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Ant-Man: More Brainless Than Any Insect

You’ve got to hand it to Marvel for playing the long game. Nobody’s ever tried what they’re doing with their Cinematic Universe. DC had their Animated Universe in the 90s, but those were half-hour cartoons, not massive blockbuster movies running parallel but interconnected narratives.

Thor, Iron Man and Captain America, plus the rest of the Avengers pile up to a significant confluence of awesome, especially with Joss Whedon somewhere in the equation.

But as I said when Guardians of the Galaxy came out, I’m beginning to think they were a little too ambitious; now with even more ensembles joining the franchise, it’s hard to believe that they can evenly distribute funding and talent in effects, acting and particularly writing across the whole franchise.

Guardians of the Galaxy was a first warning sign. It’s fun enough but undeniably a B-Movie against the Avengers.

And when I looked and saw that the next movie in the offing for the MCU was called ‘Ant-Man’ I half-expected somebody to shout “April Fools” because that’s the dorkiest name for a superhero I think I’ve ever heard. And, as it turns out, the movie lives up to its title. Or maybe, down to it.

Our hero is Scott Something-Something, a professional burglar who has just been released from prison. He can’t hold even a nothing job, and is stuck in a crappy apartment with his three gangster bros. His ex-wife, now married to a Javert-esque cop won’t let him see his daughter until he gets back on the straight and narrow and pays child support. Driven to desperation, he is recruited by supergenius Hank Pym and his Ice Queen daughter Hope to operate an incredible shrinking suit to break into Pym’s old company and steal the prototype for a weaponized shrinking suit before it can be put on the market to the highest bidder and oh, ye gods and little demons, does this movie have a single original thought in its head?

Well, no. No it does not.

When the dorky guy who can’t hold a job and longs to be reunited with his daughter thing came up, plus the ex now married to a big manly-man jerk for good measure, I thought, “Has anyone at Marvel seen a movie since 1997?” Because this is essentially Marvel doing the plot of Liar, Liar or Mrs. Doubtfire. They only barely managed to restrain themselves from having the ex dump the big manly jerk and go back to our dorky protagonist.

Speaking of whom, if Chris Pratt in Jurassic World was generic white Anglo-Saxon protagonist #18445, then the most you can say of Paul Rudd as Ant-Man is that he’s…generic white Anglo-Saxon protagonist #18446. He has a few clever lines and is generally pretty intelligent, but at the end of the day there’s nothing distinguished about him. He’s the standard redemption-arc action guy with a dry wit, designer stubble and who always gets the girl.

His bland white-guyness would not be so glaring were it not for the three racist stereotypes he trails around with him. His roommates – I persist in thinking of them of them as his ‘bros’ because of the way they are always hanging out in their apartment playing videogames, making waffles and giving each other braindead platitudes – are a Hispanic guy with lots of cousins who give him tips in gangster-speak about crimes to commit, an Eastern European with broken English and a dread of gypsy curses suffered by nobody since the fall of the House of Romanov, and a black guy who…is a black guy. That’s about the most you can say about him. And they drive around in a van that plays ‘La Cucaracha’ when you hit the horn.

I won’t say too much about this because I’m not learned enough in racial stereotyping to know whether, when I ask for characters to act less stereotypical, what I’m actually doing is not asking them to act more like middle-class Anglo-Saxons. Nevertheless, every minute these guys were on screen made you feel like you were about to weep blood. Their function as comic relief not only isn’t funny, but it clashes completely with the dramatic, principled side of the story. You can either have an uplifiting story about redemption and taking a stand or a madcap buddy comedy. Not both. Not this way, anyway.

Michael Douglas as Hank Pym is the only performance that doesn’t feel like a performance. He’s actually acting and is quite an interesting character – the anti-Tony Stark in many ways. But at the same time he’s a vehicle for more stupidity. His relationship with his daughter is so tiresome it feels like it came out of 19th Century literature. Despite her obvious skill and courage, he insists she not take up the suit, and has never opened up about the risks of the suit and the death of her mother because, in his exact words, “I was trying to protect you.” They have a tearful reconciliation moment which is then broken comically by Scott in a very Whedonesque way. Or it would have been if it weren’t for the fact that up until then the writers appeared to mean it and then their alternate personalities took over and switched back to the buddy comedy thing.

Hope demonstrates repeatedly that she doesn’t need protecting, but she still steps quiescently aside at last to let the men take charge. And then she and Scott get together, despite never having had a conversation that wasn’t a tactical briefing. She’s the girl, he’s the hero, she’s his prize. Murders have been committed by guys who’ve internalized this idiotic trope, and here it is yet again, without a trace of irony or subversion. Honestly…

After the reconciliation of father and daughter, the movie ends with Pym and Hope going to work on a prototype suit Pym and Hope’s mother hadn’t finished, clearing the path for Hope to become Wasp, her mother’s old mantle, to which she responds, “about damn time.” No, writers, ‘about damn time’ would have been at the other end of this movie, before you steamrollered it into a committee-designed dramatic plateau!

When DC started getting pigheaded about a Wonder Woman movie and let fly their sexist cover art, I thought that Marvel, replete with superheroines as it is, would show us the way. Black Widow in Avengers looked like a promising start, to say nothing of Joss Whedon being in charge. However, my faith in that has deteriorated badly. I suspect that the execs aren’t letting Whedon get away with doing what he’s best at, and that the MCU at large is now so big an investment that they don’t want to risk doing anything daring, going back to ticking the same old boxes. Black Panther and Captain Marvel, two more unconventional additions to the franchise, are still a long way off and if Ant-Man and Guardians of the Galaxy are any indication, then they will have to be pretty amazing to have been worth the wait.

Despite my skepticism, I wanted to give Ant-Man a fair go, but there is nothing in it. I have seldom seen a movie so undistinguished in its every slightest aspect. You could have made it twenty years ago and the only thing that would stand out would be the visual effects. The onus is on Marvel to make me want to stick with this, but if this is where they decide the gripping new direction lies, then I’m out.

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Posted by on August 28, 2015 in Movie

 

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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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Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D: A Shady Affair

I’ve said before that I don’t watch much television anymore. Maybe the internet has degraded my attention span past the point I can sit still long enough, I’m not sure.

So I sometimes have to forcibly remind myself that there are shows I ought to keep track of. This, as it turns out, gets considerably easier if the show in question has the name ‘Joss Whedon’ tacked to it somewhere.

Like a lot of people my age, my adolescence was defined in part by the example of Buffy the Vampire Slayer; like a lot of people generally, I mourn the fate of Firefly, and Dollhouse…okay I completely missed the boat on Dollhouse.

I felt as though Joss was flying below the radar for the last several years. Then I found out that he wrote and directed the great Marvel crossover event the Avengers (thanks so much everyone for telling me it was his so very promptly!!!). I finally got round to watching it, and I found it…awesome. The classic Joss Whedon blend of rapid-fire wordplay comedy, character bonding and contests against the pettiness of evil.

Whedon’s talent for making good characters was exemplified there as elsewhere. One of the fan-favourite secondary characters in Avengers was Phil Coulson, an agent of the government-superhero-regulation-bureau S.H.I.E.L.D.

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Apparently his demise at the hands of Loki wasn’t as final as it appeared, because Joss has spun off a new show set in the same universe focusing not on the superheroes, but on their stage crew, so to speak, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Inexplicably raised from death, Agent Coulson starts pulling together a team to specialize in finding people exhibiting superpowers of one kind or another and whisking them away before they either wreak havoc or somebody less scrupulous gets to them first.

The pilot sees Coulson pulling together a hotshot secret agent, a traumatized ace pilot, two eccentric British tech geeks and a anarchic hacker to track down a laid-off blue-collar working man who has been the subject of a superpowers experiment which will cost him terribly if they don’t get to him in time.

Joss Whedon has made a career out of taking clichéd premises and tying them into balloon animals. With Buffy it was the helpless blonde girl who gets attacked by the monster – and now kicks its arse into next week. With Firefly it was cowboys…IN SPACE. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D is secret agents in the style of Mission: Impossible or the A Team, with a hint of the X-Files…but what its special twist, other than ‘superheroes’ will be is not entirely clear to me. Not yet anyway.

One thing that does make it unique is our leading man, Agent Coulson, is, unlike leader figures like Malcolm Reynolds, not the straight man. He’s the big cheese of this operation, but he’s also a massive nerd. So right off the bat he endears himself to me.

Having said that, I’m a little worried. Agents in suits flying around in a giant plane regulating superpowers seems a little…I don’t know, bland? It lacks the novelty of Firefly’s premise, or Buffy’s.

The eccentricities of the team members also seem a little bit by-the-numbers. The two tech geeks gleefully tinkering, the hotshot agent who doesn’t want to be there at first, the Asian secret agent who does crazy martial arts and never smiles (and also flies the plane, see above). I feel like we’re starting from first principles here. Mind you, I find them rather charming, but where they can be taken remains a vague question.

The themes of the show, however, show great promise. The ‘villain’ of the piece, the unemployed worker was suckered into being experimented on by playing on his helplessness, his disaffection and his compromised sense of how to ‘be a man.’ He appoints himself a hero and embraces a black-and-white comic book worldview to cope with this, to give himself a mission. The way playing the hero plays merry hob with his definition of right and wrong and he goes on a power trip is inspired. It can be read as an examination of the concept of revenge fantasy, the disaffection of today’s 99% and masculinity. Coulson’s earnest and emphatic desire to save his subject and the psychology of both sides gives the show a real heart strongly reminiscent of Flashpoint.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, then, has a good heart and a lot of potential. Joss Whedon’s offbeat sense of humour and silly wordplay (I especially treasure the line ‘God, are you dismissed’) remain strong as ever. He’s brought back Clark Gregg as Coulson and a few actors he’s worked with before, not least J. August Richards as our would-be superhero, formerly James Gunn of Angel, and best of all Ron Glass, formerly Shepherd Book of Firefly.

Probably the only thing that Whedon has taken some legitimate heat for is he has a bit of a blind spot for racial diversity in his casting; he’s had two African American actors, one in Angel and one in Firefly (the two listed above), but despite the use of spoken Mandarin and Chinese symbolism in Firefly there wasn’t a single Asian actor to be seen above extras and few of any other persuasion. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D is a marginal improvement there, albeit we have one secondary African American, one in a single appearance and one regular Asian actress who is worryingly stereotypical to start with. Hopefully we can expand on this a little bit as the series progresses.

All in all, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D is charming, classic Whedon, and the continuation of a movie-verse that has been quite the smash. Possibilities abound for superhero appearances and examination of our concept of heroism which started with the pilot. Arcs on the exact nature of Coulson’s recovery, the backstories of our characters and the motives behind the superhero experiments that kicked this off await.

The Tide is Rising.

 
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Posted by on September 26, 2013 in Television

 

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