Friday, May 1, 2015

Worth Mentioning - Excelsior!

We watch several movies a week. Every Friday, we'll talk a little about some of the movies we watched that we felt were Worth Mentioning.

Cody marvels at a superhero team-up.


Phase One of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which began with 2008's Iron Man, was all about building the roster of the superhero team The Avengers. The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger, they introduced the heroes while building toward the day when they would join forces. That culminated with 2012's The Avengers, a gleeful celebration of a film that revelled in the fact that we were seeing all these comic book characters interact with each other on the big screen.

Phase Two doesn't officially culminate with Avengers: Age of Ultron, July's Marvel film Ant-Man is actually the last movie in this part of the saga, and it doesn't have that party atmosphere the first team event had. This is a darker, more somber movie. We were excited to see the team form, and now circumstances make it seem like this was an ill-fated pairing of personalities.

Age of Ultron is interesting in that it's essentially a direct sequel to The Avengers, but also deals with situations that occurred in the movies in between. Iron Man Three established that Tony Stark, the billionaire genius inside the Iron Man suit of armor, was suffering PTSD from the events of The Avengers. The alien invasion and the fear that aliens may someday try to attack the Earth again had left him anxious and paranoid. This film continues delving into his fear and paranoia. The Phase Two entry that had the biggest impact was Captain America: The Winter Soldier, as it not only saw the downfall of the spy organization S.H.I.E.L.D., since members of the villainous organization Hydra were deeply embedded in it, but also set up the characters and location that are involved with the opening sequence of Age of Ultron.

This sequel jumps right into the action, with the Avengers - Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Hawkeye, Black Widow, and the Hulk - working together as a team to storm the castle fortress of Hydra member Baron Wolfgang von Strucker, who has in his possession an item which the heroes seek to confiscate - the powerful scepter which Thor's evil adopted brother Loki wielded in the previous Avengers movie and used to take over the minds of some of the characters. The object which Kevin Smith refers to as the "Loki pokey stick".

As the Avengers discover, Strucker has used the power within the scepter to bestow superhuman abilities to a pair of volunteers, twin siblings Pietro and Wanda Maximoff. Pietro can run at an incredible speed, earning him the nickname Quicksilver. Wanda has become the Scarlet Witch, telekinetic and able to fling energy blasts from her hands as well as influence the minds of people around her.

In the comics, Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch are mutants, the children of X-Men villain Magneto. However, Marvel sold the rights to mutants off to Fox, the studio behind the X-Men movies, so they couldn't be mutants here. Thus why the scepter gives them their powers. Since Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch are regulars in both Avengers and X-Men comics, Marvel and Fox can both use them, which is how a different iteration of Quicksilver was able to appear (and have the most memorable scene) in last year's X-Men: Days of Future Past.

Pietro and Wanda have a grudge against Tony Stark, who made his billions as a weapons manufacturer. It was a Stark-built bomb which killed the Maximoff parents when the twins were just ten years old. Now they want revenge, and the public image makeover Stark has gone through since quitting the weapons business and becoming Iron Man doesn't deter them.

Stark creates bigger trouble for himself when he uses the power of the scepter to jump start an artificial intelligence program he has been working on, with the help of Hulk's scientist alter ego Bruce Banner, called Ultron. The idea is that Ultron will be able to control a legion of sentries that will keep peace on Earth and protect it from any otherworldly attackers. Unfortunately, the power of the scepter is so great that Ultron gains sentience and, taking over robotic bodies, sets forth on a plan to save the Earth by eradicating the human species.

As the Avengers fight to stop Ultron and his sidekicks the Maximoff twins, they also fight amongst themselves, sometimes due to the mental manipulations of Scarlet Witch, sometimes because they just don't work well together. Some members keep secrets from the others - no one other than Stark and Banner knew about Ultron or that they were using the scepter. Cap and Thor certainly would have had something to say about those ideas.

Alliances crumble, perspectives are changed, losses are taken, new heroes arise, and a whole lot of damage is done, as this film plays out on a wider scope than any movie involving these characters has before - both in terms of set pieces, and globe-hopping, as the action occurs all over the world: Eastern Europe, New York, Africa, South Korea.

The actors returning to their heroic roles remain perfect in them. Captain America is still my favorite of the bunch, while Tony Stark/Iron Man is looking worse all the time because of his disastrous decisions. The disagreements between those two characters looks set to come to a head in the soon-to-start-filming Captain America: Civil War.

Bruce Banner and Black Widow are given a strong emotional connection, leaning toward the romantic, this time out, although I couldn't fully get into it because it just made me wonder what Banner's ex Betty Ross, who was portrayed by Liv Tyler in the 2008 Incredible Hulk film, is up to these days. Lingering thoughts of Betty has to be the reason why Stark's "Hulkbuster" contigency plan is dubbed Veronica.

Jeremy Renner's Hawkeye got short shrift in The Avengers, being a Loki zombie for much of the movie, and he missed out on a cameo in Winter Soldier due to scheduling issues, so the character was given a lot more to do in this film, and in some ways becomes its heart. His scenes with the Maximoff twins provide some of the best moments.

James Spader provides the voice of Ultron, and does a great job, although the character itself didn't make much of an impact for me. The new additions of Pietro, Wanda, and a fellow called the Vision - a synthetic being who is brought to life through the combined actions of Ultron, Stark, Banner, and Thor - were much more interesting and kind of overshadow Ultron.

Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson do fine work in the roles of the Maximoffs, while Paul Bettany's Vision is a character I'm intrigued to get to see more of in future films.

What really makes me love the Marvel heroes and their movies is how much heart they do have, the dedication the heroes have to doing what's right and risking their own well-being for the safety of others. A lot of attention is paid to the Avengers minimizing the risk to civilians in this film. While there have been other superhero movies that put the spectacle of destruction over any consideration for human life, Age of Ultron focuses on its heroes doing what heroes are supposed to do: protecting people.

Avengers: Age of Ultron isn't as much fun as The Avengers was, and as far as Phase Two movies go I think both Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy have it beat, but it is a fantastic superhero movie in itself and a worthy entry in the very impressive Marvel Cinematic Universe.

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