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Non-Review Review: Avengers – Age of Ultron

Avengers: Age of Ultron is a hot mess.

It is fun, witty and fast-moving. However, it is also disjointed, uneven and awkward. Age of Ultron is a big and bombastic summer blockbuster, but it feels like Marvel learned very little from The Avengers. Rather than simply taking what worked in the first film, it often seems like Age of Ultron doubles down on every part of its predecessor. There’s more action, there’s higher stakes, there’s bigger conflict, there’s more Tony, there’s even less of an idea what to do with Thor, there’s more continuity.

"Hey, at least I beat the Terminator prequel to cinemas, right?"

“Hey, at least I beat the Terminator prequel to cinemas, right?”

“More” seems to the be the word here. Age of Ultron is bigger than its predecessor in just about every way. The film boasts an ensemble so large that it threatens to collapse under its own weight – a fact perhaps wryly acknowledged by the genocidal robot’s evil plan at the climax. While it is nice to have more diversity in the cast – The Avengers are no longer a bunch of white guys and their token female colleague – it does seem like Age of Ultron strains and groans under all that Joss Whedon and Marvel heap upon it.

Bigger is not always better.

You know, "pull Thor's hammer" is probably not a family friendly party game...

You know, “pull Thor’s hammer” is probably not a family friendly party game…

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My 12 for ’14: Guardians of the Galaxy and “the Day I Left Earth”…

With 2014 coming to a close, we’re counting down our top twelve films of the year. Check back daily for the latest featured film.

Guardians of the Galaxy is a Marvel movie through-and-through. It comes with burdened with all the trappings that one expects from a Marvel film. Thanos provides a mostly superfluous element that clouds the narrative while serving as an advertisement for a film several years away. Ronan the Accuser makes for a suitably banal villain, like a cosplaying fan who won’t choose between his deep abiding affection for Thor and his love of the Smurfs. The third act is a jumbled mess, one that occasionally loses sight of its characters amid all the CGI spectacle.

And, yet, it works in spite all this. One of Marvel’s biggest problems as a movie studio is the way that it tends to smother individual creators in pursuit of a more consistent project. The studio’s best films  – Jon Favreau’s Iron Man, Kenneth Branagh’s Thor, Shane Black’s Iron Man 3 – are the films that aren’t afraid to let a writer or director’s voice shine through. In contrast, the weakest entries – Captain America: The First Avenger, Thor: The Dark World, Iron Man 2 – try desperately to drown out any hint of personality in pursuit of something that can be homogenised; rendered safely within the studio’s comfort zone.

guardiansofthegalaxy1

After all, Marvel is a company that likes to play it safe. It is a studio that would replace Edgar Wright with Peyton Reed for Ant Man. It is a movie that would gladly have Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. spin its wheels for two-thirds of a season so it can wait for Captain America: The Winter Soldier to arrive in theatres. It is a studio that has build six movies around blonde white actors named Chris without a single female- or minority-led superhero film. (Sure, Black Panther and Captain Marvel are coming… eventually, but Black Widow remains a rotating co-star.)

To be fair to Marvel, this system makes a certain amount of sense. It avoids horrific misfires like Catwoman or Elektra, but also does not allow for anything as transcendental and unique as Tim Burton or Christopher Nolan’s work with Batman. Guardians of the Galaxy is very much a product of this system. It is safe, hitting all the necessary plot beats and offering minutes of screentime (and plot convolutions) as tribute to the shared universe. However, there is just enough of James Gunn left in the final product to make it all worthwhile. The film retains a sense of oddness and charm that prevents it from ever feeling generic.

guardiansofthegalaxy6

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Watch! Avengers: Age of Ultron Trailer!

The trailer for Joss Whedon’s Avengers: Age of Ultron has arrived. Check it out below!

Gary Friedrich, Don Heck and Werner Roth’s X-Men – X-Men Omnibus, Vol. 2 (Review/Retrospective)

This May, to celebrate the release of X-Men: Days of Future Past, we’re taking a look at some classic and modern X-Men (and X-Men-related) comics. Check back daily for the latest review.

By the time that Gary Friedrich had taken over writing duties on X-Men, it was clear that the title was in trouble. To be fair, this has nothing to do with the rapid turnover of writing talent on the book. At this point in the history of Marvel, it often seemed like writers were wandering around the office waiting to fill any gap that happened to develop. Friedrich wasn’t a replacement for Roy Thomas as an attempt to herald a bold new direction for the book. Indeed, his first issue was a story pitched by Thomas.

However, at the same time, it’s quite clear that X-Men was struggling to stay afloat. The comic was seemingly re-tooling itself month-in and month-out. Professor Xavier had been killed off towards the end of Roy Thomas’ last run. The cover now trumpeted individual members of the cast and back-up stories opted to focus on characters within the team, hoping they might find an audience as solo super heroes.

The first death of the dream...

The first death of the dream…

This trend continued into Gary Friedrich’s short tenure as X-Men writer. The first issue of Gary Friedrich’s run focuses on a guest star from the golden age, while his last solo script dissolves the X-Men as a team. In the middle, there’s a crossover with The Avengers. This was a very troubled book entering its fourth year, and the fact that it could not seem to settle on a single creative team or direction contributed to that sense of listlessness.

X-Men was a book that simply wasn’t working.

These men... these X-Men!

These men… these X-Men!

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Mark Waid and Ron Garney’s Run on Captain America (Review/Retrospective)

This March, to celebrate the release of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, we’ll be taking a look at some classic and not-so-classic Avengers comic books. Check back daily for the latest updates!

Mark Waid and Ron Garney’s ten-issue run on Captain America is a bit of an oddity. The run follows an impressive ten-year stint by writer (and editor) Mark Gruenwald, but is situated right before Marvel’s attempt at a mid-nineties reboot with Heroes Reborn. As a result, the run feels like it is over before it begins, more of a blip on the radar than a bold new beginning for the character – indeed, it is very much a bold new beginning right before another bold new beginning.

Mark Waid is probably one of the most easily overlooked writers to work on Captain America. He has written over fifty issues featuring the character, but his work has been scattered across multiple volumes and divided by editorial decisions. His longest unbroken stint on the character is thirteen issues of the same comic book. It’s a very weird relationship to have with a character, and there’s a sense that Waid’s take on Captain America was never as developed as it might have been. It feels like scattered snapshots rather than an entire mosaic.

Funeral for a friend...

Funeral for a friend…

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Red Skull: Incarnate (Review/Retrospective)

This March, to celebrate the release of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, we’ll be taking a look at some classic and not-so-classic Avengers comic books. Check back daily for the latest updates!

Incarnate is something of a companion piece to Greg Pak’s Testament. Testament was a miniseries following the life of a young boy named Erik during the Holocaust. Of course, Erik would grow up to become the supervillain known as Magneto, but Pak was more fascinated in the history surrounding the character – his origins as a Holocaust survivor. The series was beautifully written and well received, prompting Marvel to hire Pak to produce a companion piece.

Incarnate is effectively the origin story of the Red Skull, Captain America’s arch-enemy and a character Pak himself describes in the afterword as “the Marvel Universe’s most evil villain.” Setting the story in late twenties and thirties Germany, Pak sets the character’s origins against the rise of Nazism and the decline of the Weimer Republic.

A slice of life...

A slice of life…

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Greg Rucka and Marco Checchetto (and Carmine Di Giandomenico’s) Punisher – War Zone (Review)

This March, to celebrate the release of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, we’ll be taking a look at some classic and not-so-classic Avengers comic books. Check back daily for the latest updates!

Despite the continuity of character, plot and creator, it’s striking how distinct Punisher: War Zone feels from the sixteen-issue solo series leading into it. After Marvel cancelled Greg Rucka and Marco Checchetto’s Punisher series, the company green-lit a five-issue miniseries to allow the duo to wrap up the various plot threads and themes that ran through their earlier work. It is nice to see the pair given a chance to bring closure to their story, to tidy away loose ends on their take on Frank Castle.

At the same time, Punisher: War Zone feels very much like its own thing. The plot is powered by the arrest of Rachel Cole-Alves, Frank Castle’s accomplice who accidentally murdered a police officer during a botched raid. At the end of the series, the New York City Police Department had taken Cole into custody while Castle escaped into the night. In a way, the story could just has effectively ended there – the Punisher disappearing back into the woodwork, the characters all squared away.

While Punisher: War Zone does resolve the Cole-Alves subplot, it feels like it is primarily an accuse to pit Frank Castle against the Avengers. It’s a rather demented comic book idea – allowing a guy with lots of guns to face off against “Earth’s mightiest heroes” – but it plays into the larger themes of Rucka’s run about what tolerance of Castle says about the people who share this world with him.

Seeing red...

Seeing red…

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