Thursday, May 7, 2015

Avengers: Age of Ultron (along with brief comments on Monkey Kingdom)

             Intelligence: Artificial, Profit-Driven … and Natural
                                           Review by Ken Burke
                           Avengers: Age of Ultron (Joss Whedon)
Marvel’s Avengers are back in action to save themselves and Earth from impending catastrophe as a Tony Stark-created sentient robot is out to destroy everything that evolved from primates.  The story gets crowded with such a large cast, but the action is well-rendered, we get a few insights into our heroes’ psyches, and new members join the group.
Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ insightful reviews.  Therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when you’re ready to be transported to … wherever we end up.  Please protect your eyes from the dazzling brilliance.

What Happens: You’d have to weave your way back through a lot of other Marvel superhero movies to fully know what’s the backstory for Avengers: Age of Ultron (some of which include Iron Man 3 [Shane Black, 2013; review in our May 11, 2013 posting], Thor: The Dark World [Alan Taylor, 2013; review in our November 14, 2013 posting], Captain America: The Winter Soldier [Anthony and Joe Russo, 2014; review in our April 10, 2014 posting]—and, in a bit of studio-ownership-confusion, X-Men: Days of Future Past [Bryan Singer, 2014; review in our June 6, 2014 posting] where we first meet Quicksilver in the context of other Marvel characters not [yet] controlled by Disney, there played by Evan Peters in a scenario that doesn’t jive with the new Avengers tale at all, but that’s not our problem, is it?—along with the most obvious predecessor, Marvel’s The Avengers [Joss Whedon, 2012; review in our May 12, 2012 posting]), but for now I’ll just summarize some of what’s going on in the current incarnation of this Disney-owned-superhero-goldmine (Avengers 2 took in a massive haul of 191.3 million domestic dollars in its opening weekend [second only to its own predecessor back in 2012], probably would have done even more had it not been for competition from such events as the Kentucky Derby, the NBA playoffs [go, Golden State Warriors, an Oakland-based (at least for a little while longer before the traitors move to San Francisco)-team doing consistently better than my beloved Athletics baseball squad lately], and the hugely-hyped-boxing-match between Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao; further, A 2 currently  has a global total of $631.1 million after only 2 weeks in release).  We begin with action already in progress as the Avengers team (working mostly on their own now, after the collapse of S.H.I.E.L.D. in Captain America: The Winter Soldier) of Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Thor (Chris Helmsworth), Captain America (Chris Evans), the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo and a lot of computer graphics), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) succeeds in combat against the forces of Hydra in the fictional Eastern European country, Sokovia, recapturing Loki’s (Thor’s evil brother) scepter, which has powerful internal capacities (caused by one of the 6 fabled Infinity Stones) which Tony Stark (Downey) wants to use to activate his long-dreamed-of-peace-keeping-A.I.-robot-corps (“A suit of armor around the world”) so that he and the other Avengers can stop risking life and limb against their constant antagonists.  Well, he activates the sentient Ultron (voice of James Spader) alright, only to find that—as with the superior machines in the Terminator and Matrix franchises—the android’s conclusion is that the only way to achieve “peace in our time” (a phrase, not always accurately quoted and not yet achieved by anyone associated with it, variously connected to Benjamin Disraeli [1878], Neville Chamberlain [1938], and John F. Kennedy [1963], among others) is to eliminate all traces of the human species, including the Avengers, or at least replace them with representatives of an enhanced consciousness, which Ultron represents (at least to himself).

 He (it?) destroys Stark’s master computer, J.A.R.V.I.S., grabs Loki’s scepter, heads back to Sokovia, creates an army of warrior robots, then teams up with the human mutants created by the Hydra goons, twins Pietro/Quicksilver (super speed) and Wanda/ Scarlet Witch (mind control and telekinetic powers) Maximoff—played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen respectively—who prove problematic for the Avengers when they come in pursuit, especially Wanda who causes many of them to hallucinate, proving especially destructive when Hulk goes on a rampage, requiring Stark to don a massive suit of armor (his “Veronica” weapon, an obscure Whedon reference to Archie comics) which finally subdues the monster, allowing him to revert to Dr. Bruce Banner as the entire team takes refuge at Hawkeye/Clint Barton’s covert home where he lives with his wife and children.  Things quickly get more complicated (of course) as Ultron obtains some of the rare material, vibranium (Cap’s indestructible shield’s made of it), forcing Avenger’s colleague, Dr. Helen Cho (Claudia Kim), to produce a superhuman body into which he’ll upload his consciousness; in the process, Wanda discovers his annihilation plan so the twins turn against him; Cap, Widow, and Hawkeye steal the artificial body before the transfer is complete; Ultron (in his metallic mode) captures Black Widow for awhile; Stark, aided by Thor, loads his retrieved backup version of J.A.R.V.I.S. into the vibranium body (which contains that Infinity Stone), creating the Vision (voiced by Paul Bettany), who accompanies the Avengers and the twins back to Sokovia where Ultron has constructed a device to levitate the capital city as an asteroid, then slam it back to Earth, creating the type of cosmic catastrophe that helped eradicate the dinosaurs some 65 million years ago.  Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) shows up with a flying-aircraft-carrier to help evacuate people off of the ever-ascending-rock while the superheroes battle Ultron’s army until Quicksilver is killed while helping protect Hawkeye and a child, sending Scarlet Witch into a rage as she rips out what functions as a heart for Ultron.  Thor and Iron Man prevent the descending rock from reaching impact, Hulk decides to go AWOL in order to prevent Black Widow from further pursuing her attraction to Dr. Banner thereby probably endangering herself, Thor returns to Asgard, Stark and Barton also head home leaving Fury, Widow, and a few other helpers to reorganize the Avengers with training for Vision, Scarlet Witch, James Rhodes/War Machine (Stark’s iron-suited-buddy, played by Don Cheadle) and Sam Wilson/Falcon (Capt. America/Steve Rogers’ buddy [played by Anthony Mackie] powered by a set of detachable wings) to fully join the team in time for the next (2-part) sequel when they’ll have to battle the all-powerful-villain, Thanos (voiced by Josh Brolin), determined to squash our heroes in order to gather up all of the ultra-powerful Infinity Stones.

So What? In addition to this chapter of the Avengers series finally admitting that with their unique personalities, situations, and lifestyles at least a couple of these superheroes might decide that they have something in common off the battlefield (related to this, I understand that as D.C. Comics launched another of their universe-reboots recently [I gave up trying to keep up with them] they even introduced the reasonable mutual attraction of Superman and Wonder Woman, with no Lois Lane to complicate things, but I have no idea how that storyline’s evolved; anybody want to fill me in on it?), there’s also a serious, contemplative undercurrent of how these enhanced-folks not only have massive muscles but also massive egos which carry serious considerations for their future functionality.  Sure, we had some physical confrontations in the earlier Avengers movie as these guys had some initial trouble in accepting that none of them are as completely superior as they had assumed in their individual-legend-introduction-stories, but to present the acknowledged realization that what undermined Ultron from the beginning was its (unintended?) incorporation of Tony Stark’s self-inflated-ego which helped transform what was supposed to be elevated, rational intelligence into twisted, destructive assumptions about the proper way to protect Earth’s inhabitants shows us that these superheroes contain aspects of their own potential self-destruction, which could endanger us as well as shown when Scarlet Witch clouds Bruce Banner’s mind, setting Hulk into a blind rage of no true motivation, leading Banner to later note to Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff that the world now horribly sees what his massive-alter-ego is capable of when not under some nascent control of Banner’s rationality.  Any of these intended heroes could be possibly turned against each other or us if the right (that is, wrong) circumstances came into play, with the more powerful ones able to cause massive destruction before (if?) being brought under control.

 However, a more jovial note about Avengers: Age of Ultron is its self-awareness of both the internal world that this story exists in and the external world where it’s marketed to us.  For the first aspect there’s a nice point-counterpoint pair of scenes where in the earlier one the other heroes take turns trying—with no success—to lift Thor’s hammer (although Banner does it as himself, not as the Hulk which might be something for future Avengers screenwriters to toy with), to which the Asgardian smugly replies that their failure simply shows that he’s the only one worthy of commanding this magical instrument.  Much later, after Vision has come about and quickly understands that he has no reason to fight with these Avengers he offhandedly picks up the enchanted hammer, Mjölnir, to hand it to Thor as they all prepare to embark on the final showdown with Ultron; needless to say, the so-called Thunder God (actually, a very powerful alien in this incarnation, not a deity) is astounded but has no time to explore this anomaly, although it brings a great laugh from the theater audience.  Later, as the plot winds down, a couple of other Avengers try to cheer him up about Vision’s astonishing act, pointing out that it’s basically a new life form that doesn’t fully exist in the same manner that the rest of them do, but you can tell that Thor’s been taken down a notch all the same.  In an even more humorous manner, in that opening battle the Avengers are all in radio contact with each other when suddenly Stark mutters “Shit!” in response to something (I forget what), bringing an automatic “Language!” reprimand from noble Captain America, a comment which functions as a joke within the oppositional-personality-collective that we know of these characters but on a meta-level speaks to the MPAA Ratings Board and its power to bestow an income-hindering-R-rating on any film that indulges too much in adult utterances.  The Avengers play with this exchange a little more later in the movie too, but the real impact is intended for our awareness of the arbitrary factors that can keep our cinematic products captive in certain monetary straightjackets that must be accounted for when earning back the massive budgets that a movie such as this one requires in its production/postproduction stages.

Bottom Line Final Comments: I’ve read several complaints (explored in more detail in the just-barely-encouraging-scores noted in the links below about the Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic responses to Avengers: Age of Ultron) that this latest combo-superhero-onslaught on our senses and wallets is just too much mindless action to sustain a longer-than-usual 2½ hours of screen-projected-entertainment.  Of course, that problem’s inherent to the concept of bringing together so many superhuman protectors of the planet (along with their several comrades who aren’t truly superhuman but do have enhanced physiques and technological tools) in one storyline, something that I think is easily displayed in the various origin-comic-books that also attempt in a relatively few pages to set up huge problems for humanity that require the intervention of such a combined force of the extraordinary, then have to dole out reasonably-sized-portions of the narrative to accommodate all of the cast before a concise wrap-up—admittedly, I base this on my years-ago-readings of D.C. Comics’ Justice League of America rather than Marvel’s Avengers or X-Men (as a movie series, this one to me is so overburdened with established and emerging characters that I have a hard time even wanting to keep up with most of them), but I’m sure that any storyline which combines more than about 3 major protagonists is going to have a difficult task of achieving coherence rather than clutter-fatigue.  (Which certainly is in evidence here as War Machine and Falcon barely get any screen time, while their fellow African-American actor, Jackson, also has just a walk-on-role to encourage his former team to forget their fears and frustrations with Ultron so as to devise a plan to conquer him, followed by Fury’s re-emergence at the end as the transition between S.H.I.E.L.D. and Avengers upper-management—I have only a marginal idea of how the collapse of that former organization because of its Hydra-based-internal-destruction impacts what goes on in the [Disney-owned] ABC TV series, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., simply because time doesn’t allow me to keep up with it, but I do understand it’s all part of a truly-unified-Marvel-cinematic-universe.)

 There are many complaints about the women in these films not getting their due relative to the men (including an SNL skit on May 2, 2015 involving Johansson, hosting that night), but compared to the screen time and plot importance afforded the Black actors in this episode of the hero ensemble the women have less to complain about, especially now that Scarlet Witch and her formidable powers have joined the team (Black Widow gets plenty of screen-presentation this time, but despite her athletic-assassin-training she’s just as fully human as Hawkeye, who admits—in a nice comic-throwaway-comment—that he’s constantly facing the forces of mass destruction with nothing but a [seemingly-endless] supply of arrows).  Other characters from past Marvel episodes also find themselves vying for a few minutes on-screen: I’ll note S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders); Thor colleague Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård); Thor’s Asgard gatekeeper, Heimdall (Idris Elba); Hydra baddie Baron Wolfgang von Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann)—and, of course, Marvel creator Stan Lee in his usual brief cameo role.  With a cast of known entities this large you literally need a program to keep up with the action unless you’re firmly invested in the Marvel Cinematic Universe at a better degree than I can testify to.

 Overstuffed plotlines (and the periodic “need” [?] to have various Avengers battle each other—except for the semi-comic-relief of Iron Man’s off-screen-punch coming into the frame to quiet Hulk’s mid-movie-hallucination-fueled-rampage, I saw little value in this diversionary scene, reminiscent of those eternal fanboy [and girl] fantasies about who’d win a battle between … [D.C. and Marvel even co-published some crossover-comics years ago based on that premise but Spider-Man quickly found out that his version of super-strength didn’t make much of a dent on Superman’s generally-invincible-body, except when his opponents are other Kryptonians], unless this was a future-plot-setup about what type of opponent might truly be able to go toe-to-toe with the Hulk) aside, Avengers: Age of Ultron is active, generally exciting, and well-managed in its special-effects-sophistication given all that Whedon had to contend with, nicely punctuated at times by snappy patter (usually from Tony Stark) to show that these folks aren’t always taking themselves too seriously either.  With that spirit in mind, I’ll close out these comments on this latest Avengers saga with my own irreverent choices for Musical Metaphors, first the opening and closing credits theme music from the 1966-68 live-action Batman TV series at (I just had to use this version of it so that you can see the lyrics in print below the video screen, verifying that if you’re singing it yourself you get the proper number of “na na”s in there on the 1st and 6th repetitions [“Na na na na na na na na na na na na na na na na Batmaaaaaan!]), followed by the memory of another superhero coming to save the day with Andy Kaufman lip-synching to the “Mighty Mouse Theme Song” from the October 11, 1975 premiere of SNL at (with a comparison to Jim Carrey playing Kaufman doing this bit in the Man on the Moon [Miloš Forman, 1999] film at https://www.  But, just like the Avengers, I’ll be back soon, with more cinematic commentary, after I leave you with a few additional notations on another society at war with itself but with “stars” who’re willing to be paid with figs instead of millions of dollars.
Short Takes
 Monkey Kingdom (Mark Linfield, Alastair Fothergill)

 While my comments on this Disneynature-produced-documentary would have been more relevant when it opened almost 3 weeks ago (close to its intended connection to Earth Day—this year on April 23—and might have encouraged additional attendance during its 1st week in release when part of the income was donated to help protect monkeys in the wild), I’ve got to accept what I’ve time to see and write about, so given that Monkey Kingdom’s still playing in over 1,700 U.S. theaters maybe you’d like to check it out if you have interests in how some of our distant relatives (assuming you’re still reading after that comment)—in this case toque macaque monkeys—operate on a daily basis in the forests of Sri Lanka.  While Tina Fey’s scripted narration imposes more of a narrative on these scampering creatures than they likely contemplate for themselves, it was revelatory to understand that this species is organized into such a rigid hierarchy where the alpha male, “Raja,” and his 3 “queens” are accorded such constant deference, with a rigidly-descending-social-order that ends with one of our primary (also primate) characters, “Maya,” as low as you can go in her society, literally scrounging scraps left by the higher-ups who not only take first call on the available food supply but also command the upper branches of trees in their tribal home while Maya often has to sleep on the ground with her ostracized (and slapped around by the reigning “3 sisters”) offspring, "Kip" (son of a wandering young male, "Kumar," looking to join this group but chased away), who fares even worse until Dad returns to help them all fight off intrusion from another macaque clan as the leadership days of Raja and his consorts come to an end.  During the time when our protagonists are driven from their Castle Rock forest home they invade a local human town, making off with all sorts of new food options (unlike the rest of the doc which is completely captured in a natural state, I can’t help but think that the film crew must have paid the various merchants who were ripped off by these invaders because I don’t see how the camera crews could have been so strategically-placed otherwise) before returning to the wild, reclaiming their previous territory, and ending with newly-asserted Kumar and his immediate family now atop this specific social structure.

 It’s a bit discouraging to see that the animal nature we share with these primates is just as focused on class distinction, physical warfare over territory, and survival of the fittest as what we find in our own modes of human civilizations (if you can always call them that), it’s still informative to see how this all plays out in an environment normally devoid of our intrusion, captured marvelously in these active on-screen-images.  You get as much as you “need” about Monkey Kingdom from the trailer, but if you’d like to know more via the official site as well as the Rotten Tomatoes (93% positive reviews) and Metacritic (72%) responses or if you’d like to see it for yourself to better understand how much of our “human nature” isn’t so species-unique after all, I encourage you to do so as this is a very interesting film to watch (as have been the previous Disneynature docs that I’ve seen), well-shot, especially the heart-warming-scenes with little Kip as well as the fierce battles with the forces of Kumar vs. Lex and his screaming invaders (in its own way, not all that different from what we get in the latest Avengers warfare even if the combatants and image-capturing-technologies are considerably more sophisticated in the latter example reviewed above).
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P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.


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  2. Personally the "Tomorrowland" trailer with George Clooney looked more interesting than the reality of the Avengers gigantic special effects demonstration. In fact I liked Scarlet Johansson's SNL bits better and did not have to pay a to get in. All I ask is a little originality in the script and a bit of quality acting but Avengers seems to have missed the mark on both.

  3. Hi rj, Thanks for your feedback as always. Yes, I'm looking forward to Tomorrowland also and really enjoyed Ms. Johansson on SNL, but I guess I was willing to cut the new Avengers movie a bit more slack than you, although I acknowledge that simply rounding up a bunch of superheroes to fight each other for screen time is getting a bit tiresome (at least until D.C.'s Justice League of America gets a shot at the same opportunity for raking it in at the box office). Ken

  4. It's not that I don't like sci-fi or fantasy films although sequels, as a rule, are notoriously poor. To me the relatively low budget Ex Machina reviewed last week is the far superior film. But superhero films can be excellent. When I think about the Dick Tracy, Batman, Superman, Spiderman or Ironman, to name a few, in their modern day film introductions or reboots, I remember fresh stories executed well with strong character development and interaction.

    In the latest Avengers the screenplay and editing was so bad the director effectively fired himself from future sequels while the human interest was limited to an unbelievably bad romance between the Hulk and the Black Widow. When you can't get money shots from Scarlet Johansson or good acting from Robert Downey Jr., I agree it's time to move on to new things.