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Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
Are movies so formulaic now that audiences can't hope to expect anything more than this in a blockbuster?
To give credit where it's due, Whedon again does a great job making believable the interactions of a very disparate group of characters. Just the idea that a thawed-out WW2-Uber-patriot, a Norse god, and strangely likable arrogant-genius who wears a metallic-supersuit could occupy the same film universe seems ridiculous on paper (Let's hope Snyder can do as well with Amazons and Mermen in Justice League.) The actors do a good job inhabiting their characters, and Whedon succeeds in creating character arcs with the amount of time available. The long arc that takes the Scarlet Witch from an ally of Ultron to a foe feels natural. Secondary characters typically fail to connect with audiences, but her scene with Hawkeye and her brother's sacrifice makes her contribution to Ultron's downfall more than filler. The film also does not feel overstuffed with characters, though it's pushing the limit.
Whedon attempts to bring more depth to AoU, but AoU's attempt to walk that line undermines its ability to repeat the original's feel- good ending. At the same time, AoU doesn't successfully bring added gravitas to the franchise, like The Empire Strikes Back did after the original Star Wars. Some of the action is exciting, but the film doesn't feel as light and fresh, partly because it's too similar to its predecessor. Again, the Avengers fight a hoard of generic enemies, this time on multiple occasions, and so, it starts to feel like it's repeating the first film's battle of Manhattan again and again.
In the end, AoU is held back by a number of flaws--those deriving from its plot's formulaic nature, its villain's motives, and the level of the film's stakes. AoU lacks strong tension because it never feels that heroes' lives are threatened. Once again, the most exciting fight occurs between two Avenger team members. (At least this time, Whedon doesn't intercut this fight with scenes of other heroes fixing an engine.) However, when it comes to their main adversary, it's mostly the Avengers engaging a hoard of generic robots they outmatch. Some might argue a death or serious injury might undermine the fun. Well, in Star Wars, Luke's entire squad is wiped out, and that film is the embodiment of escapist fun. Furthermore, these are comic-book characters. Superheroes never really die. How about this--Tony is grievously wounded and needs cybernetics just to move, right at the very time he wants to leave his technology behind. An injury like that would raise the stakes plus lead to inner conflict later, right? Without any sense of threat, some of AoU's action scenes start to feel like video-games.
Ultron is an interesting villain, and as a character, he works. However, as a being of advanced-AI, he's also pretty stupid, and that brings us to the deeper problems with AoU--its plot. What does Ultron do just after being created? This brilliant tactician attacks the Avengers without ever assessing their weaknesses. After gaining consciousness, an intelligent Ultron would've remained out of notice as long as possible as he secretly built himself and his robot buddies into an indestructible army. Why didn't he do this? Probably because Disney cynically felt audiences have the attention span of gnats, and since there had been dialogue for 10 minutes, we needed another fight. What's next in Ultron's plan? He wants to steal some really strong metal. Is this really the best move? Uh, no, or lobsters would be the apex predator in the ocean, and armadillos on land, but of course, Ultron really doesn't go to Wakanda for this purpose. He does so to set up the soon-to-be-released Black Panther movie. Then there's Ultron's world destruction plan, which is preposterous and unrealistic. If Ultron could make a device that can turn a city into a gigantic meteor, then he could presumably upgrade himself without having to steal tech from all over the world.
Most significantly, Ultron's motives make little sense. He wants to rid the world of people to achieve peace, right? Well, peace means groups of individuals getting along without conflict. Exterminating life on earth won't bring peace because there won't be any individuals left. Later, he apparently concedes some people might survive--and they'll start anew--but why would these people be any more peace-loving? Food-shortages and a-total-economic-collapse don't typically bring out the best in people. Then what if Ultron's plan works too well, and it wipes out everything on the planet including himself and his robo-friends? Will we have achieved peace because the lifeless rocks that remain won't fight each other? Spader's delivery gives Ultron's nonsense dialogue some menace, but Ultron's plan and how he attempts to achieve it make no sense. Even without deep analysis, these problems with the plot are pretty apparent. It just feels off.
The deepest failings of AoU do not lie with its villain, however. In part, that's because Ultron isn't the film's villain. That honor instead belongs to Tony Stark. From Frankenstein to Jurassic-Park, the arrogant guy who unleashes a "monster" onto humanity is the REAL villain, and that individual pays for his hubris. Besides some momentarily disgruntled Avengers, the film does little to recognize Tony for what he is. In fact, after creating a threat that nearly destroys the planet, he later repeats the act with no knowledge that it will turn out any better. Some will say, "Wait for Captain- America- 3." No, we shouldn't wait because our heroes shouldn't. They're not idiots; they can see what's going on and should recognize that Tony should never be allowed near any device more complicated than a toaster. His actions are that much of a threat. Furthermore, an arrogant Tony struggling with the issue that he's the real problem and serious conflicts with the other Avengers about his decisions would be ways to bring the film some much needed dramatic heft.
Ultimately, AoU is a missed opportunity to further the franchise.
Man of Steel (2013)
A Balanced Review (Please read before rating): Critics Too Hard on a Pretty Well-done Version of Superman
Instead of writing the typical review that only praises or slams a film, I'm going to try to write a review that's hopefully useful to those planning to see "Man-of-Steel" or those interested in thinking about the film.
Though this film isn't perfect, I think critics have been too tough on Man-of-Steel. The easiest way to show this is that 75% of critics liked 2006's"Superman-Returns," even though in that film, Superman's greatest adversary was a huge rocky landmass, a foe that was still somehow able to knock Superman unconscious in the end, even though it was, you know a huge rocky landmass. Superman-Returns' IMDb score is a notch above Transformers-2's score. Meanwhile, while only 55% of critics liked Man-of-Steel, Man-of-Steel's rating is higher than almost all non-Nolan comicbook-films.
I found 2006's "Superman-Returns" slow and uninspiring, but it did capture the tone of Christopher Reeves's original. Man-of-Steel takes Superman in a more realistic direction. If you wouldn't like a new take on the character, this film might not be for you, though it's not a total departure. When suited up, this Superman more resembles Reeves' hero. It's Man-of-Steel's version of Clark that sets it apart.
Man-of-Steel has young Clark growing up an outsider and misfit, and how his superpowers manifest help show this. His parents conceal his alien identity fearing how people and the government might treat him. When Clark's superpowers fully develop, his father comes to believe Clark's been sent here for a reason. After highschool, Clark becomes a drifter, searching for his life's purpose. Crosscutting between this present and his childhood past, these scenes give Clark's background with limited screen time, and they capture the iconic feel of Superman's Americana roots. However, unlike Reeve's "Superman" with its funny bumbling Clark, this film does not switch to a more light-hearted tone halfway through. So, it's fair when critics say the film isn't as "fun" as the Reeves' films. Still, the tone of this film is FAR from Nolan's dark Batman films. It isn't humorless, and while not as light as the original, it chooses to go with thrilling over "fun." What also separates Man-of-Steel from other versions is that Man-of-Steel makes Superman's powers truly seem "super." Man-of-Steel takes you into the action, which is pounding and concussive. It's a powerful experience. My wife, who gets scared on kiddie-coasters, almost thought it was too much, and it may be for some viewers, but again, the action captures superhuman-abilities in a way no other comicbook-film has, which is perhaps appropriate as Superman is the most powerful hero of all.
I also think Man-of-Steel is being held to an unfair standard, perhaps because Superman is so iconic. I'll compare Man-of-Steel to other films critics liked more to show why I think so. The well-received "Superman-2," in which Zod also appears, presents a one-dimensional Zod. In "Superman-2," Zod, like Loki in "The-Avengers," comes to Earth to rule over humanity, but if you think about it, this goal doesn't make much sense. If a regular person becomes a tyrant, he can do whatever he wants, and he's protected from violence and poverty, but if you're a super-being, you don't need to rule to have those things. If you want a beautiful woman or a huge mansion, you just take those things by force. Your power alone would allow you to have whatever you want. You wouldn't need to rule. Ruling would actually probably be a time-consuming headache--just meetings and paperwork.
Now, consider the more believable scenario in Man-of-Steel. Krypton was an incredibly complicated caste-society, and Zod, its military leader, was bred to ensure it survives. Since every one of the billions of Kryptonians is genetically-created to serve a specific role, Zod can only bring back his civilization by bringing back ALL its citizens, and since Krypton was a fully populated planet, re-making Earth leaves no room for us. Furthermore, Zod's terraforming of Earth into a new Krypton will make Earth's atmosphere uninhabitable for humans. So, the crisis faced in Man-of-Steel is the logical consequence of a believable goal. Zod isn't pure evil. He simply wants to save his civilization, and like Europeans coming to the Americas, he doesn't care that this will kill us. This goal makes much more sense than the generic rule-over-earthlings scenario that's been done-to-death.
Many critics also fault Man-of-Steel for falling into "video-game violence," but strangely these critics fail to fault other films more deserving of this criticism. Consider "The-Avengers" again, which I did like. In "The-Avengers," Loki sends the Citari, those armored-alien hairless-ape-like-things on flying-segways, to take over the Earth, but do they attack military bases or try to capture D.C.? No, they simply fly around Manhattan, targeting random civilians. Not the best military strategy, right? At the same time, bullets and arrows can kill them, so how are they a threat to the Hulk or Thor? So, a film loved by critics ends with 15-minutes of video-game violence that serves no purpose and doesn't threaten our heroes. At the same time, critics dismiss Man-of-Steel's ending, even though Zod's plan actually makes sense. Furthermore, we can see how much is at stake. We see lives being threatened, military personnel dying.
Then, once Zod's plot is foiled and Zod the only survivor, it's totally understandable why Zod wants to kill Superman. Superman has taken away Zod's sole purpose for living. So, the conflicts that end the Man-of-Steel hardly amount to video-game violence. Violence may not be your thing, but there's something really off about critics' faulting Man-of-Steel's action when they accept the more mindless violence of so many other comicbook-films.
There are problems with Man-Of-Steel. The fistfights on Krypton feel out-of-place, Zod should've captured Marth-Kent, and Superman's fight against the tentacle-thingy is unnecessary-CGI. Also, with so many comicbook-films out there and Superman's origin so well-known, Man-of-Steel can't help but feel a little redundant.
Still, the film works overall.
(BTW Superman did kill Zod in Superman-2!)
The Avengers (2012)
Are movies so bad now that a film like this is considered great?
Have movies become so bad these days that a merely well-executed totally formulaic film, like "The Avengers," is heralded as an exceptional film?
Sure, this film hits all the marks and has some good one-liners, but once we expected films to be refreshing and new. "Star Wars," while having obvious flaws, provided us a totally new universe with its own unique political conflicts, worlds, and even its own theology (the force). Its first twenty-minutes is mostly watching the story of a robotic English dandy (C3-P0) argue with a chirping rolling trashcan (R2-D2), but amazingly enough Lucas made that unique and crazy idea entertaining. The plot of "The Avengers" is just your run-of-the-mill comic book story-line. Compare its plot to that of "Inception" or "The Matrix" or even "Back to the Future" or "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly." Much of what makes those films so great is that their plots are highly innovative. You have no idea where they are going. You always know exactly where "The Avengers" is going.
Along these same lines, "Psycho," "The Empire Strikes Back," "The Matrix," etc. provide classic twists--Norman has gone insane and has, in his mind, become his mother, the film's apparent killer; Darth Vader, the film's main villain, is revealed to be Luke's father; the first half of "The Matrix" turns out to have transpired in a totally false reality. Nobody expected these twists. What unexpected occurs in "The Avengers"? Even its minor twists have appeared in other recent films. Its most significant--Loki allowing his own capture--comes straight from "The Dark Knight."
Gangster films before "The Godfather" were just pulp. "The Godfather" transcended the genre just as "Unforgiven" did with Westerns. The same is true about "The Dark Knight." "The Avengers" doesn't transcend; it regurgitates a done-to-death plot. Unlike "The Avengers," "The Dark Knight" was more than a comic book film. It was entertaining, compelling, yet it explored complex moral ideas, and its plot went in innovative directions. Did anyone know that "The Dark Knight" would end not with a fistfight but instead with a battle between the Joker and Batman for Harvey Dent's soul, a scene that leaves it open to interpretation whether the Joker or Batman really won in the end, a scene far more compelling than any sequence of destruction could ever be? And did anyone NOT know that "The Avengers" would end with a huge battle with the Avengers ultimately triumphant? Uncertainty about how a plot will be resolved is what once kept the audience hooked, not the continual spectacle of fights and explosions. In fact, look at the IMDb Top 250. With how many of these films would you know exactly how they'd end if you were seeing them for the first time? In fact, apart from the cartoons, is there a single entry as totally formulaic as "The Avengers" is?
And let's not forget, did you ever worry that any of the Avengers would not survive? If not, then where was the real dramatic tension? One of the things that made "The Dark Knight" so compelling is that one of its two heroes not only dies but is also believably turned evil before he is killed. And did anyone expect what happened to Rachel Dawes, Harvey Dent's girlfriend? One of the things that made "Psycho" so dramatic is its main protagonist dies halfway through the film. Great films--serious or fun--must make the audience feel that there is something truly at stake.
And do I even have to go into how voting to give "The Avengers" a 10 places it on par with the all-time great works of film art--"One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," "Schindler's List," "Taxi Driver," "Apocalypse Now," "Citizen Kane", "Vertigo," "Crimes and Misdemeanors," "8 1/2," "Manhattan," "Cinema Paradiso" etc.? A vote of 10 for a film like this diminishes the worth of these works of art that explore the deepest issues concerning the human condition.
Though I've brought up some films that are darker than "The Avengers" or more serious, that is not my complaint about "The Avengers" at all. "Star Wars, " "The Empire Strikes Back," "Back to the Future," "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly" were fun movies, but they also had plots that went in unexpected directions, had surprising twists, introduced us to unique characters. The elements I've listed here are what make a film exceptional and deserving of an incredibly high rating. Just a well-done totally formulaic movie like "The Avengers" simply does not deserve the praise it is getting. Of course this film does not deserve a 1 out of 10. I would really give it 3 or maybe 3 1/2 out of 5 stars, which is equivalent to a 6 or 7 out of 10 on the IMDb rating scale. However, until others don't alter their votes to put "The Avengers" more in line with where it should be in comparison to other great entertaining films of history, my vote will remain a 1.
Go watch "The Avengers" a few more times. Once you've gotten used to the 3-D, the special effects, the digital surround sound, you'll see that the film is predictable, the jokes are so-so, and the violence of the fights and of the long climactic end battle actually gets kind of boring.
If you're a teenager still reading comics or a lover of comic books who's always dreamed of watching Hulk fight Thor, Thor fight Iron Man, then this movie is what you've always been waiting for, but for the rest of us, "The Avengers" is not the tour de force it's been made out to be.
Oh wait a sec.
I just learned that there's a movie based on "Battleship"--you know, that dull board game for eight-year-olds. I guess movies really are that bad. If you compare "The Avengers" only to garbage like that, I guess it really does seem great.