting dramatic scenes, most of them too spoilersome to mention here).

It’s impressive to join together so many different sub-franchises and manage to create a consistent tone. In some respects it does feel like they’ve chopped up bits from the characters’ individual movies and spliced them together. The most striking for this is the entrance of the Guardians of the Galaxy, when the Russos cut so abruptly into those films’ style that it initially feels misjudged… though I guess a lot of people won’t mind because, hey, everyone loves the Guardians (my audience practically cheered with recognition — not at seeing the characters on screen, but at the very obvious stylistic shift just before they appear). But, across the movie as a whole, it gels well. I suppose some would counter this with “all Marvel films have the same formula and tone so obviously it works”, but that’s not wholly fair — The Winter Soldier and Thor: Ragnarok are hardly the same, are they?

Science meets magic

Whatever the cause, the big plus is that none of the characters ever feel inconsistent — you’ve not got funny people suddenly being serious, or serious people suddenly cracking one-liners, just to make it all fit together. On one level that’s just good character writing, but it’s also good story structure: which characters get teamed up together, because each group has a good mix to butt against each other in the right ways. That doesn’t mean every set has one Funny One, one Serious One, etc, because sometimes the film needs to be able to cut from The Serious Group to The Funny Group. Several reviews I’ve read talked about the film’s “surprising team-ups”. Well, maybe… if you haven’t watched any trailers or seen any posters. Whatever, they mostly work very well. Some characters are better served than others, which is inevitable in a film of this scope, but pretty much everyone gets at least a line or a moment. Who your personal favourites are might dictate whether you think the screen time was fairly allocated or not.

(Spoilers follow.)

Talking of other reviews, I read one that said that, while the film may be entertaining, it’s ultimately hollow because it has no major thematic throughline to explore. I disagree. It leans quite heavily into the question of “at what cost?” What is everyone prepared to sacrifice to achieve their end goal? Both the heroes and Thanos are presented with this question, again and again. Heck, it’s not only a major test for Thanos, it’s part of his origin story too! Now, you can argue about how well the film expounds on this theme, as you can with any work of art (In this case: several of our heroes make that ultimate sacrifice, only for it to be undone by plot necessity), but to say the theme isn’t there feels disingenuous.

Thor and Rabbit, off on a whirlwind adventure

With all of that accounted for, I don’t know what more could be asked of the movie, in some respects. That said, two fairly specific things bothered me. The bigger one was that we only witness Thanos collecting five of the six stones. Why not show us the lot? How he acquires his second stone makes for an effective opening scene — immediately killing off two well-liked characters, as well as defeating two of the MCU’s main heroes, quickly establishes Thanos’ power — but then how he got the first stone is just revealed in some exposition dialogue later on? C’mon, you can do better than that! The other was the random reappearance of the Red Skull, not seen since Phase One. I guess they felt in need of some kind of reveal at that point, but I’m not sure why. Does him being there even make sense? I don’t see how, but then I’ve not watched The First Avenger in the last six years so maybe I’ve just forgotten. They even had to get a sound-alike to do the voice, so clearly they felt it was vitally important!

Something I’ve previously written about being bothered by in movie franchises are two-part films. As a rule I prefer that, even when a pair of films are connected, they should function as finite units — think Back to the Future Part II and Part III, for example, or the link between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. Avengers 3 and 4 have an interesting history in this regard: originally announced as Parts 1 and 2, this was later changed to them having individual titles, to indicate they were two separate stories… but still connected, because the two films were shot back to back, and Avengers 4’s final title hasn’t been announced presumably because it’s an Infinity War spoiler. Nonetheless, some people seemed to interpret all this as meaning the two films would be completely standalone from each other, and are now annoyed at Marvel because, surprise surprise, there’s a cliffhanger.

Spider-Man, Spider-Man, does whatever a high-tech Iron Man-esque suit can

(I know I already gave a spoiler warning, but just in case you read on regardless: the paragraphs between now and the next photo give away, like, everything.)

So, here’s my take: obviously Infinity War is not entirely isolated from Avengers 4, but I don’t think this is a Kill Bill one-film-split-in-two situation either. Fans who now think the original Part 1 and 2 titles would’ve been apt are maybe taking too simplistic a view of story structure. I mean, look at it this way: it’s only half a movie to us because we know the Avengers are going to come back and win somehow; but if you’re Thanos — the film’s real protagonist, remember — then the story’s over: he did what he set out to do, the end. Maybe this is an academic distinction, but I do think it’s fair enough to have ditched the subtitles that implied it was one movie in two halves. This film tells a whole story (of Thanos trying to wipe out half the universe) and the next film will tell a new story set after it (presumably, how the Avengers try to undo that).

Either way, the film ends on a cliffhanger — a bloody huge one! But I have to wonder: is it actually too much? By that I mean: it has to be undone. Yes, obviously we know the heroes will win in the end, but none of those final deaths can stick. Even if you took Benedict Cumberbatch at his word that Doctor Strange 2 isn’t confirmed, and James Gunn at his that Guardians Vol.3 might feature a changed line-up, we know they need Peter back for Homecoming 2, T’Challa back for Black Panther 2, and so on. So if it has to be undone — if there have to be resurrections — well, why not also resurrect Loki, and Heimdall, and Gamora, and Vision, and anyone else who genuinely died earlier in the story? In fairness, in this I may be getting too far ahead — how the resurrections occur is absolutely a question for next time, after all. But it’ll have to be a very specific solution — one that undoes Thanos’ final act, but doesn’t undo all the ones that led up to it — to not just seem like a stereotypical death-doesn’t-matter superhero cop-out.

A final point on these deaths. I’m not sure I can actually remember everyone who lived and died during the wipe-out-half-the-universe finale (there were so many!), but I’m fairly certain they were mostly Phase Two and Three characters. I remember that Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, and Cap all definitely made it, anyway. My point is this: things are now set for Avengers 4 to really cap off the first 11 years and 22 films of the MCU by placing at its core the heroes who started it all. That’s quite neat, isn’t it? You’ve got to assume that’s deliberate.

Thanos

Avengers: Infinity War is like a massive comic book crossover rendered in live-action. You might think “of course it is”, but it’s not that long ago that this wouldn’t even have been possible (the CGI required is phenomenal), and even less time since it would’ve been considered profitable (remember when all superhero movies had to be “grounded”?) As much as it’s a familiar epic sci-fi action blockbuster, it’s also a new kind of thing to the big screen. There are pros and cons to turning that kind of narrative into a movie, but Infinity War is heavy on the former and relatively light on the latter. When it comes down to it, it’s just marvellous entertainment.

5 out of 5

Avengers: Infinity War is in cinemas everywhere (except Russia and China) now.
The fourth Avengers movie will be released this time next year.

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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.

Turtle Power: The Definitive History of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014)

2015 #159
Randall Lobb | 99 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | PG / PG

This informative documentary uses interviews with all the key players to tell the story of how a small indie comic, created incidentally and published almost on a whim, became a true cultural phenomenon.

And, despite how daft it all seemed (well, to adults — kids lapped it up), it really was huge. At first, co-creators Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird managed to scrape together enough money for a limited run of the first issue of the comic; three years later, it was outselling The Avengers, and they had deals for a toy line and animated TV series. Both of those were massive hits too… but it nearly ended after just five episodes and the first few action figures: toy manufacturer Playmates were so happy with the sales figures that they didn’t care about doing more. Seriously. Can you imagine that happening today? “We’ve made tonnes of money on this! Right, let’s stop it and think of something else.” It was the series’ producer who fought for more episodes, which must have made Playmates giddy with glee in the end: at its height, the toys shipped 100 million units a year, cited in the film as being probably the largest amount for a single toy line ever. I confess, I had a fair number of the toys; mainly early ones too, so there’s plenty of nostalgia-inducing focus on them here.

The film traces the story beyond that to the first live action film, which broke records for an independent production. There are some nice bits of behind-the-scenes trivia in this section, like how they shot dialogue scenes with the Turtles at 23fps, and action scenes at 22fps, so as to make the movements of the slightly-clunky suits crisper when played back at the regular 24fps. It’s around this point that the Turtles phenomenon began to wane, however, so it’s somewhere between a shame and unsurprising that the documentary stops shortly after — the sequel films were not very good and didn’t do very well, and it wasn’t long before the rights were sold on anyway, at which point the story of the creators’ relation to their creation essentially comes to a close. Is it right to gloss over this, or would it have been better to explore it in more detail? Both points of view have their merits, probably depending on how much nostalgia you hold for the property.

As for this documentary, it nonetheless finds an almost emotional conclusion with Eastman and Laird today talking about the chain of chance and coincidence that brought them together three decades ago to accidentally create something that transformed their lives, and which continues to endure in all kinds of media (no one liked that Michael Bay film, but it’s still getting a sequel; while the current animated series is apparently very good, for people who like that kind of thing). It makes for a surprisingly engrossing behind-the-scenes story, too.

4 out of 5

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.

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.

Monsters vs Aliens (2009)

2014 #21
Rob Letterman & Conrad Vernon | 84 mins* | download (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

Monsters vs AliensThere seems to be a certain brand of animated film that I think looks dreadful so avoid, then I hear good things about, so I try it and find that, actually, they are really good. There was How to Train Your Dragon, then Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, and now — yes, you guessed it — there’s Monsters vs Aliens.

On her wedding day, Susan is struck by meteorite whose contents causes her to grow to 50 feet tall. Seized by the government and renamed Ginormica, she’s taken to a special facility that houses an array of other creatures: B.O.B., an indestructible blob; Dr. Cockroach, a part-insect mad scientist; the Missing Link, a prehistoric fish-ape hybrid; and Insectosaurus, a skyscraper-sized grub. But when evil alien Gallaxhar arrives seeking the energy that gave Ginormica her powers, it’s realised the only way to combat his giant robots is by unleashing the monsters. Yes, it’s The Avengers with ’50s B-movie monsters.

If that doesn’t sound like a fun concept, you’re probably already on a hiding to nothing. It has a love and understanding of B-movies that should keep many a genre fan happy, suggesting it was created for them almost as much as its true audience, namely the same kids as… well, every other US animation. I suppose in that regard it’s a bit like The Incredibles, still one of the best superhero movies in any form.
Monster Squad
That’s a big comparison to make, but one I think Monsters vs Aliens can withstand more often than not. The climax is a little samey — why do all action-y kids CGI movies seem to have the same final act? — but before then it has a nice line in satirical humour, bold and broad characters, and even some quality action sequences. This is not a film where someone had an idea and coasted on it, but where they poured in a lot of love and elements you might not expect — see: satire, in an American kids’ movie! Not to mention the emotion you’ll get from a giant moth. I mean seriously…

Computer-animated kids movies are two-a-penny these days, meaning if it doesn’t have “Pixar” above its logo or a number at the end of its title, there’s a good chance it’ll be brushed off as “oh, another one”. (Of course, to get the aforementioned number on a title you need a successful unnumbered one first — like the other two films I mentioned in my introduction, for example.) There’s probably a lot of dross that’s being rightfully ignored, but some gems seem to have passed by with less fanfare than their enjoyment-value merits. Megamind is one that comes to mind; Monsters vs Aliens is another.

4 out of 5

* Full running time is 94 minutes. A saving of 10 is what you get for watching it in a PAL version (i.e. sped-up 4%) created for broadcast TV (i.e. hardly any credits). ^

Thor: The Dark World (2013)

2014 #70
Alan Taylor | 112 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Thor: The Dark WorldThor was one of the best surprises of Marvel’s Phase One for me: they took a character I had no interest in, and if anything thought seemed like a silly idea (what’s a Norse God got to do with superheroes?), and produced one of the first wave’s most entertaining and accomplished movies. They followed this up by turning the widely-acclaimed Avengers Assemble team-up into Thor 2 in all but name: sure, there’s plenty for all the other sub-franchises’ characters to do, but the major villain and cosmic scope are much closer to the events of Thor than any of the other lead-in films.

Cut to the real Thor 2, The Dark World, and there’s no small degree of expectation to live up to — not to mention that director Alan Taylor and the five credited writers (story by Don Payne and Robert Rodat, screenplay by Christopher L. Yost and Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely) are landed with the need to resolve plot threads left dangling by not one but two preceding films. What are the chances of them succeeding?

Mixed, as it turns out. When it works, The Dark World is exciting, inventive, and often genuinely hilarious. Placing most of the movie’s biggest laughs during its climactic battle — which already features a thrilling conceit in and of itself — makes the ending one of the best action sequences in the entire Marvel movie canon. Sometimes that climax is a long time coming, though, with a story that has so many disparate elements to juggle, you can be certain some have got lost in the mix. There’s hints of a love triangle, which disappears almost as soon as it begins; the rules of Loki’s green-tinged cloaking-y-thing are never expounded upon, meaning it can be whipped out whenever a cheap twist is required — indeed, it’s ultimately used once or twice too often.

Dark Who, Doctor ElvesGood will towards the participants counts for a lot, though. Tom Hiddleston’s Loki steals pretty much any scene he’s in, but Chris Hemsworth’s Thor is not an unlikeable hero, building further on the responsibility-and-honour story arc of the first film. Idris Elba also benefits from an expanded role, but others are less lucky: one of the Warriors Three is ditched as soon as we’re reacquainted with him; more criminally, Christopher Eccleston’s villain has nought to do but stomp around spouting exposition in a made-up language. Anyone could play that role, you don’t need an actor of Eccleston’s ability. Maybe something got cut (though it’s not in the Blu-ray’s deleted scenes), because I don’t see why else he’d’ve taken the part. Well, possibly the payday.

At the helm, Taylor was a late-in-the-day replacement for Monster director Patty Jenkins. Previously best known for TV’s Game of Thrones (as well as episodes of pretty much every other major HBO series), thanks to Marvel Taylor is now a Major Motion Picture Director: his next project is the Terminator reboot/prequel/whatever. He steps up to feature film level well enough, though the much-heralded “more grounded” Asgard he was supposed to be providing is little shown: we see a pub and a training area, and other than that there’s too much going on to linger in the one-realm-to-rule-them-all. In fact, we get a better look at the film’s Stonehenge-and-sunny-London version of England, where if you get arrested at Stonehenge you’re locked up in London. Ah, American movies.

Ooh, look at his hammerDespite the title, there’s much fun to be had with The Dark World. It can’t deliver on all of its aims — the equally-promised expansion of Thor and Jane’s relationship is equally sidelined — but there’s enough entertainment value to make it a worthwhile proposition. Perhaps the longer lead-in that the third film seems to be getting (there’s no announced slot for it among Marvel’s numerous future release dates, meaning it’s unlikely to arrive before 2017) will allow them to round everything out a little better.

4 out of 5

Thor: The Dark World is on Sky Movies Premiere from today at 4:15pm and 8pm.

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.