Review: Avengers: Age of Ultron

avengers-age-of-ultron-concept-computer-wallpaper-pictures-jpg Three years ago we got the culmination of so much with the release of The Avengers. Bringing together a group of unlikely characters from individual movies and slamming them together into one epic finale; and boy did it work. Fast forward to today and we are embarking on a similar path, but the stakes are a lot higher for many reasons. Can Avengers: Age of Ultron deliver on the promise of more teamwork, world building, and copious amounts of fun? The answer is a resounding yes and with plenty to spare. Avengers: Age of Ultron meets those challenges and creates some news and hurdles them as well. Director Joss Whedon leads an ensemble cast of superheroes through a film that pushes everyone to be better. Whedon, who cut his teeth in television, has come a long way from serialized vampire vs teen girl shows. However, leaning on his roots of juggling large casts has proven to be his greatest asset. Its nice to have the director of these films be the writer as well because we can compare them directly to one another. In this case, we can see Whedon’s writing and direction have gone from good to pretty damn great. Creating more cinematic shots of these inherently ultra-cinematic moments makes the film feel more grand and works for the spectacle that we have come to expect. Whedon has said that the making of this film almost killed him, but it seemed the stress was worth it. He has pushed his writing and direction to the limit and we benefit from that tremendously.

The film picks up pretty much from the bonus scene at the end of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Relax, if you didn’t stay in your theater seats for the extra you will not be lost. We are immediately introduced to Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) as possible foils for The Avengers. They are “enhanced” and present a completely new set of challenges for our heroes. The entire team that we know from The Avengers: Captain America (Chris Evans), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) are all back in action from the onset of the film. We get an understanding that the team has been leading missions from Avengers Tower (formerly Stark Tower). The teamwork aspect of the film is a very real change. We see the crew play off of each other and are more assembled than ever before, well in most aspect. Due to his extreme hubris, Tony Stark decides that he will build an artificial intelligence named Ultron without consulting with the team. Tony sees this as a way to be a peace keeping force in the world to end the era of The Avengers. Things like this tend to go wrong, and so it is the same here. Ultron is “born” and immediately decids that he needs to destroy The Avengers for the sake of mankind.

The film goes the ways in which you might expect, sans one thing. The film takes an amazing tonal shift at one point and really gives the most character development we’ve seen in a comic book based film in quite some time. Drawing the audiences into a scenario of actually caring for and about something. While I am sure less mature viewers will deride this as the “boring parts.” What Whedon is able to create is a space for us to know the characters deeper. Its a wonderful bit of film making and makes the impact of events that much deeper.

The performances by all the principal actors is much the same as we’ve seen before. All very solid with Robert Downey Jr. leading the charge as the most seasoned actor. Chris Evans’s Captain America has really come into his own since his last solo film. He has truly embodied the character. The real stand out without a doubt is James Spader’s Ultron. While not a human character, the role of Ultron was motion captured from Spader himself. We get all the great mannerism of the man and it works so well. His voice gives a bit extra “superiority” complex to the character. Spader’s amazing performance shifts from the inquisitive to the mad in seconds, the emotional spectrum makes for a villain who is worth the team’s time and effort. Combined with Joss Whedon fantastic writing, Spader has a massive sandbox to play in and you won’t soon forget his impact in this ever expanding universe. Ultimately, Avengers: Age of Ultron is what we want in these films. Its a perfect balance between fun, action, and depth. A true step up from the first Avengers film in every single way.

[easyreview title= "Review of Avengers: Age of Ultron" cat1title="Jay's Rating" cat1detail="Overall Review" cat1rating="4.5" overall= false]

Review: Captain America: The Winter Soldier

CaptainAmerica2

Marvel Studios has been an interesting experiment in franchise building since its first foray in 2008 with Iron Man. From the meager beginnings, the company has become a full fledge juggernaut with no signs of slowing down. Now into its second phase of movies, Marvel Studios is working to up the ante on all their known properties. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the third sequel of Phase 2, and it very well might be the best of the lot. Starring Chris Evans as Captain America, the movie takes on the ideas of corruption, raised stakes, and loyalty.

Directors, Anthony and Joe Russo, deliver an interwoven story that keeps the audience guessing while simultaneously not making things too confusing. Captain America: The Winter Soldier resembles 1970s spy action flicks in the best of ways. Slick technology, good looking and charming heroes, and villains who matches our heroes in equal measure. Winter Soldier is the pitch perfect example of how to keep these superhero genre films from going stale.

Our story begins with the first meeting of Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) and Steve Rogers (Chris Evans). A great start to the movie with a light hearted connection between two characters who will become lifelong friends. Immediately following we are off to the races when Cap gets picked up by Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johannsson) after being called in for a covert mission. Since the events of The Avengers, Cap has been working non-stop on covert missions for S.H.I.E.L.D. and he begins to question motivations of its leadership. When Cap is ordered to retrieve hostages from a hijacked ship our adventures truly begin and really never slow down for 2+ hours. With an appearance from George St. Pierre, famed MMA fighter, as Batroc the Leaper in the first 15 minutes the movie feels to have already surpassed its predecessor in style already; we haven’t even started yet! After the mission is complete, Cap’s suspicions are further validated and his trust in some characters begin to falter. Cap is then introduced to Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), a S.H.I.E.L.D. director, who asks Cap to go further then he has previously. Pierce is a very gray character and his motivations are simply too muddy to glean a clear picture. In an incredibly compartmentalized spy agency things begin to appear less than transparent. For a character like Captain America, these are the best stories. Muddled between what is right and what is his duty help with this type of character's exploration and makes him more interesting. However, even more than that is Cap’s past that just won’t stay dead.

When Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) is attacked by a shrouded figure named The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), the spy world is thrown upside down. Cap works to find this elusive character and has some direct run-ins with him, which make for excellent action sequences. The level of action in this movie is sheer spectacle. Showing off more hand to hand combat was a major jump in the right direction. Lacking from Cap in his first outing and in The Avengers was his fighting ability. The Russo brothers fixed this and then some. Showing off Cap’s extensive physical ability as well as The Winter Soldier’s was fantastic. The pacing of the action was fast and intense. We didn’t get much shield throwing in the previous iterations of Cap, but here we get to see Steve Rogers really show off. You can now see why he is the leader of The Avengers, and not just a member.

At this point in time, Chris Evans is Captain America for me and many fans around the world. He will become synonymous with the role after people see this film. Evans is able to embody the pragmatic, no nonsense, and boy scout nature of Captain Steve Rogers. Anthony Mackie as the wise cracking partner of Cap was really great. The Marvel universe, and frankly comic book movies as a whole have lacked minority characters, but Mackie’s addition was greatly appreciated and I look forward to seeing more of him in the near future. Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow was better here and more explored than we’ve seen previously. Her character is getting more play in the gray area -- where she belongs. Last but certainly not least, Samuel L. Jackson has played it cool in all these movies with slick one liners, but The Russo brothers show you just why Nick Fury should be considered a badass. Its nice to see the top spy get some serious action moments.

In conclusion, Marvel Studios didn’t meet my expectations...they far exceeded them. Some argued that Captain America: The First Avenger was the weakest of the Phase 1 films. I wouldn’t agree, but what cannot be debated is whether Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the best of Phase 2...it is. While a bold statement, I feel comfortable in saying that Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the best Marvel film to date, including The Avengers. Go see this movie immediately, it's your civic duty (even if you aren’t America).

[easyreview title= "Review of Captain America: The Winter Soldier" cat1title="Jay's Rating" cat1detail="Overall Review" cat1rating="5.0" overall= false]

Review: The Avengers

The Avengers

In 2008, Marvel Studios released Iron Man starring Robert Downey Jr. That movie had the now infamous after credits scene that started it all. When Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) made his surprising announcement the comic book movie genre was forever catapulted to a different level. No longer were these movies going to be one offs, but rather they would build to a large event that may be the most ambitious movie idea in years. Under the directorial control of Joss Whedon, fanboys/girls and everyone in between got to see something truly special. When a familiar Asgardian foe, Loki, steals a mysterious weapon from Nick Fury and his S.H.I.E.L.D. organization it sparks a global crisis. No longer being able to handle this level of a threat, Fury calls upon a ragtag group of super powered misfits to come together to save the planet. The premise of the movie is simple and easy to understand. I do believe that if you never saw the previous solo films you would be fine. Every character's powers/abilities are explained in a smoothly done reintroduction.

The Avengers is an action movie, with a brain. I specify that because this is so commonly not the case in American cinema. Director Joss Whedon’s stylistic dialogue can be seen throughout. Robert Downey Jr. benefits the most from this. At times it seems the RDJ was born and bred to be Whedon’s microphone. The first half of the movie is used as nostalgia for the characters from their solo outings and brings you up to speed on their lives. When the Avengers do come together Whedon is able to show you why they shouldn’t, in a good way. There are real conflicts in personalities that come to the forefront rather quickly. The level of balance that is needed to keep these scenes from being too much is handled masterfully by Whedon. Largely, in my opinion, this is the reason why he was brought on to the project. Balancing multiple complex characters is essential to this movie doing well with critics and fans, alike. Interspersed throughout the movie is well paced fun action. Unlike a Transformers we do not get the movie split in half - first half buildup, second half mindless action. I was glad to see there was a decent mixture of the two until the last 40 minutes.

The Avengers is more character driven than you would think for a summer blockbuster that looks to break a series of opening weekend records. One of the largest fears I had going in was that this would somehow become IronMan 3. Being that IronMan was the most popular Avenger its hard not to give him a good amount of screen time. However, at no point did I feel like any of the team was being slighted, including the ones with no super powers. Everybody had their moment in the sun. Whether your favorite Avenger is the Hulk or Black Widow you got to see them on screen plenty of times and more importantly do something spectacular.

As much hype as this movie is getting in this review and I’m sure many others it does possess some faults. The first 20 minutes seems very rough to me. Disjointed at times and character line deliveries seemed to fall flat. I was worried because it didn’t seem like the Whedon writing I was use to. Now we know the movie had major rewrites so I’m not sure if Whedon ever edited the beginning of the movie’s writing. The pacing felt nothing like the rest of the movie. When the Avengers begin to meet one another the movie makes the ultimate pivot towards heroic greatness. Sometimes the dialogue can get a little too heavy in parts and should be a tad trimmer. This is hardly a big deficit as you enjoy the banter back in forth anyway.

Overall The Avengers is something to see on the big screen. I think this movie would look and sound amazing on a quality home setup, but there is nothing like seeing in theaters. I saw it in 3D and felt that it did nothing to add or take away from the movie. If you want to save a few dollars, skip the 3D. Lastly, I saw this movie with my 11 nephew and glancing over at him was my favorite part of the experience. I realized very quickly that the new Star Wars trilogy isn’t his generation's Star Wars, the Avengers is and I’m very ok with that.

[easyreview title= "Review of The Avengers" cat1title="Jay's Rating" cat1detail="Overall Review" cat1rating="4.5" overall= false]

We will of course talk in depth on this week's upcoming podcast episode. Stay tuned.