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Monthly Archives: May 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road, or, Action Movies Turned Upside Down

It’s worth saying that my remarks about sequels, spinoffs and reboots last week are not absolute – as we know, only Sith deal in absolutes. That said I’m in an odd position on this one because I’m not even passingly acquainted with the latest franchise to be revived.

I remember tuning in to one of the original Mad Max films on the TV once. I watched maybe ten minutes, and thought, marauding bands of gang rapists, helpless women in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, with a stoic badass hero ready to come roaring in to wreck up the bad guys and prove what a manly man he is. And also he’s played by Mel Gibson. Ho hum. I changed the channel.

So, you might reasonably wonder why I showed up to this movie at all. Part of it was the cast: I’ve been consistently impressed by Tom Hardy’s performances in Star Trek Nemesis, Inception, Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy and the Dark Knight Rises, and Charlize Theron owned the Italian Job in my opinion.

But the movie somewhat betrayed my expectations before I even got to see it: I didn’t read any reviews, lest I meet spoilers, but I was taken aback when, far from being written off as another boys’ violencefest, the kinds of dudebros who revel in that kind of movie were absolutely incensed by Mad Max: Fury Road. The abysses of internet machismo billowed forth with rage against Hollywood’s diabolical plot to ensure that “men in America and around the world are going to be duped by explosions, fire tornadoes, and desert raiders into seeing what is guaranteed to be nothing more than feminist propaganda.”

Hang on tight!

Hot diggedy! An action movie that’s infuriating to macho tosspots? What more could I ask for! So when the movie at last reached my smalltown cinema, off I went.

In the future, the world has been piled on by catastrophe until it has been reduced to a stark desert wasteland, roamed by marauding tribes of biker gangs, road pirates, and petty lordlings sitting on hordes of fuel, ammo or water.

Max is a broken man, a cop before the world descended into hell, tormented both by the various hordes and cults speckling the endless desert, and by the shadows of those he couldn’t save. He is captured by the crazed ‘warboys’ of the cult leader and pervert extraordinaire Immortan Joe, for no other purpose than to be a ‘blood bag’ to sustain the diseased warboys. However, when he is dragged along like baggage on a pursuit of a runaway gasoline tanker, he is unexpectedly pulled into the tribulations of Furiosa, Joe’s best driver, who has gone rogue to rescue five women – Immortan Joe’s harem – his ‘prize breeders’ – to deliver them from the lecherous warlord and his palace of, to borrow a phrase from the Goblin King in An Unexpected Journey, “abomination, mutation and deviation.”

Together they face enemies on all sides, desperate scarcity and sheer exhaustion as they quest for freedom, for redemption, and for a better world in the midst of desolation.

I suspect that my lack of prior familiarity with the Mad Max franchise handicaps me slightly. I realized that for about the first half-hour the dialogue, such as there was, was so thick with man-child future slang (Australian future slang, no less) that I barely understood a word any of Joe’s minions were saying. Although the constant racket of muscle car engines might’ve had something to do with that.

I also had a thought, that their crazed behaviour and demented language is reminiscent of the Orks in Warhammher 40K, as is the general aesthetic of skulls, spikes, gungy metalwork and roaring engines. If this backtracks to the original movies, then this may have influenced 40K.

Likewise, the general look of the ‘warboys,’ with their pale skin, shirtlessness, goggles and love of wild Gollumesque hopping about looks suspiciously like the raiders from the video game Borderlands, and the vastness of the landscape, the way things like bullets have become currency and the ubiqutious scars, mutations and deformities bring to mind the Fallout games.

So it would appear that Mad Max’s cultural pedigree is well-established, and with the original director, George Miller at the helm, I imagine this carries through from the original films.

The post-apocalyptic aesthetic is quite fascinating : a future where all technology is basically improvised and based on found materials (another thing it shares with 40K), where the economy basically runs on bullets and gasoline. Indeed, Immortan Joe’s vassals are “Gas Town” and “the Bullet Farm.” According to some brief background research I undertook, during the 70s when the first movie was made, Australia had a machismo culture surrounding cars in much the same way America has with guns. And this is reflected in how gasoline, diesel, chrome and the cars themselves are given higher priority over, say, water despite them living essentially in the Outback to the Nth Degree. The fact that Joe rides out to battle towing a sound system and a mutated freak playing Death Metal all day is equal parts contemptible and hilarious.

On this vast arena, there are ideal conditions for lots of exciting chase scenes. And that’s good because when you get down to it, Mad Max: Fury Road is basically one long chase scene. When I began to suspect that this was what was in the offing, I was worried that I’d end up getting action fatigue, as I did with the first Hobbit movie.

But to my surprise, that format actually works surprisingly well. The movie is incredibly suspenseful, with our heroes constantly enduring the packs of perverts nipping at their heels, fighting them off and struggling to stay ahead of them as they try to find the semi-mythical ‘Green Place.’

And I think the reason it works so well is because Fury Road’s agenda isn’t being a whiz-bang, shooty, awesome action movie. It isn’t trying to make you feel thrilled all the time. It’s showing the characters struggling and inviting you to share in the stress, exhaustion and (very) occasional relief. It doesn’t try to get you to cheer for the heroes, it just wants you to empathize with them. When you see Joe’s warboys whooping and carrying on as they throw exploding harpoons at their enemies while all our heroes can do is run and put themselves on the line to not get killed, then you find yourself regarding all the explosions and gunfire with horror and alarm, as in “oh, no! Will their getaway truck still work after that hit? Will they get away?”

Our heroines, Charlize Theron’s Furiosa and the Concubines Five, are willing to fight and kill to protect themselves if need be, but a lot of the time all they can do is keep their heads, resort to desperate human shield tactics (Joe wants them back, after all, especially since at least two of them are pregnant with his spawn), and the movie once again subverts the old standbys, in this case regarding action movie eye candy.

When Max first sees the escapees, through a haze of blood loss and dehydration, scantily clad and bathing, like an Arabian Nights mirage, it seems like he’s hypnotized by boobs, but then you see that some of them are visibly pregnant, and then you think about how they got that way, and then you see them cutting off their shackles and chastity belts, and the sexy aspect suddenly drains away almost entirely. By equal degrees it makes you root for their success and despise the lecherous cretin hunting them more than any standard action movie would call on you to do.

Now, having gotten this far into the review, you might find it odd that I’ve barely mentioned the guy whose name is, after all, right smack up there in the title. What about Max? Well, it’s hard to say, in a way. We don’t get to know him well at first, if only because there’s frustratingly little dialogue in this movie (why I can’t remember the concubines’ names) and in a way it’s weird that he appears to be little more than a supporting character. One of the main objections brought up by the dudebro squawkers was that Furiosa orders him around a fair bit, and Mad Max is a man so obviously he should be in charge of everything, right?

And to me, that’s part of the brilliance of the movie, because Max’s redemption isn’t about him being large and in charge, but in just doing the right thing, putting himself at the service of a noble cause that’s bigger than he is! If he had taken charge and been the big hero, he would have just been a mirror image of the hypermacho villains pursuing them! It’s interesting to note that only when Max starts becoming helpful to Furiosa and company, as opposed to basically commandeering their escape for his own uses does he become talkative or relatable. He spends most of the beginning of the movie trailing around a sort of sadistic collar/mask thing and a chain from his captivity, and the more he becomes an ally to the group, the more of that stuff he gets to take off and the less he looks like one of the warboys’ playthings. It’s a triumph of symbolism. He does come up with a plan that gives them the shot at final victory, but he offers it to the female characters, as their decision, and once again is simply at their service.

The term ‘gritty realism’ gets thrown around a lot these days, but Mad Max: Fury Road achieves a gritty realistic tone without fetishizing pain, violence or sexual exploitation the way, say, Game of Thrones is so infamous for doing. I gather that George Miller started out as a surgeon before going into the movie business, and so he’s in a good place to appreciate how much punishment the human body can actually take. It isn’t completely consistent – I can’t remember any of the characters eating, which struck me as a bit odd. Some really interesting supporting characters don’t make it through the movie which is frustrating and heartbreaking but it’s the kind of demands a movie with such investing stakes requires. Interestingly, the goriest moments are just offscreen or otherwise hidden by sleight-of-camera, and in a number of cases that actually makes it more gut-punchingly effective that the in-your-face approach of Game of Thrones, 300 or Sin City.

I’m honestly not clear on whether Mad Max: Fury Road is a sequel to or remake of the previous movies, but taken by itself it is exceptional. I’m pretty sure it actually is intended as a feminist movie, but even if it isn’t, like my old friend Sucker Punch, I can totally see that interpretation as being fully supported by the story and symbolism. The online macho men are probably right that it is a blow against traditional action movie hypermasculinity, but in defying the old conventions, it achieves a depth, intelligence and emotional engagement that Conan the Barbarian or 300 can’t hope to achieve. It’s not to say that there’s no place for dumb action flicks (I like 300, myself) but they’re sugary snacks and something like Fury Road is a well-balanced, nutritious and satisfying meal.

Given the lengths that internet dudebros are willing to go to these days to keep the lid on the little box they live in, I happily admit that I think they deserve every bit of suffering this movie’s content and success inflicts on them, and I applaud the world at large for recognizing the movie for it’s thematic value and excellent acting. It’s demanding, exhausting and sometimes very disturbing, but meaningful, exhilarating, and accessible to almost anyone, male or female, and it is the nobler for it.

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Posted by on May 26, 2015 in Movie

 

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The Mote in God’s Eye

I’m sad to say that Science Fiction Spring has become a bit harder going than I’d hoped. Notwithstanding the interruption of something as big as Age of Ultron and something as fascinatingly pointless as a terrible trailer for a movie of an 80’s cartoon, my biggest hurdle was getting into a book which, after years of reading Honor Harrington and Warhammer 40,000 spinoff novels, I rapidly realized was one of their ancestors.

The Mote in God’s Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, published 1974 is one of those sci-fi novels I’ve heard name-dropped about a quadrillion times and so I resolved that, since I was going on a science fiction literature kick this spring, it would be on the list.

At the outset, however, I was rapidly starting to feel like I’d already read it because a lot of later works clearly owe a lot to it.

In the far future, the Empire of Man is engaged in a struggle to reunite the worlds colonized by humankind – not unlike the Great Crusade of the Imperium of Man in Warhammer 40K – led by its aristocratic military class – not unlike the Star Kingdom of Manticore in Honor Harrington – when the newly-reconquered New Caledonia system receives an unexpected visitor: a probe from a non-human civilization.

Surprised, fascinated and fearful in equal measure, the Empire marshalls an expedition to the the Mote, the homeworld of these strange beings. Meeting them, Captain the Lord Rod Blaine of the Imperial battlecruiser Douglas MacArthur and a mixed bag of military officers, statesmen and scientists begin the process of understanding these aliens, their nature, their intentions, and whether or not they pose a threat to the Empire.

What’s funny is that in addition to having the seed of subsequent franchises in it, Mote in God’s Eye also has a few winks toward past ones. A fallen and rebounding galactic empire smacks a little of Asimov’s Foundation, the engineer on MacArthur is a Scotsman (well, a New Caledonian, but never mind) a la Star Trek, and the great rebel enemy the Empire has recently defeated is the planet Sauron!

Part of the reason I found this story so hard to engage with at first is just that: it’s one of those stories that’s full of cliches because it helped invent or codify said cliches. My eyes occasionally slid off whole passages, taking in the gist only.

This isn’t helped by there being a slew of characters to keep track of, none of whom jump out as being the main character. In principle it’s Captain Blaine, but the story spreads the point of view between so many characters that he seems pushed to the background after a while.

Having said that, the dynamics of the story are actually pretty neat. This is very much an idea-focused story. The appearance or function of the warships isn’t dwelt on much, but Pournelle and Niven sought out physicist Dan Alderson to help them develop a scientifically acceptable interstellar drive system – known ever since as the Alderson Drive. During interplanetary cruises, the acceleration g-forces are accordingly brutal.

The aliens, the Moties, are fascinating, especially in the context of Star Trek, less than ten years over when this was written. One feature I’ve rarely if ever seen is that they’re physically asymmetrical! Their physiological strangness is artfully used to inform their psychology and their politics and history to create layers of mystery for the human characters to unravel.

It’s been brought to my attention that Mote in God’s Eye has a sequel, and the whole thing takes place within a larger fictional universe Pournelle created – the CoDominium, so called – and there are more developments promised between humanity and Moties. Given the tought slog I had with this book, I don’t think I’m in a hurry to read it. What is here, however, is quite intriguing. You can tell this was conceived and written in course of the Cold War. The Imperial Admiral riding herd on Captain Blaine is a more than a trifle paranoid about the Moties. The Empire’s government in general is all about assessing the potential threat of the Moties and nuking them into extinction isn’t off the table in case things go badly.

That said, the politics are portrayed pretty even-handedly, if a bit bleakly. Exterminating the Moties is written off more for PR reasons than moral ones. But trade with them is weighed against possible harm to their economy or the chance they might trade with seccessionist worlds. The Moties have a similar set of agendas and strategies to work through at their end. Realpolitik, in other words. It’s perhaps not particularly uplifting, but moderate and realistic, without pushing any political screed from the authors.

I can well understand why the Mote in God’s Eye is a classic, and I like exploring the pedigree of favourite stories of mine, so for all the difficulty I experienced getting into it, I found it enlightening and satisfying to read. Any sense of flatness to the story is partly it’s being from an old tradition of ideas over action or character, and because I’ve spent so much time admiring the foliage that sprang off this trunk.

 
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Posted by on May 21, 2015 in Book

 

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Saturday Supplemental: The Jem Trailer, or Why Am I Even Here?

I can’t quite believe I’m doing this: I’m not only about to complain about a movie that hasn’t come out yet, but I’m furthermore going so far beyond my logical range of interest as to be utter madness. But when the trailer for the live action adaptation of a cult 80’s cartoon is so bad that even William Shatner knows about it, it probably bears some examination. And besides which, the opportunity is golden for me to complain about the current state of creativity in mass media.

So this past week the trailer was released for the live-action movie Jem and the Holograms, based on the 80’s cartoon Jem by Christy Marx featuring Jerrica Benton, daughter of a record company executive who bequeaths her and her foster sisters an AI named Synergy who projects holograms, enabling Jerrica to turn into the glam rock star Jem and lead her band, the Holograms in setting off a cultural bomb against her late father’s underhanded partner and his fractious and criminally insane ‘bad-girl’ band the Misfits.

The cartoon is completely daft from first to last: Jerrica is a borderline Mary Sue – a record company owner and trustee of a private group home for girls, who also maintains the secret identity of a fashionista rock star. The secret identity produces a lot of drama with her boyfriend, the Holograms’ roadie Rio, who dallies with both Jem and Jerrica not knowing they’re the same person, and causing Jerrica angst as she tries to sort out his true feelings and maintain the secret identity. All this despite him being in the inner circle and kind of a creepy hypocrite about lying even as he thinks himself to be two-timing his girlfriend. It’s the kind of relationship drama that could only possibly work on somebody under the age of 8.

Still, its whacky premise and aesthetic and timing for the millennial generation gives it hefty nostalgia potential. But, naturally you must be wondering, how in the hell do I, a hominid of the male persuasion, know all of this?

Full disclosure, I’ve watched some of this show. And I don’t mean when I was a little kid. I mean about two years ago. I stumbled upon it partly by way of a fanvid I randomly happened upon, then I looked it up and discovered Outrage of the Zygons, a quite excellent fan webcomic crossover with Doctor Who, and then I went ahead and examined the source material, partly out of nostalgia for the crummy old animation style of the period and partly out of a quest to lose my Man Card as far behind the sofa as possible. Besides, it was more or less Christy Marx’s magnum opus, and since she also penned a number of episodes of my favourite shows – an award-winning episode of Beast Wars, in addition to episodes of Shadow Raiders, ReBoot, X-Men Evolution and even Babylon 5, I figured she deserved some further recognition on my part.

When I was a kid, my grandparents were the only ones in the family with satellite TV – back when having a satellite dish looked a like you had a Jodrell Bank franchise on your lawn – and I used to sneak next door to watch retro Cartoons at ungodly hours of the morning. Gotta hand it to them, they never seemed to mind.

From this experience I deduce that Jem is something of a missing link between three generations of cartoon.

It’s got early signs of the ‘socially responisble Aesop’ kid’s show of the 90s, exemplified by Captain Planet (and even cheesier, if you can imagine). It lives in the period of the ‘suprisingly good glorified toy commercial’ of the late 80s; it’s basically a girlie counterpart to GI Joe or Transformers. But it’s also among the last of an older subset of the mystery-solving-team genre a la Scooby Doo where the amateur detectives are also a rock band. I have no idea where this concept sprang from, but in the 70s and 80s there seemed to be scads of them: Josie and the Pussycats are the obvious one, but there’s also Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kids and Jabberjaw, a sci-fi variation taking place in an undersea civilization where the band’s frontman is a talking shark. No I don’t know why, shut up!

Anyway, like a lot of such properties it’s getting a bit of a reboot in film form, and the trailer almost instantly provoked universal objection from the whole freaking internet.

I was vaguely aware from the Facebooks of fangirl friends of mine who remember this show that a movie was in the offing, and red flags sprang up instantly when the creative team running the show were revealed to all be men. So, the cartoon that set itself up as being a deviation from the bunches of dudes in contemporary shows, that told stories from women’s perspectives, and you’re handing it off to a bunch of dudes? You don’t think a woman’s perspective and understanding of the characters, their dynamics and society’s pressures on them might have helped? A woman like, say, Christy Marx, who you didn’t even bother telling about this movie apparently?

Then when you actually get to the trailer itself, it bears zero resemblance to the source. Apparently in this Jerrica is a regular teen who gets discovered on YouTube, is picked up by a record label who basically turn her into Jem and make it impossible for her to be herself anymore, straining her bond with her family/bandmates and setting up the moral about the costs of fame. Jerrica Benton? More like Jerrica Bieber!

This moral played itself out about three trillion times in various teeny-bopper shows in the 90s – I seem to recall the show Kids Inc tackling it in particular. What’s striking is that it’s tonally the opposite of what I got from the cartoon. In this, Jerrica is a victim of the big monstrous machine forcing her to be Jem and ruining the really important stuff in her life. In the cartoon, being Jem is her idea, allowing her to rocket to the top of the charts at the head of her own record company. She’s in charge, and uses that power to prevent unethical business practices and do good in the world, while trying to balance that with her private life! She was basically a well-adjusted, girlie-glam-rock-Batman!

Adapting that aspect convincingly would indeed have been a challenge, if they’d actually tried, because the cartoon’s tagline of ‘glamour and glitter, fashion and fame’ would be met with cynical suspicion rather than awe in the age of the Britney Spears train wreck and corporate-engineered pop stars like Justin Bieber. But to then turn around and subvert that (kind of like what I suggested they should have done with idealism in Man of Steel) would have been a cool idea.
More bizarre still, the ‘hologram’ part of ‘Jem and the Holograms’ is absent. Back in the day it was a truly random bit of sci-fi – Synergy’s avatar always looks to me like one of the Bangles had a lovechild with Optimus Prime – but today it’s bordering on plausible! And yet they almost recoil from the idea of making this in any fantastical or even fun!

And I find this all very instructive because we’re living in an age where, in the words of Yahtzee Croshaw, “What isn’t a sequel is a knockoff, what isn’t a knockoff is a reboot, what isn’t a reboot is a remastering.” As I wait for a reboot/sequel hybrid apiece from Jurassic Park and Star Wars, and another one from Star Trek, plus the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this trailer seems to foretell the absolute extreme of several of the problems this trend brings with it.

Science fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer once told me that, as a writer, it is better to be exceptional to a few people than adequate to a lot of people. And movies like this exemplify the opposite approach, as do things like the AAA video game industry (the gaming equivalent of Hollywood) regularly cranking out long series like Call of Duty.

Unfortunately, part of that homogenization is also reinforcing certain tropes which end up going unchallenged. See this article on the exact gender politics of the period Jem came from, but it actually reminds me of the kerfuffle that’s been attending Marvel and Hasbro’s (also the originators of Jem) obstinate refusal to make toys for Black Widow. Despite the consumer outcry, they seem determined to keep women and girls in the marketing-safe, age-old boxes. It’s as if they’re actually defying their customer base, rather than just misunderstanding them.

Usually my big concern about reboots is that the creators will be fans whose love of the source material will get the better of their artistry. But this is closer to nostalgia reboots like Michael Bay’s Transformers movies or J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek: a stereotypical twenty-something everyman protagonist, using tired old stereotypes of who the fans are to inform who they write it for, disrespecting any element of depth or daring that might have been present lest it be too niche in its appeal.

In the Jem and the Holograms trailer, we invert the setup of the cartoon, making Jem a victim and fame and success bad and to be avoided, rather than harnessed. What’s more is that she has no agency: her stage persona is forced on her, her success demanded against her will. In fact, the song that makes her famous appears to be uploaded to YouTube by her sister without her permission! The only agency she has is to ‘be herself,’ which seems to mean ‘be a quiet, unassuming hometown girl with no ambition or dreams of great artistic achievement.’ And also Black Widow has to want babies, boys don’t want girl toys, a Wonder Woman movie won’t sell, the action protagonist always has to be a youngish white American guy with brown hair and stubble, blah, blah, blah. Making everything the same is bad enough, but we’re making everything the same to a standard which is sexist, oversimplified and retrograde indeed.

I’m not one of the old-school fans of Jem, but like Captain Planet, I can see what it could have been in a different time with a different format, but the fanfiction community, combining familiarity with the material with the freedom not to have to worry about making money from it, is far better equipped to explore its potential than a committee-designed big-Hollywood production team who aren’t able to be daring, or unusual because there’s no will to test their assumptions about what people want anymore. They couldn’t even see their way to having what was clearly a pretty influential story by women, for girls, updated and retold by women! And that’s why the Jem trailer interests and infuriates me, because it summarizes what I feel is the looming threat of the big movie and video game industries: cultural stagnation, and even regression at times, not helped at all by the backlash against the slightest diversity in pop and geek culture that’s becoming so common these days.

It’s truly outrageous, is what it is.

 

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Avengers: Age of Ultron: Some Assembly Required

WARNING: BROAD SPOILERS BELOW

There’s a TV Tropes entry called ‘Continuity Lockout,’ which states that long-running fiction franchises can eventually become so dependent on their own canon that it becomes hard to know what’s going on without having been following it from the start.

I’ve mentioned this has happened to the Honour Harrington series. It’s also a perennial problem with superhero comics. And perhaps not surprisingly, it also holds with Marvel’s expansive Cinematic Universe as well. I realized this might be the case when I went last night to see Avengers: Age of Ultron at the theatre.

Nobody like Whedon for ensemble casts!

Unfortunately, after writing it up last year I lost track of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D and I think I’m suffering for it as the second movie bringing together the chief heroes of the Marvel Cinematic Universe finally arrives.

In Age of Ultron, S.H.I.E.L.D has apparently collapsed, and the Avengers are free agents fighting to bring down the last elements of the evil organization H.Y.D.R.A.

Which they succeed in doing, anticlimactically enough.

But in discovering the projects they were working on, they fall victim to the mind games of one of two H.Y.D.R.A experiment subjects – Scarlet Witch and her brother Silver Streak – and Tony Stark (Iron Man) becomes fixated on using it to create an intelligent defense system to protect the human race from the next alien invasion, given how close a call it was when they stopped the Chitauri in the last movie.

Unfortunately, the AI that arises from his project has very much its own ideas about how to go about this. Ultron, so named, goes on a campaign, enlisting the help of Scarlet Witch and Silver Streak and devising a plan to evolve himself and the world to a higher level – no matter the cost, no matter the desires of human beings.

The power and threat of Ultron, and the fact that he originated from within their organization, exacerbates growing divisions between the Avengers, whose mutual friction and desire to get on with their lives threatens to destroy them just as they’re needed most.

So it’s clear to me that I missed a few things by not keeping up with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, since we start the movie apparently at the end of a chapter in the Avengers’ exploits and the new chapter only begins twenty minutes in.

Possibly for this reason the pacing seems a bit lopsided – from what is basically a climax at the beginning, a slow boil winds up to constant chase, chase, bang, bang for much of the movie with little chance to catch our breath.

I was actually surprised to realize that Joss Whedon had his hands directly on the reins for this one. Because my initial feeling was that this felt like a piece of journeywork by someone who’d been taught by Joss Whedon. His signature wordplay and wisecrack humour is present, and very welcome – I was laughing myself silly in a number of scenes – but it almost seems like there’s too much of it. Every other sentence seems to be a Whedonesque joke. And they’re distributed so evenly across characters that it starts to lend some credibility to the criticism about his work – which I usually disagree with – that his characters all sound the same.

Having said that, it pays off big time with Ultron himself. He’s a dark reflection of Tony Stark, and the evident glee he takes in freaking people out, and the blase way he handles setbacks is hugely entertaining. The writing of the villain in general does a good job at making him seem like a real challenge, with the heroes having a fighting chance but not a certainty of victory.

His ‘destroy in order to save’ agenda is also quite chilling, and James Spader’s voice makes his explanations of himself go from ‘chilling’ to ‘blood-freezing.’ That said, given some of his turns of phrase, I would have been interested to see a clearer real-world applicability to Ultron’s way of thinking, which seems to be where it’s going at first, only to go back to the standard destroy-the-world model.

Otherwise, the most evident themes are ones of the challenges of teamwork and the conflict between duty and living one’s life. Hawkeye represents the ideal here, while Banner and Romanov regard themselves as the odd ones out. Both of them are ‘broken birds’ of one kind or another. I do find it odd that both of them seem to have a very narrow definition of living a normal life – settling down and having kids, the latter of which neither of them is capable for different reasons – and it seems oddly old-fashioned to write them this way. Otherwise, they’re both wonderfully sympathetic characters and excellent performances.

Scarlet Witch and Silver Streak I’d met before by way of the cartoon X-Men Evolution, and neither of them are quite as well characterized, both having the old ‘avenge my parents’ background, but Whedon is good at covering a lot of ground with very little dialogue, so I look forward to seeing more later.

By and large, each of the team is feeling pulled away from the others in one way or another, and it’s overcoming this that forms a lot of the final drama, which emphasizes doing the right thing no matter the cost. And ‘doing the right thing’ means more than just ‘kill the bad guy.’ A master stroke is that the priority at the end is to evacuate civilians first, kill the bad guy second. If you want to make a Marvel vs. DC comparison, then it stands in distinct contrast to the amount of collateral damage carelessly inflicted during the final fight scene of Man of Steel.

And gratifyingly the bigger context of the Cinematic Universe is promising to pay off soon: the involvement of yet another of the alien power sources that formed important plot points in the Avengers, Thor: the Dark World and Guardians of the Galaxy has clearly caused a tipping point to be reached, and the involvement of a number of the supporting heroes (including one I don’t even recognize) suggests an all-hands-on-deck scenario in the offing. On the other hand, it might just be a new setup to spin this out even longer…

And I might as well point this out, since I foresee the blogosphere having a respectable flame war about it: there’s a rape joke in the movie.

It comes at the end of a party, where a lot of drinking has gone on, and the men of the team are competing to be able to lift Thor’s hammer. Many impotence jokes ensue, and one of them involves Tony saying that if he can lift the hammer (making him ‘worthy to rule’ per Asgard law) he’ll bring back ‘prima nocta,’ the old idea (also called ‘droit de seigneur’) that feudal lords got first go at bedding young peasant brides before their new husbands did. I’ve always sort of assumed this practice was a myth, but the very idea of it is fundamentally icky.

In general the dick jokes are too numerous for my liking, and it’s especially glaring given this is Joss Whedon we’re talking about. This is the guy pro-feminist geek men get to point to as demonstration of the validity of our cause. The obscurity – and obscenity – of the reference is up there with Loki’s ‘mewling quim’ remark in Avengers, but in Loki’s case it’s meant to prove what a petty, nasty fellow he is, whereas here it’s one of the most charismatic of the heroes.

I particularly don’t like this stuff because all the manly-man talk makes Natasha’s character seem sidelined and made an outsider to the team (she has barely any dialogue in this sequence) and from anyone else but Joss I’d have definitely been on-side with the interpretation that it continues the perpetuation of rape culture in a heroic aspect in popular fiction.

Having said that, Joss is pretty good at giving characters flaws that don’t dominate the story. Tony’s playboy machismo is played as sort of silly rather than admirable, and since the hubris that comes with it is nearly his downfall in the movie, I can see it as not being to his credit without having to make a big production out of it in-story. Joss wrote Xander in Buffy the Vampire Slayer in a similar way – his flaws were his masculine insecurity and possessiveness toward Buffy and Willow, which informed his character but without requiring an entire story built around them to be effective characterization – although it did make him annoying as hell.

The more of this I write, though, the more I fear I’m making up excuses, or that Joss has perhaps overestimated the public intelligence or progressive attitudes by using this stuff when it’s still toxic. Maybe such a joke will be harmless in twenty years, but for now? Anyway, it’s one joke in an otherwise very fun movie and hardly a deal-breaker, just a bit of a letdown from the man who brought us Buffy and Firefly.

All told, Age of Ultron is exciting, well-written, excellently acted, and generally fun. With Whedon apparently now in overall charge of the Marvel Movies, I think he’s spreading himself a bit thin, but he’s earned such a station. The special effects are standard-issue but the set design is great and the music – composed by both Bryan Tyler and Danny Elfman, is superb. The weight of the larger cinematic Universe is working well for it – a payoff should hopefully come sooner rather than alter – and the story is characteristically Whedon from top to tail.

Assemble!

 
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Posted by on May 3, 2015 in Movie

 

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