Filming the Insanity – When Unusual Directors Make the Strangest of Movies

the room tommy

Films roughly fall into four separate categories.  There are the ones that we love, the ones that leave us conflicted or indifferent, or the ones that just plain suck.  Ninety percent of all movies fall into these three categories, but there’s that last ten percent that make up a whole different category.  These films are the ones that defy all categorization and are mainly there to leave us wondering how in the world they exist at all.  And this is by far the most interesting class of film out there.  We all know what they are; movies that are so bizarre and defy all logical explanation.  You would be led to believe that movies such as these are usually terrible and some of them certainly are, but their awfulness is also what makes them entertaining to audiences.  Sometimes, this fourth class of cinema can even carry more of a devoted following than something that was competently made.  How and why this happens is almost impossible to predict.  Sometimes it’s the discovery of the unusual that drives their popularity and helps to carry their legacy on long after their initial release.  Most cult movies start out as low budget failures and end up finding their audiences through word of mouth, and usually the odder the movie, the more appeal it will have with audiences who are attracted to that sort of entertainment.  Such is the case with something like The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), which opened small, but has continually been running now for 40 years as a staple of midnight screenings across the world.  But Rocky Horror is just one of many movies that have left their mark on cinema and not by being the best made or the most moving, but instead by being the most unexplanable.  And if there is anything that most of these movies have in common, it’s that they came from the minds of ambitious yet eccentric people.

Probably the most notorious creation in recent years from a truly unusual mind would be 2003’s The Room; one of the most bizarre movies that has ever been made.  The Room is a movie that really defies all reasonable explanation.  On the surface, it doesn’t seem like much; just a small budget drama about selfish people falling in and out of relationships within the backdrop of San Francisco.  But what makes the movie notorious is the fact that every film-making choice, whether it’s the editing, the music, or the staging, is absolutely wrong.  Scenes exist for no purpose (like the famous flower shop scene), characters pop-up out of nowhere with no context or set-up, and the dialogue is completely tone deaf (“I got the results of the test back.  I definitely have breast cancer.”)  Normally you would think that a mess of a movie like this would make the film forgettable, and yet the sum of all these bizarre film-making choices makes The Room one of the most unintentionally funny movies ever made.  It’s especially entertaining to watch this movie with a full audience, just to hear peoples’ reactions to what they’re watching.  This is why The Room has now become one of the most popular cult hits of the last decade.  Anybody could have made a bad movie, but it had to take a very special, twisted mind to have made something as hilariously inept as The Room, and that special person was writer, director, and star Tommy Wiseau.  Tommy was a struggling actor with no film-making expertise.  Yet, he had endless ambition and The Room was his pet project from start to finish.  I think that part of the reason The Room succeeds where other bad movies fail, is that no one stood in Tommy Wiseau’s way and made him second guess himself, leading to a finished product that thinks it’s a movie but really ends up becoming a fascinating enigma.

With films that come from unchecked egos like Tommy Wiseau’s, we are able to get a fairly good insight into the mind of a director and how they view the world and tell it’s story.  Film-making is a trade based mostly around compromise, but the more you strip away outside influences, like studio heads and focus groups, you begin to see stories told on a more personal level, especially when the director has full control.  There are many different kinds of directors, but the most celebrated are the ones who have completely control over their voice and their style.  Usually, these types of directors write their own scripts and do their own editing, and in some more extreme cases (like Steven Soderbergh or Robert Rodriguez) do their own camera work and scoring.  For many of these celebrated directors, it usually takes many years to refine their craft, whether it be by apprenticing on film sets or attending film schools.  But, with the democratizing of media and the wider availability of film-making tools, we are seeing more people today taking it upon themselves to create their own movies, whether they have the know how to do so or not.  Sometimes you have people who have natural talent as filmmakers, and then you have people like Tommy Wiseau, who are ambitious amateurs in the most extreme sense.  The charm that comes from Wiseau’s folly is the fact that he put so much money and effort into the movie, spending his own fortune buying camera equipment and renting studio space, without ever trying to learn the language of film.  People might see that as lazy, but there is something endearing about Wiseau’s desire to create, even if he’s not the most qualified to do so.

Tommy Wiseau isn’t alone in this field, because he does come from a long line of failed filmmakers with vision but no skill.  The B-movie craze of the 50’s and 60’s was an especially strong time for amateur filmmakers.  Many would prove to be forgettable, but some had such unusual visions, that even their failures have withstood the test of time.  One such director was Edward D. Wood Jr., who’s responsible for making what many consider to be among the worst movies ever made.  His notorious filmmography includes bizarre movies like the cross-dressing comedy Glen or Glenda (1953), the schlocky Bride of the Monster (1955), or his magnum opus Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959), each one crazier than the last.  Critics of course decried the amateurishness of Wood’s films, but audiences who rediscovered the movies years later found his flicks to be peculiar little oddities that carried their own charm.  They are horrible, of course, but almost to the level that they stand out from all other movies of their kind.  Like Tommy Wiseau, Ed Wood was driven by the sensation of creating a movie, and his ambition was unchecked by the limitations of his skills as a filmmaker.  In a sense, the reason why we enjoy Ed Wood movies is because there’s no pretentiousness to them.  They are what they are and in the end we only see the zaniness of Wood’s vision.  Director Tim Burton perfectly captures this creative drive from Ed Wood in his 1994 biographical film about the director.  That movie helped to craft the image of Ed Wood as a hero for any aspiring filmmaker hoping to fulfill their dreams, while also warning them to refine their skills and avoid Wood’s mistakes.  But, at the same time, you also needed a filmmaker with a twisted mind like Burton to tell the story of someone like Ed Wood and stay true to his spirit.

A directors’ vision ultimately determines whether or not a film can connect with it’s audience.  The reason why Wiseau and Wood are celebrated even despite their faults is because their movies are unforgettable.  Yes, part of why they leave an impression is because we marvel at just how bad they are, but even still that’s something that can ultimately keep a movie alive for generations.  The movies that usually fail in the long run are the ones that are bad and forgettable.  Even with all the cinematic tools at their disposal, Hollywood filmmakers can still create some truly horrible films that burn out just as quickly as they are made.  Case in point, Roland Emmerich; a man who’s become synonymous with big budget disaster flicks like The Day After Tomorrow (2004) and 2012 (2009).  His movies are almost always mired in ham-fisted sermonizing about politics and the environment along with high-quality visual effects that ultimately all just looks the same in the end.  They lose their punch quickly and end up being more laboured than fun.  Contrast this with the movie Birdemic: Shock and Terror (2010), directed by former tech salesman James Nguyen, which has the same sermonizing but with far more amateurish visual effects and storytelling.  Emmerich’s films fall by the wayside while Birdemic has since achieved cult status.  But, why is that?  It seems to be the fact that Emmerich’s movies try too hard to connect with it’s audience, while Birdemic just doesn’t even try.  It’s the movie that James Nguyen wanted to make, regardless if he was qualified to do so.  Like Wood and Wiseau, Nguyen’s vision is on display and it’s charmingly naive.  And that’s what ultimately makes Emmerich’s movies fall short; the lack of charm and the insistence that it be taken seriously.

But, even though most strange movies come from amateurish filmmakers, it doesn’t mean that it’s always the case.  Even some of cinema’s greatest minds have found themselves in the middle of creating some truly bizarre movies, and all with the backing of the studios as well.  Who would’ve thought that someone as skilled as Stanley Kubrick could have made something as out of this world and undefinable as 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) or take a radioactive lightning rod of a novel like A Clockwork Orange and make it into a work of art; but he did just that.  A director’s vision can ultimately take on any form, even in the realm of the bizarre.  The 1970’s was a particularly big period for oddball films, and many button-pushing filmmakers made a name for themselves in these years, like Ken Russell with his gonzo condemnation of religion in The Devils (1971), John Boorman with his oddball sci-fantasy Zardoz (1974),  or the many art house, free form pictures made by Andy Warhol.   But, even interesting cinematic experiments can come from great artists who cross into a point of insanity when creating a high profile movie.  Such a thing happened to Francis Ford Coppola, who had to be dragged away from the set of Apocalypse Now (1979) because he wouldn’t stop filming, and was desperately trying to make sense of a project that was driving him crazy.  Martin Scorsese likewise made Taxi Driver (1976) in a haze of delirium, fueled by his then addiction to cocaine.  Luckily for both men, those crazed states helped them create long lasting works of cinematic art, but it’s not without consequences.  Hollywood let these big projects go too far many times and ultimately had to pull the plug when director’s egos got out of hand, which is what happened to Michael Cimino and his mess of a movie known as Heaven’s Gate (1980).

Whether strange and twisted movies happen by mistake, or by design, it is ultimately up to the audience to decide.  Usually it isn’t just the movie itself that builds the legend around it, but rather the story behind it’s making.  We are fascinated just as much about the creators as we are about the creations and by watching the movies themselves, we get to see just a little bit of the madness that drives them.  That madness is what we ultimately find fascinating.  Tim Burton’s Ed Wood found the story of a dreamer who wanted to tell stories in unusual ways in the background of it’s subject, and that helps us modern viewers see movies like Plan 9 in a whole new way.  The same is holding true for The Room, which itself is gearing up to have it’s creation chronicled in an upcoming comedy starring James Franco as Tommy Wiseau.  That’s a true indication of how fascinated we’ve become with these strange, oddball films.  Even great filmmakers with complete and competent visions can develop a cult status by taking some very unorthodox routes and become legendary as a result.  There are stories within stories of the origins of these movies, especially when you study the  strange and sometimes dangerous film-making techniques of directors like Stanley Kubrick or Werner Herzog.

But, the things that really set these movies apart is that they defy explanation.  Their existence is so baffling that it makes each of them a minor miracle, which in turn leads them to be celebrated.  They are even more special if they are rediscovered many years later and completely out of the blue, like Manos: The Hands of Fate (1966) or Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964).   These are the Outliers of cinema and they ultimately reinforce the power that the medium can have.  By embracing the bizarre, we can see the limitless potential of cinema, and how no vision is too strange.  Even if talent behind the camera exceeds the likes of Tommy Wiseau, he still managed to do what most filmmakers have always dreamed of doing and that’s to have their movie be seen by audiences around the world.  Of course, part of The Room’s success is because we watch just to laugh at it, but still that makes it more entertaining than most of the junk that Hollywood usually puts out. In the end, it helps to be the oddball in an artistic world.  That’s why we hang paintings of a Campbell’s soup can in the same gallery as a Rembrandt or play a Beatles song in the Royal Albert Hall in London.  We gravitate to what entertains us, and it’s just fine if it’s from the mind of a spirited yet not completely normal creative mind.  And sometimes the crazier the mind is, the more unique the end result will be.

Tomorrowland – Review


The future is always unpredictable and most attempts to imagine it in a film usually come up short of matching reality.  Take for instance the dystopian future of Blade Runner (1982) which imagined an overgrown, trash-filled Los Angeles in the far distant year of 2019.  Four years out and Los Angeles, while still big and rough in parts, is not exactly a hell hole yet; and replicant beings like the ones in the movie are nowhere near a reality today.  Why even the optimistic future of Back to the Future Part II (1988) is way off, since it takes place in our current year of 2015 and we still don’t have flying cars.  Even still, pondering and imagining the future is something that has always appealed to filmmakers and it doesn’t stop many of them from making their best guesses.  Filmmaker Walt Disney took an even better approach to imagining the future in his many projects, by not looking towards the things that will be but rather the things that could be in the future.  As an avid futurist, Disney consulted with some of the greatest scientific and literary minds of the 20th century, such as Ray Bradbury and Werner von Braun, and used his expertise and clout as a filmmaker to help spread their ideas and inventions to the world in order for them to take hold in the public consciousness.  His Disneyland television program in particular showcased programs in what he called the Tomorrowland segments that educated the world about science and invention, while at the same remaining entertaining.  This would also eventually manifest itself into the Tomorrowland area found in Disney parks around the world.  The overall effect has both kept optimism about the future alive while also creating a sustaining fanciful concept of what we ourselves can make the future into.

This is an idea that has undoubtedly inspired other filmmakers who have carried on and contributed to the long Disney legacy.  One of those people is Brad Bird, a one-time animator at the Disney company who has since become an acclaimed writer/director in both animation and live action.  Already, he has ammassed an impressive filmography with The Iron Giant (1999), The Incredibles (2004), Ratatouille (2007), and his successful leap to live action with Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (2011).  After this successful stretch, Bird could have taken on any project he wanted, and thankfully he set out to deliver something new and original in the live action medium; something that’s been severely lacking in Hollywood in recent years.  He returned to Disney with the idea born out of nostalgia for some of those old Tomorrowland episodes and his source of inspiration stemmed from something found deep in the Disney archives.  That artifact has been dubbed the “1952” Box.  Now, this is purely from the press released about the movie, which could have been fed from Disney’s marketing team, so whether or not this “1952” Box is real or not is uncertain.  But, even if it is, it’s still an interesting discovery, as many of it’s contents present many fantastical dreams about the future, consistent with Walt’s concept of Tomorrowland.  Some speculate that the box’s contents related to the projects that Walt Disney was working on for the 1964 New York World’s Fair, but Brad Bird saw a bit more of a story being told within that box.  And that idea has now panned out into the new film Tomorrowland, which is quite a curiosity not just as a Disney film, but as a work of science fiction in general.

The story follows a young, scientifically minded teenager named Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) who is troubled by the loss of the space program in her hometown of Cape Canaveral, Florida.  Her father (Tim McGraw), a former NASA engineer, tells her that this is the new reality of their lives and that it’s time to let it go, but she refuses give up on her dreams.  After getting caught sneaking into the launching pad facility at Cape Canaveral, she is released from jail only to find that she has a new pin in her possession.  When she touches it, it transports her into another realm; one that only she can see.  This new realm turns out to be the titular Tomorrowland, which is a place where all of mankind’s greatest minds can coexist and have their dreams become a reality.  Unfortunately for Casey, the open door closes on her just as quickly as it opened.  In order to find out what Tomorrowland is and where she can find it, she goes in search of others who know about her pin.  While on her way, she runs across some menacing characters who are hunting her down. They turn out to be robot soldiers, or Audio-Animatronics as they are referred to in the film.  She’s saved from the robots by a mysterious young girl named Athena (Raffey Cassidy) who helps to steer her towards another like-minded soul who has information on the whereabouts of Tomorrowland.  Soon, Casey finds Frank Walker (George Clooney) a former boy genius who has been to Tomorrowland and can help her get there.  The only problem is, he’s been kicked out Tomorrowland before and is now unwelcome.  But, with some motivation, the two make it and soon find that Tomorrowland is not what they hoped it was anymore and is under the rule of the pessimistic Governor Nix (Hugh Laurie).

There is a lot of interesting things that are going on in the movie and it has a message that is very much in line with the optimism of the future that the idea of Tomorrowland represents.  Essentially, what Brad Bird wants to say with this movie is that the future is what we make of it, and he wants to steer us towards looking for ways to make the world a better place with both creativity and curiosity.  One of the things that Bird laments in the film is how people are obsessing about the end of the world and the horrible things that are happening in the environment and political world without ever considering what they can do to change it.  In particular, he highlights the fact that Hollywood’s view of the future has moved away from scientific ingenuity and invention and has instead presented a pessimistic apocalyptic view where either the world’s been destroyed by war, alien invasion or by zombie epidemics.  The byproduct of this, Bird argues, is that fewer people are engaging in scientific curiosity anymore from the media, and that has led to a loss in scientific mindfulness and an increase in uneducated hysteria. This is certainly a very important message to get across, and one that I wish the movie had adhered to better.  Unfortunately, Tomorrowland doesn’t fulfill the promise that it set out to create.  There are great ideas here, but they are sadly undone by the very same conventions that it’s trying to criticize.  It’s a very schizophrenic movie at times, because from scene to scene, it can’t decide whether it wants to be an inspirational movie, or an action movie.  And that whiplash of tone often undermines the potential that it could have had.

I think this primarily is a problem with the script more than anything else.  Brad Bird worked on this screenplay with Lost co-creator Damon Lindelof, who is one of the more problematic writers working in Hollywood today.  Part of Lindelof’s problem is that he’s got the skills of a great writer, but with none of the restraint.  Sometimes he’ll have many great ideas (too many in some cases) but he can’t always coalesce them into a compelling and ultimately fulfilling narrative.  The most infuriating aspect of his writing is the way he keeps things vague and only teases his audience with the possibility that something extraordinary will happen, but ultimately never does.  Anyone who saw the last season of Lost knows what I’m talking about, and sadly Tomorrowland is built around the same template as all of Lindelof’s other scripts.  We are teased with all the wonders that we might see in the world of Tomorrowland, and the movie takes it’s time getting there, but once we finally arrive at Tomorrowland for real in the story, it’s a letdown because it doesn’t match what we dreamed it would be.  Maybe that’s part of the point, but it flies in the face of what Brad Bird wants us to feel with this movie.  What’s more, whenever the movie seems to find it’s footing, we are suddenly distracted by unnecessary cliches that derail the momentum in jarring ways.  This movie has a lot of explosions and gun-play for a film that’s also criticizing the overuse of them in modern flicks.  The villain, Governor Nix, also has a scene where he’s monologuing his whole sinister plan.  Didn’t Brad Bird destroy that cliche effectively in The Incredibles?

It seems to me that Lindelof is only at his best when he’s reigned in, by either a studio or by J.J. Abrams (and even he began to lose control near the end of Star Trek Into Darkness).  Unfortunately, Brad Bird doesn’t have that kind of control and he was probably too involved in the world building of this movie in order to address the flaws in the screenplay.  But, even with all the problems inherent, it doesn’t turn the entire thing into a disaster.  There are still a healthy amount of good things to like in this movie.  The best thing that Brad Bird has learned from his years in animation is to tell a story with visuals, and that goes a long way to help smooth over some of the movie’s more troublesome shortcomings.  The brief glimpses we get of Tomorrowland in all it’s glory are pretty spectacular.  Bird even showcases the entire place in a beautiful 5 minute long tracking shot, and you already know how much I like those.  He also manages to convey character traits without having to spell things out, either with costume ideas or clever clues from the character’s surroundings.  And while there are tonal inconsistencies throughout the movie, the individual scenes are still well paced and entertaining.  I especially liked the prologue which shows young Frank (Thomas Robinson) attending the 1964 World’s Fair in New York.  Not only does Brad Bird beautifully recreate this real historical event in great detail, including a surprise found in the “It’s a Small World” ride, but it also perfectly sets up the wonder that is Tomorrowland.  If only what followed had the same kind of wonder to it.

What does save most of the movie, however, is the cast itself.  While the roles aren’t specifically crafted for anyone in particular, it does seem perfect to have the key role of Frank Walker played by a star like George Clooney.  He perfectly captures the caricature of a once bright mind that’s been clouded by pessimism and he brings a lot of charm and depth to the character.  While, it’s not his film per se (it’s more about the character of Casey overall), Clooney still adds weight and prestige to this movie that might have otherwise have been too lightweight for it’s own good.  Britt Robertson, though a little too old to be playing a teenager, still carries the film well enough as Casey, and helps to make her likable, even despite the cliched “savior” role that she’s forced to play in this plot.  The best performance and character in the movie, however, belongs to Raffey Cassidy’s Athena.  Those mystical child characters you find in fanciful movies like this are sometimes hard to pull off and usually come off as insufferable.  Athena, however, is by far the best thing about this movie, and Ms. Cassidy brings a surprising amount of charm out of this difficult character.  I don’t want to give away too much, but there’s a lot of surprises revealed about Athena and she consistently improves the film in every scene she is in.  Given all the problems with the story, having a character like her present is a godsend, and one wishes that her story had been better explored.  The one weak point in the cast sadly would be Hugh Laurie as the villain.  Laurie is a reliably talented actor, and his performance here isn’t at all bad.  It’s just that Governor Nix is too much of a stock villain to be taken seriously.  In fact, he’s not even overtly evil enough to make us care about what he does in the film’s disappointing climax.  He’s just misguided, but with no real context to his character, so there’s no reason for us to fear him or understand him.   Still, it’s more the script’s problem, and not the actor’s, and he tries his best with what he has to work with.

I have to say, as both a Disney fan and as someone who wants to see movies that can inspire great minds to achieve great things again, I was saddened by how disappointing this movie was.  Believe me, I really wanted to love this movie; and I tried.  Tomorrowland could have taken us into a brave new world of science fantasy, and sadly it never gets even close to reaching it’s potential.  Maybe I expected too much, like seeing something that could end up being Stanley Kubrick meets Lewis Carroll, but Tomorrowland is far from Wonderland.  The movie sadly ends up falling into the same cliches that the filmmakers are also lamenting in their film, which makes the whole thing a tad bit hypocritical.  Part of the problem is with the uneven script, but the general problem with the movie is that it doesn’t seem to fully commit to anything either.  Tomorrowland as a place is only teased at, and the ideas (as good as they may be) are half-cooked and never fully explained.  Walt Disney used his Tomorrowland program to both educate as well as entertain.  Tomorrowland can entertain, but the education falls flat, which is a shame because it’s a lesson that needs to be taught.  But, as disappointed as I was, I can’t dismiss it either.  It’s still a beautifully crafted movie with some very strong performances by it’s cast.  Also, even though this may be Brad Bird’s least effective movie to date, there’s still a lot of creativity to behold.  Look for some of the clever Easter eggs throughout, like the hidden A113 that always appears somewhere in Bird’s movies, and also the the hidden Space Mountain that appears in the wide shots of Tomorrowland.  Though the movie is flawed, it’s also harmless too, and could be a fine source of entertainment for family audiences.  It especially works as a source of nostalgia for Disney fans, given it’s exploration into the company’s history with the scientific advances and explorations of the last 50 years.  I just wish that a more compelling story could have materialized out of all that dreaming.

Rating: 6.5/10

Focus on a Franchise – The Cornetto Trilogy

three flavors cornetto

The definition of a franchise may be looser here than I normally would define it within these articles.  The truth is that none of these movies have anything in common other than they have the same director, much of the same cast, as well as reoccurring themes and sight gags.  And yet, the self-proclaimed “Cornetto” trilogy is considered one of the most beloved trilogies of recent years.  The brain child of Writer/ Director Edgar Wright and his lead star and co-writer Simon Pegg, the Cornetto films are three hilarious spoof-movies that perfectly send up different action genres with broad laugh out loud humor and witty, rapid fire dialogue.  Given the sad state of spoof movies today, which are dominated by the horrible Scary Movie (2000) knock-offs, these British imports are a breath of fresh air, and more honorably compliment the genre that was once home to the great minds of Mel Brooks and the Abrams-Zucker team.  In fact, Edgar Wrights approach to genre spoofing is more akin to the Mel Brooks style, in that he’s clearly trying his hardest to accurately recreate his target of parody while also mocking it relentlessly.  As Mel Brooks once said, ” I make fun of the things I love,” and that’s exactly what the Cornetto movies are all about.  Edgar Wright’s trilogy is a love letter to the kind of movies that he himself admires, and while there’s a clear intention to make audiences laugh with each movie, there’s also the sense that the director is indulging himself in the style and excesses of the movies he’s parodying.  Even though there’s a self-aware element to all of the movies in the Cornetto Trilogy, it doesn’t spoil the experience and in fact it’s actually what makes these movies so fun to watch.

Now those of you unfamiliar with the trilogy, you’re probably asking, what is a “Cornetto?”  Well it’s the name of an ice cream cone brand sold in the United Kingdom; think their equivalent to the Drumstick brand found here in America.  So, why use this as the name for a trilogy of movies mostly unrelated to ice cream?  There are two reasons for this.  First, the presence of the ice cream is consistent briefly through each of the three films, which is one of many links that they share.  And second, when pressed to come up with a name for this trilogy, Edgar Wright made reference to famed Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors Trilogy (1993-94) which consisted of three movies each titled and themed around the colors Blue (1993), White (1994) and Red (1994), the colors of the French national flag.  Wright took that same idea and labeled his trilogy around three different Cornetto ice cream flavors.  Sure it was meant as a joke, but the name and the different flavors actually compliment the films perfectly.  You have Strawberry representing the bloody gore of Shaun of the Dead (2004), you have Classic Blue representing the authority of the police in Hot Fuzz (2007) and Mint Chocolate Chip representing an alien invasion in The World’s End (2013).  But, it’s not just the ice cream that brings these movies together.  Part of the fun of watching these movies is seeing all the connecting threads, including reoccurring sight gags as well as where the returning cast members will show up.  Also, Edgar Wright’s distinctive style is as much a part of the trilogy’s character as anything else.  His use of quick, hyper editing for mundane activities in each film is especially hilarious to watch.  The Cornetto Trilogy became a franchise based more around style and content rather than story, but it still works well when viewed as a complete entity.  In this article, I will be looking at each film in the trilogy and show how each one built on the other and enriches the viewing of the whole.

shaun of the dead


Before the idea of a trilogy was ever in anyone’s mind, there was Shaun of the Dead.  This marked the film debut of Edgar Wright, who had previously developed the critically acclaimed sitcom Spaced (1999-2001) for British TV along with Simon Pegg.  Anyone who’s seen the sitcom will easily spot the influence that it has on this movie.  Shaun perfectly transplants the duo’s comedic style over the big screen, and Wright and Pegg couldn’t have picked a better genre to spoof than the zombie flick.  Edgar Wright clearly pays homage to the film-making styles of directors he admires in each movie, and in this case it’s the originator of the Zombie genre, George A. Romero.  The movie also begins many of the reoccurring themes and gags that would come to characterize the trilogy in the years to come, in particular the themes of perpetual adolescence and the individual taking on the collective.  Shaun of the Dead centers around Shaun (Pegg) who along with his best buddy Ed (trilogy co-star Nick Frost) must fight to survive a Zombie apocalypse as it invades English suburbia.  The two battle their way across town to save Shaun’s estranged girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield) her roommates Dianne and David (Lucy Davis and Dylan Moran) as well as Shaun’s Mum (Penelope Wilton) and step-dad Philip (Bill Nighy), so that they can go to their favorite pub, The Winchester, and in Shaun’s words, “have a nice cold pint, and wait for all of this to blow over.”  Of course they soon learn that this is easier said than done.

Shaun of the Dead is a classic comedy in every sense of the word.  The gags are rapid fire and it often takes multiple viewings to catch them all.  But, what makes the movie even more remarkable is how well it works as a Zombie horror flick as well.  Edgar Wright does not tone down any of the violence in the movie and some of it does get quite gory.  There is even a scene late in the movie when one of the team members dies and needs to be put down before they turn that is actually quite tense and could easily be seen in a straightforward horror movie.  That shows the effectiveness of Edgar Wright’s style, where he manages to accurately recreate the look and feel of a genre, without sacrificing the comedy.  Wright always viewed his movies in the Cornetto trilogy as “Trojan Horses,” where audiences go in expecting one thing and are treated to something unexpected, and that’s definitely true with Shaun.  But what really makes the movie work as a whole is the chemistry between the two leads, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost.  The funniest parts of the movie always involve these two, whether it’s the scene where they’re deciding which vinyl records in Shaun’s collection to throw at the heads of zombies or when they about whether dogs can look up.  The rest of the cast is also great with their own quirks that perfectly offset the mayhem that’s going on around them.  I especially like the gentile English attitude that Shaun’s Mum and Step-dad have during the chaos that happening around them.  The twists on horror cliches always work in the movie, while at the same time keeping them fresh.  From beginning to end, Shaun of the Dead strongly reasserts how to make a genre spoof work, while simultaneously being a expertly made send-up of the genre on it’s own.

hot fuzz


A few years later, Wright & Pegg followed up their debut with another spoof, this time taking on cop dramas in the style of action film directors like Michael Bay and Kathryn Bigelow.  Edgar Wright often cites his two favorite movies as Bigelow’s Point Break (1991) and Bay’s Bad Boys II (2003), both of which are referenced and parodied beat for beat in some of the movie’s most hilarious moments.  But, where Wright and Pegg milk the most comedic potential  out of this style of film-making is by setting it within the confines of a quaint English village.  The movie centers on super-cop Nick Angel (Simon Pegg), who’s reassigned after he becomes so good at his job that he makes all the other police officers in London look bad by comparison.  He transfers far north of the city to the village of Sandford, which Chief Inspector Butterman (Jim Broadbent) proudly proclaims is the safest town in the country.  There, Nick is paired up with Private Danny Butterman (Nick Frost), who’s child-like fascination with policing ends up annoying Nick at first.  But, after a few days on the job, mysterious deaths begin occurring, which are quickly dismissed by the police department as accidents.  But the keen eyed Nick suspects that foul play is involved, which would challenge Sandford’s long standing murder free record, and his chief suspect is the sinister looking grocery market owner, Simon Skinner (Timothy Dalton).

The great thing about Hot Fuzz‘s placement in the Cornetto trilogy is that it really cemented the idea of the series as a whole.  The idea for making a trilogy of spoof movies actually came about during the release of this movie, after many critics and fans noticed the carried over gags and themes between this and Shaun of the Dead.  There are a lot of carryovers from Shaun, chief among them the famous frozen treat, and Hot Fuzz not only puts them to good use, but also expands upon them.  Edgar Wright’s style is also heightened here, perfectly capturing the excess of the Michael Bay style, which contrasts perfectly with the quaint English countryside setting.  Overall, I actually think that Hot Fuzz is the strongest of the movies in the trilogy, just because it is so relentless.  Every gag is aggressively staged and the surprises in the plot are so bizarre that they’re brilliant.  It’s especially hilarious when you learn about the conspiracy behind the murders, and who’s really behind it.  The spoofing of police activity is also hilariously executed, whether it’s the search for an elusive swan, or the epic scale shootout at the end.  Pegg and Frost are of course at their best, especially when they’re delivering snappy one-liners right out of the most cliched action thriller.  But it’s also the supporting cast that really livens up the film, made up of many great British character actors like Paul Freeman, Billie Whitelaw, and Stuart Wilson.  Also, future Game of Thrones Hound Rory McCann makes a hilarious impression as a simple-minded strongman.  Pretty much everything about this movie is perfectly constructed to spoof it’s genre and more than any other movie in the trilogy, it defines the intention that the filmmakers wanted to put into their comedy.

the worlds end


By the time The World’s End came around in 2013, both Edgar Wright and his stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost had gone on to make other, bigger projects.  Wright worked on a film adaptation of the comic series Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010), while Pegg and Frost worked on their own project together called Paul (2011).  But, throughout their years of success, they still had the intention of completing the trilogy they started.  Thus, after their spoofs of zombie horror and violent cop thrillers, the trio set their sights on science fiction and made their parody of an alien invasion movie.  The film mocks the sci-fi genre as a whole, but in particular, it clearly pays homage to the style of John Carpenter, who covered similar ground in his sci-fi classic They Live (1988).  The plot follows the exploits of Gary King (Pegg) as he seeks to fulfill an adolescent dream of finishing a legendary pub crawl that he attempted with his high school buddies, Andy (Frost) Oliver (Martin Freeman), Steven (Paddy Considine), ad Peter (Eddie Marsan), whom Gary dubs the Five Musketeers.  Gary’s friends begrudgingly accept the challenge, though they all have grown-up lives now and are increasingly frustrated with Gary’s immaturity.  But, their trip down memory lane takes an odd turn when they soon learn that their hometown has been overrun by robot duplicates, all under the control of the alien force known only as The Network (voiced by Bill Nighy).  Gary and his friends ultimately must make the choice, complete the crawl or survive with their humanity intact.

The World’s End was meant to culminate all the themes and gags that Wright & Pegg started in Shaun of the Dead and continued on through Hot Fuzz, and it does an absolutely brilliant job of capping the trilogy.  It may not have the novelty of Shaun, or the rapid fire regularity of Fuzz, but it still is a consistently strong movie in it’s own right.  In fact, it might be the most story driven movie in the trilogy, as each of the characters has a very strong arc that carries them to surprising conclusions.  I especially like how some of the roles are reversed this time around, with Simon Pegg this time taking on the role of the immature man-child, while Nick Frost is given the role of the grown-up, career driven man.  The rest of the cast are also well used here, including Martin Freeman and Paddy Considine who are bumped up to co-star status this time after making only cameos in the previous films.  Gone Girl’s Rosamund Pike also contributes a well needed female presence and there’s even an appearance by another 007, only this time it’s Pierce Brosnan.   The movie hilariously plays around with many sci-fi tropes and some of them are done surprisingly well.  The way that the robots are built like plastic dolls is a really clever visual idea, as well as the way each one glows internally whenever they are ready to attack.  I also like the name Blanks that the characters give to the robots (though I would have preferred Smashy, Smashy Eggmen, which is one of the best lines in the movie).  But, overall, it leaves the trilogy with suitable closure, as the continuing gags and themes in the trilogy come full circle.  Even the Cornetto reference is suitably mocked as just a wrapper caught in the wind.  The World’s End is the most subdued and mature of the movies in the trilogy, and that’s exactly what was needed to lay this series of comedies to rest.

While it wasn’t designed that way, the Cornetto trilogy still represents all the best things that a great trilogy encapsulates.  It builds over time, making each installment bigger and better than the one before it and it stands on it’s own together as well as separated into its different parts.  It’s best to have seen each one individually, so that you can spot all the different overlapping references as you go along.  Usually it takes multiple viewings to catch them all.  Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg are almost always very sneaky with their visual and verbal gags; some even go under the radar for many years.  It took multiple viewings for me to get the Aaron Aaronson gag in Hot Fuzz, but once I caught it I was amazed how subtly it was done.  Even the broader gags are brilliantly done, and most if not all of them still age well over time.  I’m also impressed by the thought and creativity that goes into each film.  Edgar Wright works on many levels as a filmmaker here, as he tries to balance original stories with many inside references while at the same time using every film-making trick in the book and have it all work cohesively in the end.  The end result has made him and his team some of Britain’s greatest and most original humorists of the last decade.  Wright, Pegg and Frost will probably work together again in some capacity, but it’s unlikely that this will become the Cornetto Quadrilogy.  Edgar Wright intended this to be his parody of the Three Colors Trilogy, and it’s meant to stay that way.  It’s hard to argue that there’s any better way to showcase the originality of their comedic talents.  It certainly puts to shame all other recent comedy spoofs.  Top to bottom, this is the King of comedy trilogies, and it shows that a franchise can be built around common themes and jokes rather than a singular plot.  It’s only fitting that a trilogy with so many hidden treats should bear the name of a ice cream in the end.  YARP!!!

Bigger Than Any Movie – The Making and Unmaking of Cinematic Universes

Thanos Gauntlet

As discussed in my review of Avengers: Age of Ultron, Marvel has enjoyed unprecedented success with their cinematic universe.  However, it took many years and a lot of conviction to make it happen.  Up until the start of Marvel’s master plan, there was no connected universes when it came to Super Hero movies.  Every comic book adaptation stayed within it’s own cinematic worlds, with the main hero being the sole focus.  But, that all changed when the post-credits scene appeared at the conclusion of Iron Man (2008).  For those who waited patiently for through the end credits of the film, they were treated to a groundbreaking moment when Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) walked into his palatial mansion and found Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) waiting in his living room.  This was a surprise to audiences, because not only did it introduce another major character from the Marvel comics, but it also established the idea that Iron Man’s story was not only going to continue in his own movies, but also in something much bigger.  As Nick Fury puts it in the movie “you’ve become a part of a bigger universe, you just don’t know it yet.”  And with that promise, Marvel did expand on that bigger universe, establishing even more new characters and having every story-line come to a head in the first and monumental The Avengers (2012).  The momentum continued on in each superhero story thereafter, creating a cinematic universe that has become the envy of all of Hollywood.  Because of Marvel’s success with their cinematic universe, now many other studios are trying their hand at building their own, making it the newest trend in the film-making industry.  Unfortunately, not all the best laid plans by these other studios has worked as well as Marvel’s.

What Marvel has at it’s disposal are decades worth of story-lines on which to draw from within the comics themselves.  Thankfully most of them have shown how to cross over characters many times, giving the current film adaptations a workable blueprint to adapt from.  But, even still, part of Marvel Studio’s success has been in the casting of the right actors, and keeping them committed to the process over multiple movies.  This is especially difficult for some of the side characters in these Marvel movies, like Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), both of whom have not headlined their own movie, and yet have big parts to play in the larger cinematic universe.  Getting commitments from these actors and having them see the larger picture is important to the process and so far, Marvel has kept it’s team mostly intact (only The Hulk and War Machine needed to be recast, and Marvel handled those transitions splendidly).  Being able to know the ultimate destination is also important.  For Marvel, the plan has always been to lead up to the Infinity War, which is currently where Phase 3 of their cinematic universe is meant to conclude.  The Infinity War story-line involves supervillain Thanos (voiced by Josh Brolin) collecting the all powerful Infinity Stones and placing them on his gauntlet, which ultimately grants him God-like powers and makes him a threat to the whole of Marvel’s cinematic universe.  So far, this has been built up in the movies by establishing each Infinity Stone within the story-lines of select Marvel films, showing that the studio is clearly keeping the endgame in focus and using the stones as a way to tie everything together.

But, commitment has it’s own risks too.  For one thing, with all this build up, Marvel’s two-part Infinity War had better live up to the hype.  Otherwise, all this build-up would seem pointless in the end.  As grandiose as it might be, Marvel could easily fall under the weight of it’s own mythology, and alienate much of the audience by choosing to stick to the larger plan in detriment to the entertainment value of the whole enterprise.  A little bit of that hampered Age of Ultron, but the movie itself managed to survive thanks to clever writing and charismatic performances, which helped guide audiences through the convoluted plotting.  But, in less capable hands, the overwhelming weight of the cinematic universe could prove overwhelming.  Not only must each Avengers movie carry it’s own story, but all the continuing narratives of each individual character as well.  And you have to fit that all in a tight 2 1/2 hour package.  In that sense, it’s amazing that Age of Ultron didn’t turn into an incomprehensible mess as a result.  It’s not as neatly plotted as the first Avengers, but it still got the job done and was entertaining in the end.  In fact, it’s amazing how long Marvel has kept this train going without loosing momentum.  I think that the big reason for this is because Marvel puts just as much emphasis on the individual story-lines as it does on the big picture.  The standalone movies are just as good as the crossovers, and maybe even better.  You could even do a standalone universe with just the Guardians of the Galaxy  (2014) setting alone.  And that really has been the key to Marvel’s success.  Every team member has their own story to tell, and Marvel is committed to telling them all.

Though Marvel has established new ground with their Cinematic Universe, it’s not exactly the first time that Hollywood has tried to do this either.  In fact, crossovers have been common in film-making for many decades before, albeit on a much smaller scale.  Began with matinee serials during the early days of Hollywood, which themselves were inspired by comics of the day, the idea of having some of literature and cinemas most famous characters interact together has always been an appealing concept.  Sometimes crossovers could happen in the unlikeliest places.  Weirdly enough Abbott and Costello Meets Frankenstein (1948) could be seen as an early precursor to modern crossover movies, because despite being a screwball comedy, it did feature horror icons Lon Chaney Jr. (The Wolfman) and Bela Lugosi (Dracula) playing their individual characters once again, knowingly referencing their past films.  Crossovers were also a popular concept for television for many years (remember when The Jetsons crossed paths with the Flintsones).  But, it wouldn’t be until the rise of New Hollywood in the sixties and seventies that we saw the idea of telling stories set in an interconnected universe emerge.  Planet of the Apes almost discovered this idea by accident, as parent studio Fox tried to stretch the original premise of their franchise out in order to get more sequels made. With the movie Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971), the story reveals that apes Cornelius and Zira (Roddy McDowall and Kim Hunter) escaped their planet before it’s destruction in the previous film and landed on present day Earth.  There, Zira gives birth to a son named Ceasar (also McDowall), who leads the Ape Rebellion and creates the titular Planet of the Apes.  By stretching this premise, Fox managed to change the franchise and showed that you could break from the main story-line and film any plot you wanted in this established cinematic universe.  This concept has continued on in the current Planet of the Apes movies, which are far removed from the movies that started the franchise.

But, if there was a franchise that really began to define the idea of larger cinematic universes, both literally and figuratively, it would be Star Wars.  When Star Wars was released in 1977, it was a phenomenon unlike anything Hollywood had ever seen.  But, it was just the beginning of the story that creator George Lucas wanted to tell.  The story continued with two equally popular sequels, The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983), but even with the trilogy complete, it still didn’t even scratch the surface of the story that George Lucas had envisioned.  The reason why Star Wars has become such a massive universe on it’s own is because Lucas plotted out the whole mythology of his universe before ever writing his first script.  His back-stories for the characters and the worlds of Star Wars are incredibly detailed (almost Tolkein-like in their intricacy) and could fill the narratives of their own movies, which is in fact what George Lucas did eventually do.  He took the notes that he made for the original trilogy and crafted what would become the prequel trilogy.  Unfortunately his grand vision far exceeded his talents as a writer and director, and the prequels didn’t nearly succeed as well as the original trilogy did.  But, the vision of this galaxy far, far away still has inspired fans across the world, and Star Wars lives on even beyond what George Lucas planned for it.  With the acquisition by Disney a couple years ago, Star Wars is now entering a new phase where it actually will be able to live up to the promise that the original trilogy held for audiences.  They will continue the main story-line this Winter with the release of Episode VII: The Force Awakens, but there are also standalone movies also planned, which will gives audiences the chance to see more of what the cinematic universe that Star Wars can be, un-teathered to what George Lucas had imagined.  What Lucas created was other-worldly, but the potential of a Star Wars cinematic universe that could be set anywhere and be about anyone is boundlessly exciting.

For the most part, building cinematic universes can be a costly but still a rewarding enterprise for most filmmakers.  That’s why so many studios are trying to follow Marvel’s lead and do the same with some of their prized characters and franchises.  But, while some seem like natural bases for larger cinematic universes, others are a bit more puzzling.  For one thing, does anyone think that a cinematic universe could work for Ghostbusters.  Sony Pictures plans to take their Ghostbusters brand and build it into a interconnected universe inhabited by different teams of Ghostbuster troops.  This started with the announcement of an all female Ghostbusters remake last year, which led to an unhappy fan-base reaction, saying they felt that it was changing too much of their beloved franchise in order to appeal to a whole different demographic.  In order to appease those fears from fans, Sony revealed that this planned movie was not a reboot or a remake, but rather one in a new cinematic universe that they were planning, which itself became a controversial position.  It’s not a question of whether it should be done, but rather one of if it can be done.   Sure, you could take the Ghostbusters brand and build a whole mythology and universe around it, but is it something that Sony has enough ideas for?   Sony is going to have to build it all from scratch, which could prove challenging.  Marvel rivel DC comics has the benefit of having all their comics to draw from as they begin their own push for a cinematic universe.  Unfortunately, they do this in the shadow of what Marvel has accomplished, and the danger for them is that they’re plans are all based around playing catch up, which could hurt the momentum of what they ultimately want to get to.  Also, building on a shaky foundation could also hurt DC.  Man of Steel was not a widely beloved film (though I didn’t seem to mind it as much), and that negativity could cloud the rest of the universe as a whole.  Time will tell if DC can compete with Marvel’s cinematic universe.  My fears are less with the quality of the films (which to me look just fine) and more with whether or not DC has the right master plan in place.

DC’s Cinematic Universe could certainly learn a thing or two from the disastrous attempt at a Spiderman universe from Sony.  When Disney acquired Marvel, they made an effort to gather all the properties and characters they could in order to make the plan for a cinematic universe work.  Unfortunately, for years Marvel had signed licenses over to other studios, all of whom were content to keep making their own features outside of Disney and Marvel’s control.  Sony held onto the rights for one of Marvel’s biggest names, Spider-Man, and defiantly refused to let him play a part in Marvel’s planned Cinematic Universe.  This became an issue once they made the decision to abandon the story-line of the original, Sam Raimi directed Spider-Man’s and instead reboot the series as a whole from scratch with a new cast and new story-line, just as an excuse to keep the character away from Disney.  After seeing the success that Marvel Studios had with their Cinematic Universe, Sony thought they could do the same with Spider-Man, and plans were set out not just for more sequels to their re-titled The Amazing Spiderman series, but also spin-offs planned around the popular Venom character and a team-up film based around Spider-Man villains called Sinister Six.  However, The Amazing Spiderman (2012) opened to modest box-office and mixed reviews.  The even more ambitious Amazing Spiderman 2 (2014) fared even worse.  The big problem with the planned Spiderman universe was that it tried too hard to match Marvel.  There was more thought put into planting the seeds of a larger universe than actually crafting a compelling story, with way too many characters introduced that have no impact in the film, but were meant for bigger things to come.  That’s ultimately what sunk the Spiderman universe at Sony and now the character has finally returned back to Marvel, where he will again be rebooted, only now connected to the Cinematic Universe.  What Sony’s failed experiment proved was that you shouldn’t craft a cinematic universe just for the sake of having it.  Sony served up an under-prepared buffet platter, while Marvel has given us a three course meal with everything cooked to perfection.

Planning out a cinematic universe is the key in the end.  Marvel knew that with the first meeting between Iron Man and Nick Fury, and we are now seeing that potential realized to incredible lengths with each progression in the larger narrative.  But, what makes Marvel’s Cinematic Universe stand out so well is not the high points where the different characters team-up in the Avengers.  It’s the individual stories in each phase that really makes the Cinematic Universe so special.  Audiences are enjoying the progression of Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor’s story-lines just as much as they do the Avengers narratives; perhaps even more so now.  That’s where Marvel’s success has come from and where other like-minded cinematic universes have failed.  It’s not where the Universe is going that audience find so intriguing; it’s where it’s at now and how these moments all tie together that we find so interesting.  Yeah, of course audiences get excited when they get a brief glimpse of Thanos on his throne near the film’s end, or a passing mention of a future member of the team (like the brief mention of Doctor Strange in Captain America: The Winter Soldier), but these are only treats presented to us after watching a satisfying, standalone story.  That’s often why these teases appear at the end of the movie, and not within the plots themselves; so that each movie can stand on it’s own.  That’s why Sony failed with Spider-Man, because you can’t fill your entire movie with teases for the future and have characters with no purpose (like with the horrible shoehorning of The Rhino).  My hope is that the potential that we’re seeing in the emerging Cinematic Universes from other studios pays off, and that they understand the key factors of how to build these universes the right way.  Because, when you’ve established a cinematic universe that lives up to it’s potential, than there’s no limit to the stories that can be told.

Avengers: Age of Ultron – Review

Age of Ultron cast

Nothing has been more miraculous in the last few years of cinema than the development and execution of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Not only has Marvel Comics successfully translated many of their properties to the big screen, but they’ve managed to also intertwine the whole of them into a continuing, larger narrative and sustain it for nearly a decade now.  It has been a tall order to make sure everything falls into place and to have the payoff be worth it in the end, but so far things have worked out for the best at Marvel.  Under the supervision of Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige and backed with the financial support of parent company Disney, the MCU gamble has turned into the envy of every other studio in Hollywood.  Now, everyone is trying to launch their own cinematic universe based around their own properties, including a Ghostbusters universe over at Sony and a Movie Monster universe at Universal.  Marvel rival DC Comics is also amping up their long dormant characters for a cinematic universe that they hope can capitalize on the same success that Marvel is experiencing.  But the reason for the success of the MCU is not just with the characters alone.  Extensive planning has helped to make the MCU grow and sustain itself, and this has largely been executed to perfection by building up the universe in Phases.  Each phase of Marvel’s master plan does two key things; one it establishes new characters to help populate the universe and let’s them live out their own stories, and two, it plants the elements within each story that will interconnect with the others at some point and ultimately tie each character together into one team.

Though each character’s story stands well on its own, Marvel’s ultimate plan is to have the inevitable team-up of characters, which happens in this Avengers series.  When the first phase of the MCU came to an end in 2012, with the release of the first Avengers, many people were skeptical that it could be pulled off.  For one thing, an ambitious team up like this had never been done before and putting all these larger than life characters together could have proved overwhelming. Not only that, but the duties of bringing the whole mess together was given over to Joss Whedon, a television producer who had never done a movie on this scale before.  But, as it turned out, Whedon was the best possible choice for the job. His years in television, making cult hits like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly, helped to refine his ability to balance multiple ongoing storylines and put them all together into one narrative. His Avengers pulled off the impossible, having all these monumental characters like Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, and the Hulk share screentime and still manage to get their shining moments in the spotlight.  The result was a monumental hit, becoming the 3rd highest grossing movie of all time (behind Avatar and Titanic) and it gave Marvel the confidence to move forward with Phase 2.  The second phase of course continued to do the same thing that Phase 1 had done; pressing ahead with the continuing storylines of each Avenger team member, while also establishing new characters, whether as a new sidekick (The Falcon in Captain America) or a whole other team entirely (Guardians of the Galaxy).   And now, three years later, Phase 2 is coming to a close with The Avengers once again assembling in the inevitable sequel; Age of Ultron.

Age of Ultron doesn’t pick up where the last one left off, for obvious reasons, but anyone who hasn’t kept up with the MCU won’t be lost either.  The movie immediately thrusts the audience into an action scene, with the Avengers teaming up to take down a base of operations for the sinister HYDRA organization.  Within their stronghold, the Avengers find artifacts collected from the alien invasion of the first movie, including the staff used by the first film’s villain, Loki.  When Iron Man, aka Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) researches the staff, he learns of its highly advanced data properties and sees a way he could use it to bring to life his Ultron program, which he envisions as a way of using artificial intelligence to program Iron Man drones across the world as a peaceful replacement for the Avengers.  The plan goes awry when Ultron (voiced by James Spader) comes to life on his own and decides that the best way to save the world is to destroy mankind.  After their base is attacked, Stark and the other Avengers, Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Black Widow (Scarlett Johanssen), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), and Bruce Banner, aka the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), quickly scramble to follow Ultron and try to stay one step ahead of him.  Unfortunately for the Avengers, Ultron has also put together a team of super powered beings himself; the HYDRA enhanced twins, Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen).   With a super intelligent and powerful robot creating havoc across the world with two superhuman twins by his side, the Avengers are brought to the brink of their capabilities and even begin to doubt one another, especially when another wild card is brought into the mix in the form of the android hybrid, The Vision (Paul Bettany).

Just like the first Avengers, this movie is also a big gamble.  Not only must it live up to the lofty reputation of the original, but it has to tie in everything else that has happened in the Marvel Universe to date.  And given how complicated things have gotten in Phase 2, that’s easier said than done.  So, taking into account all of this, it’s actually quite amazing how well this movie works as it does.  One thing that Joss Whedon does exceptionally well is character interactions and building towards a climax, both of which are the highlights of this sequel.   There’s no shortage of witty banter between the characters (especially the one-liners delivered by Tony Stark), but there’s also a lot of clever nods and references to everything from other Marvel properties to even Archie comics and Disney’s Pinocchio (1940), something that’s a trademark of Whedon’s style.  He also manages to pay off a lot of loose threads from the Marvel cinematic universe and also plant the seeds for the future in a way that feels both rewarding and exciting. Essentially this is a movie made by fans of the comics for fans, and probably the only place where fan service is not only welcomed, but encouraged.  Even if it’s something that doesn’t have anything to do with the larger narrative, like the numerous cameos from secondary characters of the MCU (and yet another from Marvel Generalissimo Stan Lee), it’s still is a welcome inclusion that adds to the enjoyment of the whole.  But even with all that, the movie works well on its own as an action movie.  The film’s big set pieces are exciting without ever being flashy, which helps the audience keep track of what’s going on.  It runs the fine balance within the plausible impossible, where over-the-top things happen throughout, but never in a way that defies logic, at least in a comic book world.

But, even with all the great elements throughout, it’s not free of flaws either.  While still a worthy edition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I wouldn’t exactly consider it the best we’ve seen from Marvel to date either.  If anything, I’d say it achieves the goal of being a worthy follow-up to the first Avengers, and nothing more.  The most problematic thing about the movie, and what keeps it from being absolutely perfect, is the fact that it has way too much going on in it.  Essentially the plot is one long string of action sequences, with very few breaks in between.  Now, connected with all the other movies in the MCU, this relentless pace might make more sense, because it works as the climax for all of Phase 2.  But as a standalone movie, there’s not enough time for the plot to catch its breath and develop an identity for itself.  Some of the rich character history has to be sacrificed and plot arcs that usually take up entire acts are instead condensed into a single sequence.  The creation of Ultron is especially rushed in this movie, and he goes from gaining consciousness to enacting his sinister plan within a matter of moments.  Now, with a movie as packed as this one, you obviously have to cut down quite a bit to make everything fit, but one can’t help but feel that something also gets lost in the shuffle.  Also, the fact that so much has to be set up for future movies can also be a distraction, especially for those in the audience who have no connection to the comics whatsoever. The references to the Infinity Stones will almost surely please anyone who’s a fan of the comics, but any other casual viewer might come away from this film scratching their heads.

One thing that proves to be both the film’s strength and a problematic element is also the characterizations. When you’ve got a jam-packed cast like this, some character development is going to be lost. Hopefully most of you will have already seen the previous Captain America and Thor movies, because both characters are given almost no character development here.  And sad to say it Marvel, but Fox made a better and more entertaining Quicksilver than you in their movie X-Men: Days of Future Past from last year; despite a noble effort by actor Aaron Taylor-Johnson.  There’s also some shaky attempts to try to make up for lack of character development by throwing in a romantic plot thread in there for Black Widow and Bruce Banner, which is charming but doesn’t really fit into the plot. But what does save the movie from its shortcomings are the performances.  Everyone here is comfortable enough with the characters by now and that maturity helps in a long way to move the movie along.  Probably the character who benefits most in this sequel is Hawkeye, who actually gets a big boost in screentime.  Jeremy Renner’s grounded performance really helps to make his Hawkeye stand out from the rest, and his courage in the face of overwhelming odds helps to underline the mission of the team itself; something he even states in a perfectly delivered monologue late in the movie.  James Spader also brings in a lot of personality into the villain Ultron, and helps to save the underdeveloped character from being a disappointment overall, thanks to some very snarky wisecracks; although it does minimize the menace of the character, which is something of a negative.  Probably the best addition to the cast, however, is The Vision.  He comes into the movie late, but boy does he leave an impact, and Paul Bettany plays the character to perfection.

If there is anything that does get improved upon from the last Avengers, it would be the sense of scale.  The first film was exciting, but lacked any real visual punch, except maybe in the closing battle scene.  Here, the movie opens up and takes the Avengers on a globe-trotting adventure.  There are no longer any long stretches confined to a single location, like where half of the first movie was set on the S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier.  The Avengers do battle in places as diverse as a cityscape in an African metropolitan city, the secluded woods of a fictional Eastern European nation, and even on a floating rock in the sky. Visually, it also looks like Joss Whedon has learned a few a lot more tricks since his first cinematic outing with these characters.  The original film was shot in the confining flat aspect ratio of 1.78:1, but here he shot the movie in the widescreen 2.40:1 ratio, which gives Whedon a wider canvas to work with.  The whole movie is all together more interesting to look at and shows that Whedon is no longer working in the mindset of how his project will look on television but instead is focused on making it look as epic as possible.  Though the process of getting from one scene to another is on shaky ground, each scene still is worth the wait and pays off in a big way.  One especially high point in the movie is the showdown between the Hulk and Iron Man wearing his Hulkbuster suit, and it’s a visual feast that lives up to the epic potential of that match-up. If there’s anything that Joss Whedon can be proud of with this film, it’s that it’s shows his maturity as a filmmaker and that he indeed can have a visionary style that can stand up beyond what he’s able to do on television.

So, even with all its shortcomings, Avengers: Age of Ultron is still a worthwhile film to see and a great way to start off this summer movie season.  Is it perfect?  No, but given all the complications and pressure put upon it, it’s still remarkable how well it does work in the end.  Sadly, the overwhelming success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has raised the bar so high that it makes it nearly impossible to clear nowadays with every new entry.  Ultron may not be the best, but it comes close enough to that high bar to be worthy of the legacy.  I certainly was smiling throughout most of the movie, but part of that is because I’ve followed along with every Marvel movie to date, so I understood every inside reference and plot thread that relates to the larger universe.  Casual viewers may not understand it at all and wonder what all the fuss is about.  But even still, I doubt very few people are going to come away from this disappointed.  It’s still got all the great character interactions and action set pieces that define a great Marvel movie, and even a few pleasant surprises.  Not only that, but the spot on casting of the characters continues to pay off for this series, and it only makes me excited to see the team grow even more as Phase 3 gets started, leading us ultimately to the much anticipated two-part Infinity War.  It may not be Marvel’s crowning achievement to date (for me, that would be the more tightly plotted Guardians of the Galaxy), but still it’s worth the long wait. When the world’s mightiest heroes assemble together, how can anyone not want to see them in action.

Rating: 8.5/10