Review – Avengers: Age Of Ultron

For a film with so much baggage it could clog up a whole fleet of invisible S.H.I.E.L.D jets, this latest instalment in the unstoppable Marvel juggernaut somehow manages to avoid collapsing under the weight of its own cinematic universe.

Avengers: Age Of Ultron may not be the game changer its predecessor was, but Whedon has closed this particular chapter in the Marvel Cinematic Universe about as as well as he could. Now what's next?

Avengers: Age Of Ultron may not be the game changer its predecessor was, but Whedon has closed this particular chapter in the Marvel Cinematic Universe about as as well as he could. Now what’s next?

Guided by any hand other than that of Joss Whedon, Avengers: Age Of Ultron could so easily have turned into another Spider-Man 3 (2007) – overloaded to the point of bewilderment.

Despite having enough characters to fill a whole season of Game Of Thrones and a plot that, when boiled down, follows a very similar thread to its 2012 predecessor (supervillain exposes the underlying tension between our team of superheroes before they assemble stronger-than-ever for the good of humanity), Whedon just about keeps the plates spinning.

Iron Giant: Ultron (James Spader) in Avengers: Age Of Ultron

Iron Giant: Ultron (James Spader) in Avengers: Age Of Ultron

Ignoring Jeff Goldblum’s immortal warning from Jurassic World that man shouldn’t be “so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should”, Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr), with the help of Dr Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) creates artificial intelligence to give life to his Ultron project, a global defence force of Iron Men to help thwart threats both terrestrial and extraterrestrial.

No sooner does Ultron (James Spader) spark up then he unleashes a diabolical plan to wipe out the Avengers; a scheme bolstered by the assistance of the super-fast Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and the mind-bending Scarlett Witch (Elizabeth Olsen); mutants whose grudge against Stark seems well founded.

Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) wonder what to do next in Avengers: Age Of Ultron

Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) wonder what to do next in Avengers: Age Of Ultron

With the odds stacked against them, the Avengers – Iron Man, Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Hulk – must come together as never before in order to stop Ultron.

In some ways, Age Of Ultron is actually superior to its monstrously successful forebear. The time given to each character is more democratic, in particular Hawkeye, who virtually becomes the beating heart of the team.

Thor-some: Captain America (Chris Evans) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) in Avengers: Age Of Ultron

Thor-some: Captain America (Chris Evans) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) in Avengers: Age Of Ultron

We also finally get to see Hulk properly lose it in an epic bust up with Iron Man, while the film’s final extended set piece endeavours to keep the action grounded (a bad pun for anyone who’s seen the movie, sorry) while all hell is being unleashed and – unlike some other superhero flicks – actively gives a damn about the poor civilians caught up in the ensuing chaos.

It is at its strongest when it takes the time to let the characters breathe and interact with other, most amusingly at a party at Avengers HQ (formerly Stark Tower) in which the team kick back and chew the fat alongside some of the franchise’s periphery characters, including Don Cheadle’s War Machine and Anthony Mackie’s Falcon. A scene in which Thor challenges his comrades to pick up his hammer is lovely and mirror’s the film’s best exchange late on between the crown prince of Asgard and a character whose origin I won’t spoil.

He's fast, she's weird: Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and sister Scarlett Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) in Avengers: Age Of Ultron

He’s fast, she’s weird: Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and sister Scarlett Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) in Avengers: Age Of Ultron

In spite of Spader’s cooly malevolent delivery, Ultron fails to leap off the screen as effectively as Loki managed to in Avengers Assemble. However good the visual effect, a human villain will almost always engage more with the audience and if that bad guy is a maniacally grinning Tom Hiddleston then so much the better.

Whedon has now taken a step back from Avengers duties and it’s not too difficult to see why. In a recent interview he said: “There’s basically 11 main characters in this movie, which is quite frankly too much.” When your writer/director acknowledges there’s simply too much stuff to crowbar into one movie you have to start wondering if he maybe has a point. That he’s kept this stew from boiling over is, frankly, remarkable.

Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) in Avengers: Age Of Ultron

Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) in Avengers: Age Of Ultron

The torch has now passed from a seemingly relieved Whedon to Captain America: The Winter Soldier‘s Anthony and Joe Russo who, before helming the two-part Infinity War will first serve up Cap’s next solo outing Civil War – it’s safe to say there’s a lot of war coming up.

Avengers: Age Of Ultron may not be the game changer its predecessor was, but Whedon has closed this particular chapter in the Marvel Cinematic Universe about as well as he could. Now what’s next?

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Review – Kingsman: The Secret Service

After giving superheroes a boot in the Thunderballs with Kick Ass, Matthew Vaughn turns his Goldeneye onto the spy flick with typically brash and boisterous results.

It may not reach the heights of Kick Ass, but Kingman: The Secret Service is so unashamedly over-the-top it's hard not to sign up to its licence to thrill

It may not reach the heights of Kick Ass, but Kingman: The Secret Service is so unashamedly over-the-top it’s hard not to sign up to its licence to thrill

Vaughn’s unique style has won him a legion of admirers since his much-loved 2004 debut Layer Cake; the film that went a long way to bagging its star Daniel Craig the iconic role of James Bond, who in a neatly circular turn of events is the primary influence for Kingsman: The Secret Service.

Hoping to capture lightning in a bottle for a second time following the success of Kick Ass (2010), Vaughn and co-screenwriter Jane Goldman have once again teamed up with Mark Millar to loosely adapt another of his comic book series.

Spy Harry Hart (Colin Firth) creates holy hell in Kingsman: The Secret Service

Spy Harry Hart (Colin Firth) creates holy hell in Kingsman: The Secret Service

While Millar’s comic was set within the world of MI6, the movie decides to go even more super-secretive by focusing on the Kingsman, a spy agency so covert that 007 himself probably doesn’t know about them.

Influenced by Arthurian legend, the Kingsman are led by a round table of gentlemen spies, including Arther (Michael Caine) and Galahad, aka Harry Hart (Colin Firth). When one of their own is killed in action, Hart takes mouthy street kid Eggsy (Taron Egerton) under his wing and convinces him to go up against other young hopefuls to replace the fallen spy.

Eggsy (Taron Egerton) in deep water in Kingsman: The Secret Service

Eggsy (Taron Egerton) in deep water in Kingsman: The Secret Service

Tech tycoon Richmond Valentine (Samuel L Jackson), meanwhile, is busy trying to take over the world and it falls on what’s left of the Kingsman to put a stop to his ultra-sinister plan.

The spy movie has hardly been short of a spoof or two; hell, the godfather James Bond was sending it up most of the time during the Roger Moore years. Kingsman takes its cue from that era; from the poster which is a direct pastiche of For Your Eyes Only to the high concept plotline that really took hold during Moore’s era.

Dot com douchebag Richmond Valentine (Samuel L Jackson) in Kingsman: The Secret Service

Dot com douchebag Richmond Valentine (Samuel L Jackson) in Kingsman: The Secret Service

Alongside the numerous nods to Bond, there are other homages to a well-trodden genre, including The Avengers‘ (no, not that one) John Steed with the Saville Row-besuited league of gentlemen spies and liberal use of umbrellas.

While the tips of the bowler hat to 007 and co are plentiful, Vaughn and Goldman’s self-referential script is also at pains to have its cake and eat it by having its characters remind each other that “this isn’t that kind of movie” shortly before endeavouring to pull the rug out from under our feet.

The recruits striving to become a Kingsman in Kingsman: The Secret Service

The recruits striving to become a Kingsman in Kingsman: The Secret Service

The most glaring way Kingsman “isn’t that kind of movie” is through the colourful use of Anglo saxon (much like Kick Ass). As occasionally amusing as it is (pretty much every sentence uttered by Jackson drops an f-bomb; and we all know how gleefully Sammy invokes the use of that word), you suspect the thinking behind it is to see how far it can be pushed and to give us a spy drama with the shackles removed. This admittedly works quite nicely when Arthur’s well-spoken demeanour disappears at one point and the foul-mouthed cockney lurking under the surface is exposed.

The offhand ultra violence that marked Kick Ass out as a bold piece of filmmaking is also in plentiful supply here. An early bust-up in a pub is the aperitif to an unholy bloodbath in a right-wing Christian church to the tune of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Freebird that reaches Old Testament levels of brutality and sees the camera get stuck in to the ensuing carnage.

'King' Arther (Michael Caine) in Kingsman: The Secret Service

‘King’ Arther (Michael Caine) in Kingsman: The Secret Service

This, and later fight scenes have a balletic quality John Woo would be proud of, although the final assault on Valentine’s secret lair by Mark Strong’s Q-esque Merlin and Eggsy leaves you wondering at what point the former tearaway learned such gracefully merciless close quarters fighting techniques (we’re left to assume he’s picked this up as the film never bothers to show us).

While it has plenty of nice touches, in particular the casting of Mark Hamill as a very convincing English professor (in the comic, the terrorists abduct an environmental scientist called Mark Hamill), it ends on a bum note with a moment of pantomime absurdity that makes Q’s infamous line from Moonraker – “I think he’s attempting re-entry sir” – seem like a moment of restraint worthy of Bergman.

It may not reach the heights of Kick Ass, but Kingman: The Secret Service is so unashamedly over-the-top it’s hard not to sign up to its licence to thrill.

Review – Captain America: The Winter Soldier

After seriously dropping the hammer with the disappointing Thor: The Dark World, Marvel has got its mojo back with this superheroic espionage thriller that packs a real biff, pow and bang.

Although on paper a two-dimensional relic of 1940s flag-waving propaganda comics, Captain America's onscreen adventures are fast becoming the Marvel movies to look out for

Although on paper a two-dimensional relic of 1940s flag-waving propaganda comics, Captain America’s onscreen adventures are fast becoming the Marvel movies to look out for

On its 2011 release, Captain America: The First Avenger was an unexpected pleasure, skillfully mixing pulpy action and period nostalgia with a World War Two setting that perfectly suited the old school heroics of Captain Steve Rogers (Chris Evans, a great fit for the role).

His appearance alongside Iron Man, Thor et al in Avengers Assemble (as it was called over here) was largely about him trying to come to terms with the modern world and it’s an issue that inevitably permeates through The Winter Soldier.

Steve 'Cap' Rogers (Chris Evans) forms a valuable friendship with fellow veteran Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) in Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Steve ‘Cap’ Rogers (Chris Evans) forms a valuable friendship with fellow veteran Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) in Captain America: The Winter Soldier

However, screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeeley (who also wrote the first movie) deserve a lot of credit for crafting a story that transcends fish-out-of-water narrative tropes and instead gives the character something he can really get his shield stuck into.

While the bad guys he’s fighting this time around aren’t as clear-cut as the uber-Nazis he was battling in The First Avenger, Cap’s inherent goodness and staunch belief in the enduring power of freedom are traits that prove just as necessary in The Winter Soldier.

Cap (Chris Evans) expresses his concerns as to the direction S.H.I.E.L.D is taking to Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) in Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Cap (Chris Evans) expresses his concerns as to the direction S.H.I.E.L.D is taking to Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) in Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Since being thawed out from cryogenic stasis at the end of The First Avenger, Rogers has allied himself with S.H.I.E.L.D, the labyrinthine spy and law-enforcement network led by Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson, given more to do this time) – but is growing ever-more sceptical about its true motives. Rogers is forced to go on the run from S.H.I.E.L.D after finding himself in the middle of a massive conspiracy and, with the help of deadly assassin Natalia Romanoff, aka Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson, also with more to do this time), and fellow war veteran Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie, underused) sets about uncovering the truth.

While Thor’s second solo outing got lost in an Asgardian vortex of Dark Elves and cod-Lord Of The Rings nonsense, Cap’s big return has a far more engaging narrative.

Cap (Chris Evans) must work with deadly assassin Natasha Romanoff, aka Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson) in Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Cap (Chris Evans) must work with deadly assassin Natasha Romanoff, aka Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson) in Captain America: The Winter Soldier

The central plot makes no bones about its nods to 1970s conspiracy cinema classics like The Parallax View (1974) and Three Days Of The Condor (1975), right down to the casting of Condor‘s Robert Redford, who effortlessly raises the level of the film every time he’s on screen as senior S.H.I.E.L.D figure Alexander Pierce.

The juxtaposition of Cap’s clearly defined outlook of right and wrong with the murky, compromised ideology of S.H.I.E.L.D is a nice idea and a very contemporary concept, but the film doesn’t trust the audience to work it out for themselves. When he witnesses just how far S.H.I.E.L.D is willing to go to “neutralise threats”, a rattled Rogers tells Fury “This isn’t freedom, this is fear”; to which Fury replies the agency “takes the world as it is, not as we’d like it to be”. The point is made several more times in case we haven’t picked it up.

Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) with old buddy and fellow S.H.I.E.L.D colleague Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) in Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) with old buddy and fellow S.H.I.E.L.D colleague Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) in Captain America: The Winter Soldier

In spite of the lack of subtlety, it’s undoubtedly the most interesting element of both this and any other Marvel picture to date, and one you feel directors Anthony and Joe Russo would rather have concentrated on more. This being a superhero movie, however, it’s a prerequisite that things go boom sooner or later.

That being said, an early set piece involving an ambush on Fury’s S.H.I.E.L.D mobile is exhilarating stuff, while a fight involving Rogers and a dozen or so S.H.I.E.L.D goons in a lift gets the pulse racing. It’s when the scale of the action is amped up that the film – especially in the final act – loses its way and turns into just another Marvel movie involving a stack of CGI explosions in the sky.

The mysterious Winter Soldier in Captain America: The Winter Soldier

The mysterious Winter Soldier in Captain America: The Winter Soldier

In spite of being part of the title, we’re given only a brief taste of who and what the Winter Soldier is. It’s a plot thread you suspect had more meat on it during early drafts and is left dangling for Cap’s third solo movie. At 136 minutes, the film is too long anyway, so it’s not surprising this wasn’t developed more.

Although on paper a two-dimensional relic of 1940s flag-waving propaganda comics, Captain America’s onscreen adventures are fast becoming the Marvel movies to look out for.

Review – Iron Man 3

The law of diminishing returns has long been an affliction of the modern movie franchise, wherein bigger is believed to be better and the script often resembles a paint-by-numbers exercise in calculated cynicism.

Iron Man 3 - "Black has forged a Marvel-ous summer blockbuster that’s as cool, collected and cocksure as its hero"

Iron Man 3 – “Black has forged a Marvel-ous summer blockbuster that’s as cool, collected and cocksure as its hero”

The rust appeared to have set in for Ol’ Shellhead with the turgid Iron Man 2, a vacant mess as bloated as its director John Favreau that undid all of the good work of the entertaining first instalment.

However, the mojo is back thanks to another bold decision by the powers that be at Marvel (following the call to appoint Kenneth Branagh to direct Thor) to take a punt on meta-man Shane Black to co-write and helm the studio’s first salvo since Joss Whedon’s Avengers Assemble struck box office platinum.

Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) with his latest toy in Iron Man 3

Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) with his latest toy in Iron Man 3

Anyone familiar with Black’s only previous stint in the director’s chair, 2005’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang will know getting him on board for Iron Man 3 makes total sense. For one thing, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang starred Robert Downey Jr (in something of a career comeback performance), whose rapid-fire delivery fitted Black’s snappy, wise-cracking dialogue to perfection.

It therefore shouldn’t come as a major surprise to learn that Black has a blast with Tony Stark (Downey Jr), the ingenious, fast-talking billionaire egotist and self-appointed superhero who must go back-to-basics and overcome his post-Avengers Assembled panic attacks when his cosy world is turned upside down at the hands of the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), a megalomaniacal terrorist seemingly hell-bent on bringing America to its knees.

Although there are obligatory boxes that need ticking when dealing with a franchise picture, there are more than enough Blackisms peppered throughout the film’s 130-minute running time. While Whedon got away with one truly inspired moment in Avengers Assembled when a crew member on S.H.I.E.L.D’s flying aircraft carrier is caught playing classic video game Galaga, Iron Man 3 is all Black.

The mysterious Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) in Iron Man 3

The mysterious Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) in Iron Man 3

He has a field day pulling the rug from under the viewer by undermining familiar screenwriting tropes, such as in the amusing relationship between Stark and troubled kid Harley (Ty Simpkins), who helps him get to the bottom of the Mandarin’s dastardly plan. Black knows we’re expecting a father/son bond to form, but buries the notion in a blizzard of cute one-liners.

Likewise, he saves some of the best lines for the smart-suited henchmen, who in any other blockbuster outside of an Austin Powers flick would be nothing more than target practice for our hero.

Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) picks up the pieces in Iron Man 3

Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) picks up the pieces in Iron Man 3

To Black’s credit, he and co-screenwriter Drew Pearce keep Tony out of the heavy metal suit for long periods (even during the inevitable robots-hitting-each-other final reel), no doubt understanding the franchise’s greatest strength isn’t the wham-bam special effects (although there’s still plenty of them), but rather Downey Jr’s scenery-chewing performance.

That being said, Downey Jr’s turn is so big many of the supporting cast barely have a chance to make an impact, especially Gwyneth Paltrow as Tony’s soul mate Pepper Potts, who looks confused or shocked most of the time, and Rebecca Hall as Stark’s former conquest Dr Maya Hansen, who has so little to do it’s almost tragic.

War Machine, make that Iron Patriot, in Iron Man 3

War Machine, make that Iron Patriot, in Iron Man 3

Don Cheadle gets a lot more to do this time around as Rhodes, whose Iron Man suit has been sprayed red, white and blue and renamed Iron Patriot (as opposed to its previous moniker, the more honest War Machine) and who gets to enjoy some Lethal Weapon-style buddy action with Tony, which is only appropriate bearing in mind Black wrote that 80s blockbuster.

The only one who truly stands out alongside Downey Jr, however, is Kingsley, who steals every scene he’s in as the mysterious Mandarin. It’s a superb, multi-layered performance that’s as out-there as it is memorable.

Tony Stark's former number one fan Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) in Iron Man 3

Tony Stark’s former number one fan Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) in Iron Man 3

One of the problems with creating a post-Avengers universe containing a big green guy and a hammer-wielding god is that they’re notable by their absence in Marvel’s stand-alone movies. The film tries to get around this big, gaping logic hole when Stark explains: “This isn’t superhero business. It’s American business.” But if that’s the case, then where’s Captain America?

As with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Black’s numerous other scripts (in particular The Last Boy Scout), Iron Man 3 gets a little too-cute for its own good, to the extent whereby some scenes get so caught up in the next one-liner the narrative grinds to a halt.

That being said, the direction Black and Pearce take the main character is a real winner. This Tony Stark must swallow his pride, understand the consequences of his actions and rely on the skills that created Iron Man in the first place if he is going to prevail.

Whether this is Downey Jr’s final solo stint as Ol’ Shellhead remains to be seen; either way Black has forged a Marvel-ous summer blockbuster that’s as cool, collected and cocksure as its hero.