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Hey, you’ve really got to hand it to DC and Warner Bros. In the same year that they’ve been knocked from pillar to post for releasing the distinctly average Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice, they’ve now managed to pull out all the stops and have provided us with a superhero film – or rather a boringvillain film – that is by far the most joyless and clumsily-assembled I’ve seen since last year’s mishandled Fantastic Four reboot. Way to go, DC! That’s close to half a billion spent on two of the poorest blockbuster films of 2016, both of which have failed to assertively establish a credible, cohesive series to rival Marvel’s ongoing blur of colourful spandex and quippery. And no, YouTube clips of characters like Aquaman and sudden, brief appearances by The Flash are not acceptable enough in terms of world-building.

David Ayer’s Suicide Squad – a riff on The Dirty Dozen that’s loosely adapted from the comic series of the same name – opens with a raft of interminable exposition, which slowly introduces us to the main characters in the most simplistic (and patronising) way possible. Viola Davis plays the high-ranking army official who wants to put a squad of bad guys together, ostensibly so that they can be sent in to tackle any ‘meta-human’ threats in the future (especially as Superman’s currently … uh … unavailable). She sits in a restaurant going through a dossier, but we see more of her later, and to Davis’ credit she somehow manages to walk away from this film with her reputation enhanced. In terms of the villains, first up is Will Smith’s Deadshot, a hitman who can shoot accurately. Imagine! In fact, for some bizarre reason, the character is introduced twice: once during a kind of brief origin story, and then once more in a flashback to a back alley showdown with Ben Affleck’s Batman, which establishes the fact that Deadshot’s a little conflicted because he has a daughter (god forbid Smith should ever play an out-and-out bastard, thereby tarnishing his carefully-honed image). Some barely-relevant and jokey text appears on screen alongside him, which is indicative of the infamous late decision to add humour to the film, and seems completely at odds with the style of the rest of the piece. Other characters get the same treatment, including Margot Robbie’s crazy Harley Quinn. Initially a psychiatrist before becoming the tortured moll-like plaything of The Joker (Jared Leto, more later), she too is captured by The Batfleck during an unnecessarily misogynistic scene in which she is punched in the face, given a lusty bit of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation after nearly drowning, and then subsequently half-strangled by her captor (much of which is filmed from Batman’s perspective). Worse is to come: the Harley Quinn costume design is certainly striking in this film, but Ayer resorts to filming Robbie like he’s got a daily ass-shot quota to fill, and perves over her backside while forcing the actress to acrobatically wrap her legs around the heads of people she fights. She tries gamely to make the character’s personality the focus, but she’s fighting against a director and a studio that are only truly interested in her body; eventually you realise that the decision to set much of the film in the rain was taken so that Robbie’s nipples can be seen through her soaked t-shirt. It’s insulting, and degrading, though undoubtedly the decision to turn her into a teenage boy’s wet dream will have substantially increased ticket sales. Yay.

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Will Smith and Margot Robbie in Suicide Squad.

Others – less important characters, evidently, or rather characters played by actors who do not enjoy the status and associated contractual stipulations of a Will Smith – are quickly and haphazardly introduced. Jai Courtney’s Captain Boomerang is a stereotype of an Australian man, who constantly drinks beer and (fucking hell) throws a boomerang. Jay Hernandez is El Diablo, a stereotypical Latino gangbanger who can create fire; no information is provided as to how he got this power, but at one point he turns into a flaming demon, so there’s that. Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje plays Killer Croc, a man with reptilian features whose special ability appears to be zipping up a hoodie before undoing the zip again. Yes, really. Joel Kinnaman is Rick Flag, a sort of human charisma vortex who is placed in charge of the team. There are others: a man who looks a bit like Steven Seagal can climb buildings very well; a Japanese woman has a sword that captures the souls of its victims, or something. Some of these are tossed into the story in such a rushed, lazy fashion it’s hard to care a jot about anything that happens to them.

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Jared Leto as The Joker

So this is the core squad, who are subsequently sent to Midway City to tackle Cara Delevingne’s Enchantress, a powerful sorceress (in another skimpy outfit) who wants to bring about the end of days. She wreaks havoc while carefully establishing one of those swirling, lightning-y portals that seem to have become shorthand in superhero films for ‘we have no ideas left, but look at THIS anyway’. (Enchantress’s special power: attempting to do an impression of mime artist Marcel Marceau despite having lost all control of her limbs.) She also has a brother, and between them they manage to create an army of once-human drones, who have heads that look like blackberries. Blackberries! Much fighting ensues, all of it taking place at night in the rain, none of it inventively choreographed or containing any fresh ideas, all of it punctuated by awkward exchanges between the Suicide Squad members. Fuck me it’s dreary, and remains so even when Leto’s Joker shows up. (Oh yeah, The Joker: Leto is all forced, unconvincing insanity and gangsta bling, and he’s only in this film briefly and intermittently, which is a huge relief.)

Suicide Squad is riddled with poor writing, bad editing, lazy, half-baked ideas, terrible acting and an unintentional mixed tone that suggests not just moviemaking by committee but moviemaking by a committee that couldn’t find a singular, cohesive vision if it was locked in a meeting room for a decade. The film is supposed to be funny; it isn’t funny. The film is supposed to be edgy, and dark; it isn’t, unless you take the word darkness literally. The film is supposed to be subversive; it isn’t. I presume it’s supposed to be fun, too; yet this was the least fun I’ve had in the cinema in a long, long time. It’s a drag, a bore, a turd that thuds into your day. It takes your money before laughing in your face. It insults the intelligence of cinemagoers. The only real point of interest surrounding the film is that one day we’ll find out where it all went wrong, and blame for the debacle can be correctly apportioned.

It could be Ayer, I suppose, but then he has managed to get good performances from a range of actors in the past, so I’m not sure why direction appears to be completely beyond him here. A glimpse at his career shows that he has a preference for stories about men and their relationships during duty, but there’s no sign of any understanding of male bonding here, and his decision to dress two of the three fairly prominent female characters in skimpy outfits is quite telling. Yet given that Zack Snyder has set DC’s recent bleak tone with a brace of disappointing, overly-serious films, Ayer had a rather unenviable task; he had to follow the earlier director’s shitty, downbeat style, and yet he has clearly also been tasked with making a film that is lighter, and funnier, and a kind of DC equivalent to Marvel’s popular hit Guardians Of The Galaxy. How on earth could he be expected to do that?

I could go on. Just contemplate the use of music here, for example: there’s little thought behind most of it, and some of the soundtrack choices are completely irrelevent, included simply because they offer a slight juxtaposition with the action. There’s no thread to the music at all. And just to reiterate: the decision to throw in a few recognisable characters – as well as Batman and The Joker we also get a brief glimpse of Ezra Miller’s The Flash – smacks of desperation by Warner Bros and DC too, a shortcut to remind us that this is supposed to be taking place within a wider world (and that there’s a Justice League movie on the way, too); I’m just surprised that they didn’t think to shoehorn Wonder Woman in there somewhere, given her current popularity.

All told this is a film in which so much has been thrown together in the hope that some of it will work, and at a cost of $175 million to boot. Sadly, very little does actually work. Never mind: I expect you – like me – have paid to see it now anyway. These studios really do have a lot of us over a barrel; people who watch superhero movies in their droves won’t stop doing so now, for fear of missing out on something important, even though the stories will never ever end. Suicide Squad is just further confirmation that any old shit can turn a massive profit if it’s marketed correctly.

Directed by: David Ayer.
Written by: David Ayer.
Starring: Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Joel Kinnaman, Viola Davis, Jai Courtney, Jared Leto, Cara Delevingne, Jay Hernandez, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Karen Fukuhara.
Cinematography: Roman Vasyanov.
Editing: John Gilroy.
Music:
Steven Price / Various.
Certificate:
15.
Running Time:
123.
Year:
2016.

Conveniently leaving aside one or two of the dreadful Batman movies of the mid-1990s, the modern penchant for cramming superhero films with lots of heroes and lots of villains really took off with Bryan Singer’s original X-Men movie, a 2000 blockbuster that was full of recognisable actors doing battle in leather and lycra (of which just one remains active in the series today). The recent Avengers and Captain America films have been stuffed with even greater numbers of A-List faces, playing a different set of heroes from Marvel’s stable, and it looks as though this modus operandi will continue to be the case for the foreseeable future (at least until the human race decides it can take no more and burns down every last remaining multiplex). The forthcoming brace of Infinity War films will presumably contain more spandex, muscle and quippery than we’ve ever seen before, while Warner Bros have just haphazardly thrown three of the most recognisable comic book heroes together for the first time on the big screen, and are gearing up toward multi-character pieces such as Suicide Squad and the Justice League movies. Though the days of the individual hero story haven’t quite ended yet, we’re increasingly moving in one direction: bigger, bigger, bigger … and more, more, more.

The multi-hero thing has worked better (albeit patchily) within the X-Men franchise than anywhere else, despite the mash-up of timelines that has occurred, and the fact that at least two actors have played several of the major characters in the series. I’ve generally enjoyed the free-for-all set pieces that have taken place within Singer’s films, and the director has repeatedly attempted to juggle all of the pieces and give individual voices to the majority of his characters, even if much of it is just extended riffing on teen growing pains and the desire to fit in and be accepted. With so many heroes and so many actors it’s inevitable that you’re going to get some who make an impression and some who don’t; and that’s the case with X-Men: Apocalypse, in which we are reacquainted with the various young mutants studying at or associated with the posh-looking boarding school run by Professor Charles Xavier/Professor X (James McAvoy, looking slightly out of place in a purple cashmere sweater). It’s 1983, there are new arrivals at the establishment and relationships are developing, principally between Scott Summers/Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) and telepathic/telekinetic wonder Jean Grey (Sophie Turner). There’s only a short, idyllic settling-in period to be enjoyed, though, as anyone harbouring a power of note is soon whisked away to do battle with some terrible evil. As per usual.

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Sophie Turner, Kodi Smit-McPhee and Tye Sheridan in X-Men: Apocalypse

This time it’s powerful Egyptian mutant En Sabah Nur – supposedly the world’s first – who has been slumbering under the rubble of a destroyed pyramid for thousands of years. Woken up during during an extended opening that pays too much lip service to Stargate, The Mummy and Raiders Of The Lost Ark, this villain – a shining beacon of angry purple with little nuance played by Oscar Isaac – watches TV for five minutes before deciding that he’s going to bring about the end of days, and he recruits four helpers to do his bidding, including Michael Fassbender’s familiar master of metallurgy Erik Lensherr/Magneto. Naturally this leads to carnage on a grand scale when the bad guys kidnap Xavier and the Professor’s charges show up to perform a rescue: mutants do battle, allegiances shift and powers are unleashed, with Sydney, San Francisco and especially Cairo taking a pounding. As is common within the genre the film sets its stock villain up as being far stronger than any of the good guys, with an arsenal of special powers at his disposal that are subsequently and conveniently ignored, before allowing him to be beaten by a combination of pluck and teamwork. (That’s a spoiler, I guess, but only if you’ve never seen a superhero movie before.)

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Alexandra Shipp and Oscar Isaac contemplate forming a 1980s synth-pop duo.

If the (generally) quieter scenes set within Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters offer some hope that X-Men: Apocalypse is going to spend a lot of time nurturing its new characters and developing its familiar ones, such promise is dashed by average performances by the younger cast members and eventually crushed by the preposterously noisy and relatively-generic action sequences that begin to stack up, all of which feature John Ottman’s portentous, overblown compositions and are so packed with special effects that each one becomes less special as the minutes tick on, reducing any sense of spectacle. It’s not as though I expected otherwise from an X-Men movie, particularly one with the word ‘Apocalypse’ in the title, but even so it’s disappointing that Singer only seems interested in going ‘one louder’ during the second half of the film. The action is as you’d expect: figures fly through the air, beams of light and lightning shoot out of eyes and chests and fingertips, magic swords cut through huge objects and bulky figures are knocked through the walls and columns of pretty much every building you see. Par for the course these days, I suppose, and over-familiar to the point that it begins to induce boredom, which shouldn’t be the case when nearly a quarter of a billion dollars has been spent on the illusion of such wanton destruction. There is one occasion in which Singer really lets loose with a nastier, claustrophobic B-movie type of violence, and at this point his latest briefly threatens to stand out from the pack of X-Men movies, but once the scene in question’s over with we return to the norm and any edge or sense of danger is gone. There’s little to see here that hasn’t already been covered by the series before in some way or another, while one or two actors are looking tired and uninspired by their roles, particularly Jennifer Lawrence as Raven Darkholme/Mystique. Fassbender’s character – still haunted by Auschwitz and the death of his parents – remains a fascinating prospect, but his storyline here – and the subsequent pull between good and evil that develops – is as predictable as they come, and probably ought to have been ditched altogether. Hints toward future plots left me exasperated rather than intrigued, and I was left with the strange thought that this semi-reboot now looks to be in need of a reboot itself, but I can’t deny that Apocalypse is intermittently entertaining.

Directed by: Bryan Singer.
Written by: Simon Kingber. Based on X-Men by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee.
Starring: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Oscar Isaac, Sophie Turner, Nicholas Hoult, Tye Sheridan, Evan Peters, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Olivia Munn, Rose Byrne, Alexandra Shipp, Ben Hardy.
Cinematography: Newton Thomas Sigel.
Editing: John Ottman, Michael Louis Hill.
Music: John Ottman.
Certificate: 12A.
Running Time: 143 minutes.
Year: 2016.

8 Comments

[I’m aware that this film hasn’t been released in some countries yet, so I’ve tried to keep this review spoiler-free.]

Let’s hope Zack Snyder’s watching, as this is a superhero film that successfully manages to balance its well-thought out action sequences with weightier concerns. Captain America: Civil War contains all the balletic, multi-hero set pieces you’re probably expecting (including the one teased by the trailer), and it also pays heed to the political and moral ramifications that arise when modern comic book heroes smash buildings, cities and imaginary states to smithereens (thereby killing thousands of imaginary, innocent people along the way). It’s a post-Man Of Steel, post-The Avengers none-more-2016 fad, I guess, and as with Snyder’s recent Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice the principal question asked here is whether anyone should be watching the watchmen. As such Civil War‘s superheroes argue and fall out, with some strongly believing that their hero cabal should continue to self-regulate and others feeling that submitting to NATO control is the way forward. Yet where Snyder’s film floundered as it tied itself up in knots while addressing similar issues, this blockbuster by Joe and Anthony Russo – who also directed 2014’s entertaining Captain America: The Winter Soldier – tackles the political and moral side of things in a light, uncomplicated fashion, and by doing so it doesn’t allow any portentous soul-searching or hand-wringing to overtake the main aim of the film, which is to entertain as wide an audience as possible. The conflicting opinions of the characters central to this story are set out clearly and concisely, but ultimately the Russo brothers have recognised that Civil War is…y’know…for kids (of all ages). And the fact is the majority of kids (of all ages) want to see Robert Downey, Jr’s Iron Man and Chris Evans’ Captain America batter the living daylights out of one another.

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Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) gets busy

Evans and Downey, Jr are the clear stars here, but as both actors have appeared in so many films as their two characters it seems pointless to discuss the performance of either actor. I suppose at the very least I should say they are consistent with earlier turns, and that I’ve gradually warmed to Evans’ portrayal of the world’s most earnest, uptight man. There are several returning characters, too, with those currently without their own standalone movies (played by Don Cheadle, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Jeremy Renner, Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan and Anthony Mackie) all benefitting from the extra screen time. Needless to say anyone watching this who hasn’t seen any of the previous Avengers or Avengers-related films will be irrevocably lost. And as the trailers revealed, the film introduces two further additions to the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe, with Tom Holland’s fresh-faced Spider-Man amusing far more than he irritates and Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther making an equally-strong impact. Given the sheer number of characters that appear the pre-release concern from some quarters was that the Russos would not be able to do justice to all of them, but somewhat triumphantly the film never seems overstuffed, and only a couple are given short shrift. (I guess the longer-than-average running time helps in that respect.) Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man is one; in the space of 15 minutes he threatens to steal the film from his more illustrious co-stars, a fact that the Russos seem to have taken into account, as he doesn’t get too much screen time after an initial cameo. You’re left wanting to see more of Rudd and his character, which I guess is a good thing. Lastly, Daniel Brühl is perfunctory as the scheming (Baron) Helmut Zemo, a Marvel comic villain who will probably be unfamiliar to most viewers, but he’s slightly more interesting than many that we’ve seen in this series of films to date.

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Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) in Captain America: Civil War

But really we’re not here to see villains, or their dingy underground bunkers, where they seem to do little other than inject musclemen and women with brightly-coloured liquids. We’re here to see superheroes blast and kick and punch and chase and swoop down on one another, and Captain America: Civil War builds up to the kind of spectacular free-for-all that was popularised by expansive crossover Marvel titles such as Secret Wars (though Civil War itself has been very loosely adapted from Mark Millar’s similarly-named comic). The majority of superhero movie fans will sit through this six-on-six dust-up with a smile on their face, and to the credit of the directors it’s not at all chaotic, or difficult to follow the action. The exchanges and mini-scraps that occur within the larger pitched battle are filled with zingers, surprises and even compassionate, friendly exchanges between former colleagues who have temporarily taken opposite sides, though it’s the central fight between Iron Man and Captain America that packs the biggest punches, and which seems laced with the greatest animosity.

I’ve moaned about superhero movie fatigue on this blog – though I’ve also repeatedly admitted that it’s not as if anyone’s holding a gun to my head and forcing me to watch these films – but the fact is there have been a few releases that have seemed completely unnecessary or poorly written – Thor 2, Iron Man 3, for example – and I still dislike the feeling that I’m on a cinematic treadmill: one thing these films do – Civil War included – is hit the same notes over and over again, for better or for worse. There have been a few breath-of-fresh-air exceptions (Ant-Man, Guardians Of The Galaxy), but it’s the Russos who have made the two best recent installments of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Here they’ve cranked out a multi-hero film that’s a lot of fun, if utterly silly, and I genuinely feel sorry for anyone non-plussed by the experience. Look, ultimately it’s just another Marvel film, and by this stage you probably know what’s in store, but it’s a blast nonetheless and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Directed by: Joe Russo, Anthony Russo.
Written by: Christopher Markus, Steven McFeely.
Starring: Chris Evans, Robert Downey, Jr, Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Daniel Brühl, Chadwick Boseman, Anthony Mackie, Don Cheadle, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Renner, Paul Rudd, Tom Holland, Emily VanCamp, William Hurt, Martin Freeman.
Cinematography: Trent Opaloch.
Editing: Jeffrey Ford, Matthew Schmidt.
Music: Henry Jackman.
Certificate: 12A.
Running Time: 147 minutes.
Year: 2016.

7 Comments

[Note: There has been so much written about this film – which is every bit as cumbersome and bloated as its title – that I can hardly muster the will to add more noise to the cacophony, which has been about as enjoyable to sift through during the past week as the Phone Book. But I will nonetheless, purely for the simple fact that I may one day wish to go back and read about my own thoughts on Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice (herewith referred to as ‘BvS‘) at the time of release. Here goes.]

BvS opens with the big battle from the end of 2013’s Man Of Steel, and we glimpse Henry Cavill’s Superman fighting Michael Shannon’s antagonist General Zod in the skies above Metropolis; the continuity is a nice touch, and it also introduces the audience to Ben Affleck’s take on Bruce Wayne/Batman, here on the ground sans-Batsuit and trying to save employees unlucky enough to be working in one of the many buildings destroyed by the men of Krypton. (Ever the capitalist pigdog, Wayne drives past dozens of similar buildings that are presumably full of innocent people who need saving in order to get to those on his payroll.) Zack Snyder, the earlier film’s director, is back in the chair for this blockbuster, and I like the fact that he addresses one of the overwhelming criticisms of Man Of Steel, which concerned its lack of empathy with the countless people presumably killed or injured amid all the Zod/Superman carnage. Indeed the issue of that human collateral damage subsequently becomes the driving force for Wayne’s mistrust of Superman, which is echoed more generally by the rest of society, and which in turn paves the way for the good guy versus good guy battle that the title promises.

In this film Superman is a figure who divides public opinion: those who have loved ones saved by the hero treat him like a deity, and he arrogantly bathes in their adoration, while a monument has already been constructed in his honour in Metropolis. Others are skeptical, protesting at said monument and outside the US Capitol, with some wishing to develop the means to control him, including Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor (a performance that I actually found slightly entertaining and colourful, where all else is dark, grave and intentionally serious). Wayne and Luthor’s developing interests in Superman occur in tandem, though the screenplay by Chris Terrio and David Goyer gets slightly bogged down with details while juggling their particular motivations with all the political wrangling. Superman, meanwhile, doesn’t quite know what to make of it all, and still seems to be a work in development, battling a crisis of confidence. On the other side of the ‘versus’ Affleck’s Batman is a tired, grizzled brawler wrestling with his own demons, and his alter-ego Bruce Wayne is a man of few words. Affleck had the tougher job here – new to the franchise, and with Christian Bale’s recent performances as Batman still fresh in the memory of lots of fans – and he does quite well, all told, with his physical presence emphasised by director and cinematographer Larry Fong, which draws attention away from his limitations as an actor. I’ve certainly seen worse Batmen.

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Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman in BvS:DoJ

It takes an age to get to the promised face-off between the two, with plenty of silly dream sequences and tonally-surprising material interrupting along the way (Superman apparently has no problem killing (Arabic) people, for example, while Batman’s brand of rough justice really does become a brand). Meanwhile all the usual peripheral figures from the old comic books and the previous films drop in and out of the story at irregular intervals: Lois Lane, Perry White, Martha Kent and Alfred Pennyworth are all present and correct and played by big stars whose talents are largely being wasted. When the Batman and Superman fight finally takes place it’s a bit of a let-down, all told, and – considering the long build-up – it’s over with quite quickly; lots of unimaginative smashy-smashy, plenty of by-the-numbers paggery-paggery, and a little bit of seen-it-all-before ouchy-ouchy, before the pair bury the hatchet at a surprising speed. This they do in order to engage in another fight, and their enemy for the final showdown is the Luthor-created Doomsday, an orc-like figure who sends out massive shockwaves and who is capable of destroying entire neighbourhoods in seconds (the script’s insistence on pointing out to the audience that these areas are currently deserted, to head-off those earlier criticisms, is laughable). Of course Snyder is into more comfortable territory by this point, and the battle is every bit as long, loud and noisy as you’d expect. Anyone who has seen Man Of Steel will know what’s coming, though it does feature the notable addition of Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman, who has set many pulses a-racing already and will continue to do so in her own spin-off film, slated for 2017.

Even with my limited comic book knowledge I can see that Snyder and his writers have picked certain well-known titles as influences, in terms of the story, the script, the tone, the costumes and the production design of BvS: Mike Carlin’s Death Of Superman series is perhaps the most obvious, while Frank Miller’s famously-murky graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns is also a touchstone; there are hints to A Death In The Family and, presumably, many others. I actually feel a little more generosity toward the director now than I did a couple of years back, as he has at least successfully drawn on this rich history in order to establish a template for this new DC franchise, even if you do happen to dislike the joyless direction he’s moved it in and the reliance on long, skull-buggering set pieces, as I do myself. The DC films do at least feel distinct from those offered up by Marvel, which are generally lighter and frothier in comparison (Snyder, if anything, is a director who seems to have a deep-rooted mistrust for jokes). My sympathy for the director also increased in the wake of the terrible reviews for BvS that stacked up last week; yes it’s long, messy, loud, way too bleak and riddled with plot holes (how exactly does Lois Lane know to find the spear she has thrown away?), but it’s not that bad. (Lest we forget that this recent film is still stinking out the superhero stable.) I don’t disagree with the general thrust of those poor notices, though; the script is wonky and suffers from overcomplication, you exit feeling like you’ve been bashed over the head for 150 minutes, and the relentless dourness sucks most of the enjoyment out of the process. The superhero films I like contain at least a small degree of fascination with the powers wielded by their subjects, particularly when it comes to Superman, but there’s none of that here. There’s nothing in BvS that thrills in the same way as seeing Christopher Reeve’s Clark Kent/Superman catching a mugger’s bullet for the first time, or saving Lois Lane as she falls from a skyscraper (though BvS does have its own equivalent of the latter), and it’s those moments of wonder that you miss. Snyder peppers his film with impenetrable dream sequences, references to comic book plots and characters that most viewers will miss or not understand, dreary post-9-11 symbolism, glimpses of actors and heroes who will feature in forthcoming Justice League movies and more building destruction than Fred Dibnah managed in a lifetime, but crucially he has failed yet again to add any real magic to proceedings. Only Hans Zimmer’s side of the shared score manages to do so, and only when it sporadically and briefly incorporates the main theme from Man Of Steel.

Directed by: Zack Snyder.
Written by: Chris Terrio, David S. Goyer.
Starring: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Jesse Eisenberg, Amy Adams, Gal Gadot, Jeremy Irons, Laurence Fishbourne, Diane Lane, Holly Hunter, Scoot McNairy.
Cinematography: Larry Fong.
Editing: David Brenner.
Music:
Hans Zimmer, Junkie XL.
Certificate:
12A.
Running Time:
151 minutes.
Year:
2016.

2 Comments

DknsbHC[Note: I’m aware that Avengers: Age Of Ultron isn’t out in the US for a few more days, and has only just been released in other territories, so I’ll try as hard as possible to avoid spoilers here; however I will mention one or two things that have already appeared in the trailers, or that have been discussed extensively elsewhere during the past six months or so, as I think that’s fair game.]

When all is said and done, and whether you actually like it or not, one must at the very least admire Kevin Feige’s vision in creating the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), which I will grudgingly admit has just about delivered on its original premise of being this decade’s Police Academy; it’s interesting because of its (increasing) popularity with cinemagoers and cultural relevance, its financial returns, its mega-casts and the way it has made all other franchises seem insular and unambitious by way of comparison. If capital ‘b’ Big is your thing then Marvel is presumably an incredibly impressive force to study.

I said this yesterday in a belated review of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but I’ll repeat it here: while the creation of the MCU has resulted in a wearying conformity from one movie to the next, that is at least intentional and it’s something that has been executed in a clinically impressive fashion. Within producer Feige’s profitable, multi-phase series the two Avengers movies to date have served as crescendos of sorts, bringing together a gang of superheroes – Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Captain America / Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Black Widow / Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), Iron Man / Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr), Hawkeye / Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) and Hulk / Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), lest we forget – who are arguably more interesting and enjoyable to watch when calmly chatting as a group than when they are fighting loud, long battles with their nefarious opponents. And I guess for all the rigid conformity that we have seen to date Joss Whedon, the director working for Marvel Studios with both the toughest and the easiest job, has been the most successful in establishing a voice.

But let me cut to the chase: if you’re a fan you’ll be happy to know that you get everything you’re probably expecting from Whedon’s Avengers: Age Of Ultron; similarly if you’re not a fan you will be unsurprised to hear that you get everything you’re probably expecting from Whedon’s Avengers: Age Of Ultron. I’ll try and concentrate on the positives, as there are quite a few, but there will be a few gripes along the way. Please: no death threats.

Given how familiar these characters are by now (or the latest incarnations of one or two of these characters), Whedon is able to begin proceedings with the first of a series of action-packed sequences, which also introduces two new characters: Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s lightning-fast Quicksilver (different to the Quicksilver seen in last year’s X-Men: Days Of Future Past) and his telekinetic twin sister, Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch; both were seen briefly at the end of The Winter Soldier, but they are given prominent roles here. The film’s MacGuffin is quickly established as the Avengers secure old enemy Loki’s sceptre, which contains an ‘infinity stone’ (the multi-film plot device becoming increasingly familiar within the MCU); this magical object contains an alien form of artificial intelligence, eventually taking the shape of Ultron (James Spader), a sentient being occupying one of Tony Stark’s robotic exoskeletons. And thus with the enemy established the Avengers repeatedly do battle with Ultron and his army of robotic henchmen across a number of locations: the fictional Eastern European capital of Sokovia, New York, Seoul and South Africa (lazily referred to as ‘The African Coast’, which effectively translates as ‘I dunno…Africa somewhere…it’s all the same thing, right?’).

The film is indeed action-packed, though I’m aware that hardly needs saying; I went in with a slight headache and came out feeling like I’d been in David Cronenberg’s Scanners. However, as mentioned earlier, Whedon wrote some very good scenes for The Avengers (aka Avengers Assemble in the UK) that focused on the somewhat spiky relationships formed by the characters during downtime – the clash of egos was always a big part of the comics – and again here the writer capitalises on the work already done in other MCU films when the heroes go tête-à-tête in various locales (an early party scene being a highlight). Downey, Jr is at his snarky, cocky best and Stark’s gentle ribbing of the prissy Rogers turns into an amusing running joke. Thor’s fish-out-of-water grumblings are toned down this time, but still evident, and largely enjoyable.

More effort has gone into developing the relationships and backstories of the three main characters who do not currently have their ‘own’ films – Hulk, Black Widow and Hawkeye – with a sweetly-observed romance and the appearance of Freaks N’ Geeks’ Linda Cardellini (last seen repeatedly getting into lifts with Don Draper) as an Avenger housewife. It’s a welcome response to earlier criticisms, even though the injury-prone Hawkeye still seems like the first one that you’d put forward for redundancy if budget cuts had to be made. Age Of Ultron benefits from the increased confidence of the three actors playing these roles: the charismatic Downey, Jr remains the presence it’s impossible to ignore but Ruffalo, Johansson and Renner all make the most of their bigger parts, and the balance between the six main heroes is much better this time round.

The battles? Well, as I’ve said, they are loud, long and noisy. Motorbikes fall from the sky. Vibranium shields and uru hammers fly across the screen with their owners close by. Things that can explode do explode. Walls are smashed, cars are tossed, buildings collapse and the rubble stacks up (purely in terms of wanton destruction the battle between ‘Hulkbuster’ Iron Man and Hulk – it’s in the trailer – is the standout, while also containing the movie’s funniest moment). Once again you’re presumably expected to care about collateral damage as this version of our world gets smashed to smithereens, and once again the strict adherence to certain formulaic ticks and tropes makes it nigh-on impossible for you to do so. At least in wrecking districts of cities across North America, Europe, Asia and Africa the Avengers show that discrimination is not an issue; South Americans and Australasians can presumably expect to have a couple of their metropolises duffed up in the future.

In terms of the new additions, Spader’s voicing of the sarcastic and duplicitous Ultron is a decent variation on the Tony Stark template, but I’m ambivalent about the character overall. One or two bad guys have stood out in Marvel’s recent films – Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, most notably – but more have disappointed, and I’m torn with this one; Ultron initially appears to be more than a match for the six Avengers (and those who join in later) but the threat gradually peters out. Paul Bettany – usually the voice of Stark’s computer J.A.R.V.I.S. – fares well as The Vision, and the appearance of this character will most likely excite Marvel fans and intrigue casual viewers the most. Olsen is OK as the Scarlet Witch, her toned-down costume far different from the ones I remember in the comics, and her presence at least helps to redress the male-female imbalance in the MCU. Some actresses – Gwyneth Paltrow, Natalie Portman, neither of whom feature here – have to make do with weak love interest roles in related films, so it’s good to see a woman other than Johansson who can actually do something and affect the plot significantly (yes lots of the supporting scientist and agent characters are female, but are they actually important?).

As with the X-Men franchise, if a new character is lucky enough to make it to a second film then that’s where you begin to see improvements; Johansson’s Black Widow is a perfect example: less of an immediate hit initially than others, she has gradually grown in importance thanks to enhanced roles in The Winter Soldier and this film, and the final scene here, effectively setting up the next wave of Marvel Studios films, is telling. Perhaps the biggest problem for both Olsen and Taylor-Johnson is that they’re having to compete with a number of actors who are now well-established in their roles, and naturally they are both forgettable when compared with the likes of Downey Jr or the torso that functions as a base for Chris Hemsworth’s head. The new pair grasp their respective opportunities as well as you can expect, but their movie this ain’t.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment is the unnecessary reappearance of numerous minor characters that have featured in the other films. I’m sure there are fans out there who will be delighted by the brief glimpses of characters played by Samuel L. Jackson, Don Cheadle (please, Don, make it stop), Idris Elba, Anthony Mackie, Cobie Smulders, Hayley Atwell and Stellan Skarsgård, but by the end it just seems to tip a movie that is satisfyingly over-the-top and packed with characters into a movie that is irritatingly over-the-top and over-stuffed with characters. The appearances of several for a mere scene or two are largely pointless – most of them just get in the way and I’d rather watch more Tony Stark than a spot of old ‘Rhodey’ Rhodes doing the same thing – but then this is a film that actually casts Julie Delpy for a flashback sequence that lasts all of 15 seconds, so there you go.

Ultimately, despite the negatives, it’s clear that Whedon has fulfilled his brief. Avengers: Age Of Ultron is exactly the film you expect it to be, for better or for worse, and there’s more than enough to delight fans here; obviously it will be a record-breaking success in financial terms, too. I enjoyed it, and I’m glad that the studio has improved its output during the past year or so, even if the films still steer clear of alarms and surprises (you really have to question any action thriller when you’re sitting through the end credits waiting for something unanticipated to finally happen). Is it better or worse than The Avengers? Hmm: same same – a nice mix of humour and grandstanding CGI-filled set pieces, but if you don’t have that gnawing sense of ‘there must be something more’ 11 films into the MCU then I’m afraid I can’t help you.

Directed by: Joss Whedon.
Written by: Joss Whedon. Based on The Avengers by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.
Starring: Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Robert Downey, Jr, Jeremy Renner, James Spader, Elizabeth Olsen, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Samuel L. Jackson.
Cinematography: Ben Davis
Editing: Jeffrey Ford, Lisa Lassek.
Music: Brian Tyler, Danny Elfman.
Certificate: 12A.
Running Time: 141 minutes.
Year: 2015.
Rating: 6.8

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Recently Marvel set out Phases 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13 and 14-27 of its post-millennial movie output at some Comic Con or other, while arch rivals DC set out Phases 1-3 of its ‘Let’s Do What Marvel’s Been Doing, Only With More Seriousness’ plan. So what does this all mean for fans of superhero movies? Well, thankfully it’ll result in your average 10-screen multiplex dedicating all of its screens to superhero films from May 2015 onwards, with occasional one-day breaks in the schedule to cater for the arthouse set whenever Tom Cruise has a new blockbuster out. But with so many superhero films on the horizon, even the true believers out there may be a little confused as to what is coming next. It’s time for Popcorn Nights to step into the breach and provide a handy little guide to the treats that lay ahead …

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Pow! After the 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018 re-boots of the Spider-Man franchise starring Daniel Radcliffe, Nicholas Hoult, Jack O’Connell and Ben Whishaw respectively as Peter Parker / Spidey, it has been confirmed that 2019 will see outside bet Tobey Maguire taking on the role with Sam Raimi confirmed to direct. ‘We’re really intending to go back to basics and really show the origins of Spider-Man and the Green Goblin’ said an excited Raimi, who claimed he hadn’t felt like this good since ‘about 2001 or 2002’.

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Bam! This exclusive storyboard is lifted from the planned 2021 movie Avengers: Age Of The Dawning Of Infinity, in which the intrepid heroes must take on a whole host of supervillains in order to save the Earth. It has already got Marvel fans chattering thanks to Joss Whedon’s announcement that A:AOTDOI will incorporate 131 cameo appearances by characters from the other Marvel movies. ‘Unfortunately it means we’re going to have to cut Thor’s time on screen down to 3 minutes, while Hawkeye’s only going to appear after the end credits’ said a pale-looking Whedon. Robert Downey, Jr, meanwhile, appeared to be smirking when a reporter at Comic Con asked him how much he was set to earn for less than 3 days’ work.

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Shazam! The real star of DC’s forthcoming Batman vs Superman vs The Flash vs Wonder Woman vs Batgirl vs Robin vs Catwoman vs The Flash vs Superman vs Batgirl vs Batman vs Robin vs Wonder Woman vs Catwoman: Armageddon is the little-known villain He-She, who may well end up being the most offensive baddie we have ever seen on screen. Early drafts of the script were rumoured to include the line ‘Holy gender re-assignment Batman! He just spent eight years turning into a woman before our very eyes. I mean she turned into a woman.’

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Kaboom! This superhero may not be familiar to the general public, but The Fence-eater has long been a favourite of comic book fans, and he’ll be getting his own movie in 2024, after being introduced in a supporting role in the first eight Suicide Squad films (plus any unplanned spin-offs). The Fence-eater’s main rival is Construction Man, who builds fences by shooting wire out of specially-adapted wrist guns before leaving his work unfinished and ignoring the subsequent phone calls from irate customers. Gerard Depardieu and Daniel Day-Lewis have been pencilled in for the two starring roles.

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Splakooooowwwwieeee!
Marvel turned a few heads when it announced that the next X-Men film would be a mind-bending time-travelling movie specifically designed to annoy anyone that wasn’t left confused and irritated by Days Of Future Past. ‘We can’t give out too many details at the moment,’ said a spokesman at Comic Con, but we’re quite excited about developments and we will be introducing 17 new mutant characters’. Rumours have already circulated that the plot sees Storm and Wolverine travelling back in time to 1971 to pick up younger versions of Magneto and Mystique before returning to even earlier points in the past to try and save Cyclops and Kitty Pryde from a different version of Mystique who has arrived from even further in the future. The entire group then travels forward together to 1984 to engage in combat with another version of Magneto, who has travelled back in time in order to start a new military program that will wipe out the X-Men for good. Afterwards the two Magnetos and the two Mystiques join force and travel back to the present, where Professor X’s brain has started to hurt as he tries to figure out what the fuck is going on.

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Hey, let me just state that Hyperfilm will never, ever be at the forefront of cinema news again after this, but the first trailer for The Avengers: Age Of Ultron appeared online a matter of hours ago (which, in real time, is like the equivalent of three weeks), and we’re proud to be at the very start of what will almost certainly be the longest, most tedious marketing campaign you’ve ever witnessed. It looks … well … kind of like you’d expect: there are superheroes arguing with each other, The Hulk runs at a big version of Iron Man, and The Avengers have regular board meetings where they try and work out what Hawkeye does exactly. I’m a bit sketchy on the plot details at the moment, but it’s clear from the trailer that there’s a huge product placement threat to the planet in Age Of Ultron, and The Avengers will have to combine all of their powers to deal with a rogue fleet of Audi cars sent from the planet Ingolstadt. Be sure to get your tickets now as this independent cracker will probably disappear from cinemas after one week next summer!

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