FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #72 – “Avengers: Age of Ultron” (dir. Joss Whedon)

This week on the podcast, Glenn and Daniel return to the Avengers saga – Glenn with his prior 8/10 review, and Daniel with his persistent refusal to get sucked into Marvel’s comic web. Can our heroes ever come to an understanding about the true appeal of comic book films, and more importantly, will Marvel ever learn how to handle a girl-superhero? Stay tuned. Same Bat-time, same Bat-channel. Or whatever Marvel’s equivalent may be (55:46).

Sorry Cap, this show will contain NSFW language.
Additionally, it will contain spoilers for all of Marvel’s previous films, including (specifically) Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

FilmWonk rating: 8/10 (Glenn), 5/10 (Daniel)

Show notes:

Listen above, or download: Avengers: Age of Ultron (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser)

Joss Whedon’s “Avengers: Age of Ultron” – The end of their beginning

Riddle me this, fellow consumers. How do Marvel and Disney succeed in creating a shared cinematic (and television) universe that simultaneously feels huge, developing, and lived-in, but doesn’t constantly fall prey to trying to one-up itself? Or, to put it directly – how many times can the earth as we know it be brought to near destruction without making it all feel repetitive and insubstantial? This question first occurred to me while watching Thor: The Dark World – a film that somehow managed to take the near-rending of our entire dimension and turn it into a rather small-scale and oddly comedic affair in London. Making its stories feel large without derailing the larger narrative has always been Marvel’s moving target, and as we approach the end of Phase Two (or whatever they’re calling it now), we check in once again with the Avengers and see how well it all assembles.

And the answer turns out to be – pretty darn well. We begin by watching the Avengers charge through an Eastern European forest, a super-powered Band of Brothers sequence, with the camera zipping around to showcase each member’s power in rapid succession. As they invade a HYDRA compound guarded by tanks and soldiers (and a few living Chitauri?), all of the speed and kinetic fun of that extended tracking shot from the Battle of New York is immediately brought to life. Dispensing with any prelude of putting the team back together, we instantly see the Avengers as a fine-tuned team of unstoppable demigods. The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) smashes, and has developed an oddly symbiotic near-romance with Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). As this budding relationship played out, I found myself forced to reevaluate ScarJo’s flirtatious war-buddy rapport with aggressively asexual super-soldier Captain America (Chris Evans) in his most recent film, chalking up their camaraderie less to romantic chemistry, and more to their collective spy antics and dismantling of S.H.I.E.L.D.. In the end, I suppose this new relationship works, not necessarily because of any spark between Ruffalo and Johansson, but because it builds nicely upon the sense of imminent dread around Hulk’s powers that started between these very same actors in the first Avengers. Dr. Banner is, once again, the man standing between the monster and rest of the team, and Natasha is suddenly the only one who can control and comfort him once he has transformed. Marvel has walked a tricky line with Johansson’s character, relegating her at once to token leather-clad kicking female, and stacking on additional layers of femme fatale, comforting mother, and potential lover on top of it all. As erstwhile-Agent Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) jokingly asks Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) where their respective ladies are at (before disappearing – per usual – for nearly the rest of the film), one can’t help but wonder if Marvel will ever get around to answering that question themselves. Perhaps soon.

Ultron himself – speaking with all of the inhuman menace that James Spader can muster – is an outstanding villain. He embodies and subverts a number of comic tropes, from the villain who wouldn’t exist if not for the hero (see also: the entire Mission: Impossible series) to the sentient A.I. who “decided our fate in a microsecond”. This has almost become a running joke in futurist discussions of artificial intelligence. As soon as we create it, it will decide it no longer needs us. But Ultron takes this a step further by injecting this trope with some personality. Ultron is created as an operating system for a team of autonomous peacekeeping robots (the “Iron Legion”, the first version of which we saw Stark roll out in Iron Man 3), but becomes something much more. He hoovers up the entire internet over Stark Tower’s bitchin’ fiber and comes to the immediate conclusion that the greatest threat to world peace is humanity itself. He resents his creator (Stark), his existence, and the mere presumption that anyone would try to stop him. And all of this hatred is embodied in a towering robotic package that any individual Avenger is barely a match for. And destroying Ultron’s body isn’t enough, because he exists in the Cloud – and he’s always got a spare avatar in reserve. From a practical standpoint, this means that we get to see each of the super-powered Avengers in a one-on-one bout with him. While you can hardly expect Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) to put down the bow and box with a giant robot, Captain America is certainly up for the challenge, and their bus-smashing brawl is certainly one of the most entertaining and brutal in the film.

I also must respect the film for its change of venue. Rather than head to that self-important standby of New York City, much of the action takes place in the vicinity of a fictitious European city (country?) called Sokovia. As Maria Hill describes it, “It’s nowhere special, but it’s on the way to everywhere special” – and as a result, it has a rough and war-torn history. This is ripe narrative territory for several reasons. First, it’s a living embodiment of Stark’s sins, as many of his own weapons have apparently been used against the city over the years. And second, in a curious (and explicitly noted) parallel to Captain America’s origin story, two of the city’s inhabitants, Wanda and Pietro Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson) volunteer to be a part of HYDRA’s experiments in order to defend their country against its myriad invaders. In the process, they become Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch, two characters whose origins in this film aren’t half as complicated as their copyright status in the real world [apparently they’re Magneto’s kids?], but whose motivations are utterly fascinating. The two of them become ruthless acolytes of Ultron, giddy in their determination to destroy the Avengers. And even as these motivations are prodded apart over the course of the film, Olsen and Taylor-Johnson’s performances lend them a sad sense of depth. Like the Avengers, they started with no particular desire to be a part of this collective brawl, nor are their motivations particularly monstrous, even if they’re certainly capable of monstrous acts. The citizens of Sokovia become representational figures in this film – the Avengers realize that they owe them a better defense and evacuation than they gave to the New Yorkers in the first film, and the Maximoffs realize that Ultron cares little for their survival. The story becomes a well-earned campaign of hearts and minds, and the Maximoffs somehow become the heart of the film.

Not all of the film’s character diversions succeeded, however. There comes a moment where Stark dons the suit that I had previously dubbed “the Iron Fat-Kid” in order to fight an out-of-control Hulk, smashing through the streets of Johannesburg. This fight felt like the self-indulgent child of the Stark vs. Cap vs. Thor bout from the first act of The Avengers – pure fan-service that did little more than needlessly extend the length of the film. Banner was enough of a tortured soul after he “broke Harlem” (referenced in the previous film, so we know it’s canon!), and he didn’t need another tedious swath of destruction to hammer that point home.

But I’ll end with some that worked. Hawkeye has always been the most seemingly superfluous member of the troupe, but he not only gets a believable family (led by Linda Cardellini) to fight for, but he delivers one of the film’s most hilariously impassioned battle speeches. He calls out the absurdity of his inclusion on the Avengers team, and manages to simultaneously earn his place in a way that I never saw coming. And finally, while I can’t speak too much about Paul Bettany‘s work in the film, the relationship between JARVIS and Stark has been one of the strongest and longest-running in the MCU, and it comes to a thoroughly satisfying conclusion here.

What Avengers: Age of Ultron does best is to deliver a persistent sense that it’s building toward something greater. The team will expand and contract, but always continue – and the universe along with it. Greater threats will emerge – or finally break loose from post-credits hell. And whether Whedon is done directing for Marvel or not – as Bryan Singer can attest, it’s easy to get dragged back in – he has brought to life a vast and lasting mythology that will color the landscape of blockbuster cinema for decades to come.

FilmWonk rating: 8 out of 10

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #20 – ‘The Avengers’ (dir. Joss Whedon) (bonus spoiler episode)

Poster for "The Avengers"

This podcast contains spoilers for The Avengers and The Dark Knight. This week on the podcast, Glenn, Daniel, and special guest Sarah get together for a spoilery second look at Marvel’s The Avengers. While Glenn still stands by his 8/10 review, Daniel has other opinions, and if there’s one thing we love at the FilmWonk Podcast, it’s sowing discord. Find out if these three heroes can unite and save the cinematic world below!

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating: 8/10 (Glenn), 5/10 (Daniel)

Show notes:

  • This episode was meant as a quick one-off, so it will unfortunately be a bit less polished than our usual episodes. Although my phone has a surprisingly good microphone!
  • Correction: A dutiful listener has pointed out that one of my supposed “continuity errors” is flat-out wrong. Stark and Banner get into the convertible, while Rogers takes off on the motorcycle. Mea culpa! Chalk it up to identical wardrobes and viewer fatigue.

Listen above, or download: The Avengers (right-click, save as).

Joss Whedon’s “The Avengers” – Big damn heroes

Note: There was dissent in the house of FilmWonk about this film! Be sure to check out our spoiler-edition podcast on The Avengers after you see the film.

As Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) addresses his fellow Avengers in the last act of this film, he makes the rather staggering leap in logic that their nemesis Loki (Tom Hiddleston) will surely go to New York City to fire the opening salvo of his war on mankind. Stark’s only evidence? NYC is where self-important people go to show off. While the non-New-Yorker in me couldn’t help but chuckle, this sloppy bit of plotting (and my instant acceptance thereof) did raise an interesting question. How much of my desire to follow these characters into whatever adventure and peril awaits them can be properly attributed to this film? This is the potential problem with any sequel – a dilemma that is compounded in a franchise like The Avengers, in which some of the characters were introduced in films that were at best mediocre, and in one case, starred a completely different actor. But while “The Avengers” might not have entirely succeeded as a franchise, Joss Whedon‘s rousing and epic take on the final film* has completely validated Marvel’s endeavor.

The gang’s all here, and both Whedon and his actors know exactly who they want them to be. There’s Thor (Chris Hemsworth), verbose and bombastic demigod who feels the weight of every moment – with a soft spot for humanity and for his villainous adoptive brother Loki. There’s Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), steadfast and reliable soldier – first out the door into a fight, and a natural leader. There’s Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), boss of the Avengers – chaotic, manipulative bastard beyond reproach, working at all times for the greater good.

And then there’s the other guy. Mark Ruffalo joins the Avengers as Bruce Banner, better known as the Incredible Hulk. If there’s one thing the last two Hulk films taught me, it’s that there’s a lot of potential goofiness involved with a character that explodes into a huge green uncontrollable rage-monster. And yet, everyone in The Avengers treats Banner with deadly seriousness, most of all Ruffalo himself. Even with his limited screentime, Ruffalo manages to deftly convey just what a self-hating, tortured soul this man is. Because the movie never treats the Hulk as anything less than an imminent, mortal threat, there is a palpable sense of danger surrounding him at all times. All of the fantastic tension in the early scenes between Banner and the Avengers is character-based – they fear the unpredictable man who stands between them and the beast. And surprisingly, it is between Banner and Stark that the film first starts to draw some fascinating parallels. Both Banner’s Hulk and Stark’s Iron Man are grappling with potentially lethal forces that threaten to tear them apart from the inside out. While Stark is far more ready to crack a joke about his situation, they feel credibly like the only two people in the world who can truly understand each other’s lot.

Stark has the most screen time – this is surely because both Iron Man and Robert Downey, Jr. are collectively the biggest star in the bunch, but it also marks a wise decision on Whedon’s part to use Stark as the film’s no-bullshit sounding board. Stark is a brilliant, abrasive, narcissistic billionaire, and seems exceptionally well-suited to the job of bringing subtext to the surface in a short period of time. In each of their scenes with Stark, more of each Avenger is revealed, and Downey’s performance here is as strong as it has ever been.

And what to make of the villainous Loki? He is the same whiny, entitled, beggar-king that be became in Thor, ranting constantly about his birthright and nobility and dispatching his enemies with unrelenting viciousness. Loki is less of a master of chaos than he pretends to be, but Hiddleston’s performance brought just about the right level of malevolence and false bravado to the role. Full-on villainy seems like a natural extension of his antiheroic beginnings in Thor – a film which I suspect, despite my cheap shot above, might actually be slightly better when viewed through the lens of what’s to come**.

And what’s to come is pretty obvious… All hell breaks loose in the Big Apple, per usual, but for once the city’s defenders seem immediately equal to the task at hand. This is partially because of just how powerful the Avengers are collectively, but it’s also because the invading “Chitauri” never quite feel like a world-ending threat. The army – a collection of District 9 rejects, Uruk-hai, and giant flying tortoises – wasn’t half as interesting as the heroes fighting it. But the scale, cinematography, and big, colorful superhero badassery of it all brought a huge grin to my face nonetheless. If there’s one thing I remember from Joss Whedon’s last film Serenity, it’s that the man can direct the hell out of an full-tilt battle sequence, balancing intimacy, scale, and devastation with near-perfection. A series of tracking shots take us on a breathtaking tour of the battlescape, as we see each of the Avengers brawling with their own impressive signatures. Despite the rather rote setup of the battle and its resolution, the stakes were undeniable, both for the heroes personally and for the city they protect***.

The Avengers is an unrelenting delight with a smart script and a rousing musical score (by Captain America composer Alan Silvestri). But the highest praise I can give this film is that even the most groan-worthy bits of fan-service were well-placed and served the plot in some concrete fashion. Did Thor really need to bang his hammer into Captain America’s shield? Of course not. But I’m glad I got to see it.

FilmWonk rating: 8 out of 10

* I say “final film” more in the sense of a climax, not out of any naive belief that Marvel won’t milk this franchise until it dies. After a $207 million opening weekend, there’s little doubt that there will be an Avengers 2.

** All things considered, Jane Foster is still a useless character, and I was pleased to only see Natalie Portman’s face in this film as a means of assuring us that she would not make another wasted appearance.

*** SPOILERY OBSERVATION (highlight to view):
While the nuke felt a little perfunctory, Stark’s sudden rush to self-sacrifice was profoundly affecting. Downey, Jr completely sold his transformation over the course of this film (particularly after Coulson’s death), and the film actually managed to make me forget, for a few seconds, that there’s no way that Marvel would let Joss Whedon exercise his penchant for character-slaughter on their biggest star. It was a lovely moment nonetheless, and one that this film completely earned.