Thursday, 15 March 2018

Approaching Infinity Part Twelve: Ant-Man (2015)

Following on from their second Big Team adventure, Marvel marks another X on its Avengers Roster bingo card with a weirdly and refreshingly low-key solo film. Ant-Man caught me off-balance a little bit, as this really wasn't a character I had any specific feelings about going in. Can't complain too loudly about what we got here - although the few flashes of Edgar Wright we get really have me wondering what Ant-Man could've been if Marvel hadn't crushed his soul quite so comprehensively.

The Villain
Okay, so - Darren Cross is a paint-by-numbers MCU Evil Shadow, partially redeemed by some very interesting character work and a really tightly-wound performance. As Yellowjacket, he's really not much more than a Mortal Kombat palette-swap of the hero (Nega Scott Lang, to cram in a clumsy Edgar Wright reference). Yellowjacket is Ironmonger to Ant-Man's Iron Man - a needlessly evil upgraded version of the hero with no plan and nothing to gain, who still fights the hero out of... dunno. He's a sledgehammer with no purpose but to destroy.

As Darren Cross, though, he's a scalpel - a supremely competent bad guy struggling with betrayal and desertion by a father figure who pushed him away out of fear of his own darker side. He's complex and motivated, with a criminal mind and a child's temper. His primary plan is to get rich, sure - but more importantly, to do it in a way that proves his superiority over his own fallen mentor.

When that doesn't work out, he decides to threaten a child and murder a train set instead.

The Story
I think this is probably the first MCU film that made me want to care about the protagonist's personal life. I never accumulated enough fucks, for example, to spare one for whether Steve Rogers and Peggy Carter ever hooked up. Iron Man 2 never convinced me that Stark's relationships with his dad or Pepper were worth the screen time they got. Perplexingly, I found myself partially along for the ride with Scott Lang's juggling act between his two families (one nuclear, one criminal). I don't think the flickering romance with Hope Van Dyne was needed, though. She stood up more than well enough without that, and I'm hoping she does even better as The Wasp. That pseudo-relationship seemed a little tacked on compared to everything else that was going on.

Anyway, there's a pretty serviceable MCU story going on in the background of this mash-up of soppy family melodrama and prickly romance. Everyone who needs to have something at stake does, more or less, even though some of that shakes itself apart in the grand finale. Also, there are, like, three heists in this film. That's about three heist films' worth of heists!

The Universe
Ant-Man is noticeably light on Infinity Stones, which is a quality I'm growing to appreciate in MCU films. Despite that, it does put some interesting Marvel-balls into play. Hank Pym's a really nice addition, for one thing. I'm really liking how some familiar faces are being seeded into the universe's history. The prospect of the Wasp is also very cool, and I think a lot of good groundwork was put down for Hope in this film. Beyond that, we put a couple of pieces on the Civil War chessboard with the Falcon fight and the post-credits scene. Which brings us to...

The Stinger
Yup, the Wasp's coming. I wonder if she'll have anything cool to do.

Also, here's a scene from Civil War. Nice!

The Take-Away
It's good to see David Dastmalchian playing something other than a Joker henchman for once. Seriously - he did it in The Dark Knight back in 2008 and again in Gotham in 2017. Also nice to see that Marvel can take a step back from sky-portals every once in a while and do something a little more level-headed. Of course, an argument could be made that letting Hydra get hold of a vial of Pym particles might become a world-ending problem at some point, but these films have a habit of not watching each other too closely, so maybe that's nothing to worry about. 

We're still killing off a lot of our MCU villains, which always feels a little short-sighted. I guess it's not like they're in short supply, though - and they're about to do something very interesting with the next one...

Next: Captain America: Civil War

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Approaching Infinity Part Eleven: Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

I have to say, I was a little unconvinced by this the first go-around. At times dazzling, at other times frustrating, I kinda landed in a place where I was willing to wade through the latter to get to the former. Watching it again, though, the unearned emotional stuff and agonisingly obvious Whedon Swerves are much less of a problem. Let's get a couple of knuckles deep into this thing:

The Villain
Ultron: possibly the most on-the-nose Evil Shadow villain of the MCU to date. He's literally the creation of Tony Stark, with non-specific and largely irrelevant contributions from Bruce Banner. James Spader, working on the career-defining performance that he'd kicked off and would later perfect in The Blacklist, acts the crap out of this thing. Ultron is conflicted but obsessive, strategically brilliant but frequently absent-minded, unfailingly loyal but ruthlessly vengeful. All at once, he's somehow utterly unshackled and yet still totally enslaved to his core programming. His plan develops with his circumstances, from saving the world by forcing humanity to evolve to provoking an extinction-level event and starting from scratch. So, yeah - this is a much more interesting charcter than I'd been expecting.

The Story
Robert Downey Jr. obviously and desperately wants to get out of these films.

Beyond that, this is pretty standard MCU stuff, with occasional digressions into full-on Whedonism. Stark ropes Banner into the private obsession he's been tackling since the whole sky-portal incident, but without the benefit of the healing and character development we were promised in the completely irrelevant Iron Man 3. He's as messed up as ever, but at least doesn't need to spend any time in make-up getting his chest reactor thing fitted every day on set. It goes kinda like this:

STARK: I'mma do a thing.
BANNER: Don't do the thing!
STARK: I did the thing! Help me fix the thing I did.
BANNER: Okay, cool.
AVENGERS: AARGH - look at the terrible thing you did! Fixitfixitfixitfixit!
[10-second pause...]
BANNER: Stark, did you just do the thing again?

The Universe
So wait - JARVIS isn't an AI, but Ultron is... except when JARVIS is as well. Ultron's supposedly unique AI-ness means he can hack the world and access nuclear codes, but the supposedly inferior non-AI JARVIS has him blocked at every turn. Honestly, given that JARVIS has already been shown to be better than all the Avengers put together in the I-can't-believe-this-is-actually-canon-oh-my-God-it's-like-they-didn't-think-it-through-at-all Iron Man 3, I just don't see why we even need anybody else in these films. The fact that they then put JARVIS into an immortal, inexplicably density-shifting magic-metal body just ices that nonsense-cake.

But hey - look, they gave us Scarlet Witch and Quicksi...

Look, they gave us Scarlet Witch!

Side note: I would seriously pay good money for a Klaue solo flick at this point. Best not to get attached, though. Speaking of Black Panther spoilers, vibranium does literally anything.

Yeah... all that Banner / Black Widow stuff manages to come out of, and end up going, absolutely nowhere. Total waste of time, and never feels like a natural progression of either character's arc. Actually, almost nothing Banner does in this film makes sense, from helping Stark and half-heartedly romancing Widow right through to pissing off in a plane he can't fly at the end. Even his comical mispronunciation of Wakanda seems weird for a man as well informed and travelled as he supposedly is.

Also, are we counting The Vision as another character who can withstand the touch of an Infinity Stone? I mean, they've painted themselves into a corner on this one. Either Vision is a living thing and Infinity Stones are bullshit or he's not and the supposedly pivotal moment where he first handles Mjolnir is meaningless. Thinking of it, did he possess the power of Thor on the two occasions he wields the hammer? Just another cute-moment-at-all-costs from Whedon, I guess...

As for all the heavy-handed "Hawkeye's gonna die" signposting, did that actually fool or pay off for anyone? Really?

The Stinger
Thanos again! Wait - didn't we already know that?

The Take-Away
Seriously - how badly did Downey Jr. want to get out of the MCU at this point? It's actually kinda weird even to see him here, after Iron Man 3's sincere efforts toward closing the book on the character. This time, his entire story seems to be about shuttering the whole Avengers enterprise. By the time the film ends, he's driving off into the sunset and a new Stark-free roster is presented. I guess that's the last we'll be seeing of him in the series, then - because anything else would be borderline ridiculous...

Looking back over this post, it probably comes across as way more negative than I actually feel about Age of Ultron. That Spader performance buys a LOT of leeway, for one thing. Looked at in the broader context of the whole MCU, most of the stuff in Ultron that doesn't quite fit feels more like minor course correction than legitimate flaws. It looks great, has better dialogue than it needed to have and it pushed Joss Whedon out of the MCU forever. Couldn't ask for much more than that, really.

Huh - even that Whedon dig overstates the issue. Getting a project this big to work even half this well would have been a minor miracle. I might find some of his writing a little cloying at times, but this film still kicked the living shit out of the mediocre expectations I had for it.

Everything involving Quicksilver was total bullshit, though.

Previously: Guardians of the Galaxy
Next: Ant-Man
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