Archives for April 2015

Time to Assemble! Marvel’s Avengers: Age of Ultron: Review

avengers_posterby Aaron Einhorn
It’s a good time to be a fan of things superheroic and comic-related right now. Comic-book based shows are all over network and cable TV, Daredevil has just erupted onto Netflix to critical acclaim, and there is at least one new superhero film scheduled to hit the theatres every six months from now into 2020.

It’s hard to believe that it’s only been seven years since the Marvel Studios train got started with Iron Man, and that it has only been three years since we first saw superhero films connect as never before with The Avengers.

This weekend marks the release of what is arguably Marvel’s riskiest film release yet, with Avengers: Age of Ultron. Very few would argue that the first film did something unprecedented, bringing together three separate film franchises into a single film, filled with a team of heroes, an alien invasion, and some of the biggest names in Hollywood. Director Joss Whedon truly captured lightning in a bottle with that first film. But can he do it again, with the stakes even higher, the cast even larger, and the story even bigger?

It shouldn’t surprise you to discover that I certainly think so. But read on to find out.

Synopsis

Marvel Studios presents Avengers: Age of Ultron, the epic follow-up to the biggest Super Hero movie of all time. When Tony Stark tries to jumpstart a dormant peacekeeping program, things go awry and Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, including Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, the Incredible Hulk, Black Widow and Hawkeye, are put to the ultimate test as the fate of the planet hangs in the balance. As the villainous Ultron emerges, it is up to the Avengers to stop him from enacting his terrible plans, and soon uneasy alliances and unexpected action pave the way for an epic and unique global adventure.

Marvel’s Avengers: Age of Ultron stars Robert Downey Jr., who returns as Iron Man, along with Chris Evans as Captain America, Chris Hemsworth as Thor and Mark Ruffalo as The Hulk. Together with Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow and Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye, and with the additional support of Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury and Cobie Smulders as Agent Maria Hill, the team must reassemble to defeat James Spader as Ultron, a terrifying technological villain hell-bent on human extinction. Along the way, they confront two mysterious and powerful newcomers, Wanda Maximoff, played by Elizabeth Olsen, and Pietro Maximoff, played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, and meet an old friend in a new form when Paul Bettany becomes Vision. Written and directed by Joss Whedon and produced by Kevin Fiege, Marvel’s Avengers: Age of Ultron is based on the ever-popular Marvel comic book series The Avengers, first published in 1963.
(from Marvel.com/avengers)

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The Feature

If you were a fan of The Avengers, then the good news is that this movie provides more of the same. Much more, in fact. Structurally, this film is incredibly dense, weaving in a battle against Hydra, the creation of Ultron, the reveal of the Black Panther’s nemesis, several battles of Ultron with increasing stakes each time, the introduction of Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver as villains and their eventual conversion to Avengers, the creation of the Vision, expansion on the role of the Infinity Gems, and Ultron’s defeat. Along the way, it sets up events for Captain America: Civil War, Thor: Ragnarok, Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War, and it does all this while giving us some character growth, tons of Whedon-esque wit and humor, and some of the most impressive action sequences we’ve seen on film.

I’m exhausted just writing that recap.

The bad news is that Age of Ultron is not the game-changer that The Avengers was. But then, it couldn’t be. The game has already been changed, and Marvel has established that they can bring superheroes from disparate films together into a single epic and make us love it. So, that this one doesn’t bring something new to that element is not a complaint.

Avengers - Disassembled

Avengers – Disassembled

Evans’ Steve Rogers remains the Cap we’ve gotten to know in his previous three films, and the same can be said of Downey’s Tony Stark, Hemsworth’s Thor, Jackson’s Nick Fury, and most of the supporting cast. Three of the core members of the Avengers get to expand on their inner lives and personalities, and it is perhaps no surprise that those are the ones who don’t have their own film franchises to dominate – namely Hawkeye, Black Widow and the Hulk. Renner gets to actually show us who Hawkeye is this time around, something he was largely denied in Avengers, but more significantly, the relationship we see between Johannson’s Natasha and Ruffalo as both Banner and the Hulk leads to some of the most sincere and moving moments in the movie.

The new additions to the cast are also very good, although they get a little less time than we may have liked. Elizabeth Olsen is very convincing as the conflicted Wanda Maximoff, and if Aaron Johnson’s Quicksilver is not quite as memorable as the one from X-Men: Days of Future Past, that is simply because he has so much more to compete with.

Seriously, you know things are going to be bad when the redhead’s hair starts raising into the air on its own…

Similarly short-changed, but with glimpses of a fascinating character to come, is Paul Bettany as the Vision. Bettany gives us a truly alien performance, which both his body type and his voice lend themselves to quite well. We don’t meet the Vision until the final act of the film, so we get less of him then I wanted, but he’s absolutely compelling every time he appears on-screen, and I look forward to seeing much more of him in Infinity War.

But really the show-stealer is James Spader as Ultron. Although I was unprepared for the humanity in the physical design of Ultron (and might have preferred the non-moving mouth with the Kirby dots), Spader steals the screen as the mechanical monster. His decision to exterminate mankind is entirely plausible, and while he may not quite evoke the sympathy that Loki or Magneto can command, it’s hard not to feel a little bad for him – even as he remains a terrifying presence. Ultron is, after all, a child – and he has the emotional maturity of one. He just happens to be a child with an unstoppable robotic body, an army of robots at his command, and a supercomputer for a brain.

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The movie does drag at points, but that is largely because of how dense the film is – and if the set-up for future films does drag on the action of this one, I can still appreciate the groundwork that is being laid for the continuation of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Would I have minded seeing it tightened up a little? Sure. Because at two-and-a-half hours of runtime, there are always going to be some desired trimming, but I can also state that those one-hundred and fifty minutes passed very quickly for me.

The Good

Great action sequences abound, with each hero more than able to showcase their abilities. Joss Whedon’s characteristic humor in writing shows through, and the laughs come frequently and sincerely. Ultron is a rich villain, and the new Avengers each get a chance to shine.

The Bad

There are pacing issues in the film’s middle – in some ways it feels a bit too much like they’re trying to mirror the pacing of the original Avengers

The Ugly

Although I pointed out frequently how the original film was a great counterpoint to the reckless disregard for civilians shown in Warner Brother’s Man of Steel, the direct calling out of “We need to clear civilians” was a bit too heavy-handed this time around.

avengers-age-of-ultron

Final Thoughts

As I sat down to write this, my first thought was “How to turn superfanboyspazflail into a coherent review?” At risk of understating things, I really loved this movie. It’s not perfect – but that doesn’t change the fact that I was deeply entertained for the entire run-time of the film.

My biggest complaint about this film as compared to the first Avengers is that film was the culmination of several films – it didn’t have to set anything else up (although it teased us with Thanos), and so nothing was wasted. This film sets up Captain America: Civil War, Thor: Ragnarok, Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War. With so much set-up, that means some elements get less time than they should have. It’s a balancing act – like spinning plates for a circus, and if some of the plates wobble a bit, at least none of them fall.

I am a Marvel fan, and especially a fan of Captain America, so I was predisposed to like this movie going in, but I was thoroughly impressed with Marvel’s latest offering, and I am looking forward to the film’s general release so I can take Cordy and Mira with me to see it again. It’s not my favorite of the Marvel Cinematic Universe releases (that honor goes to either Captain America: Winter Soldier or the original Avengers), but it was still very enjoyable, and will be given a place of honor on my Blu-Ray shelf once it arrives.

Bonus

Stan Lee has been afforded the opportunity to do a cameo in almost all of the Marvel films to date, and that remains true this time around as well. It may be one of his funniest cameos yet. And as we’ve come to expect, there is a mid-credits stinger scene that sets up a future Marvel movie, but in a departure from all of the other Marvel films, there is no post-credits sequence to stick around for.

(Disclaimer: I was provided a free preview pass screening to attend Avengers: Age of Ultron. I received no other compensation for writing this review, and all opinions and views expressed are my own.

Watching My Daughter Lose Her Belief in Magic and Find it Again

by Aaron Einhorn
One of the greatest moments of joy for me as a parent was when Mira let me know that she doesn’t think that the characters at Disney are real.

Let me explain.

I love the magic of theatre. I’ve been a theatre person my whole life – I loved going to productions when I was a kid, it was my favorite activity in High School, and it was my major in college. I am, in fact, a part of the last BFA graduating class from Miami University. I met Christina when we were performers at the Ohio Renaissance Festival, and I still perform in whatever way I can as often as I can. I love theatre.

I love stories. I love to write. I love to read. I love watching well told stories in film and television, and it makes me really angry when I see people given such a large audience and not telling stories well. As the Doctor once said…

Of course, with such a love of stories and theatre, naturally I work in IT.

But the point is that I love stories, and I love the magic of storytelling and theatre.

Mira is, of course, at the age where her friends are starting to tell her that Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy and the like aren’t real. And most significantly, that the characters at Walt Disney World aren’t real and that there is no such thing as magic.

I’m not naïve. I know that my little girl’s innocence is a transitory thing, and that someday she’ll look at the world with wide, cynical eyes, and see that things in this world are very often not as we would like them to be. Someday she will know that Santa isn’t real, and that Mickey doesn’t actually have the power to keep anything bad from happening inside Disney property, and that Cinderella is really just an underpaid twenty-something actress in a dress and a wig.

But for the longest time, I wanted to make sure that she could understand that both things can be true. That Mickey might only be someone wearing a costume and an over-sized head, but that with the magic of theatre behind it, that he could also still be the “real” Mickey Mouse. The care and attention that goes into crafting the illusion – and the willingness of the audience to accept the reality – that can make a thing real, or at least, real enough to take you away from the world where taxes are due and your boss is being a jerk and to a world where Fairy Godmothers can wave a wand and make everything better for a little while.

Heck, one of my favorite moments from our trip to Walt Disney World during our honeymoon was while we were waiting to go to dinner at Cinderella’s Royal Table, and we saw the backstage area where the Fairy Godmother was being getting ready for her entrance. As theatre folk, we found that part of the show (which we had watched earlier in the day from the front) just as interesting as the show itself, and so we looked and commented on it. The Fairy Godmother noticed us looking and immediately slipped into character, pointing to our Bride and Groom Mickey and Minnie Ears and making a heart with her hands. The woman was backstage, being prepared to go on, and she still took the time to make us smile about being at the Happiest Place on Earth on our Honeymoon.

Disney-honeymoon

No pictures of the backstage moment, but this was the trip. We wore those ears all day… and that’s it’s own kind of magic.

That’s every bit as magical as transforming a pumpkin into a carriage.

The thing is, of course, that bringing up this topic is tricky. You don’t want to preemptively tell her “Hey, Mira, you know, Tinkerbell isn’t really flying over the castle. That really is a zip line she’s attached to,” too soon. Because you want her to still be able to believe once she knows better, but you don’t want to kill her belief ahead of time.

(And Cordy in her innocence, is a whole different story. She still absolutely Believes with a capital “B”. Mira is starting to question. Cordy never will until we flat out tell her.)

We’ve started hinting about it to her, explaining that magic is real when you want it to be. That to someone who doesn’t believe in the magic, that Mickey is just someone in a costume, but that for those of us who are willing to believe, she has met the “real” Mickey each and every time. And that most importantly, Stitch’s hugs all came from the real Stitch.

Seriously, you would not believe this child's love for Experiment 626.

Seriously, you would not believe this child’s love for Experiment 626.

It’s further complicated, of course, by my Heroes Alliance activities. Mira knows that it’s Daddy and his friends in superhero costumes, but she also understands the importance of letting other kids believe that we really are Superman and Captain America and Wonder Woman and Batman and Rogue and Gambit and Iron Man and so on. Which, of course, has to contribute to her ability to see through the illusion. She’s also been reading Ridley Pearson’s “Kingdom Keepers” series, which presents an interesting mix of showing behind the illusions that keep Disney working while also bringing in real magic of having the Disney characters come to life when the parks are closed. Beyond that, two years ago, during our first family trip to the park, we met Cinderella at the Town Square just an hour before our dinner reservation at Cinderella’s Royal Table. Christina made a comment to Mira about how Cinderella would have to move fast to get back to the castle in time for dinner, at which point Mira said “Or it’s just someone in a costume.”

So, I actually felt some relief last night while we were all out at dinner at Red Robin and the discussion of what the girls want to be when they grow up came up. Through the course of the talk, the topic of the Disney College Internship program came up and both girls thought that might be something fun to do. Christina asked what they would want to do at Disney, and Mira answered “Be Princess Anna.”

Christina and I shot each other a look. Was this the moment when Mira finally said that she no longer believed that the characters were real? But then she continued. “You know, the people they have in costume for when the real one has to be somewhere else.”

I don’t think she still believes. But I think she still wants to believe, and wants to make us believe she believes. And that’s enough for now.

Magic is real. Magic is about the stories we can tell each other, in print, in person, on stage or screen, or from a performer at an amusement park taking pictures with delighted children. And I think Mira is starting to understand that. In some ways, I’d rather she believe in that kind of magic, even if she does have to start to understand that when Maleficent becomes a dragon during “Fantasmic”, it’s all just special effects.

Besides, Mira will always be my Princess Anna, so who am I to argue with her?

This cast member stopped us and said "Princess Anna! You're my favorite Princess! Can you take a picture with me?" I of course had to take their picture, and then "promise" to send the picture on to the CM. She put such a smile on Mira's face you wouldn't believe.

This cast member stopped us and said “Princess Anna! You’re my favorite Princess! Can you take a picture with me?” I of course had to take their picture, and then “promise” to send the picture on to the CM. She put such a smile on Mira’s face you wouldn’t believe.

Remembering To Be Proud of What I Can Do, Not Ashamed of What I Can’t

by Aaron Einhorn
In the words of Baymax, I am not fast.

I’m closer to 40 than I am to 30, and I spent most of my life not exercising and eating like crap. I’ve been paying at least some attention to my physical fitness for about the last ten years, but kids and jobs and life and a lifetime of bad habits have kept me from ever being serious about it, although I’m getting better.

I enjoy running (mostly), and I’ve been doing it with some regularity for almost five years now. I enjoy the benefits of running. And I feel a lot of pride when I look at medals from past races and can think to myself “Yeah, I did that.”

But I am not fast.

I do run/walk intervals, and on a good day, I can keep a 10 min/mile pace for a 5K, or an 11 min/mile for a 10K. My only Half-Marathon to date I did at just over a 13 min/mile, although I’m shooting for a 12 min/mile or less for Cap City in a little less than a month.

This puts me in the back half of the pack, although still fairly close to the middle at most races I’ve done. Which upsets me. I don’t mind being in the middle, but I’d love to be on the other side of the bell curve.

And yeah, I’m super competitive. Mostly with myself, but also with people I know, and probably 80% of the people I know who run can do so faster and farther.

Which always makes me nervous about doing big events. Because I know that on those courses where we do a loop, I’m going to get lapped. I know that while on the back half of the course, I’ll see people going home already with their shiny medals around their neck, and I still have miles and miles to go. And I know I’ll never be one of those people.

But then I see posts like this one, and it makes me feel a little better, and resolve to lace up my shoes and do another couple of miles.

Besides, I’ve got two kids who I’m trying to set an example for. Mira has run her first mile race, and is ready for her first 5K, and Cordy isn’t far behind. How can I let them down? How can I tell them “Be proud of what you did, and as long as you tried your best, know that your mother and I will always be proud of you too,” when I’m beating myself up because I ran a 10K in 1:10:48 instead of the 1:06:00 I was aiming for? I need to be better about accepting myself – for them.

This little girl is my inspiration. Ignore the make-up - her mermaid makeover from the day before hadn't quite washed away yet.

This little girl is my inspiration. Ignore the make-up – her mermaid makeover from the day before hadn’t quite washed away yet.