It took 8-years to get to Captain America: Civil War and everyone involved in Marvel went out of their way to ensure the payoff was worth it.
The Avengers was an unprecedented bit of superhero derring-do. No one had ever done a superhero team up on the big screen before and the epic blockbuster represented the cathartic pay off for five movies of set up. That made for a wild ride of crowd-pleasing that Avengers: Age Of Ultron simply can’t hope to match despite being a very well made and accomplished superhero blockbuster. Not only have we been here before, but writer/director Joss Whedon has to provide character arcs for no less than six protagonists, introduce four major new characters, and provide cameos for a handful of others. Plus, his movie has to be fairly self-contained, since all of the dollops of universe building in Marvel’s Phase 2 have been setting up Civil War and Infinity Wars rather than this Avengers picture. The fact that he even made a watchable movie while juggling all of those elements is amazing and he did more than that. He made a damn fine bit of superhero blockbusting. Age Of Ultron just isn’t quite the event of The Avengers and that’ll be enough to make some fanboys call it a failure, which it isn’t.
Things kick off with the Avengers back together again in the midst of a wild heist to steal back Loki’s pokey stick from the last movie. There are some big glorious action scenes and Scarlet Witch/Quicksilver are introduced. Then things slow down for a bit so that the Avengers can hang out and have a party. All sorts of wise-cracks are made and cameos pop up. Then the party is rudely interrupted when Tony Stark and Bruce Banner’s secret AI invention Ultron appears fully formed for a big speech about how he plans on destroying earth’s mightiest heroes to create a utopia. Ultron then blows a bunch of stuff up and jams a wedge in the middle of the Avengers. So now they’ll have to make friends again and find a way to join forces once more to stop a threat that just might end the whole gosh darned world. Plus Iron Man finally busts out his Hulk Buster armor for some Hulk-busting, Black Widow develops a crush on Bruce Banner, Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver learn to harness their powers for good, Nick Fury returns from hiding, War Machine finally makes a mark on the team, The Vision is introduced, and a bunch of other stuff happens.
More than anything else, Avengers: Age Of Ultron posed an insane writing challenge for Joss Whedon that he somehow managed to meet. With the easy n’ satisfying “get the team together” structure of the last movie no longer an option, he’s got to juggle a massive swab of characters and plots while also delivering big blockbuster action scenes every 15-20 minutes. The movie could have easily been gobbledygook (and indeed there are times when it’s hard to keep things straight, like Thor’s subplot that goes absolutely nowhere), yet for the most part Age Of Ultron feels effortless. The best sequences are the ones when The Avengers simply hang out and Whedon gives them all crackling dialogue that plays off their personalities and is an absolute pleasure to watch. These moments are asides, which there theoretically should be no room for in a film of this scale, but Whedon finds a way to sneak ‘em in constantly without losing his rushing sense of narrative momentum. The film touches on themes like the perils of AI, what it means to be a hero in this wacky modern world, and questions the need for their even to be an Avengers. So Whedon’s script has some thoughts on its mind, there just isn’t much room for those thoughts to be explored thanks to all of the colorful characters and pretty explosions competing for attentions.
All of the returning cast members fit their roles like a glove. Whedon gives them all just enough to do to satisfy the fans and actors and thankfully they clearly still all enjoy each other. Robert Downey Jr. of course steals the show, but you know that already. Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk is charming enough to make you yearn for a solo picture that might never arrive, while Jeremy Renner and Scarlett Johansson’s characters continue to be expanded to the point that their solo movies would be welcome as well. The new characters are all fairly welcome additions. James Spader’s Ultron is an amusingly smarmy and sarcastic evil robot in a way that only Spader could muster and despite limited screentime he’s one of the best villains in a Marvel movie to date (though to be fair, there’s very little competition for that title). Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen are endearing Russian accented and morally mysterious additions to the team, even though their characters are only really introduced here with plenty of room for expansion elsewhere. Ditto, Paul Bettany’s Vision, who looks and sounds right, but ultimately only shows up to be a ringer in the climax. There’s just not enough screentime to go around for the new characters to feel fully fleshed out while all the old stalwarts are getting showcased. Thankfully, Whedon’s good enough at pithy dialogue and quirky characterization that their brief appearances make enough of a mark for audiences to not really realize some characters have been short changed until the credits roll.
Now that Marvel Studios is an institution and it’s easy to take for granted that an Avengers movie can be as good as Age Of Ultron.
Once again, the MCU formula is starting to feel increasingly familiar. Whedon might come up with a clever twist on the “stuff falling onto a major city” cliché Marvel climax, but it’s ultimately not that different from what we’ve all seen so many times before. These movies are starting to become a little overstuffed and predictable, but that doesn’t by any means suggest they are bad. The trouble is that you can only be the new guy on the scene for so long. Now Marvel Studios is an institution and it’s easy to take for granted that an Avengers movie can be as good as Age Of Ultron after last summer delivered to unexpectedly brilliant additions to the universe with Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians Of The Galaxy. Inevitably, these movies are going to get stale, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t plenty to enjoy along the way.
For one thing, it’s astounding how unashamedly nerdy this superhero epic is after years of Marvel and DC movies that have tried to curb off the fantasy edges of comic book mythology for mainstream acceptance. Capes are flaunted, laser beams are fired out of heads, magic is wielded through dancing hands, and gloriously silly dialogue about fate and the universe is dropped without irony. Age Of Ultron feels like a flat out geeky Marvel Comics romp in a manner that few of the Marvel movies have been willing to embrace thus far. Five to ten years ago, it would be unthinkable that such a movie would arrive on screens in such a grand scale. Now it’s an exciting reality, but one that will come with a cost. As the MCU becomes increasingly, nerdily fantasy based, the universal appeal of the franchise will slide a bit with it. That’s the risk the studio is taking by pushing this series into flat out cosmic adventure mode. It’ll be fun to see that happen, but we’ll all also have to start to accept that these things won’t be for everyone anymore. The nerds must take it all back and hopefully a few bros will be willing to come along for the ride.
Before getting into my review of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, a confession is in order. Back in my snotty-nosed and comic-clutching youth, I hated Captain America. “Too boring,” said I. Later I used words like “propagandistic” and “passé” both before and after I knew what they meant. When Kevin Feige and Marvel announced their Avengers cinematic roll out, it was the Captain America film series that I dreaded the most. Then the unexpected happened. Somehow, the Captain America turned out to be the most consistently entertaining and unpredictable non-Iron Man Marvel franchise. Feige and co. have approached the series with an understanding of the characters’ pitfalls as much as his strengths. The first Captain America movie openly satirized Cap’s propaganda origin and silly costume. The Avengers turned his dated ideals into a running gag. Now Captain America: The Winter Soldier has not only pitted Cap against America, but transformed the series into a 70s-style paranoid political thriller a la Three Days Of The Condor (that Robert Redford stunt casting is no accident). It’s as if Kevin Feige knew how much I hated the character and went out of his way to make me love Steve Rogers. Of course, I’m not nearly narcissistic enough to believe that or consider myself the only person with Cap skepticism. It’s just been a pleasant surprise to suddenly find myself desperately anticipating the next cinematic adventure of a character that I mocked mercilessly as a teenager.
Things kick off with some good old-fashioned butt kicking as Captain America (Chris Evans) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) break up a big boat hostage situation with fists, guns, and a certain iconic shield. However, the fact that Widow had a secret info-grabbing mission that Cap didn’t know about concerns our trusty hero. So the man with the shield demands some answers from the man who runs SHIELD, good ol’ Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson). Turns out that Fury is supervising a new international defense initiative that involves a fleet of heli-carriers floating around the planet to monitor and analyze every citizen without them noticing and taking machine gun action to prevent crimes/terrorism before they happen. It’s a Watergate-era paranoid fantasy with Edward Snowden contemporary cred, organized by Robert Redford in slimy liberal politician mode. Cap doesn’t take to kindly to the idea and rather quickly, SHIELD doesn’t take too kindly to him. Soon Cap n’ Widow are on the run, pursued by a fleet of government operatives and a super-powered masked missionary named The Winter Soldier. If you’ve read the comics or pay attention to the face-slap foreshadowing, you’ll know who that Winter Soldier is and will also smirk out a smile once the words “Hail Hydra” are uttered. The movie is just as littered with comic book in-jokes and references as every previous title shot out of the Marvel Movie canon, but this time the action feels more gritty, ground level, and “realistic” with little brooding.
As always, Kevin Feige hired unexpected filmmakers to helm this sequel and they ended up being the perfect choice. The sibling-directing duo of Anthony and Joe Russo previously worked exclusively in comedy on films like Welcome To Collingwood and TV shows like Arrested Development and Community. Yet, despite sprinkling in liberal doses of humor, their focus is on relentless paranoia, suspense, and action that never lets up. The political commentary at the film’s center is well handled (pitching exaggerated contemporary US surveillance issues against the old timey values of Captain America was pretty ingenious) and Redford classes up the picture a notch by doing all the heavy lifting in that area. However, that element never consumes the movie. It’s merely backdrop. This is primarily a rip-roaring action movie with Cap and the Widow at the center. The Russos’ focus on foot chases, choreographed fights, and car carnage that work like gangbusters. If the first Captain America movie offered wartime hero nostalgia, this one hinges on spy and paranoia thriller nostalgia in just as satisfying a way. The cast is strong and it’s a bullet train of entertainment even with a saggy 138 minute running time. Weirdly, the film’s primary weaknesses arrive when the movie serves the Marvel Movie Universe rather than its own needs.
Much of The Winter Soldier’s running time is dedicated to establishing new franchise regulars and removing (or at least temporarily derailing) one of the lynchpins of the first phase of the Marvel Movie Universe. Thankfully, this isn’t as distracting as it was in Iron Man 2, but definitely slows things down. Oddly, the titular Winter Soldier is the least developed central plot thread. It’s clearly all been left vague to leave open doors for sequels, and that’s fine. But why make that the title if it’s not the focus? Still, these complaints and any others (like some distracting Scarlett stunt doubling or the useless post-conversion 3D) qualify as piddling and nitpicking at best. It might not be perfect, but Captain America: The Winter Soldier ranks in the top tier of Marvel productions and thus far is the finest hour of Phase 2. The blockbuster is smart, funny, dramatic, relentlessly action-packed, and moves the grand Marvel narrative forward in a few key steps. To satisfy all those threads requires a lot of juggling that the Russos pull off with an ease that deserves applause. This is a big win for Feige and Marvel that proves not only is their production conveyer belt still working, but the team still has quite a few surprises up their sleeves. My teenage self would be disgusted to learn that Captain America is now one of my favorite movie superheroes. This tricky franchise has been handled brilliantly so far, and at this point I’ll be approaching the initially head-scratching Guardians Of The Galaxy movie with giddy excitement. What once felt like a risky project now feels like brilliantly ballsy one and it’s hard to imagine that Marvel is going to drop the ball any time soon. Certainly not with the next Avengers movie coming next, anyways.
Since the first screening occurred, word hit the Internet that Marvel Studio’s epic The Avengers is one hell of a superhero romp and I am absolutely thrilled to be able to tell you fine folks that the early hype is justified. When the fledging comic book movie factory announced plans to unleash for a five-movie odyssey climaxing with this iconic mash-up, it was met with a healthy amount of fanboy skepticism. After all, countless comic book movies have been ruined by an excessive cast of costumed characters and making that the climatic goal of the company’s post-Iron Man superhero onslaught seemed like a disaster waiting to happen. Well people, they did it. With a feature length introduction to each character already in the books, this sucker hits the ground running and with self-confessed uber geek Joss Whedon (Buffy, Firefly, Cabin In The Woods, etc) calling the shots, it’s dripping with fan service. Despite a hefty running time, this movie races by at a breakneck pace sure to keep even the most ADD-afflicted or drug-addled attention spans entertained.