Archive for May, 2015

“Tomorrowland” feels like Neil Degrasse Tyson’s version of “Atlas Shrugged”.  It is an unabashed plea toward optimism, hope, and the power of science fueled by imagination.  It is also often corny and simplistic in a hippie-ish, kumbaya sort of way.  This is a film one WANTS to like more than ACTUALLY likes, but one also finds their heart warmed a little at attempting to make something this uncynical and hopeful.

I’m afraid this is a review I cannot write without going into HEAVY SPOILERS.  You’ve been warned.  “Tomorrowland” is a film begging the audience, and the human race, to step enjoying and perpetuating apocalypse and disaster porn and actually try to make the world a better place. It’s a film that sees politicians and “captains of industry” (the film’s words…I would have said “capitalists”, but never mind) as impediments to any real progress as a species, and it’s a film that wears a smile even as it harbors barely repressed anger, much like the robots in the film that smile widely while trying to vaporize people.  It’s also, weirdly, a film that seems to promote destruction of property in the cause of stopping bad things from happening, ala the Weather Underground, so one could potentially read the film as pro-terrorism or pro-revolution, but only in the benign, good intentioned, nobody-gets-hurt way.  Perhaps a plot summary is in order.

In 1964 there is a World’s Fair going on, and a young boy goes there to try to win $50.00 by submitting his jet pack in a contest.  The contest seems to be judged by David Nix (Hugh Laurie), who cares more about the fact that the jet pack doesn’t quite work (it goes fast horizontally, but not vertically) than the fact that a young boy invented an almost working jet pack out of old vacuum cleaner parts.  The boy thinks people seeing a guy wearing a jet pack flying would cause hope and wonder. Nix replies that maybe it would…if it worked.  Nowadays, I’m pretty sure a guy in a jet pack would be a side item at the bottom of the Huffington Post, but this film is very old fashioned and hey, back in the 50s and 60s, these “Jetsons”-style innovations really wowed people.  In the present, each of us carries a supercomputer in our pockets and we use it to gossip and send dick pics. Technology alone cannot wow us.

Despite the rejection, a young girl named Athena (Raffey Cassidy, who gives one helluva performance for a child actor) takes a shine to the boy and gives him a shiny pin with a “T” on it and tells him to follow her and Nix but to not be seen.  He follows them into the “It’s a Small World” ride.  Yes, that ride makes an appearance in this film.  The most annoying thing Disney has ever produced turns out to, when activated by detecting the pin, lead to a secret place that transports the boy to Tomorrowland, a city in another dimension that looks like every 1950s sci-fi magazine cover art you’ve ever looked at.  A robot repairs the kid’s jetpack, and we learn that the kid will grow up to be Frank Walker, played as an adult by George Clooney.

We leave that storyline to join Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) a young girl who is upset that her NASA engineer father (Tim McGraw…yes, Tim McGraw) is losing his job because America doesn’t send people into space anymore.   Casey decides to commit a little harmless terrorism by sneaking into Cape Canaveral and sabotaging the tools needed to dismantle the launch pad, the completion of which would begin her dad’s layoff.  Aside from revenge, Casey is also an optimism junkie and lover of science who is tired of reading dystopias in high school and learning about the melting polar ice caps and wants to know what she can do, rather than give in to defeatism.  After being arrested for attempting to continue sabotaging Government property, she is bailed out by her dad and finds a pin that doesn’t belong to her in the possession given back to her upon release.  When she touches the pin, she is transported to Tomorrowland (not really, but in a virtual reality type of way).  Naturally, she becomes intrigued by the pin and goes about searching for what it is, where it comes from, and what it means.

It’s obvious that Athena gave her the pin, because the film doesn’t hide this, and eventually, after saving Casey from killer robots, Athena gives her some information and drops her off at now-adult Frank’s place.  After his house is attacked by robots, Frank reluctantly agrees to go back to Tomorrowland with Casey and Athena.  See, Frank created something, and that something lead to him being exiled so that he spends his days on Earth watching footage of bad things happening around the world and watching a clock tick down to something which, we can guess, is the end of the world.

It’s not until all of our main characters are in Tomorrowland in the third act that we get explanations for everything, and the film actually gets interesting.  Not that the first two acts are boring, because they’re often enjoyable, but we as an audience beat the film to the punch before the film is willing to finally explain shit to us.  We get that scientists (and artists, the film points out) were recruited to go to this utopia of the imaginative intelligentsia in the 1960s, something went wrong, and now something big is on the line.  The first two acts of this film tend to stare at its feet, pretend the audience hasn’t even connected the dots of the previous sentence yet even though we have fairly early into act one, and then FINALLY give answer ACTUAL questions in act three.  Act three of this film is good, and it makes me wish the film decided to tell us a story about Frank, Nix, and Athena in Tomorrowland for the first two acts, instead of giving us the story of annoying Casey.

So here’s the thrust of the film. After initial recruitment to this technocratic and meritocratic Galt’s Gulch, the citizens of Tomorrowland were getting ready to reveal this place and its achievements to the masses of Earth and invite them to emigrate there, where all good benefit from the fruits of the labors of genius.  But then Frank created a device which, using particles that travel faster than light, could see into the future.  This device revealed Earth’s destruction.  In an attempt to stop this, Nix, knowing that merely trying to convince those in power with data and evidence wouldn’t work (as it doesn’t today for Global Warming, which seems to have replaced the nuclear war of the 50s and 60s as the most likely culprit in ending human life as we know it), decided to “beam” (for lack of a better word) images of our destruction to us here on Earth.  Rather than be repulsed by these and work to fix our issues in order to avoid it, Nix saw that we as humans embrace our destruction.  In a lengthy monologue that sounds like the misanthropic rantings of, well, my own Facebook page, Nix calls out movies and video games in which we turn out destruction into fun. I’m sure the target here are those idiots who actually WISH they could be alive during a real zombie apocalypse because they of course assume THEY would survive.  The issue with Nix calling out apocalyptic and dystopian fiction is that those fictions often work as an allegory and bring attention to issues we are facing in the hopes that we will avoid them.  In that way, they can be useful and not pornographic.  Honestly, Nix’s issue should be with the politicians who ignore evidence for the sake of special interest money and “captains of industry” who make a profit off of destroying the world and, thus, have no incentive to try and save it since they assume they will die rich long before the world burns.  The film’s issue should be with Capitalism and government corruption, not a generalized state of apathy and malaise.  Granted, apathy and malaise, causing people to give up and see no hope, helps keep evil government officials in power and evil Capitalists rich, but the film’s not exactly trying to inspire people toward revolution.  It’s encouraging people to imagine things.  Sadly, you can’t invent the thing you imagine if you don’t have the start-up capital.

We have plenty of people trying to invent, or having invented, stuff that would help us. Cars that run on urine, biofuel made from algae, etc.  The issue isn’t that smart people stopped dreaming shit up.  The issue is that people won’t fund that shit, or that people with more money want to shut them down so they don’t hurt THEIR profits.  Okay, okay, not everyone reading this review is going to be an anti-Capitalist, and certainly I don’t expect a film by Walt Disney Studios to argue that, but it seems very naïve to argue that people need to dream. That’s all fine and dandy, but ACTIONS also need to be taken.  The film itself tells us in dialogue that it’s easy to blow up an evil building (or something to that effect) but that the hard part is building something in its place. Dreaming alone doesn’t build anything.

So okay.  Nix’s plan creates a self-fulfilling prophecy, leading the people of Earth to just sit on their ass and accept their inevitable destruction.  It’s like the people who get fed up with the whole political process and refuse to vote when it’s that very refusal which keeps anything from happening (and their refusal to RUN for office when they’re upset that no one expresses their views).  So, our heroes blow up the transmitter, and that’s pretty much how Earth at least has a chance of being saved. Okay. I guess.  Not sure why that plan is so special that Casey has to be in this film at all.  Also, in the third act we see that Tomorrowland is still up and running, but some of it looks to be in states of mild disrepair.  Why is this?  If Tomorrowland won’t be effected by Earth’s destruction, why did Tomorrowland not continue to thrive with the small population of learned scientists and artists that it had?  Were they too sad to invent anything knowing that the rest of their species would die?  In Tomorrowland there isn’t the Capitalist Profit motive, but there IS apparently a Dream Motive that is woefully dry. I guess.

I get the writers’ tiredness with dystopian fiction.  It’s been everywhere recently, and especially in the entertainment of the youth with “The Hunger Games” and “Divergent” and their ilk.  I get that in the 50s we were dreaming of moon bases and jet packs when we were kids, and now our kids are wondering what Fascist horrorland while rise from our world’s ashes.  Fine.  “Tomorrowland” is merely telling us to have hope, don’t get beaten down, and maybe that way we’ll think up a way out of our cultural malaise and planet-wide predicaments.  It’s a fine message, but it’s simplistic and pie-eyed and just not enough.  We HAVE people dreaming, and we HAVE scientists trying shit out.  THOSE people don’t have the MONEY that fossil fuel companies have, and while governments do have that money, they don’t spend it on that stuff because politicians are owned by persons who don’t want anything other than economic growth for themselves.

That being said, the film is enjoyable enough, and perhaps it will encourage some viewers to be proactive and attempt to change the world.  In the Vietnam era, some young people thought that their protesting could end that war and the country could move beyond the racist, Christian dystopia that was the American 1950s.  Those young people got the right to vote (the voting age was lowered to 18 by Constitutional Amendment), but they didn’t change much else.  Young people have been cynical ever since, and the brief hope of Obama’s election ebbed when he didn’t turn out to be the hope we thought he could be.  Maybe some 9 year old kid will see this film and keep it in the back of their head and one day try to do something with their life to make the world a better place.  Stranger things have happened.

I do also like the character of Nix.  He showcases how and intelligent, hopeful person can be beaten down and give up on the idiots around him that he initially was hoping to bring a better world too.  It’s how I feel when I talk to my peers about Marxism and they shrug me off as a pie-eyed radical, and I think the plebeians will get what’s coming to them and I’ll be able to say “I Told You So”.  I haven’t given up, but in my 20s I did for a long time. Nix is the idealist who becomes corrupted when his utopia didn’t accomplish what it was supposed to be. I think of Trotsky when the promise of the Soviet Union became Stalin’s nightmare land.

“Tomorrowland” would have been better without the character of Casey. It has some nice touches and fun moments, and Raffey Cassidy is VERY GOOD in this film. Despite being a child, she is able to play a character who is wise not just beyond her years, but beyond her species.  I expect that young actress to go places.  I wish the film has just been about the trifecta of  Frank, Athena, and Nix, but I have to review the film that exists and not the film I would have liked to see, and the former film gets an affectionate B.

P.S.: The special effects in this film are often lacking, especially when live actors are blended into CGI backgrounds.  I was never convinced I was seeing young Frank on a jet pack flying through Tomorrowland.  Considering the director, Brad Bird, got his start at Pixar, I’m surprised by how under whelmed I was with this film’s computer animation.

“Mad Max: Fury Road”, if nothing else, shows that practical effects augmented by CGI are always more interesting and exciting to watch than action sequences that are almost entirely CGI.  While the film is ultimately a series of beautiful, immaculately staged car chase and gun fire sequences, it remains far more entertaining and exciting than anything I saw in “Avengers: Age of Ultron”, simply because I actually felt like I was watching human beings in a life or death struggle, and not cartoons fighting cartoons.  The sheer thrill of seeing actual cars crash and explode as actual stunt actors jump from car to car and swing to and fro from poles is worth more than a million Iron Mans fighting a million Hulks.  That thrill, which “Fury” provides us, does a lot to make up for paper thin characters and a threadbare script.

This is, of course, the fourth film in almost forty-year-old series, so I can forgive the film for not developing the character of Max (Tom Hardy, in a role originated by Mel Gibson).  The other main character, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), however…well, let’s just say that the film doesn’t provide us with important information about her character that, instead, I went into the film knowing from the promotional material.  Her character can’t have children, and that’s why she’s not used as a breeder or chattel by the feudal warlord villain, Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne).  If you simply watched this movie without reading anything about it earlier, this would fit into the category of plot hole.  After all, she’s the only female Joe allows to be part of his army of young men brainwashed by a false religion. Oh yeah, that parallel to young, male Islamic jihadist is pretty surface in this film.  Perhaps Joe’s five “wives” (really captive property and rape victims) would make him a stand-in for Muhammad, but I doubt the filmmakers would ever admit that in public.

This isn’t a film that slows down for things like character nuance or dialogue, and we have a pretty simple plot. Joe is dictator of a place called the Citadel.  He has access to water, pumped out of the Earth, and some plants that he’s able to grow for food.  This is a post-apocalyptic world in which oil ran out, nuclear weapons have been detonated, and water is scarce, so by controlling these resources, he has a lot of power.  His army consists mainly of the aforementioned brainwashed young males, who dream of going to Valhalla (Viking afterlife, indicating Joe is old and learned).  Many of these males are sick with radiation poisoning.  There are lower classes which seem to serve little-to-no purpose, but he sporadically gives them water, so he must keep them alive for some reason.  In addition, he has a number of women whom he milks, the milk being a beverage treat reserved for him and his inner circle, including a hulking son named Rictus (Nathan Jones).  Plus, Joe keeps five wives, who are thinner, cleaner, and prettier than any other female in this universe, locked in a bank vault with books.  They seem to lead lives as comfortable sex slaves as Joe attempts to sire many sons.

As the film begins, Joe is sending a convoy of soldiers, including Furiosa, to pick up ammunition from Bullet Town, and gasoline from Gas Town.  It seems one town is run by a dictator who controls weapons Capital, one town is run by a dictator who controls oil and gas Capital, and Joe controls Food, Water, and perhaps Human Capital.  These three towns seem to have a symbiotic relationship in keeping each other afloat while a few other, smaller civilizations we see, like Bikers in the mountains, live on the outskirts and are hostile to the big three.

What Joe doesn’t know is that Furiosa has a plan to detour off convoy and escape with his “wives”.  She hopes to take them to the female-run “green place” from where she was born and stolen from “7000 days ago”.  When Joe finds out she’s gone off the reservation, he himself, and a large army, go after her.

So how does Max fit into this?  Well, he’s a universal blood donor, and at the beginning of the film he is captured by Joe’s forces and is being used to donate blood to soliders with radiation sickness, including Nux (Nicholas Holt), a particularly sick and brainwashed dolt who decides to drag Max along with him as his “blood bag” because he doesn’t want to miss out on fighting and perhaps dying in glorious combat, thus finding his way to Valhalla where he’ll be as shiny as chrome.  Hey, it’s not any more or less stupid than 72 virgins, or partying with Jesus, so don’t act all superior any non-atheists reading this.

After some time, Max ends up with Furiosa and the ladies running from Joe and his forces, and that’s pretty much the plot. The plot is simple, whereas the world itself is a social commentary on our world’s finite resources, radical Islam, and patriarchy.  Much has been made in the press about “Fury” being a feminist film.  I’m not actually sure how feminist this thing is.  Yes, the film is about women who are property and used and exploited for their woman-ness (sex, reproduction, milk production).  Their savior is another woman in Furiosa, who is often a more capable and smarter character than Max.  The wives are sometimes damsels in distress, but each one also seems to get a t least one opportunity to do something useful in the course of the film.  My issue with calling the film feminist is that Furiosa is a female character, but she is pretty much drained of any femininity within the film.  It is ultimately Max who comes up with the brilliant plan that launches the third act and leads to the womens’ salvation, whereas Furiosa was going to take them on a fool’s errand.  Hell, even Nux is the one who ultimately makes sure that final plan of Max’s work with an act of self-sacrifice.  Look, the film is more feminist than most action films (I didn’t pay attention to see if it would pass the Bechdel Test), and despite the wives being half-naked, the film doesn’t linger on their supermodel bodies or gaze at them in an overtly sexual manner.  Any ways in which the film is not feminist could potential be excused by practical plot matters and realism, and the film does go out of its way on occasion to not be stereotypical, like a scene where Max is using a sniper rifle, but has to hand it over to Furiosa when there’s only one bullet left because she’s just better with it than he is.

I kind of wish the film was saying more things, or at least less obvious things, given that the world of the film is so rich and the opportunities to explore everything from the economy to environmental issues to war and religion are abundant.  In the end, what we have is a smarter-than-average film which deals with women in a better-than-average manner for an action film.  The practical effects make the action scenes more exciting and the weight and gravity of the action makes it feel like there’s more at stake.  The costumes and production design are fabulous and really bring this dying, scavenger-based world to life, and the harsh environment they exist in (the movie was filmed in Namibia) FEELS harsh.  Everything in this film is covered in dirt and sand and muck.  If the film had smell-o-vision, the theater would reek with the scent of body odor.  The mise-en-scene is often times gorgeous as red, almost Martian sand populates the frame, and the hopelessness of life in this world constantly frames the film with dread and hopelessness.  This is a post-apocalyptic world few will secretly yearn to exist in, unlike many zombie apocalypses portrayed in films today.

“Fury Road” is highly entertaining, contains better action than most films these days thanks to its sparing use of CGI when practical effects can be utilized, and is pretty much wall-to-wall excitement for its entire running time. If I have issues with things like character development and a shoestring story, they are drowned out by the awesome score and how damn entertaining this thing is. If we see a better action film all summer, I’ll be shocked. B+

Andrew Niccol does two types of movies really well. The first type, and the one he’s more known for, is idea-driven science fiction.  “Gattaca” is the main example of this, and Niccol’s most successful film, but he also made the underrated “In Time”.  The other type is taking a policy issue and creating a personal drama around it.  “Lord of War”, one of Nic Cage’s better films of the last two decades, dealt with arms dealers and was a meditation on the role guns play in both the United States and the world at large.  This second type of film is where “Good Kill”, Niccol’s latest film, firmly resides.  This type, the topic is drone warfare, and the resulting film plays like a liberal version of “American Sniper” with a few sprinkles of “The Hurt Locker” and “Jarhead”, but ends up being a bit too on-the-nose to be effect as anything more than  an op-ed piece.

The film stars Niccol regular Ethan Hawke as Major Thomas Egan, a former fighter pilot who was cajoled out of flying actual planes and is now on his third tour as a drone pilot.  He sits in what he refers to as “an air condition cubicle” with at least three other soldiers and pilots drones flying over Afghanistan while, later, and he can go home to his house and his family just outside of Las Vegas after his shift is over.  The drone missions range from surveillance, to offering overhead protection for sleeping soldiers in the field, to assassinating proven members of terrorist organizations.  When we first meet Egan, he’s a bit cold to his family at home and drinks perhaps a tad too much vodka, and much like the sniper who is never allowed to take a shot in “Jarhead”, is upset that he was trained to be an actual pilot but is stuck navigating a joystick in a bunker thousands of miles away from the actual warzone.  The film, for the most part, is okay with drone missions in this early part of the film, which takes place in 2010, when the military was actually running their own missions and there was a certain burden of proof before blowing people up.

As the film goes on, oversight of the drone program moves to the CIA, which has a much looser standard for taking out targets. Killings can now take place if certain repeated behaviors SUGGEST impropriety, and the CIA in the film is fairly unconcerned with collateral damage, even ordering to double-tap certain bombed sites when people start to pour over the initial wreckage caused by a drone strike.

The film is a hodgepodge of a bunch of liberal talking points. The film is very concerned with the fact that drone strikes have a large impact radius which will often kill or wound people who are not the intended target, and that those people will inevitable have a chip on their shoulder and become terrorists even if they were not radicalized before.  The film argues that the advent of drone warfare, despite the collateral damage issue and the loose standards by which we blow people up, is because it is cheaper and easier to kill people with robots from the sky than to capture and imprison terrorist suspects (and torture them), since any attempt to capture people on the ground could result in American troops being captured or killed in the process.  We also get a look at the hypocrisy of an American government that considers any gun-carrying Afghani a terrorist when most Afghanis have guns regardless of whether or not they are affiliated with terrorism, and America is gung-ho about its right to bear arms.  We get a potshot, courtesy of a character played by Zoe Kravitz, at President Obama getting a Nobel Peace prize while overseeing a drone war.  There’s criticism of drone missions being staged over Yemen, a country the United States is ostensibly not at war with.  If the film offers any counter argument, it’s usually characters that mimic Chris Kyle from “American Sniper”, referring to Muslims as “savages”, claiming American can kill them faster than they can breed, and a paranoid fear of radical Muslims wanting to take over America and institute Sharia Law.  Egan’s commanding officer, played well by Bruce Greenwood, argues that killing is a vicious cycle, and even if we (America) stopped killing them, THEY (terrorists) wouldn’t stop killing us.  A rather dejected and amoral argument, but I suppose that’s about as good as the jingoistic crowd has.

The film is not 100% anti-drone, as it seems to be okay with surveillance and protection missions, and aside from an early drone strike where two kids are accidentally killed as collateral damage, the early pre-CIA strikes are all portrayed positively.  Later in the film, Egan uses a drone to take revenge on a man they see repeatedly rape a female, but the man is never on any kill list from the military or the CIA in the film, even when civilians sometimes are.  “Good Kill” is perhaps slightly less anti-drone than Jeremy Scahill’s anti-drone documentary “Dirty Wars”, but only slightly.  Greenwood’s character does briefly gripe that where once wars from the sky were waged by trained pilots but will soon be by kids trained directly on Xbox’s, but drones in and of themselves are not attacked as much as the methods and rules of engagement that are utilized when deploying drone attacks.

The political content is often delivered directly in surface level, talking heads dialogue.  That’s a bit weak.  The main weakness of the film, however, is its insistence in having a family story run concurrently with the drone and political stuff.  Egan and his wife’s (January Jones) marriage is cold and loveless, and we’re told at one point abusive.  Egan’s issue seems to be that he has a hard time compartmentalizing going to work and killing people during the day, and coming home to his family at night.  At one point, he gripes that when he physically WENT AWAY to war, war was war and home was home, but that it’s harder to keep the two separate when you experience both in the same day, every day.  Honestly, the relationship stuff is about as uncompelling as the relationship stuff in “American Sniper”, though “Good Kill” is otherwise better in every way from that reprehensible piece of shit.  Still, Egan has two kids, and we never see one of them, except maybe in a brief glimpse in one scene.  I’m surprised they didn’t just cut the son out completely.  Also, while the moral crises of killing A LOT of innocent people during the CIA portion is compelling, Egan’s character has issues with the drone stuff earlier, and that’s all for selfish and not very sympathetic reasons (he just wants to fly a real damn plane), which makes his decent into alcoholism not very saddening.  While “Sniper” failed in its portrayal of PTSD because it was cynically wedged in to avoid criticism, and then portrayed unrealistically, “Good Kill” fails with a different type of PTSD, and alcoholism, because it starts off for stupid reasons and is only then exacerbated by moral crises.

I appreciate the effort by Niccol, and some of the drone scenes are suitably tense.  Having the CIA solely represented by a voice on speaker phone, showing even further the detachment of war than piloting robots, was a nice touch.  But we also have a potential affair and romance with Kravitz’s character thrown in the mix and, well, the film end sup with a lack of focus and is just not very successful.  I have not seen the “The Host”, but I have seen Niccol’s previously most disappointing film, “Sim0ne”, and “Good Kill” is only slightly better than that.

We’ve gotten a lot of films in the past few years about drones, but most have been about drone warfare metaphorically, like the “RoboCop” remake or “Star Trek Into Darkness”. Literal films are pretty much limited to “Dirty Wars” and maybe the Wikileaks drama “The Fifth Estate”.  “Good Kill” is a valiant effort for being on the field first with a dramatic film about what it may be like to wage a war outside of a war zone, and some of the moral hardships involved, but it’s too on-the-nose, direct, and surface to let the drama carry the ideas, and the family stuff is not executed well at all. C+

Spectacle is fine.  I enjoy a good spectacle as much as the next human being.  I think the difference, however, between myself and an average moviegoer is that I get restless when a film is ONLY spectacle.  Some people are turned on by special effects and watching digital people fight digital people and cause digital destruction all day long.  Personally, I’m more turned on by imagination and ideas than spectacle.  The best of both worlds, of course, is a film that weaves in killer spectacle in the midst of ideas.  I would credit, from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” as the film which has most successfully done this.  It helped when that film has a car chase and assault sequence that felt far more practical than it did CGI, though I’m sure both were employed.

The issue I have with “Avengers: Age of Ultron”, which is a perfectly fun and enjoyable spectacle, is its lack of imagination and ideas.  This is particularly disappointing when the man who wrote this film is Joss Whedon, who is often so goddamn good at marrying ideas with spectacle. “Cabin in the Woods”, the underrated “Dollhouse”, and of course “Firefly” and “Buffy/Angel” have all shown the man to be a true talent.  Whether it’s from overbearing Marvel executives or the difficultly of balancing so many characters into a single narrative, Whedon seems very watered down in both the first “Avengers” (which was slightly better and had the novelty of seeing disparate film franchises combined which has now fallen away) and now this sequel.  My disappointment is not because the film isn’t good, because it’s a fun time at the movies, but because it could have been more.

I’m not a Marvel Universe junkie.  I’ve skipped both “Thor” films, found “Guardians” to be a good film but hilariously overrated (and also found its auteur, James Gunn, to be watered down), and in general am not as impressed with the whole enterprise as I was with Nolan’s first 2/3rds of his “Batman” trilogy.  That being said, I kind of like this sprawling, multi-storied universe of the likes we normally only see in comics being perpetrated on the big screen.  Any franchise that calls out to be graphed awakens a nerd in me.  I have, however, been following the general plot progress of this thing.  “Age of Ultron” largely ignores “Guardians” and picks up after “Winter Soldier”.  The Avengers have come together to storm a Hydra facility which contains both an Infinity Stone (glowing rock MacGuffin) as well as two new super-powered characters who don’t like Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) because his weapons were once used to blow up their home.  These characters are Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen).  We saw a different version of Quicksilver in the last X-Men film, which is not part of the MCU.  This version is less of a jokester and has a Russian accent.  Scarlet Witch, however, is a welcome addition to the film.  Aside from a cool power (telepathy and mind-control) she is designed to look like a cross between the hottest goth girl who never went to your high school and the hottest fake profile on Anastasia Date.  Olsen is also a good actress, though previous roles (“Silent House”, “Martha Marcy May Marlene”) have been in flawed films that haven’t really showcased her talent.

As for our heroes, well, Iron Man is still a Capitalist dick with a god complex, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is still a fish out of water, and Captain America (Chris Evans) is still old fashioned and has a strict code of ethics.  It’s the second string characters that actually get story this time, showing Whedon at least heard some of the criticisms of the first film, as well as the MCU as a whole. We get a whole load of information about Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), and a weak explanation of why this bow-and-arrow shooting muggle is a member of the Avengers (something about a regular human being needed to balance out their egos, or something…I said the explanation was weak).  Black Widow (Scarlet Johansson) is given a bit more of a back story as well, though apparently certain feminists online have been upset about it.  I think it’s important to keep in mind that the back story is not meant to show her as a “baby-fevered flirt” but to explain how the character views herself and why she would fall for the Hulk/Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo).  She views them as the same thing: flawed people whose flaws were forced upon them and not chosen, and who because of these can’t fit in.  Turning into a giant, green Mr. Hyde is probably not the same as someone fighting against their nurtured programming of being a lethal assassin, but it’s close enough.  Also, while some blame Whedon for only giving her this story line to enhance a man’s (Banner’s), I view it more as both characters enhancing each other’s story lines.  In any case, I think people complaining about alleged misogyny in Whedon’s work should A) watch “Dollhouse” and see that he even subverts his own magical-hot-waif trope in many cases and B) watch “Sucker Punch” to see what a misogynist spin on Whedon by someone who is not Whedon really looks like.

I was not as a big a fan of Loki (Tom Middleton) as everyone on the internet seems to be, and I was hoping this time we’d get a better villain.  This time we’re given an artificially intelligent being named Ultron  (James Spader).  I’m surprised the character kept this name, seeing as how it was bestowed upon him by Stark, whom he hates for reasons unclear.  I’d also point out that his creation is as much on Banner, Scarlet Witch, and possibly Thanos (Josh Brolin) as it is Stark, but Ultron specifically hates Stark.  This may be because Ultron doesn’t want to be viewed as one of mindless drones that Stark created in “Iron Man 3”, but perhaps the film would have been more interesting if Ultron, instead of being fueled by an anger that seems to come from nowhere (maybe Thanos) he was a super-logical robot ala “War Games” that simply saw human destruction as the only logical path to peace.  Then again, that would go against the Ultron from the comics (even though Marvel Films has no problem changing their villains, as evident by “Iron Man 3” and The Mandarin).  In any case, we’re treated to an angry robot voiced deliciously by Spader who seems to be a stand-in for Whedon’s opinion of religion.  Ultron’s base of operations is a church and he compares himself to god from the story of Noah so, yeah, Whedon decided the “puny god” line from the first film didn’t adequately express his hatred for religion.  Then again, having one of your heroes be another god, Thor, kind of undercuts any general atheist or anti-theist message.

I guess that’s part of my issue with the film.  There is so much potential to say something political with this thing, and nothing is said. Hell, “Winter Soldier” and “Iron Man 3” both had pretty surface political messages all but the most idiotic of filmgoers could see, but this film never has a clear thing to say.  The Eastern European, South Korean, and South African settings are all ripe to be backdrops to political messages, but we barely get any.  There’s some acid thrown in an Iron Drone’s face when it’s claiming to want to help and protect them, but any comment about drone warfare or American intervention in other countries is undercut by the fact that the drones in the film really ARE there to help, and hating them is counterproductive to the citizens if they want to survive Hydra.  Iron Man and Captain America argue over ethics a little bit, but it’s more broad issues than anything specific (democratic weighing of opinions or unilateral measures).  Any indictment the film makes of Stark for going against the will of the group to make Ultron is undercut when Stark does the same damn thing and ends up (with Thor’s help) with Vision (Paul Bettany), who is at least good enough to wield Thor’s hammer.  I guess we’ll have to wait for “Captain America: Civil War” for any good political stuff to come back to the MCU, and to have a true Stark vs Rogers ideology-off.

Also, Ultron is kept from being a really good villain simply because he ends up so simplistic.  Humans will never have peace, so all humans must die to give rise to a new army of super-robots.  We’ve seen this already a hundred times, and no new spin is put on it.  Ultron’s ultimate plan to accomplish this, inspired by meteor-caused extinction events, is kind of James Bond-out there.  Granted, the film lets us know that Ultron can’t launch nuclear weapons, but there have got to be easier ways to wreak world havoc than lifting a large, Eastern European city out of the ground, flying it high, and crashing it to Earth to kill all of the life.

Despite my issues, there are moments of the film that make the 13-year-old boy in me smile.  The whole Iron Man vs. Hulk fight is very fun.  Ultron derided humans for using the world’s strongest metal to make “a Frisbee” (Captain America’s shield) is funny.  Thor’s little fight with Stark over whose girlfriend is better was nice.  The film doesn’t have as many of these moments as one would hope, but there’s enough of them.

I also like that Whedon clearly saw the criticism “Man of Steel” got for having wanton destruction of a major metropolitan area without referencing how many civilians were likely killed.  The finale is basically just our heroes trying to evacuate civilians as robots try to kill everyone, and Iron Man specifically checks to see if a building under construction has people in it before dropping the Hulk in it (the ash and debris, however, he seems unconcerned with).

I was about as disappointed with the finale of this film as I was with the last film.  The last film has our heroes fighting a bunch of anonymous digital aliens on flying jetski-segway things, and it was boring.  This film has our heroes fighting a bunch of robots and it’s slightly less boring, but having heroes fight digital NPCs is not very fun to me anymore as a moviegoer. Sorry.

That said, the film is often fun and has some good jokes, though it feels longer than the first film despite having a shorter running time. I was hoping Spader’s Ultron would be less clichéd and more dark and sinister, or cold and logical, but we just got a petulant child with daddy issues and a hackneyed view of humanity.

I’m hoping “Captain America: Civil War” ends up being the film I wanted “Age of Ultron” to be. B-