Avengers: Age of Ultron (review)

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Of late the axiom that ‘less is more’ has not seemed to apply to superhero films. Indeed, they have appeared to defy gravity, adding far more characters than seems feasible yet somehow not coming crashing to earth.

Age of Ultron perhaps represents basic cinematic physics reasserting itself: it stays airborne but at times you can hear the engine sputtering.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not only big but also clever. The core story is engaging. The cast and writing has charisma to spare. There are precisely the kind of one-liners and comic moments. The action while hardly get out groundbreaking is nonetheless effective. And Ultron (voiced by James Spader) is an entertaining villain. And the first appearance of Andy Serkis’ Ulysses Klaw bodes well for Black Panther.

However, it all winds up feeling rather undercooked. I think the reason why is that in a superhero team movie, screentime had to be spread thinly between individual characters. While the first Avengers largely avoided this pitfall, its  sequel falls straight into it. The difference is that the first film had a very definite narrative about the team as a whole, recounting how a disparate collection of superheroes become the Avengers. The subplots didn’t feel like they were competing for time because they were pulling in the same direction. Age of Ultron is much less cohesive. Battling Ultron takes each of the Avengers on a journey but they are distinct from each other. The individual arcs intersect rather than merging. So none of them has enough space to satisfactorily play itself out.

It also worked in the Avengers favour that we’d already met all the important characters in stand alone films. By contrast, Age of Ultron is the first time we get to know Ultron, the Vision and the Maximoff twins all of whom part key roles in its plot.

That’s symptomatic of a broader difference. While the Avengers was the climax of the first round of Marvel films, Age of Ultron mainly appears to be preparing and foreshadowing the third batch of movies. Indeed on reflection what it reminds me of most is a two and a half hour trailer. It showcases cool stuff and hints at more of it but never quite delivers in full.

Summary: 7/10 – Age of Ultron was always going to be good. Sadly it’s nowhere near as good as it could have been.

Even left-wing economists loathe rent controls

With the election result looking tight, Labour have reached into the bag labeled ‘superficially attractive policies whose flaws won’t become evident before May 7th’ and pulled out rent controls.

Now to be clear, I agree rents are too high. But rent controls are a terrible way of dealing with that.

That’s the consensus amongst economists and not just right-wing ones either. Paul Krugman – Princeton professor, Nobel laureate, Republican flayer and Gordon Brown cheerleader – had this to say about it back them back in 2000:

The analysis of rent control is among the best-understood issues in all of economics, and — among economists, anyway — one of the least controversial. In 1992 a poll of the American Economic Association found 93 percent of its members agreeing that ”a ceiling on rents reduces the quality and quantity of housing.” Almost every freshman-level textbook contains a case study on rent control, using its known adverse side effects to illustrate the principles of supply and demand. Sky-high rents on uncontrolled apartments, because desperate renters have nowhere to go — and the absence of new apartment construction, despite those high rents, because landlords fear that controls will be extended? Predictable. Bitter relations between tenants and landlords, with an arms race between ever-more ingenious strategies to force tenants out….and constantly proliferating regulations designed to block those strategies? Predictable.

But as Krugman warned:

”Economists have the least influence on policy where they know the most and are most agreed; they have the most influence on policy where they know the least and disagree most vehemently.”

The problem with the housing market is not that prices are high but that the quantity supplied is constrained artificially. That in turn leads to high rents but that’s a symptom. Whatever you do to stamp it out the fundamental problem of there being too few homes for the population will still need a solution.

That solution would of course be to build more homes. However, doing so would require taking on the ranks of organised NIMBYism: the CPRE, the Telegraph and the National Trust. But that would require precisely the kind of boldness Ed Miliband has shown himself to completely lack. So instead he’s gone for something out of the
‘superficially attractive policies whose flaws won’t become evident before May 7th’ bag.

Out of office message

A statue from the Hung temple on Nghia Linh mountain.

Dear Readers,

School is out next week as Vietnam celebrates the Hung Kings, the dynasty regarded as the ancestral founders of the nation. And by a fortuitous quirk of scheduling the following week I don’t have any classes till Thursday.

I’m using the time off to visit Cambodia and Laos. My laptop, however, is staying in Hanoi. So I’m unlikely to be doing more than minimal blogging between now and Thursday 7th May.

At that point, I imagine the trip and the British General Election will give me plenty to write about and blogging will resume with a vengance.

Mark (AKA the Fact Collector)

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I ranked every film and TV series in the Marvel Cinematic Universe because I’m that cool

As my way of celebrating the impending release of Avengers: Age of Ultron, here’s my personal ranking of the ten films and three TV series that form the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) so far.

13. Iron Man 2 (2010)

Pros: The first film to move beyond hinting at a broader universe and start fleshing it out. Also it introduced us to Black Widow, and Don Cheadle is a better James Rhodes than Terrance Howard.

Cons: It’s all set up and no pay off. The filmmakers seem to have purposefully avoided anything too interesting lest that prevent them being able to use it later on. Perhaps because of this the story and script are a mess. Also, it wastes Sam Rockwell (a serious crime) but gives us plenty of Gwyneth Paltrow (an even worse crime).

Summary: The film that sacrificed itself for the good of the rest of the MCU.

12. The Incredible Hulk (2008)

Pros: Nothing in particular.

Cons: Nothing in particular.

Summary: It’s really forgettable.

11. Thor (2011)

Pros: The scenes set on Earth are mostly fun.

Cons: Despite having superthesp Ken Brangh directing, the faux Shakespeare stuff doesn’t really work. That’s unfortunate because that’s most the scenes and in particular the most dramatic ones.

Summary: A film where some physicists taking readings in a backwater town in New Mexico is more interesting than the action sequences. That’s mostly not a good thing.

10. Thor: the Dark World (2013)

Pros: Loki only really came into his own when Whedon’s writing injected him with some menace and panache. The improvement carries over into this film, with by far the best scenes being the Whedon penned sparring between Thor and Loki. They are a joy to watch.

Cons: I really could not care less whether Thor manages to prevent the Dark Elves unleashing the Aether at the centre of the convergance.

Summary: Ideally Thor: Ragnarok will just be Tom Hiddleston delivering Whedon one-liners.

9. Captain America: the First Avenger (2011)

Pros: The by no means straightforward evolution of Steve Rodgers into Captain America is well played with nice twists like how the military’s first instinct is to use him for propaganda. The best part, however, is Hayley Atwell managing to elevate Peggy Carter from a generic supporting role to the core of the film.

Cons: The actions scenes are bland beyond words. As a result, the film actually tails off as it reaches its climax. Also Tommy Lee Jones gives the most “where’s my cheque?” performance of all time.

Summary: The first film to hint that Marvel was capable of doing smarter things. However, it gets the basics wrong and largely falls flat as a result.

8. Agents of Shield (2014-15)

Pros: It took a while getting there but this is now genuinely good telly. It’s pacey, delivers plenty of cliffhangers and has found interesting character dynamics to explore. It has also begun serving as a harbinger of the future development of the MCU.

Cons: Very little good can be said about the first sixteen episodes. It was corny with terrible CGI and a meandering story arc. It’s got a LOT better but it still has weaknesses. The most grating of which is overuse of on the nose exposition.

Summary: If I’d judged the two series separately then the second would have been higher placed. The first might well have been bringing up the rear.

7. Iron Man (2008)

Pros: Started the whole MCU, revived Robert Downey Jnr’s career and made post-credit stings a thing.

Cons: It’s a bit hammy in places.

Summary: If you ignore what it lead to, it’s a pretty generic blockbuster. Naught wrong with that mind.

6. Iron Man 3 (2013)

Pros: Impressive stripped down action sequences, a plot that makes sense and a good ensemble cast. And as much as it annoys comic purists, the twist is hilarious.

Cons: Gwyneth Paltrow is still in it.

Summary: Proved that Marvel could live up to the standards it set itself with the Avengers.

5. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

Pros:  Rivals Scott Pilgrim as the funniest comic book film ever. Plus the sheer boldness of making a film with a racoon and a tree at its heart.

Cons: Marvel loves its McGuffins almost as much as its underwhelming villains. This film has two of the latter chasing after one of the former. It’s an indication of how good this film is that this only mildly undermines the fun of the movie.

Summary: If you didn’t enjoy this, I despair of the possibility you will ever be entertained.

4. The Avengers (2012)

Pros: Successfully married sci-fi epic and office comedy with phenomenal results.  Created a new sub-genre: the superhero ensemble. In Mark Ruffallo, we finally get the movie Hulk we deserved, who let us not forget at one point destroys a massive alien spaceship with a single punch.

Cons: The plot is occasionally a bit thin (*cough* failsafe *cough*) and it introduced Thanos which on the evidence of Guardians was a mistake.

Summary: Whoop, whoop!

3. Daredevil (2015)

Pros: All that juicy weighty morally ambiguous darkness. In particular, Vincent D’Onofrio as a villain we can believe in and therefore get really scared by. Also the simultaneously beautiful and horrifying fight choreography.

Cons: Marvel’s young fan base should definitely not be watching this. If you know any of them who are, report their parents to social services.

Summary: Daredevil is to Marvel, what Daniel Craig’s 007 is to the Bond franchise.

2. Captain America: the Winter Soldier (2014)

Pros: Another great ensemble. Fight scenes inspired by the Raid and a car chase based on the French Connection.  I love how it adopts of a Seventies political thriller and the fact that it uses the space afforded by having a lead character called ‘Captain America’ to highlight the fact that not everything the American government does is desirable.

Cons: You can knit pick the plot and the massive battle scene at the end rather undermines the more grounded feel of the rest of the film.

Summary: In my initial review, I described the Winter Soldier as Marvel “coming of age”. I stand by that.

1. Agent Carter (2015)

Pros: A smart plot, a great lead performance, supporting actors who are almost as good, its wonderful evocation of the 1940s, a deliciously twisted villain, real pathos, a feminist message and its style.

Cons: Sometimes it feels a little like its rushing to get everything into the eight episodes it has. Other than that I really can’t think of anything.

Summary: Even in a golden age of television, there’s little else on at the moment that’s this entertaining.

The best things I’ve read lately (23/04/2015)

This week’s selection covers three kind of nonsense: fad diets, nessie and the writings of Naomi Klein.

The Logical Failures of Food Fads by Alan Levinovitz (Slate)

“Paleolithic, vegan, raw, fruitarian, gluten-free, macrobiotic. Whatever diet it happens to be, the first question I ask is: “For the love of God, what’s going on?” I mean that literally. Because despite a veneer of scientific rhetoric, food fads are ultimately about devotion to dogma; religion, not science. The appeal of modern diet gurus lies in their promise of nutritional redemption—and resisting that appeal depends on our ability to recognize and dismiss the irrational basis of their authority.

It’s true that as a religious studies professor, I’m prone to analyze cultural practices in terms of religion. But with eating habits, the evidence is everywhere. Once, at a farmers market, I asked a juice vendor whether her product counted as “processed”—a vague, unscientific epithet that gets thrown around in discussions of what we should eat. After a moment of shock, she impressed upon me that processing fruit into juice doesn’t result in processed food. Only corporations, she insisted, were capable of making processed food. Not only that, but it wasn’t the processing that made something processed, so much as the presence of chemicals and additives.

Did the optional protein powder she offered count as a chemical additive, I pressed? A tan, gaunt customer, eager to purchase her cleansing smoothie, interrupted us. “It’s easy,” she said, staring at me intensely. “Processed food is evil.”

At least she was honest. Processed food is evil. Natural food is good. Evil foods harm you, but they are sinfully delicious, guilty pleasures. Good foods, on the other hand, are real and clean. These are religious mantras, helpfully dividing up foods according to moralistic dichotomies. Of course, natural and processed, like real and clean, are not scientific terms, and neither is good nor evil. Yet it is precisely such categories, largely unquestioned, that determine most people’s supposedly scientific decisions about what and how to eat.”

How scientists debunked the Loch Ness Monster by Phil Edwards (Vox)

“There’s another, bigger problem. Nessie is usually described as a reptile — like the plesiosaur. But Loch Ness simply isn’t a suitable habitat for such a creature.

“The water is too cold for a reptile,” Prothero says. “There are only a few species of reptiles that live in Scotland, and a cold-blooded animal can’t live there unless it’s adapted. Plesiosaurs are tropical creatures, which we know from their evolution and where fossils are found.”

Of course, fans of Nessie might respond by saying the beast is actually warm-blooded, akin to the dolphins and seals spotted in the Loch. But a gigantic warm-blooded lizard-like creature that looked like Nessie is even more unlikely than a plesiosaur, since it would be different from anything we’ve encountered in the fossil record. And it’s even more unlikely considering that the lake hasn’t been around long enough for such a unique animal to evolve on its own.”

Gernot Wagner on how to deal with climate change by Jonathan Derbyshire (Prospect)

“You distinguish your approach—pricing carbon emissions—from the one recommended by Naomi Klein, who talks about “taxing the rich and the filthy”. Why do you think hers is the wrong approach?

She wants to stick it to the man. I want to stick it to CO2! Do I think capitalism is doing just splendidly, and everyone is benefiting from the rising tide? Of course not, there are plenty of problems. But what I would say is, let’s focus on one thing at a time. When it comes to doing something about climate change, then it is [aiming at] the wrong target to say we ought to revamp capitalism as we know it. We may want to do that too, for all sorts of other reasons. And “solving” climate change in the process may well be a side benefit. But I don’t think that focusing on sticking it to the man is the right approach to solving climate change—for one very important reason: it will take new technologies, their invention and deployment, to make a dent in the problem.

Does that mean that only the market can save us?

Properly guided market forces can save us.”

Is sin trendy?

It appears pretty clear that – in the Western world at least – once you get past childhood, the younger you are the less likely you are to attend church. The Church cannot rejuvenate itself without reversing that trend. This subject is the focus of the Atlantic’s interview with Rachel Held Evans about her new book.

She warns that conservative congregations are failing to connect because they try to appeal on the basis of style rather than substance:

“I caution against the idea that the way to get young people into church is to be hip and cool and have a pastor who wears skinny jeans.”

For example, speaking about the trendy Mars Hill mega-church that collapsed amid scandal last year, she says

“the exterior was hip and edgy, but they made the old mistake of authoritarian leadership”

And of course music or fashion choices are going to do little to redress the damage done to a church’s image by regressive sexual politics.

Evans suggests, unsurprisingly, that the reasons for the inability of liberal churches to connect with millennials are different. She herself struggled to find a church because:

She was looking for a certain kind of message, which may resonate with others in a generation that came of age after 9/11, lived through two wars, and not-so-happily endured years of recession: a recognition that life is dark.

And:

“A lot of liberal, progressive people are afraid of the word sin,” she said in an interview. To some, the idea of a flawed human nature which leads to transgressions against God might be the same category as exorcisms—part of the “bizarre truth of Christian identity,” as Evans puts it.

But even for regular church-goers, she said, sin may not be something many readily embrace. “Why do we mumble through rote confessions and then conjure plastic Barbie and Ken smiles as we turn to one another to pass the peace?” she writes. “What makes us exchange the regular pleasantries—’I’m fine! How are you?’—while mingling beneath a cross upon which hangs a beaten, nearly naked man, suffering publicly on our behalf?”

Some of this is cultural, she said—the idea, particularly in the ever-hospitable, perfectly polished South, that you should “bring your best self to church.” But “even in faith communities that aren’t Southern, there can still be that pressure to perform, and be Instagram-y, and not be honest and talk about your sin,” she said.

That’s why upbeat music and stylish services don’t do it for Evans: Hers is a Christianity that is fully aware of darkness. “So much of what Christianity produces as far as books and literature and even music in our worship—it’s all very rosy, when that’s not really life, and that’s not really church,” she said. “We carry the weight of many, many centuries of injustice, and that matters, and we can’t just ignore that.”

I agree that sin is not a concept that liberal Christians should not be alarmed by. We can assert its truth while rejecting the notion it can be used to divide the world into righteous people like us and nasty sinners. Indeed perhaps Christianity’s most egalitarian assertion is that we are all without exception sinners.

I don’t know whether restoring this insight to its proper place at the heart of worship will bring millennials back into church or not. However, I am confident that doing so has a better chance than any number of cringe making attempts to mirror our choices of music, coffee and clothes.