Thursday, May 14, 2015

Pop stuff: Avengers - Age of Ultron, While We're Young

What I'm watching, hearing, reading, etc.


Avengers: Age of Ultron hits the ground, literally, running. Our heroes, who we now know so well from the first Avengers movie and their various solo films, are on the move through a European forest, closing in on castleful of Hydra hold-outs. The action, and the funny quips, fly furiously.

Those previous films have done their job. Millions of people are now Marvelmaniacs, even if they've never cracked open a comic book. They no longer need to be told that Captain America was given a serum that made him a super soldier, or that the Hulk was hit by gamma rays, or that Thor is a Norse God. We can skip the background and leap straight into the adventure.

For an old comic book reader, the experience of a film like this is similar to picking up one of those great super-sized summer annuals of the 1970s. You'd grab it off the spinner rack, bike home and sit under a tree and be entertained for a good hour or so.

There's no deep thinking here. It's a summer popcorn movie of the best sort. Just lots of action and laughs and the feeling that you're a welcome member of a fun club. Just as the Marvel Comics of the 1960s and 70s made you feel part of something special, so does this film. You get credit for having kept up with and seen all the other films, and maybe even the S.H.I.E.L.D. and Agent Carter TV series. There are cameos by characters from the various solo films (along with you-know-who) and references to Wakanda, the infinity stones and even the Invaders. The Marvel Universe on screen has become a real place.

It's all fun stuff, and the only bad thing about it is that it might be too fun. For all the great aspects of the movie the movie--the sharp quips and dialogue, a funny set piece where everyone tries to pick up Thor's hammer--we're never really placed in suspense. And the plot, which concerns Tony Stark creating a mechanism aimed at protecting Earth from pretty much any threat, is too similar, but not as compelling as, the last Captain America film, which was a commentary on the security state.

With nearly 20 films on its upcoming docket, Marvel will need to work harder to keep all the plots and characters from blurring into a big, colorful mush. It's the same deal as in comics: Heroes always need a challenge, a threat. And it's tough to keep coming up with something new, that seems perilous and is emotionally resonant, and which makes your characters grow and change. If the films start becoming too similar, too routine, that fun feeling is going to fade.

As a sidetrack, I know there's a lot of debate currently regarding Black Widow, sexism and Marvel's failure to slot a female-led movie in its lineup. I have a daughter who's interested in superheroes and comics, too, and am frustrated that there's--still--such a lack of strong females heroes on screen and in comics.

So far as "Age of Ultron," though, I didn't come away feeling that Black Widow had been treated poorly, or was diminishing or offensive to women. As played by Scarlett Johansson, she is strong and smart. In the film, there's more going on for her storywise than say, Thor or Captain America, who mainly stand around and hit stuff. We get a glimpse into her back story and emotions. The same is true in this film for the other non-powered member of the team, Hawkeye.

It's true that Black Widow is captured at one point, but she's never a damsel in distress. She doesn't panic and isn't shown as weak. The sequence is unnecessary and too predictable, but I don't think it was intended to a send a message that women are in need of "rescue" from men. But I'm not a woman, and I can see how women viewers must be pretty damned sick of this sort of thing.

On the more positive side, I'm encouraged that the film introduced a second female Avenger, and that "Agent Carter" will be back for a second season. We'll also see Wonder Woman on screen soon, first with Batman and Superman, but eventually in her own film. Plus there's a Supergirl TV series on the way. DC and Marvel have also both announced initiatives to publish more comics and other books intended for female readers. All this is much too slow in coming, but a sign of progress.


While We're Young might've been a pretty funny, broad comedy about the onset of middle age, but it's smarter and more clever than that.

Yes, the story centers on Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts), a couple in their late 40s who befriend a couple of young hipsters, Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried), who are about half their age. Predictably, Josh and Cornelia try to skew younger. Josh buys a hipster hat and starts riding a vintage bike. Cornelia takes up hip-hop dance. 

But the film takes aim at the younger couple, too. They have a chicken in their apartment, indiscriminate musical taste (along as it's on battered vinyl, it's cool), and they are always busy looking at their phones when the restaurant bill arrives, allowing the older couple to pay the tab.

More than a comedy about age, the film is a study in authenticity. Both Josh and Jamie are documentary filmmakers and we're provided a debate about what's real and what's artifice, both in terms of creating a film, but also in our daily lives.

Why is some behavior "young" while other behavior is "old"? What's age appropriate? Do we adopt behaviors at particular ages because it's natural, or because we're trying to "be" something? How can we be real?

Josh and Cornelia are friends with another couple, who have become parents in middle age. They've adopted their own new worldview as a result. Josh's father-in-law, played by Charles Grodin, is a documentarian of an older generation, and his views of what is acceptable in creating documentary film--staging or helping create events vs. merely observing--has grown more relaxed.

The result is a film that, certainly, will make you laugh. But it may make you think even more.

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