I like to take my time with these superhero movies because, what’s the rush? I get why one would be excited; if you consider comics a central part of your life and have been waiting years to see your favorites come to life on screen then sure, get in line and check it out first weekend, or throw on a costume and attend a screening. But for me, at this point, I know that one is just a building block for another, and there will be more to come all the way into 2020 and beyond.

Early confession: I liked Zack Snyder’s 300, and I liked Watchmen even more, but maybe Man of Steel was the one that ruined seeing superhero movies in theaters for me. I was excited to see a visually stunning, detailed, and expansive Superman come to Earth and find his roots in Metropolis with the Kents, the Daily Planet, and Lois Lane (shouts to Amy Adams, even if her filmography has been all over the place lately). But what we got was too much: a movie whose innovative action, world building, and subsequent world destruction spreads far but doesn’t dig deep, resulting in a lot of sound and fury merely setting up a series of sequels. So now I’m cynical, skeptical, and in no rush to see the next one, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Ben Affleck as Batman doesn’t help either. I could go for more Gone Girl Ben Affleck, but keep getting them superhero checks while the getting’s good. Anyway, where some 20th Century Fox, Warner Bros. and DC Comics adaptations have misstepped, the Disney/Marvel productions have shown why they’re the kings of this superhero reboot machine by delivering consistency and reverence while expanding the scope of their universe.

Before I sat down to watch Guardians of the Galaxy over a year later, I didn’t know anything about the Guardians of the Galaxy, and I’m thankful for that because it allowed me to enjoy the movie for what was put on screen. I try as much as I can to talk about these movies (the same is true, but to a lesser extent, with music) as just about what happens on screen, mostly because I’m ignorant of what happens in the source material. It’s not that the source material is irrelevant, but not enough critics assess the movie as a thing in and of itself.

What I did hear about Guardians was mostly good; that it was surprisingly entertaining for old folks and youngins alike, with a solid soundtrack top to bottom, and that Chris Pratt had ascended to the top of the action movie mountain with his turn as Star-Lord (solidified by the success of Jurassic World, which I haven’t yet seen). Still, even after hearing decent to good words about the next Marvel installment, Avengers: Age of Ultron, it wasn’t until after a long run of 70s movies and other iconic American films that it was time to take off my serious movie watching glasses and settle in for some movies made for our mass consumption and enjoyment — and that meant catching up with some superheroes and villains.

I also wanted to wait until I could get my hands on both because prior to watching Guardians I’d heard that it would mostly serve to introduce the intergalactic force that is Thanos, whom The Avengers would be gearing up to face as well. And sure, it’s possible to reduce Guardians to that in the end, but what happens in between was much more than I expected. I’ve said before that one way I view the quality of something is by its ability to exceed my expectations regardless of how much I knew going in. Obviously that’s a higher hurdle for the comic book nerds, but to each their own, and I enjoyed Guardians of the Galaxy more than I thought I would.

* * *

It all starts on Earth, with young Peter Quill zoning out to 10cc’s
“I’m Not In Love” on his Awesome Mix Vol. 1 through his late 80s headphones as his mother lies on her deathbed in the adjacent hospital room. Soon thereafter Peter is abducted by aliens and we rejoin him 26 years later in his final Chris Pratt form on an abandoned planet with the same old headphones and the same awesome mixtape, jamming Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love.”

He’s there in search of a mysterious orb and no sooner than he lays eyes on the purple glowing token it’s clear he’s not the only one after it. Random space goons be damned, Quill (maybe, maybe not known across the universe as Star-Lord) absconds with the orb and even shafts his so called partners in an attempt to keep the prize money for himself.

Having failed to intercept Quill, the big bad Ronan (Lee Pace) sends an assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana — between Avatar, Star Trek, and Guardians has any lady made more money in space?) to the planet Xandar after him. In the ensuing battle a bounty hunting raccoon named Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and his bounty hunting tree of a partner Groot (Vin Diesel) spot Quill, who has a price on his head, and get mixed up in the action. They’re all captured by a Nova Corps officer (John C. Reilly) who kindly fills in the background on the characters the movie had thus far neglected to detail.

Star-Lord, Gamora, Rocket, and Groot form a sort of bond in jail (as one does, presumably) to the tune of Blue Swede’s “Hooked on a Feeling” and with the help of the unlikely fifth member of the team, Drax the Destroyer (WWE’s Dave Bautista), come up with a plan to escape, retrieve the orb, and cash in on its 4 billion space-dollar value. In the mad dash Quill nearly loses his awesome mixtape, but goes back to retrieve it and the group escapes just in the nick of time. At the same time, Thanos informs Ronan that he’s been betrayed by Gamora and demands he retrieve the orb himself.

Meanwhile, the group travels to the black market planet Knowhere, and while they wait for Gamora’s connect who would potentially buy the orb part-time playboy Peter Quill makes a move on her with the help of “Fooled Around and Fell in Love” by Elvin Bishop, but gets stonewalled. The group eventually gets to meet with Taneleer Tivan (Benicio Del Toro), who reveals the true value of the orb as what it’s protecting: an Infinity Stone. Tivan goes on to detail the stone’s power and the existence of four others dating back to before creation itself. Naturally, the Infinity Stone is so powerful that it is only able to be possessed by beings of extraordinary strength, and the person (or persons) powerful enough to hold the stone can wield infinite power — specifically the power to destroy an entire planet.

Despite their efforts to protect it, the Infinity Stone falls into the hands of Ronan, and our would be Guardians of the Galaxy must get it back in order to save Xandar.

As I said before I was pleasantly surprised by Guardians of the Galaxy. Not only does the movie move along at a breezy pace despite the deep space sci-fi settings and characters, it’s occasionally funny thanks to (and at the expense of) Chris Pratt and numerous puns (shouts to the voice of Bradley Cooper as well). Plus the music amounts to more than your average soundtrack, it’s actually pretty awesome. Disney Music Group dropped Awesome Mix Vol 1 as a soundtrack and it has since been certified platinum, selling over a million copies. Music is not only prominently featured at the beginning, and in the middle during Peter Quill and Gamora’s pseudo-romantic scene (one of my favorites), it also plays a fairly important role in the stall tactics Star-Lord employs during the final battle.

Guardians of the Galaxy is about team building and by extension franchise building; intergalactic space travel and diverse space cities; humanoid creatures and all the things kids love. But to me it’s mostly about the power of music, and I can always get behind that.

* * *

Just as I wrongly assumed Guardians would have more Thanos, I figured Avengers: Age of Ultron would be a set up for a giant civil war. It is, but Joss Whedon’s directorial touch is able to orchestrate and deliver a self-aware superhero movie, wrapped in a hacker movie, wrapped in a clone war movie, with a twist of inception and just enough hilarity to allow the fissures in our team of avengers to just bubble at the surface. In other words, Marvel has found a way to keep viewers satiated while stringing us along toward bigger battles on Earth and in space at a later date, while netting a few billion more dollars.

The opening sequence is something to behold; a 2 minute continuous shot that’s part of a 12 minute battle to retrieve Loki’s Scepter featuring all of The Avengers weaving in and out of a snowy forest as bodies, bullets, bombs and other projectiles whizz back and forth across the screen. We’re also introduced to two new twin characters: the too quick to see coming Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), and the telekinetic Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen).

Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) is the first to make it through and as soon as he lays eyes on the scepter, Scarlet Witch sneaks up from behind and plays a little mind trick on him, showing him his deepest fears in a dream. She sees it too and in this case Tony Stark’s dream is a sort of premonition, a vision of a future in space featuring nothing but death and destruction for the world and The Avengers. That’s the interesting thing about our fears, they can be rooted in our past or manifestations of our uncertain futures, and the movie does a great job of exploring that notion.

Before the victory party back at Avengers HQ, Stark and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), with help from Stark’s super smart OS Jarvis, give Loki’s Scepter and the data they took from Hydra a closer look. They discover next-level human brain like artificially intelligent computer code seemingly four times the capacity and potential of Jarvis. Stark convinces Banner to harness the power within Loki’s Scepter and apply it to his Iron Legion of safety drones to create an ultra-protective suit of armor around the world, Ultron.

Of course, as soon as Stark and Banner leave to attend the party, Ultron (James Spader) awakens in the dark void of cyberspace. Though designed to be a global peacekeeping initiative, Ultron is capable of having thoughts of his own and acts on those thoughts to do the exact opposite of his intended purpose. He mines all of the available data on The Avengers and the world, destroys Jarvis, and builds a body with which to take matters into his own hands.

The Avenger’s party is fun for a number of reasons (Stan Lee’s cameo as a drunk war veteran might be the greatest), but mostly because it’s one of the lengthy moments The Avengers aren’t fighting and have some bonding time. Aside from the contest to lift Thor’s Hammer, the chemistry between Bruce Banner and Natasha Romanoff / Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) is further developed here. If I were to critique
Age of Ultron, it’d be in that these moments of chemistry between characters don’t last long enough due to the need to keep moving around the room. It’s an inherent problem in the goal of giving each character their due. We don’t get to go as deep as we want, or as deep as necessary, to make a scene like the one between Banner and Natasha later at Hawkeye’s (Jeremy Renner) secret safe house not seem too sudden or too deep too quick. However even these attempts at intimacy are better than in most superhero movies and pay off at the end. Other moments that build chemistry and empathy like the introduction of Hawkeye’s family, or discussing the death of the twin’s parents at the unknowing hands of Iron Man, take root more naturally — family strife never fails to hit the feels, classic Disney move.

Before too long a half baked spare parts Ultron crashes the party and warns our heroes of his mission to bring peace, declaring the only path to peace is the extinction of The Avengers, who are nothing but destructive murderers in his mind (gotta hear both sides). Thor
(Chris Hemsworth) saves the day as he often does but the damage has been done; Ultron has taken the power of Loki’s Sceptre, control of the world’s internet, and by extension every computer and Iron Legion robot on Earth.

Back in the lab Thor goes at Stark, pissed off that he has to go retrieve Loki’s Sceptre again, and Tony Stark laughs. The Avengers argue about what just happened, who’s at fault, and whether or not it’s all that bad. Of course it is, but it’s hard to tell if Tony Stark is still under Scarlet Witch’s spell or if he’s just being Tony Stark. Ever optimistic Captain America (Chris Evans) brings everyone back together because if they are to have a chance, they’ll need to stick together, but this is the first time we see that The Avengers aren’t as solid as we all think.

With his newfound freedom, Ultron sets out to make re-make himself out of vibranium, the same nearly indestructible metal as Captain America’s shield. If successful, Ultron can go on about his plan to save humanity from itself by destroying the world without too much resistance.

The plot covers a lot of ground over the movie’s two and a half hour runtime, but develops along the darkest timeline and that’s best for understanding each of our Avengers’ individual motivations more deeply. I’m glad that Iron Man is the catalyst for the events of Age of Ultron because the Iron Man movies seem to be the best of the Marvel movies, and that’s because he makes the biggest mess of things by his own design. Tony Stark is the most morally conflicted by his intellect and ambition and he doesn’t even realize it because of his ego. He wants to solve every problem, once and for all, to retire from the game of superhero life. But because of who he’s become he can’t retire until he’s dead (he retires at the end of every movie only to come back, right?).

Scarlet Witch plays mind games on each of The Avengers and we get a peek at each of their fears. These dream sequences are seamlessly blended into the present and serve as a fairly effective plot device. The trick she plays on The Hulk causes him to run amuk on a city and thus we get to see Iron Man’s Hulkbuster and the epic fight between them. The destruction is widespread but we also see concern for the innocent bystanders and civilians. That’s been a critique of all modern superhero movies, but here it’s another useful plot device and opportunity for Whedon to flex via frantic, sweeping, out far, and up close camera shots. The way the camera moves around The Avengers and space, whether just conversing as their normal selves in a room, or as their supernatural selves in the wide open world is remarkable. This is my favorite battle, particularly when Iron Man and Hulk fight each other up a skyscraper, though the final battle (and its stalling moment) is no less epic.

Also, here’s where I mention how much I want a new Hulk movie starring Mark Ruffalo that explores a newfound way to separate The Hulk and Bruce Banner. I wonder whether or not it would be something Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner even would want to do, or if he would rather attempt to achieve nirvana in his big green state.

* * *

Of course the world will be saved, and of course The Avengers will survive, but it’s the manner in which the world is saved, the how of
how-are-they-going-to-make-it-out-of-this-one that makes comics — and comic book movies — so enduring and endlessly alluring. In Avengers: Age of Ultron the need to save as many civilian lives as possible in the process of taking down Ultron and his army of robots isn’t a negative, it adds to the tension, and the scale adds to its impressiveness.

Again, I don’t read many comic books, but I know what it feels like to read one, and these movies when done well don’t have to worship the source material so long as they can capture the essence of a comic.
Age of Ultron, with its self-referential humor, philosophy on the fate of humanity, and stretches of time for characters to talk and breathe between the action, feels like a fresh comic book put on screen that both the nerds and the uninformed can get into.

Part of what’s interesting about the upcoming Captain America: Civil War is how Disney/Marvel will top Age of Ultron. How will they manage to exceed the humorous, cataclysmic destruction, neat tech, and cool costume expectations again? Though, and I guess this is the moral of this blog post, we shouldn’t care. We should lower our stratospheric superhero movie expectations and not be in a rush to get the next one. They will be there, and there will be more, and they will probably be enjoyable. But who am I kidding that’s too reasonable, and there’s too much money at stake, and the hype machine is always humming.

[Cover image via Moviepilot other images from Guardians of the Galaxy and Avengers: Age of Ultron via IMDB]

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