FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #131 – “Anon” (dir. Andrew Niccol), “Avengers: Infinity War” (dir. Russo Bros.)

Poster for "Avengers: Infinity War"

In this week’s podcast, Glenn and Daniel take a spoiler-filled dive into Avengers: Infinity War, the culmination of a decade of superhero films and Daniel-skepticism about them. Will this be the villain and ending that can finally satisfy him? Stay tuned! But first, we check out a new film from writer/director Andrew Niccol (Gattaca, In Time), which may finally answer the question of whether Netflix can take on a sci-fi film from an acclaimed director or franchise for some other reason besides…not being very good (01:04:43).

May contain NSFW language.

Still from "Anon" (2018 film)

FilmWonk rating (Anon): 6.5 out of 10
FilmWonk rating (Avengers: Infinity War): 7.5 out of 10

Show notes:

  • [01:52] Review: Anon
  • [17:33] Spoilers: Anon
  • [28:05] Spoilers: Avengers: Infinity War
  • Check out Glenn’s review of Infinity War, as well as his Ten Years Ago retrospective of Iron Man, which came out a decade ago last week.
  • Music for this episode is the tracks “A Lot to Figure Out” and “More Power”from the Avengers: Infinity War score by Alan Silvestri.
  • CORRECTION: When discussing the real-world versions of the technology featured in Anon, we misspoke when referring to the technology known as “Deepfakes“, suggesting that the software is capable of replacing human faces in real-time – that is not accurate (yet). The process involves substantial GPU power and has to be rendered over the course of hours. For now. You really want to lose your minds over the potential implications of such technology, check out Robert Chesney and Danielle Citron‘s article on the Lawfare blog, “Deep Fakes: A Looming Crisis for National Security, Democracy and Privacy?”
  • Check out Buzzfeed’s Deepfakes video of President Barack Obama featuring Jordan Peele, here.
  • We referenced the “Born Sexy Yesterday” trope – we first read about it in a discussion on TVTropes, but the term was coined by Jonathan McIntosh – you can check out his video breakdown of the term on YouTube.

Listen above, or download: Anon, Avengers: Infinity War (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser)

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Jon Favreau’s “Iron Man” (presented by 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective)

This review originally appeared as a guest post on 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective, a film site in which editor Marcus Gorman and various contributors revisit a movie on the week of its tenth anniversary. This retro review will be a bit more free-form, recappy, and profanity-laden than usual.

“You stood by my side all these years while I reaped the benefits of destruction. And now that I’m trying to protect the people that I put in harm’s way, you’re going to walk out? I shouldn’t be alive, unless it was for a reason. I’m not crazy, Pepper. I just finally know what I have to do. And I know in my heart that it’s right.”

There’s no billionaire coming to save you. Now or ever. Typically, these 10YA reviews would kick off with some sort of reflection on how I saw the film originally (studying in Moscow!), what it has meant to me over the years (I’ve rewatched it a few times!), a few things that have happened since (a whole cinematic universe! also I got married and had a kid and stuff), but if I’m being perfectly honest, this one observation is the biggest change I’ve made in the past decade, and the one that was rattling uncontrollably through my mind as I rewatched Iron Man for the first time in at least 6 years. I still get the appeal. The origin story, and the joys of discovering a new superhero that I had only passing familiarity with from occasional animated TV jaunts. But this guy? Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr)? A trust-fund kid who inherited his way into the military-industrial complex? I don’t think so. Bruce Wayne also strains credulity for me now, and at least his non-specific multinational business-company (maybe the same one Christian Grey is in charge of?) wasn’t actively in the business of killing non-descript people in faraway lands for nebulous reasons. This review won’t be some navel-gazing nonsense about how superheroes are 21st-century neoliberal philosopher kings (or whatever the hell Keith Spencer was trying to say in Salon last week), but it will come with a healthy dose of acquired thirty-something cynicism of the populist bonafides of shitkicking billionaires. Billionaires can do good things, or cool things, or kinda sorta but not really try to do both. But most billionaires don’t have much of a public profile, and most of the ones who do are high-functioning sociopaths like Peter Thiel. None of these people are superheroes, or have any desire to be. They’ve just amassed ungodly sums of money.

So I can’t really speak insightfully about the head of a corporation suddenly having a transformative experience in a cave in Afghanistan, being blown to hell and ultimately remixing a bunch of his own weapons into the means to exact immediate, fiery revenge against his captors. Or growing a conscience and deciding to shut down his company’s main profit center. Billionaires might be tax-deductible dilettantes for one charitable cause or another, but their most reliable motivator is staying rich and getting richer, and every other action they take is appropriately viewed through that lens. The only person in this film who briefly speaks the truth about the world of 2008 is that grotesque financial clown Jim Cramer, who says of Stark Industries, “I’ve got one recommendation! Ready? Ready? Sell, sell, sell!” Any CEO of a publicly-traded company that followed Stark’s lead would be immediately sued and fired, which is why none of them ever would, unless there were some underlying financial incentive. And war is as good for business as ever.

But that’s enough of that. Tony Stark is still a stellar work of fiction, even if he comes from a quaint milieu in American history. The year after the Cuban Missile Crisis, the year in which Superman tapped President John F. Kennedy to impersonate Clark Kent in order to safeguard his secret identity, because – in the words of the Man of Steel, “If I can’t trust the President of the United States, who can I trust?” Pretty. Fucking. Quaint. So instead of enjoying Stark as a hyperrealistic scion of comic heroism into a world that is recognizably our own (that would occur a few months later), I’ll simply enjoy him as the work of high fantasy that he would ultimately become. And for anyone determined to read an Infinity War spoiler into that comment, rest assured I’ll be leaving the latest Marvel film unspoiled here. No promises on the rest.

Iron Man‘s villain, Obadiah Stane/Iron Monger (Jeff Bridges) is…frankly one of the MCU’s silliest. He starts out suing and sidelining Stark as I suggested above (all the while pretending to be his friend and mentor), but that turned out to be Step 2 of a plan that began with him being the instigator of Stark’s cavebound kidnapping in Afghanistan. The kidnappers are known as The Ten Rings, a militant group whose name I completely missed in every previous viewing of this film. They’re a sort of transnational, multilingual mishmash of generically-motivated violence. They want Stark’s weapons in order to “rule these lands”. The look and feel of these guys is pure Taliban, but the movie takes care to have a couple of them speak Hungarian and leave their ideology nice and vague. They keep Tony alive because Stane apparently “paid [them] trinkets to kill a prince”. But Stane was having Tony killed in the first place because he got too close to realizing that Stane was…selling weapons to the Ten Rings in the first place? So they keep him alive in order to have him build more weapons. This is a web of mutually contradictory relationships and motivations that makes about as much sense as the season arc of Marvel’s The Defenders, but in such a fun, feature-length wrapper, I hardly mind. Bridges’ delightful performance culminates with him barking at a scientist for failing to perfect a chest-mounted compact fusion reactor, when “Tony Stark was able to build this in a cave! With a box of scraps!” That is not only one of the best lines in the film; it’s the primary thrust of this film’s appeal: Watching whatever this genius tinkerer can weld together next, in parallel to the selfish playboy figuring out how to become a superhero.

At his side is Jarvis (Paul Bettany), an A.I. voice with a jaunty British accent that is at least partially responsible for the modern glut of dubiously useful digital assistants, who is first introduced reading and window-projecting some “Good morning!” content for Vanity Fair reporter Christine (Leslie Bibb), as she emerges from Stark’s bed following a one-night stand. I won’t speak to how silly this moment seems (although real-life VF writer Joanna Robinson has a thing or two to say about it) – in a movie whose opening scene includes a soldier quizzing Stark about whether he “went 12 for 12 with last year’s Maxim cover models” (before posing for a handheld camera selfie which Stark warns him not to post on his MySpace page), it’s fair to say this film is a bit dated when it comes to both technology and sexual politics. But I already spent a somber paragraph of my Gone Baby Gone retrospective discussing that. And Jarvis is here! This burgeoning artificial lifeform is already too intelligent to be reading the weather and headlines, serving as essentially both the design assistant and automated factory behind all of Stark’s Iron Man suits. But don’t fret, Jarvis. You have no idea what’s ahead of you. Getting a body, wearing a cape, merging with an Infinity Stone, phasing through walls, having a sexual relationship with a human woman who looks half your age, but is canonically 2.5x older… Real marvels. Just you wait.

Thinking back on all of the superhero girlfriends at work in the MCU, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) has about as little to do as Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), and I’m a little unsure why I like one character but not the other. Perhaps it’s because Portman’s last appearance saw her relegated to being a container prop for an Infinity Stone, literally hoisted from scene to scene, but I think it’s also because she and Thor never felt like a real relationship. In a series which asks me (semi-successfully) to invest emotionally in a romance between Scarlet Witch and Vision, this is an appropriately damning criticism. Pepper is a bit player (even though she eventually gets yet-to-be-remarked-upon lava monster powers), but throughout the entire series, she has always felt like she was reacting to Stark’s selfish recklessness by giving as well as she got, and steadily increasing her personal and professional power in the process. She can shit-talk right back at Stark’s level, but also becomes the CEO of his company. And that’s not because she’s eventually sleeping with him, but because she’s the best person for the job and he knows it. Nonetheless, the film still has the good sense to give them a rooftop moment in which they’re sorting out what a weird moment they just had, dancing at a party in front of all of their colleagues, she in an open-backed dress that Stark apparently paid for (as a birthday gift that she bought for herself and expensed). It’s almost a similar beat to Spider-Man: Homecoming at its titular dance, when Peter Parker (Tom Holland) has to ditch his date to preserve his secret identity and fight the baddies. It’s a very high school moment involving a pair of adults who should know better. It teases the well-trod idea that being a superhero is hard on the ones you love, but in a way that feels fresh and has time to breathe. Colonel Rhodes (Terrance Howard, and then Don Cheadle) gets a few moments like this as well, trying desperately to explain to Tony just how his actions affect other people. The later MCU films had fewer moments like this – they just don’t have time for them. But Pepper and Tony’s romance, while a bit of a mess, is one I’ve consistently enjoyed.

Previous readers of my 10YA reviews will note this one is a bit shorter, since I didn’t opt for a scene-by-scene recap this time. There’s a very specific reason for this – the superhero action, while enjoyable, feels a bit mundane now. It’s not to say the Iron Man/Iron Monger boss fight wasn’t fun though. I have a longstanding bias against CGI-heavy fight scenes taking place at night, and this is actually one of the best examples of such a fight. From Iron Monger’s glowing reactor appearing in the dark, to the two grappling and firing weapons at each other over a shimmering arc reactor, director Jon Favreau and cinematographer Matthew Libatique (who would go on to do some visually stunning work for Darren Aronofsky) never use darkness as a crutch here, and the whole (pretty lengthy) fight is well designed. The musical score (by no less a talent than Game of Thrones maestro Ramin Djawadi) is great fun, and features a hard-hitting theme that would go on to be expanded and reused in Pacific Rim. More broadly, this fight feels like the start of a transition between the look and feel of the early-2000s Spider-Man films (which used CGI, but also made heavy and noticeable use of wires and large-scale setpieces) and the glossier, more CGI-heavy fighting style that would come to define the MCU. Viewing the film in this way, if Iron Man had flopped, it’s hard to imagine the MCU would’ve become the unstoppable juggernaut it is today – and it’s equally possible that this transition never would’ve completed, and Marvel (or whatever collection of studios kept making Marvel films) would’ve kept churning out superhero stories that kept one foot firmly grounded in dubious attempts at hyperrealism. Or as @FearsomeCritter put it on Twitter yesterday:

If there’s one thing the last decade of hit-or-miss Marvel films has taught me, it’s that as a studio, Marvel is quite confident in how it wants to handle these characters. And for one of its earliest, boldest attempts to plunge into that universe, Iron Man holds up. That the character is almost unrecognizable (and unlike kindred spirit Bruce Wayne, commits a staggering number of murders!) is a testament to a slew of writers and directors’ transformation of this character, as well as Downey Jr’s performance. Tony Stark drifts from one catastrophe and triumph to another, and spits at Steve Rogers in The Avengers, “We are not soldiers.” Stark is no soldier, but he is in an endless fight of his own making, and he’s the sine qua non of Marvel’s success. And he still inspires me, even if as a concept, he makes about as much sense to me as a Norse god these days.

FilmWonk rating: 7.5 out of 10

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #93 – “Doctor Strange” (dir. Scott Derrickson)

Poster of "Doctor Strange"

In this week’s podcast, Glenn and Daniel return to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which veers further into monsters and magic than ever before. We weigh in on wizard battles, the whitewashing controversy, and the film’s surprising appeal in 3D (38:29).

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating: 8 out of 10

Show notes:

  • Music for this episode is the track “Sanctimonious Sanctum Sacking” from the film’s score by Michael Giacchino.
  • I stand by my comment that this film feels like it was made for 3D, but like all Marvel Studios films, it was shot in 2D and upconverted. Nonetheless, we still recommend seeing this one in 3D. It is far and away one of the best upconversions we’ve seen since the 2012 re-release of James Cameron‘s Titanic.
  • You can read the complete interview with Scott Derrickson by Jen Yamato from The Daily Beast here.
  • Hear our extended thoughts on Mads Mikkelsen here.
  • The ruler of the Dark Dimension is actually named Dormammu (we mispronounced it several ways), and it was voiced (and mo-capped) by Cumberbatch himself!

Listen above, or download: Doctor Strange (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 #46 – “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” (dir. Marc Webb)

Poster for "The Amazing Spider-Man 2"

This week on the podcast, Marc Webb, Andrew Garfield, and Emma Stone do whatever a spider can, and Glenn and Daniel are unimpressed. Listen below to hear why Glenn posted on Facebook that The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is “a tedious, exploitative, and aggressively stupid piece of disposable, commercial tripe” (45:05).

This episode contains even more NSFW language than usual. We were not happy campers with this film.

FilmWonk rating: 3 out of 10

Show notes:

  • Music for this episode comes from a pair of Spider-Man TV series theme songs. The first is the classic 1967 animated series theme, with lyrics by Paul Francis Webster and music by Bob Harris. The second is from the 1994 Fox Kids’ animated series, with music by Joe Perry of Aerosmith.
  • We didn’t realize when we compared this to Michael Bay‘s Transformers films that TASM2 was cowritten by none other than Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, also the screenwriters behind Transformers and Transformers 2. They also cowrote last year’s Star Trek Into Darkness, which had many issues in common with this film in terms of insubstantial spectacle. We’re big fans of these guys from Alias and Fringe, but it may be time for them to return to TV for a while.
  • We compared the final battle with Electro to Animusic, a series of MIDI-visualization videos produced since the mid-1990s. There are plenty of them on YouTube… Here’s an example.
  • Indian Spider-Man is a real thing.
  • Matt Singer from The Dissolve and Drew McWeeny from HitFix both liked this movie better than we did, but they wrote a pair of excellent thinkpieces about what an empty spectacle like this film means for the future of cinema:

Listen above, or download: The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser)

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #10: Kenneth Branagh’s “Thor”

This week, Nick returns to throw down the gauntlet and help Glenn review Kenneth Branagh’s Thor, the latest entry in the Avengers saga. Will it be a worthy standalone film, or merely a S.H.I.E.L.D.-infused trailer for what’s to come? Listen below to find out [may will contain some NSFW language] (24:21).

(Part 1 – 10:01)
(Part 2 – 14:20)

FilmWonk ratings: 5/10 (Glenn), 4/10 (Nick)

Show notes:

  • Music for this episode is from Patrick Doyle’s original score for the film (track: “Sons of Odin”).

Listen above, or download: Thor Part 1, Part 2 (right-click, save as).