It’s hard to believe that just a decade ago a cohesive cinematic universe around existing comic franchises seemed like a pipe dream. Sure, heroes like Spider-man and X-Men had found success on the silver screen, but had stuck largely stayed confined within their own universes. Their source material was packed with hero upon hero, and myth after myth. Audiences were gobbling up superhero franchises to the tune of billions of dollars, but much of the lore stayed hidden behind contractual disputes and lack of vision. Then comes 2008 and the release of Iron Man. The character itself wasn’t the household name like previous heroes who made large film debuts, but the flair and humor of director Jon Favereau and a career saving performance from Robert Downey Jr. caused Iron Man to be one of the highest grossing superheroes of all time. At the end of the film Marvel hinted at what was to come with an end credit scene featuring Samuel L. Jackson as the mysterious Nick Fury and his talk of something called the Avengers Initiative. Here we are now, just a mere 7 years later, and Marvel has expanded it’s roster and packed it’s release slate full of heroes. The first Avengers debuted to huge commercial and critical success, and propelled the smaller properties into the stratosphere. We’ve gone deeper down the rabbit hole than even the most optimistic person would have guessed a decade ago. Is Marvel making another step towards being the dominant producer of superhero cinema?
Age of Ultron starts with a large action set piece, where the team moves against Baron Von Strucker, a minor villain who was introduced in an after credit scene in a previous Marvel film. The team easily dispatches a large Hydra force, but is thrown for a bit of a loop when two other superhumans make an appearance. The brother and sister combo of Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) and Pietro Maximoff (Aaron Taylor Johnson), Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver respectively, are the creation of Strucker and Hydra. The two play havoc against the team throughout most of the first half of the film, only to assume their mantles as Avengers at some point in the film.
Upon reaching the Avengers Tower post-mission, we see a well oiled team that is comfortable with each other. Capable of sharing light moments easily. It’s a team that still has its secrets, as Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) and Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) quietly embark on using Loki’s captured scepter as a jumping off to point to creating a world saving AI. This AI, codenamed Ultron, is created with the intention of making the Avengers obsolete. Stark describes the potential AI as a suit of armor for the Earth, capable of stopping invasions like the one they saw in the first film. Unfortunately for all, when Ultron (James Spader) awakes, he sees the only way to peace as the destruction of the Avengers, and eventual annihilation of the human race. The team must struggle for survival against a foe far smarter than they’ve encountered before.
Among the main plot thread are numerous sub-plots involving infinity gems, Hulk-sized romance, making Hawkeye a relevant team member, and more. The meat of the plot is pretty fascinating, with Spader’s Ultron being the centerpiece. Spader’s anti-Stark AI combines much of the levity Downey Jr. brings to his role, with a tinge of maniacal madness. When given the proper focus, Ultron is a villain who is compelling to watch, and steals the show whenever on camera. Unfortunately, the movie diverts to its sub-plots too often, destroying the momentum of its main story, and giving the film an overcrowded feel at times.
Director Joss Whedon is once again at the helm of the film, and manages to inject a fair amount of humor into the film. It’s hard to blame Whedon completely for the some of the failing points of the film though. Much of the momentum of his story is sucked away by plot elements meant to foreshadow events 2 or 3 films away. Marvel Studios has gotten so ambitious with their over-arcing plot, that they’ve sacrificed too much of their current story. Sure the nerd/geek in all of us lets out a little squeak of joy when we see something we recognize, but when it comes at the expense of the film you are currently watching, it’s a bit tough to take.
That isn’t to say all the sub-plots are jarring to the story. Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) is made a relevant character for the first time since showing up in 2011’s Thor. Whedon and company finally get the talented Jeremy Renner a bit of screen time, and more importantly a sense of humanity. Hawkeye (and to some extent Black Widow) is a mortal among gods. Sure, he’s an elite athlete, but on the power scale he’s easily the weakest Avenger. The film gives him a purpose, and sets him up as somewhat of an anchor to the team. It’s unlikely that we’ll be seeing a standalone Hawkeye film anytime soon, but it’s refreshing to see he isn’t a throwaway character anymore.
Marvel fans will still be happy with this entry. Story might be sacrificed at points, but never at the expense of action. There’s more action in this film than the first, and the action scenes are large and well paced. Marvel is still smart enough to know that people pay to see superheroes using superpowers.
There is a lot of good things to say about Age of Ultron. Sure, it isn’t anywhere near the best entry in the Marvel cinematic universe, but if it were any other franchise it would have praise heaped upon it despite its flaws. The bar has been set very high, and they might not have reached it this time, but who is to say they can’t clear it on a future entry?
If you were to show someone the original film of the Fast and Furious series, and skip them directly to Furious 7, they’d most likely have trouble believing the two are part of the same series. The original film, The Fast and the Furious, was a Point Break ripoff that replaced extreme sports with illegal street racing. Furious 7 has more in common with Marvel’s The Avengers these days than it does its original premise. Sure, the fast cars are still there, but they don’t serve the importance they did in the first film. Now they are merely a mean to an ends. So, needless to say, the series has evolved. Has it been for the better?
First thing to note: if you want to enjoy Furious 7, stretch your suspension of disbelief to an unbelievable level. Much of what happens over the course of the film takes a huge leap of logic to believe. If you are willing to treat it the same way you would treat a superhero film or fantasy, then quite likely you’ll be taken away by the over-the-top action set pieces. The story itself is really just an excuse to show the audience these somewhat gaudy scenes. They introduce uber-baddie Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) in a clever scene where he has destroyed an entire hospital and special ops team, just to give a speech to his brother who happens to be in a coma. Sure, it’s a bit of a waste of effort on Deckard’s part, but as we only see the aftermath of what he’s done, we know he’s the baddest of the bad.
If Jupiter Ascending were a person, they’d be schizophrenic. The film is a convoluted and disjointed mess that even top-notch visuals can’t save. To say the film is a waste of your time would be an understatement. If that ringing endorsement doesn’t catch your attention, then continue on dear reader.
To start the convoluted story is a convoluted backstory, following Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis), a Russian immigrant who despite her model good looks is stuck cleaning toilets and living with her stereotypical Russian family. Her father was an Englishman (hence the surname Jones) who was shot and killed shortly after Jones was conceived. Presumably this wasn’t a ringing endorsement of why raising a child in Russia is a fantastic idea, so her family immigrated to the United States.
I’ve seen thousands of men lying on the ground, their dead faces looking up at the skies. I tell you, war is Hell!
– William Tecumseh Sherman
If there is one singular purpose in Fury, it is to convince you of the notion that war is hell. Most people didn’t need convincing of this fact before seeing the film, but they’ll likely leave the theater echoing the sentiment in their heads. Fury brutally beats you over the head with the atrocities of war in its quest to show you the hardship faced by many combat troops in World War II.
The film revolves around the lives of a seasoned Sherman tank crew led by Don ‘Wardaddy’ Collier (Brad Pitt). The crew has successfully made it through Africa, D-Day, and are continuing to cause havoc as the Allied forces invade Germany. Despite their stellar record, they lose one of their members shortly before the film begins. Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman), a fresh trained clerical typist, is thrust into the front lines of war as he replaces the deceased member of ‘Fury’. Over the next two hours we follow Norman as he struggles through the worst parts of war, as he struggles with the inevitable doom facing him on the front lines.
Original concepts are few and far between these days. It isn’t that they don’t exist, it’s that they aren’t marketed like remakes, reboots, and adaptations. It doesn’t mean there aren’t people still pushing the boundaries of filmmaking, and finding new ways to tell compelling stories for the sake of art. It’s just that the public rarely sees the films that push these boundaries. Are audiences blind to new compelling media? Yes and no. Your average person watches film to escape from their everyday life, and usually want something familiar. Boyhood is a bit of a conundrum, it has the familiarity of life, but the sincerity and the lack of a defined plot will keep it from becoming a financial success. People will likely feel the film too closely captures real life, even though that is exactly the point.
In 2002, Richard Linklater set out to make a movie about growing up, which on the surface may not seem like an incredible undertaking, but make no mistake, it is an incredible feat in filmmaking. Rather than rely on special effects and multiple actors to tell the story of a boy in a short period of time, Linklater had the idea to film segments of the film over a twelve year period using the same cast. It’s an incredible commitment that pays off in the film, as we see a young boy named Mason (Ellar Coltrane) and his family evolve throughout the years. There isn’t one definable plot thread throughout the film, and instead we focus on a number of important pieces of Mason’s life. We see him struggle through school, deal with an alcoholic step-father, find his passion, lose his first love, and many other moments. The film never creates shocking moments that are meant to be plot devices to move the story along. Are there shocking moments? Sure, but they aren’t defining moments of the film. The defining moments are the small moments where you see just how much the boy you’ve been watching has changed.