May 1st, 2015

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Age of Ultron is as much Whedon as it is Marvel, making it better than its predecessor

I was prepared for "Avengers: Age of Ultron" to disappoint. Runner Joss Whedon said in post-wrap interviews that Disney wrung the life out of him like it had several other directors of its Marvel movies, and my favorite film writer was lukewarm in her review.

And how to follow "Marvel's 'The Avengers'", maybe the best and certifiably the most successful comic book movie yet? I opted to see Age of Ultron in the 3-D double feature package, so if Age of Ultron didn't live up to The Avengers, then at least I saw The Avengers again. (And I'm unemployed, like the other time-to-kill losers who get in for one 2 p.m. matinee and stay for three movies.)

Marvel's The Avengers stood up to a fourth viewing, it's that good. If I had one quibble with Marvel's The Avengers, it's that it's not sufficiently Whedony.

If you're a Buffy or Firefly fan, there are things you expect from Whedon. For instance, Whedon's Black Widow is the Black Widow comic book readers have always wanted. The Widow from Daredevil comics in the '70s was there because Daredevil was still 10 years away from getting really good, and Natasha was supposed to improve the mix. Mostly she jumpstarted Matt's record as Marvel's primary "himbo". (The trouble with Daredevil was that his superpower isn't much, so his villains were laughable, and some writers threw women at him instead.)

Whedon and Scarlett Johansson gave us a Black Widow we could respect (and in Age of Ultron, she's the most womanly Black Widow ever — compare the Age of Ultron Natasha to, for instance, the Natasha in Kevin Smith's 'Guardian Devil'). Whedon's women are the biggest badasses in his worlds, but Whedon's first Avengers movie only gave us two: Natasha and Agent Hill.

Age of Ultron improves on Marvel's The Avengers in the best way imaginable — for Joss Whedon fans — because Wanda Maximoff makes it more than the new Marvel movie, it's the new Joss Whedon movie. Like Willow Rosenberg and River Tam, the nascent Scarlet Witch unfolds as the most powerful force in the story. Like River, she's a little unhinged, which Whedon exploits as a crowning moment for Hawkeye — Whedon figured out a way for Clint Barton the weak link (with a bottomless quiver) to be as important in saving the world as Thor the god and Captain America the superman.

Whedon logically included his classic TV elements — exceptionally powerful young women (sometimes in star-crossed romantic entanglements), mind control by superpower or by melding with machine, selfless wartime acts, big damn heroes sitting around the dinner table — in a movie that contemplates themes that drive Marvel's X-books (being human while being more than human or inhuman) and the fundamental Marvel comics notion that great power brings great responsibility, whether that power is derived from radioactive spiders, gamma radiation, or the best hardware the military-industrial complex can buy.

The fight scenes in Age of Ultron better appealed to me than those in The Avengers. In The Avengers, icky bad guys from outer space arrive through an interdimensional portal. In Age of Ultron, we've met the bad guys and they are us. Age of Ultron is a Terminator movie that would make James Cameron think "why didn't I think of that?". (Because James Cameron isn't Joss Whedon.)

The humor we expect of Whedon is there. Cap's shield is fodder for one great quip (Ultron, on its composition) and one good one (Black Widow, on its retrieval). While the Hulk was the comic relief in The Avengers, that's mostly Thor's job in Age of Ultron. Making Thor funny repairs the lasting flaw in the comics — his power as a god makes him as boring as 1960s Superman.

Reviewers are criticizing Age of Ultron for being overly packed with stuff. Too many good guys, too many bad guys, too much banter and dick-swinging. Their problem is that they're not nerds, or not genre-savvy enough to appreciate Age of Ultron as Joss Whedon's most spectacular accomplishment.
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Let's all go to the lobby and have ourselves a snack

Before the Avengers double feature yesterday there were trailers.

The Fantastic Four trailer did not evoke Fantastic Four #1 at all, but maybe that's what they want. It's even a different foursome that rockets into the gamma rays.

Ant-Man might not suck, though every comic starring Dr. Pym did. Casting Paul Rudd as a reformed thief was a very good idea.

I kinda hated "Jurassic Park" for ripping off "Westworld", and not doing it very well. The trailer for "Jurassic World" suggests that they took the good parts from "Jurassic Park" and amplified them.

Today I am a mentally-unbalanced, anxiety-ridden old man. Anxiety-ridden old men have to start somewhere — in the late '60s while the Zodiac serial killer was threatening San Francisco schoolbuses, I was walking home from school looking over my shoulder and ducking for cover. In the '70s, I was terrified of the next great earthquake. (I was lucky during the 1989 Loma Prieta quake because I was drunk from a Candlestick Park tailgate party, so addled at 5:04 p.m. that when the giant concrete bunker started shaking, I thought it was the roar of the pregame crowd.) Like most native Californians, I can sleep through earthquakes now, but the trailer for "San Andreas" made me feel 10 years old.

For many 50-ish nerds, "Star Wars" was a life-changing event. At 14, I was collecting comics, attending conventions, and watching movies, but "Star Wars" made me a drooling fanboy. The returns on Star Wars fandom diminished as early as "The Empire Strikes Back", and declined steadily for so long that I wondered if it was a bottomless pit. Any casual observer of popular culture sees that Star Wars fans are buried under an unwieldy pile of shit (most of which has been stricken from canon!). Some years ago, I changed my answer to "Star Wars or Star Trek?". That's a question like "Designated hitter or real baseball?" — you don't just flip a switch on that, it requires a rewiring of your belief system. The Star Wars universe and its fandom gradually turned into so much dung that giving it up was pretty easy. The trailer for "The Force Reawakens" made me cry a little bit — I'll wager if you're around my age, and had a similar experience with the franchise, the promise of that trailer choked you up, too.