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May 24, 2015

I should really, really be on board with Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland. Built around the central hook of a hopeful vision of a future where human ingenuity can and does work to make the world a better place, this should not be a hard sell. And so it’s surprising and a bit sad to find out that the execution is lurching and didactic, especially given Bird’s track record.

The thing is, I’m far from the only critic to have basically the same reaction. Since going into detail about the film’s failure to launch or finding some way to pin them on co-writer Damon Lindelof would amount to plagiarism, I started to think more deeply about what exactly about the idea resonates with my progressive spirit, and why the resulting story rings hollow. There may be spoilers.

As Frank Walker (George Clooney) tells us, the future ain’t what it used to be. As a young teenager (Thomas Robinson) he cobbled together a jetpack from an old Electrolux vacuum cleaner, which earned him entry into a fantastical secret city where the world’s greatest minds came together with no goal but technological and artistic progress. And it’s true that back in the ’50s and ’60s the future looked very bright and hopeful; a post-war technological boom was promising ease and comfort, and we were on our way to the moon and beyond.

But now we’re mired in bitterness, divisiveness, and squabble. NASA is cited as an expensive boondoggle by small-minded politicians, which seems like a great symbol of how small our dreams have become. Bird and Lindelof push just slightly forward to a future where Cape Canaveral itself is being dismantled, though not if Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) has anything to say about it. Her efforts to sabotage the deconstruction site catch the eye of Athena (Raffey Cassidy), a Tomorrowland recruiter still out in the world looking for “dreamers”.

In the film, our current fascination with the apocalypse we’re all hurtling towards — Casey’s teachers drone on about global political, economic, and ecological strife, and regard as a nuisance her earnest questions, “can we fix it?” “what can we do?” — is the result of a Tomorrowland invention gone awry. Intended to monitor things back on on Earth, it also projects visions of the world’s eventual decline and failure. And as Tomorrowland’s governor Nix (Hugh Laurie) points out, instead of struggling with every fiber of our being to stop it, humanity at large wallows in our immanentized eschaton. We commodify it into just more mindless entertainment, like the upcoming movie Toxi-Chaos 3, billboards for which litter the pre-apocalyptic landscape.

But this is where Bird and Lindelof’s starry-eyed, gee-whiz visions of the future come up dreadfully short. It’s all well and good to invoke Eris and tell us to stop before turning into an aspirin commercial, but the truth is we don’t need a technomagical Monitor to project these biased visions of despair into everyone’s minds; we’ve built our own, and called it T.V. News. Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler engaged much more effectively with this real-world problem last year, and it understands the kernel of truth that Bird and Lindelof actually get right: on some level we as a society eat this stuff up and scream for more. But the news doesn’t feed us an endless diet of blood and lust and hate because it’s directed by a well-meaning utopian trying to make us turn back and we’re all too stupid to realize what’s good for us; this is just the candy everybody wants, and the news responds to the same market forces as everything else under capitalism.

Unfortunately, we can’t just blow up the news. Attempting to regulate or control its output not only leads us back to the sort of bureaucratic inhibitions that Tomorrowland was supposedly founded to escape — during one of the deeper lulls in regulatory controls in American history, but this is the least of the movie’s historical failures — it’s also, as the kids say, Intensely Problematic to dictate what ideas are Good and Bad. The choice must be individual, but Bird and Lindelof are onto something when they appropriate the Cherokee folktale about the fighting wolves of hope and despair: the one that wins is the one we feed.

And here’s the even bigger failure of the film’s vision: the entire premise is based on feeding only hope in the past and only despair in the present. In order to see the world on its way out, Bird and Lindelof have to ignore all the ways in which — as William Gibson pointed out — the future is already here, just not very evenly distributed.

Yes, NASA’s budget is shrinking and it’s a tragedy that manned spaceflight is in jeopardy, but private endeavors like Orbital Sciences and SpaceX are picking up the slack and innovating in exactly the ways the Tomorrowland founders might hope. And meanwhile, in the real world, NASA itself is still running unmanned scientific missions that are more wonderful than anything we could have hoped for five decades ago. We designed an aerial robotic crane that could parachute down from Martian orbit and set an SUV gently down on the surface before flying away, all on its own over the course of 10 minutes. And we’re now getting close-up pictures of one of the farthest solid bodies within our solar system from the New Horizons spacecraft.

Jetpacks and flying cars are perennial features of retro-futurism, but honest consideration shows that they’re a solution in search of a problem. Meanwhile, in the real world, we’re getting that much closer to cars that pilot themselves around our existing road system, and that already parallel park better than most human drivers. Flying around in person would be really cool, sure, but right now anyone can buy a quadcopter with a high-definition camera that effortlessly syncs up with the computer in her pocket that can tap into the sum total of all human knowledge in an instant. Nobody at the ’64 World’s Fair conceived of the Internet.

In fact, nobody at the fair really questioned the fact that a lot of these amazing ideas depended on an inexhaustible supply of cheap fossil-fuel power. That vision was among the first to be shown up as short-sighted, and our continuing failure to capture the negative externalities of those choices is a direct contributor to the ecological disasters the film bemoans even as it wants to reap the benefits of those same choices. Meanwhile, in the real world, breakthroughs in electrical storage technology may make decentralized solar power economically feasible even without accounting for the full cost of burning oil and coal and gas.

And, incidentally, the batteries that can efficiently store that power come out of research into electric — and eventually self-driving — cars by Tesla Motors, founded by the same Elon Musk who is behind SpaceX. Not to denigrate the importance of culture and narrative in effecting social change, but while Brad Bird frets about not getting the future the Boomers were promised, Musk is busy putting his money into getting things done.

Even when we turn from technological “failures” to societal woes, things are not as bleak as they seem. Yes, there is strife in the world both at home and abroad. But the most significant conflicts are the death pangs of regressive worldviews like DAESH or KGB hardliners. Domestically, the biggest “threats” to our peace and security are the birth pangs of a more inclusive society where people from all different colors, creeds, genders, and sexualities start to demand their own seat at the table, and equal respect with the rest of us. And this struggle goes back to, yes, the same ’60s era that painted its future so lily-white.

It’s easy to look back and say that the future ain’t what it used to be, and that the present is headed downhill. But it means closing your eyes both to the huge problems built into the foundation of the old future, and to the wonders that are all around us in the new present. Walt Disney may not have built his Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, but I grew up in the version real estate developer Jim Rouse actually built, and it wasn’t radically better for having been planned.

Getting to the future looks amazing on paper, but it’s a long, slow, grinding process in the real world, and it sometimes hurts along the way. We have to be honest in re-assessing our vision as we move forward, and be ready to leave retro-futurism behind if we’re going to truly engage in real futurism. For all the flaws in its execution, Tomorrowland is great at getting us to think about what might be possible, even as it fails to put any real thought into how we can get there or why we aren’t already.

Worth It: yes, if only as a catalyst for discussion.
Bechdel Test: pass.

The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared

May 22, 2015
100-Year-Old Man

By now you could be forgiven for thinking that Sweden’s contemporary film output consists entirely of really heavy and often disturbing crime stories. But while the two highest-grossing Swedish films are The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo — the original one — and its first sequel, a madcap comedy has taken third place with a bang. Based on the equally popular novel, Hundraåringen som klev ut genom fönstret och försvann — subtitled in English as The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared — has enough title for two movies, and indeed it crams in both a road-movie romp and a comedic take on 20th century world history that blows Forrest Gump out of the water.

The titular centenarian is Allan Karlsson (Robert Gustafsson), recently placed in a retirement home after his creative attempt at eliminating a fox around his house. But Allan isn’t one for staying put; as the cake for his hundredth birthday comes into his room, he goes out the window and shuffles away in his robe and slippers. At the bus station he buys a ticket for as far as the change in his pocket will take him — not very — and when an incontinent gang member insists Allan hold a suitcase while he uses the bathroom, Allan obeys and holds it right onto the bus.

In the one house where Allan’s bus arrives, he meets Julius (Iwar Wiklander). When the very angry man shows up after his suitcase, they conk him on the head and stick in in the walk-in freezer, finding the suitcase itself full of cash. But the gang’s leader (Jens Hultén) knows where they are, and directs his men after them from his own house arrest. Allan and Julius take off, meeting up eventually with a perpetual student (David Wiberg) and another gang member’s ex (Mia Skäringer) as they blither their way across Sweden.

At the same time, Allan reminisces about his life. He’s not the smartest guy, though thankfully not as dopey as Forrest Gump. He just likes having a good time, which includes drinking and blowing things up. He works testing cannon for a while, before following a colleague to join the Spanish civil war — you get to blow up a lot of things in a war, after all — and ends up meeting General Franco. His life takes him to America, where he works on the Manhattan project, and that of course catches the interest of Stalin and the Soviets, and so on.

Both stories run forward at a pretty fair clip, and as soon as one is beginning to flag director Felix Herngren jumps to the other one, already off on its own next leg. The result is non-stop funny, with a bizarre, almost surreal sense of humor, and it’s just the thing if you’re tired of mainstream American comedy films.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.
This review will also appear at Punch Drunk Critics.


May 22, 2015

I get it; I know that 1982’s Poltergeist was one of the greatest horror films of all time, and one of Steven Spielberg’s groundbreaking films from the late ’70s and early ’80s. It’s only natural for modern horror filmmakers to want to pay homage, and plenty of them do. Major plot constructs in contemporary horror, from the Insidious series “The Further” to the Oculus mirror’s mindbending tricks, all expand on various parts of Poltergeist‘s story.

But the point here is that they expand on them, and find new ways of using the same basic pieces. The new remake of Poltergeist, on the other hand, is merely a jumble of the “good parts” of the original that manages to be both lazy and rushed, and which wastes a perfectly good cast in the process. And in cutting out a full twenty minutes of story, the filmmakers display a shocking lack of understanding about what made these good parts good: the strength of the underlying story.

By the way, I’m going to freely discuss these plot points here, because there’s pretty much nothing new about them since the original Poltergeist, three full decades ago. And if somehow you haven’t seen that one yet you have something far more important to do than to keep reading a review of this cheap knock-off.

The first hurdle to bringing Poltergeist into the present day is the iconic scene where Carol Anne interacts with the “TV people”. No television station even goes off the air overnight anymore, and even if one did a missing signal doesn’t show up as static. But, the filmmakers said, screw it; put in static anyway and explain it off as just another way these entities mess with electrical gizmos. There is almost no thought given to how to actually adapt the story to a new time. “If it was good enough for Spielberg in 1982,” they seem to say, “it’s good enough for us now.”

But what’s not good enough for director Gil Kenan and writer David Lindsay-Abaire is the actual work of storytelling that actually made Spielberg’s movies great while they dazzled us with their revolutionary visual delights. So we don’t have time for a slow, careful build-up. Instead, as soon as the Bowens — Eric (Sam Rockwell) and Amy (Rosemarie DeWitt), with teenage daughter Kendra (Saxon Sharbino), nervous son Griffin (Kyle Catlett), and adorable young Madison (Kennedi Clements) — move into the house the scares start in earnest.

Everybody remembers the clowns, so of course there are clowns. But now there’s a cache of clown dolls Griffin discovers in a crawl space adjoining his attic room. Speaking of which, if you’ve got a kid who’s still scared of the dark, why do you put him in the most isolated bedroom in the house, rather than the teenager who would probably prefer the idea of a sanctuary where she can escape her oh-so-lame parents? Obviously because we have to set up the creepy tree — which looks all but dead even as the realtor praises its age in the opening scene — coming in to grab the kid through the skylight, which is going to be So Much Cooler You Guys than just breaking through a regular window.

And if the development isn’t new, and the house had at least one previous owner, why didn’t the entities manifest before? Sure, the last guy might not have had a young moppet to entice them, but none of the neighbors did either? And the realtor makes a big deal about how he had run speakers and wires for anything electronic through all the walls, but that never really pays off in terms of something the entities can play havoc with. It may have been tied into the running — well, limping — theme that it’s all these electronic gadgets that really tore apart the family, making them vulnerable in the first place, but anything to support that connection has been gutted from the script. And again: if the gadgets are really the problem, why didn’t they cause the same problems for the last guy?

Even the core revelation of the story is left unchanged, and then allowed to go off like a damp squib. There is no build-up and revelation here; the parapsychologist (Jane Adams) just guesses the truth of the old cemetery as an offhand remark. And now that the family’s dad is just some schmuck who got bitten by the recession instead of a star salesman working for the same real-estate company that built the development, the resonance of this truth is wasted. Steven Freeling was paying the price for the sins of his company; Eric Bowen just got sold a bum deal. And while I’m sure there’s a horror film to be made that builds on the psychic scars of the recent housing crash and its effects on everyday families, this ain’t it.

The only new element is a trip through the charnel-house other space where Madison is trapped, under the direction of a haunted-house reality-show star (Jared Harris). And even this is only new as compared with the original Poltergeist; it’s a clear rip-off from Insidious, but with almost none of the careful thought that went into The Further.

Once you’re past all the horrible structural deficiencies in this shockingly unimaginative adaptation, the execution is about as good as you could hope for. Rockwell, DeWitt, Adams, and Harris are all great actors, but despite their best efforts there’s just not enough for them to work with here. The special effects look good but, as Spielberg’s best pal from back in the ’80s said, a special effect without a story is a pretty boring thing. And this remake of Poltergeist is just that: a pretty boring thing, existing more as a cheap attempt to cash in on the original’s greatness while failing to understand anything about what made it great.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: pass.


May 22, 2015

The internet has given rise to a certain subgenre of horror literature called, by its fans, “creepypasta”. These smallish tales — often closer to sketches of core ideas than fully-developed stories — are easily copied and shared, creating a sort of folk-literature; the computer screen as high-speed hearthside. But, like more traditional folktales, hearing some of the best of these can depend on what communities you frequent and how good the local storytellers are, and so there’s a niche for people who collect, critique, and sometimes create their own entries in the genre.

The same thing happened for folklore in the early 19th century. In the west, we’re probably most familiar with the Brothers Grimm as archivers of our oral traditions. But Eastern Europe had its own stories with their own particular feel, and Ukrainian writer Nikolai Gogol’s grotesqueries feel right at home next to both Western contemporaries like Poe and the more modern fare coming out of creepypasta message boards.

The problem is that, like “Jeff the Killer” or “Slenderman”, Gogol’s stories don’t often work outside of relatively short yarns, and trying to shoehorn them into an effects-driven feature film format just doesn’t work. So when Oleg Stepchenko tries to adapt Viy — dubbed into English as Forbidden Empire — he does a similar kind of ridiculous violence to the underlying story as we saw in the likes of Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters.

Gogol’s own story is marvelously creepy: three seminary students spend the night at a small farmhouse. One of them, Khoma (co-writer Alexey Petrukhin), narrowly escapes the snares of a witch, but she’s not done with him yet. She poses as the recently-deceased daughter of a rich cossack, her dying wish that Khoma pray over her body for three nights, during which she directs all manner of evil spirits against him. But his chalk circle of protection makes Khoma invisible to all of them, until on the third night she summons Viy, who can see everything.

To this elegant core, Stepchenko bolts on a wandering English cartographer Jonathan Green (Jason Flemyng) — based on the French traveler Guillaume le Vasseur de Beauplain — who stumbles on Khoma’s colleagues, Khalyava (Ivan Mokhovikov) and Gorobets (Anatoli Gushchin). They tell him of the village where Khoma met his end; the villagers overcome by superstition, sequestering themselves away from the world. Green enlists the aid of a local man, Petrus (Aleksey Chadov), to investigate using the methods of science, and to use the high promontory of the church as a vantage point from which to draw his maps, uncovering the real story of Khoma’s witch in the process.

The movie basically exists as a delivery vehicle for CGI visualizations of the fantastic and grotesque turns of the story. Unfortunately, all of them fall flat, playing more as broad slapstick than as horror. Large sections were re-shot in 3D, and scene after scene is obviously composed for the effect that’s missing in the Western, generally non-theatrical release. It stands as a master class in how to take a finely-crafted short story and, by consistently making it “bigger and better”, kill off everything that worked in the first place.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: fail.
This review also appears on Punch Drunk Critics.

Mad Max: Fury Road

May 15, 2015
Mad Max: Fury Road

Maybe it’s when Tom Hardy eats the two-headed lizard. Maybe it’s when the sepulchrally-painted War Boys start huffing silver spray-paint and screaming “witness me” before leaping into kamikaze attacks. Maybe it’s when the heavily-chromed double-necked guitar spouts a plume of gasoline flame while chugging out the lead of a Junkie XL-scored heavy metal symphony from the front of a massive, motorized speaker stack carrying an equally massive percussion section in back. But at some point not too far into Mad Max: Fury Road you realize that George Miller is, in fact, completely bonkers in the best possible way.

This is not a reboot, but a long-delayed continuation of Miller’s Mad Max series, thirty years after 1985’s Beyond Thunderdome. That said, don’t worry if you haven’t seen the pulpy originals; this one largely stands on its own, aside from some flashes of disturbed memory that can be easily chalked up to generic PTSD.

The story, like the others in the series, is something of a vignette about life in the post-apocalyptic desert where it’s usually every man for himself — or woman for herself, as it turns out. This one starts when the warlord Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) sends his Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) on a supply mission to retrieve fuel from Gas Town and ammunition from the Bullet Farm, but things take a sharp left turn when she instead drives the heavily-armored War Rig out across the desert in an escape attempt for Joe’s harem of healthy “wives” (Zoë Kravitz, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Riley Keough, Abby Lee, and Courtney Eaton).

Joe sends out his entire fanatical army of War Boys to retrieve his “treasures”, including one driver, Nux (Nicholas Hoult), still chained to his “blood bag”, the captured and enslaved Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy). Why the War Boys need periodic transfusions isn’t really explained in this movie, and honestly it doesn’t really matter. If you’re trying to parse the logic of a Mad Max movie, you’ve walked into completely the wrong theater. This is id-stuff: a technological primality that boils down to blood and sweat and gasoline.

Like the other entries in the series this is aimed squarely at the young male demographic, full of impacts and explosions, and placing beautiful women as a prize to be protected by strong men — even Theron’s Furiosa has had to give up her femininity along with her arm to survive under Joe’s rule. And yet, despite the hypermasculine surface, Miller inserts a distinctly feminist undercurrent. The motley crew’s escape is not merely from despotism to freedom, but from toxic, patriarchal masculinity to the semi-mythical “green place, with many mothers”. Max’s impulse towards solitude must be blunted into cooperation for the good of the whole. Even Nux’s psychotic self-destruction must give way to a valuing of life, his own included.

And yet despite the simplistic teeth-gnashing from the more regressive sectors of the audience, the story doesn’t go so far as to indict itself. It would be easy enough to reduce the story to “men bad, women good”, and in a way that’s what so many action films do by keeping their female characters on a pedestal to be fought over as mere trophies, but that’s not what happens here. Miller strikes a balance, with masculine and feminine traits both necessary for a healthy society. And they must balance in individual people too, not separately in warrior-men and breeding-women either; a woman can carry a purse full of seeds, always trying to nurture something into growth, and also be a deadly crack shot with her rifle.

And all of this vital social commentary weaves into the most spectacular blockbuster action in years. Shooting with real people and real machines in real places lends a visceral heft missing in modern CGI-fests. The editing balances this speed and impact with visual comprehensibility, and while it’s not as cleanly readable as the best cinematic car chases we still have more of a sense of how the shots fit together than most recent action movies. And the pieces slamming into each other are drawn straight from Miller’s own visionary sensibilities. It is awesome, and not to be missed.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: pass.

The D Train

May 8, 2015
The D Train

Andrew Mogel and Jarrad Paul’s The D Train is a movie ahead of its time. No, it’s not an instant classic, and its not likely to get lukewarm reviews that get revised upwards in retrospect ten years from now. But it comes from a place that, unfortunately, most audiences are just not ready to meet it, and the filmmakers’ attempts to reach back towards an audience mostly end up hobbling what could otherwise have been a more youthful and sensitive film.

We haven’t heard much from Jack Black since 2012’s Bernie and 2011’s The Big Year, but The D Train continues his trend away from the bombastic comedies of his earlier career. He plays Dan Landsman, the self-appointed chair of the reunion committee for the Pittsburgh high school his son still attends. He doesn’t really seem to fit in with the rest of the committee, though, and doesn’t really seem to have had a lot of friends in high school. It’s kind of hard to understand why he even cares; it seems like he’s desperate to fit in anywhere, and the reunion is at least a place they can’t turn him away entirely.

Not many people are signing up to come back for the 20th reunion, but one night Dan gets an idea to save the day. He sees none other than Oliver Lawless (James Marsden) on a late-night sunscreen ad, and if he can get the former most popular kid in school — the guy who Made It — to show up, the rest of their class will come back too.

Dan quickly sets up a trip out to L.A. to meet up with Oliver. He concocts a ruse for his wife (Kathryn Hahn) and boss (Jeffrey Tambor), and tries, badly, to play cool for Oliver. And while it works — Oliver agrees to come back — Dan spends so much effort trying to deal with the fallout of his plans that his home life goes to hell, and all out of admiration for a guy who is obviously a washout in the real world.

But the most interesting point comes in the form of a surprise, and so I’ll give a warning here. It’s good, and comes from a good place, but the script often strikes an awkward and even uncomfortable tone, for reasons I’ll go into now.

The thing is, while Dan is out wooing Oliver, he woos a little too hard; they end up in bed together, and not just to sleep off their bender. Oliver’s sexuality is somewhat fluid, but this is a big blow to Dan’s already shaky self-image. Mogel and Paul clearly want to tell a story about how Dan can come to terms with this experience, and they’re coming from a place beyond simple gay-panic stories and jokes, but American audiences — even for indie comedies like this — are still not beyond that point.

The way we conceive of sexuality is undergoing a slow, quiet revolution. For various reasons women have had this somewhat easier: if a woman fools around with one of her friends in college, we easily dismiss it as experimentation, or a phase, and we have no trouble allowing her to identify as “basically straight” if she chooses to. On the other hand, if two men are ever physically intimate they’re both irrevocably gay forever. But even though that’s not really true for Dan — or for anyone — he has to struggle to overcome that idea and integrate the experience into his idea of himself: he’s just a guy who fooled around with another guy once.

The catch is that while many people like me understand this side of the story, most Americans are still hung up on the forever-gay idea, and the filmmakers play to that section of the audience with lots of humor that basically boils down to “ew, gay stuff!” And this undercuts the efforts to push the idea that some guys have fooled around with other guys, but they’re still basically straight — that sexuality is a messier and more complicated thing that can’t be boiled down to just a handful of neat categories.

At its best, The D Train is sweet and thoughtful, and it’s at the vanguard of a popular culture embracing this new, more nuanced view of human sexuality. But, being out on the edge, it’s not yet confident enough of that position to leave behind the gay-panic material that most of the audience still expects. It’s a flawed, shaky step, but it’s distinctly a step forwards.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

Avengers: Age of Ultron

May 4, 2015
Avengers: Age of Ultron

It’s a well-worn trope that the second entry in any genre-driven movie series is “the dark one”, and evidently that goes for super-groups as well. Avengers: Age of Ultron stands as the culmination of Phase 2 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, sewing up the plot lines laid down in emotionally darker installments of the Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America sub-franchises while launching the grand, overarching story forwards into the next few years’ worth of movies.

Just like the first time, Joss Whedon writes and directs this all-star round, and again he does a fantastic job of balancing the needs of his ensemble cast, though it does feel like some of the parts have been cut for time, even with almost two and a half hours to work with. On the other hand, it manages to keep from dragging even at that length.

The first Avengers already did all the heavy work of putting the team together, so we can start fast out of the gate with the team busting up the last of the bases H.Y.D.R.A. has been occupying since being unmasked out of S.H.I.E.L.D. in The Winter Soldier. But the big prize here is Loki’s scepter, which the bad guys have been using to create “enhanced” people of their own. Their two successes are a pair of twins, Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) Maximoff, who go by “Quicksilver” and “The Scarlet Witch”, respectively. Quicksilver is, unsurprisingly, quick — and yes, another version of Quicksilver was in the most recent X-Men; it’s a long story — and Wanda has telekinetic and telepathic powers.

Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) decides it would be a great idea to use the powers of the scepter himself to run his army of robots we saw in Iron Man 3, which could help stop another attack like in The Avengers, and he gets some help from Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) and his own not-quite-so-advanced AI, JARVIS (Paul Bettany) in order to bring Ultron (James Spader) to life. But, predictably enough for a James Spader character, Ultron in turn decides that the best way to bring about “peace in our time” is just to kill all those pesky humans. And since the Avengers are “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes”, Ultron enlists the Maximoff twins to help neutralize them.

Pietro is easily a match for any one of the Avengers, but it’s Wanda’s psychic abilities that really open up Whedon’s storytelling. She taps into each of their minds and forces them to confront the real-world effects of using their powers. It’s an approach that resonates all the stronger when we learn that the twins were orphaned by a shell produced by Stark Industries. Banner’s entire character has been about the tragic side of his powers, but that doesn’t stop him from hulking out and laying waste to the same sort of developing city he once tried to help as a doctor. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) enjoys battle, but he seems disturbed to face the idea of all his comrades in Hel — possibly setting up for his next film, Ragnarok. Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) despairs that she will only ever be the assassin she was trained to be. Even Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) has his regrets about what he sacrifices to be Captain America. Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) is ever the exception, and the odd-man-out Avenger from last time around is now the most important one of all: while the adolescent power-fantasies must grow up and confront the consequences of their actions, Hawkeye is the one to keep his sight on the real stakes.

It would be easy enough for the resolution to all these dilemmata to be a crudely utilitarian calculation: yes, there is some destruction but it’s okay if it saves more lives than it costs. That seems to be the way the filmmakers behind Man of Steel took it, despite the fact that Superman is precisely the last person who should look at the world in those terms. And so it was profoundly gratifying to see our heroes spend at least as much time during the climactic fireworks saving the innocent people around them as they do fighting back against Ultron’s robot horde. You know, acting like heroes should.

Age of Ultron comes up short in the eminently GIFfable shots that The Avengers was almost totally built from, but it feels like it’s at least trying to be something much deeper and more thoughtful than an end-zone dance to celebrate the MCU’s first big milestone. There’s clearly not enough space in the final running time for everything Whedon wanted to say; given his history I have to believe he didn’t mean for one particular scene with Romanoff to come off as awkwardly tone-deaf as it did. But whatever flaws there are — and there are — in this entry or in the MCU as a whole, Kevin Feige has to look back on Phase Two with satisfaction that he and Marvel have pushed these beyond “just comic-book movies” and into the realm of films that deserve to be taken as seriously as any others.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.


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