Less is more

I find some films almost impossible to review. Some like Mad Max: Fury Road are so overwhelming that they’re hard to process. Others don’t seem worth bothering with; I managed to write a paragraph on Jurrasic World as part of a post about velocirapotors.

By contrast, the review of Ant Man basically writes itself. I complained that its predecessor in Marvel canon, Avengers: Age of Ultron, was overblown and unable to contain all the characters, subplots and mythology jammed into it. Ant Man, a film about someone whose superpower, is shrinking himself avoids this problem.

Writing that seems trite but coming a few months after the overstuffed Age of Ultron it’s very welcome. Rather than a globe spanning adventure containing every character Marvel can get the IP for, its cast of characters is basically composed of two (broadly defined) families. That allows it to savour its most appealing elements while staying reasonably compact. Its run time is less than two hours rather than closer to three – a difference my bum and bladder both appreciated – yet of the two films it feels by far the less rushed. And in such a compact story the conflagration of the different elements feels natural rather than contrived for the sake of epicness. Ant Man thus delivers more entertainment with less endurance than Age of Ultron.

That this film has been a modest success is a substantial triumph. Not only was there a real risk the core concept would appear ridiculous but the path from that concept to the screen was rather fraught. It was initially supposed to be directed by Edgar Wright, who’d previously made cult classics like Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and Scott Pilgrim vs the World. However, he walked out in protest at the changes Marvel demanded to the script he had written with long time collaborator Joe Cornish.

Fortunately for people who like Wright’s work – and there really should be no other kind of person – Ant Man still feels a lot like one of his films. His trademarks, like action synced to music, are all there. Strikingly the most Wrightesque scene, in which someone delivers a ridiculous piece of exposition accompanied by fast cuts that might as well end ‘and go to the Winchester and wait for it all to blow over’, was apparently added after Wright’s departure from the project. That suggests he style remained an influence on the new creative team. And if, as I suspect, the climactic battle aboard a toy train set was Wright’s invention then it will rival the killing zombies with records sequence in Shaun of the Dead as his most entertaining set piece.

This is not to say it’s perfect. The plot moves along grooves which are sufficiently well worn that one can tell what will happen at least ten minutes before it does. And while the gang of goofy ethnically stereotyped petty criminals undeniably provide some of the funniest moments of the film, it’s still not great that there’s a gang of goofy ethnically stereotyped criminals.

Despite this Ant Man is massive fun and an unmistakable victory for Marvel. Nonetheless, it is potentially a bad indicator for the studio’s future films. If smaller is better, then colossal projects like Civil War and the Infinity War are likely to underwhelm.

Summary: 8/10 – just the right amount of a good thing.

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.

Some predictions for 2015

Umunna as leader of the opposition? My most tentative prediction.

My more or less educated guesses for what will happen in the next year. I’ve put a % by each one to indicate my guess as to the probability that it will happen:

  1. The UK general election will result in a hung parliament (80%). I’m reasonably sure about that but not much else. If I had to take a stab in the dark I’d say that we’ll end up with a minority Conservative government (40%).
  2. Ed Miliband (60%) and Nick Clegg (90%) will not survive as leaders of their parties and will be replaced by Chuka Umunna (30%) and Tim Farron (50%). In the event, David Cameron ceases to be leader, I would think that Theresa May is his most likely replacement (50%).
  3. Hilary Clinton will announce she’s running for President (90%).
  4. Greece will exit the Eurozone (60%).
  5. The highest grossing film globally will be Avengers: Age of Ultron (60%). However, in the US it will be Star Wars: the Force Awakens (60%) and in the UK Spectre (50%).

UPDATE (30/01/15): When I made the predictions regarding the highest box office takes I did so under the misapprehension that the Force Awakens was being released this summer. In fact, it’s not out till the final week of December. Therefore, I now think there’s a 70% probability that the Avengers will top the US box office and am prepared to raise the probability that Spectre will top the UK box office to 70%.

Marvel into darkness

The trailer for Avengers II is one of many signs that the massive Marvel Cinematic Universe may be taking a turn for the gloomy. Is that a wise decision?

So we got to see the teaser trailer for the Avengers: Age of Ultron earlier that we were expecting – Hail Hydra! – and my overwhelming reaction is ‘COOL!’ The quality of the trailer itself is worth appreciating; in particular how it uses its Pinocchio motif to build a sinister tone. More importantly, the omens for the film are positive. It seems like there will be plenty happening, the visuals look impressive, James Spader’s version of Ultron appears pleasingly menacing and it has Andy Serkis in it!

However, it does look rather bleak. There are lots of hints of tragedy and it contains none of the wisecracking the teaser for the first film focused on. Now this could just be the trailer but there are other reasons to think Marvel may be about to start emphasising tragedy over comedy:

Based on the past year one might reasonably wonder if this isn’t a mistake. Sure Marvel did well with the Winter Soldier but their real commercial success was Guardians of the Galaxy. This was the closest they’ve come to making an outright comedy and audiences seemed to like it.

I’m excited to see what Marvel does with the darker parts of its range. However, going dark still feels like a gamble and I have to wonder if they will lose part of their audience along the way. More than that I hope that it doesn’t prevent them from also making some light hearted fair. Mainstream audiences deserve films like Guardians which are silly in a clever way.