BOOK REVIEW: Marvel’s Avengers: Infinity War Prelude by Will Corona Pilgrim

Marvel's Avengers: Infinity War PreludeMarvel’s Avengers: Infinity War Prelude by Will Corona Pilgrim
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This two issue comic book was released in advance of “Avengers: Infinity War.” It revisits the events of previous movies adding a few snippets of new material here and there. Of the new material, much of it elaborates upon events that are known to have happened behind the scenes of earlier movies. Not surprisingly, given Marvel’s penchant for secrecy, there are only a few frames that offer insight into activities that a fan who’d seen all the preceding films would be in the dark about.

I’m assuming that anyone considering reading a prelude to “Infinity War,” by this point, has already seen that movie and relevant preceding films such as “Captain America: Civil War,” the first two “Avengers” movies, “Guardians of the Galaxy 1,” and “Doctor Strange.” If that’s not the case, and you want to avoid potential spoilers, stop now.

The first issue recaps “Captain America: Civil War” while providing insight into what happens with Captain America’s team in the wake of that film, at the end of which they find themselves on the wrong side of the law. Much of the issue is verbatim repetition of the events of that movie. There’s also elaboration about the Black Panther’s assistance to Winter Soldier (Sgt. Barnes) via his genius sister Shuri, as well as a scene showing what Captain America, Black Widow, and other team members are up to in the aftermath of the breakup of the Avengers.

The second issue consists largely of Wong schooling Doctor Strange on the powers of the infinity stones and their current whereabouts. Those who’ve seen all the films know that five of the six stones were accounted for before the third Avengers movie. Only the whereabouts of the soul stone remains in doubt. This book doesn’t solve that mystery and merely offers a cryptic comment about the soul stone’s power. As Wong is describing events, the reader is shown flashback scenes from the movies and post-credit scenes that explain where each stone is and how they were used in “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 1,” “Thor: The Dark World,” “Avengers 1 & 2,” “Doctor Strange,” etc.

If you are an intense fan who craves every new bit of information, you may enjoy combing through this comic book. Otherwise, it’s mostly of use for those who are planning on seeing “Infinity War” but who haven’t seen “Captain America: Civil War,” “Guardians of the Galaxy 1” (which contains a brief piece of exposition that clarifies the nature of the stones), or the previous “Avengers” films. I don’t know how big that demographic is, but I suppose new fans are coming along all the time. I wouldn’t recommend you purchase the prelude expecting anything new and earth-shattering. The art and dialogue are all well done and inline with the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) films.

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BOOK REVIEW: Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet, Vol. 3 by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet Vol. 3 (Black Panther 2016-)Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet Vol. 3 by Ta-Nehisi Coates
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is the concluding segment of a story written by Ta-Nehisi Coates in which King T’Challa (a.k.a. the Black Panther) must fight to keep his nation, Wakanda, from descending into chaos and revolution. It features “Black Panther (2016)” #9-12, as well as some supplementary material from “New Avengers (2013)” #18, 21, and 24.

As with the other volumes in this story, there is a major and a minor plot, and at the beginning of this Volume the latter resolves itself in order to fold into the main story. The major plot involves an attempted revolution fomented by a man named Tetu who heads a revolutionary organization called “the People” that has engaged in terrorist and other nefarious activities. While progress was made against Tetu and his allies in Volume 2, he still presents a threat to the throne and to Wakanda. However, Tetu isn’t the only threat to the nation. Wakanda’s problems are bigger and more systemic than that. While Tetu is a terrorist, there are dissenting factions with far more legitimacy, including the Midnight Angels (former bodyguards to the King, i.e. ex-Dora Milaje) and the much-loved philosophy professor, Changamire.

The secondary plot involves T’Challa’s search for his sister Shuri who has been trapped in the Djalia, the Wakandan plane of memory. At the end of the second volume, T’Challa resumes the search using a technology that channels and amplifies the powers of his friend “Manifold.” As it happens, bringing Shuri back occurs effortlessly, but it seems returning her to this world isn’t so critical to the story as the effect her experience had on her. She returns with an encyclopedic knowledge of the history of Wakanda as well as numerous inexplicable supernatural abilities. The past queen plays an important role in the balance of the story both by advising T’Challa, fighting, and lending her influence with the Midnight Angels (ex-Dora Milaje.)

The fight for Wakanda plays itself out as both a battle of action against forces controlled by Tetu and Zenzi as well as a battle for the minds of the people (not to be confused with the organization “the People.”) I found it to be a smart story.

The supplementary material from “New Avengers (2013)” was illuminating. My only problem with it is that it occurs after the story is complete. If one just reads this Ta-Nehisi Coates arc, one might want to go to the end of Volume 3, and read this material first or pick up the whole “New Avengers (2013)” story. By doing so, one will have a much better understanding of why there is so much conflict in Wakanda, and why T’Challa is so unpopular. It’s hinted at here and there, but I didn’t understand the motivation fully until this material showed the events rather than offering random back story tidbits.

I would recommend this story for anyone. I don’t think one needs to be a regular comic book reader or have a particular interest in the Black Panther character to find it interesting and enjoyable.

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BOOK REVIEW: Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet, Vol. 2 by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet, Book 2Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet, Book 2 by Ta-Nehisi Coates
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This volume contains the middle portion of a three-part story arc written by Ta-Nehisi Coates. The books included are “Black Panther (2016)” #5-8 and “The Black Panther: Jungle Action” #6&7.

As the subtitle suggests, the fate of Wakanda is at stake and King T’Challa, a.k.a. the Black Panther, must find a way to keep his nation from falling. Public displeasure with T’Challa is being exploited by a man named Tetu who heads a revolutionary group called “The People.” Tetu is allied with a powerful psychic named Zenzi and—in contrast to the populist message his organization’s name suggests–the arms dealer Ezekiel Stane. However, while the might of Tetu and his allies represents a dire threat, the greatest challenge might be from a beloved scholar named Changamire, who holds both the moral high ground and the voice of reason. As Tetu sought to co-opt ex-Dora Milaje members Aneka and Ayo (now called the Midnight Angels) to gain legitimacy as well as their strength, he also seeks to get Changamire in his corner.

As the main plot of political intrigue unfolds, there is a subplot involving T’Challa’s sister Shuri who is trapped in the Djalia—Wakanda’s plane of collective memory. For a time T’Challa is forced by events to set aside his desire to get his sister back in order to battle Tetu both outright and by rekindling goodwill in the hearts and minds of his people. However, Shuri’s lessons in the Djalia, delivered by a griot in the form of her mother, are interspersed throughout the story, and by this segment’s end T’Challa finds it impossible to delay his search any longer.

Coates presents us with a human T’Challa, one who makes mistakes and whose mistakes exacerbate the threat to Wakanda. His most notable mistake is allowing himself to be talked into convening a council of “counter-revolutionary” experts who, in fact, consist of heads of the security apparatus for several corrupt regimes. His only saving grace is that Tetu has even more skeletons in his closet. T’Challa has to deal the best he can with situations in which there is no clear high ground, and that makes for a more intriguing story than one normally associates with superhero comic books. By the end of this Volume, it seems that Black Panther—along with his allies Manifold, Luke Cage, Misty Knight, and Storm—has turned things around by defeating Stane and uncovering the lair of “the People,” but then one realizes how fragile Wakanda remains.

The two bonus books “Jungle Action” #6&7 are from the early 1970’s and feature an earlier challenge to T’Challa’s throne from his archenemy Erik Killmonger. I can see why these two comics were included. Said books might be viewed as influences on this story, but there may have been better choices. At the end of the third volume (reviewed concurrently), there’s material from a 2013 run that offers great insight into why T’Challa is on the outs with his people. For those of us who pick up select stories (i.e. not all-reading fanboys), the insight offered in Volume 3’s supplementary material would be useful earlier in the reading process. (Preferably it would be in Volume 1.) The first volume includes a single book from “Fantastic Four.” It’s fun to read because it’s Black Panther’s introduction into the Marvel-verse and it shows us how formidable Black Panther is as well as letting us in on the secret that Wakanda is the most technologically advanced nation on the planet. However, I think knowing why the Wakandans are so disgruntled would help make Coates’s story more powerful.

As it’s a comic book, I should mention the artwork–even though I have no particular insight into graphic artistry—comic book or otherwise. All I can say is that I liked the art and found it effective and clear. I viewed the book in black-and-white, so I have nothing to say about color palette.

I enjoyed this arc and thought this section of it had a good balance of peril and victory for our hero. I’d recommend it broadly. I don’t think you have to be solely interested in comic books or the Black Panther character specifically to find this story intriguing.

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BOOK REVIEW: Doctor Strange: Way of the Weird, Vol. 1 by Jason Aaron

Doctor Strange, Vol. 1: The Way of the WeirdDoctor Strange, Vol. 1: The Way of the Weird by Jason Aaron
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This is the first arc of a multi-arc story. The Volume consists of “Doctor Strange” (2015), #1-5.

Something even more mysterious and odd than usual is afoot. An unprecedented number of trans-dimensional beings have taken up residence on Earth. Magic begins to go on the fritz. The Sorcerer Supreme of other dimensions are being executed. A mysterious enemy, with powers based in technology, threatens the very existence of magic–not only in our universe, but throughout the multiverse. Magicians are constantly under attack in the world of Doctor Strange, but in this case the killing of magicians is just collateral damage in a battle of bigger stakes.

A new character, Zelma Stanton, is introduced. She’s a young librarian who seeks out the help of Doctor Strange because she has grown a nefarious looking toothy maw at the top of her skull—some kind of previously unseen mind maggot. In treating her for said maggots, the wild and weird creatures are set loose upon Strange’s Sanctum Sanctorum. Doctor Strange hires Stanton to reorganize his library. She provides a straight-man of sorts, a muggle’s eye reaction to the weird world of Doctor Strange.

The theme of this story is that there’s always a cost associated with the use of magic. This idea (which, stated differently, is also the central premise of economics—i.e. no free lunches) is an important rule for any literary world containing magic, because free lunches drain all tension from a story. In this case, it’s not just a principle sitting the background, its ramifications are explicit.

I enjoyed this book. I found the story premise intriguing and the dialogue well-written. The artwork was easy to follow and suitable strange. The art was imaginative. It can’t be easy to convey weirdness on a grand scale, but Chris Bachalo seemed to make it work.

I’d recommend this book for fans of Doctor Strange and others who like fantastical fiction.

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BOOK REVIEW: Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet, Vol. 1 by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet Vol. 1 (Black Panther (2016-))Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet Vol. 1 (Black Panther by Ta-Nehisi Coates
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book contains the first arc of a three arc story written by Ta-Nehisi Coates, a 2015 National Book Award winner. The volume contains “Black Panther” (2016), #1-4, and—as a bonus—“Fantastic Four” (1961) #52, which is the edition in which the Black Panther was introduced.

The premise is that Wakanda is on the brink of coming apart at the seams, and there are nefarious forces afoot trying to spur a revolution. A mysterious woman, Zenzi, uses mind control unleash people’s rage. This results in an episode of violence that is the inciting incident for the story. But Zenzi isn’t working alone; she has a powerful ally named Tetu, who can control elements of nature.

Some background maybe useful for those unfamiliar with this character and / or who haven’t seen “Captain America: Civil War”–the movie in which Black Panther / T’Challa was introduced to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU.) First, Wakanda is a fictional African nation. It’s quintessentially African with respect to culture, but it’s the most technologically advanced nation in the world. It achieved this first-world modernity and wealthy in large part because it possesses most of the world’s vibranium—a much desired, but fictional, metal. Vibranium can absorb huge amounts of energy and only become stronger. The metal is most famously known for being the material from which Captain America’s shield was made, but it crops up in Marvel stories quite frequently.

Second, the superhero Black Panther is the protector of Wakanda (though in some books—not this one—he does get drawn into global affairs) and is the alter ego of the Wakandan king, T’Challa. This duality is particularly relevant in this story line. On the one hand, the Black Panther must battle Zenzi and Tetu who are working together to bring the nation down. On the other hand, as King, T’Challa is forced to recognize his responsibility for the health of the nation, and he must be a good leader and not just a good fighter. There are the makings of an inner battle that must be fought concurrently with the battle against the enemies of the state. At the end of Volume #4, T’Challa is forced to face this through the words of a trusted maternal advisor.

In addition to the main plot in which the hero fights to keep the nation from collapsing, there are a couple of subplots. One involves an ex-member of the royal guard (i.e. the all-female Dora Milaje) using stolen technology to rescue her lover, another ex-member of Dora Milaje who was sentenced to death for killing a corrupt tribal leader. The two go on a spree of rescuing Wakandans. Another subplot involves T-Challa’s sister being trapped in a limbo between life and death called the Djalia—the plane of memory.

A word on the “Fantastic Four” comic book included: In it, T’Challa woos Reed Richards (Mr. Fantastic) into bringing the Four to Wakana by way of the gift of a flying car—a technology that seemed only slightly more feasible in 1961 than it does today. (Yes, I wrote that the way I meant it. In those days anything seemed possible. But after decades without a household jet-pack, we’ve become a more technologically pessimistic people… or is it just me?) Once in Wakana, the Black Panther battles the Fantastic Four, using not only his athletic prowess but also a series of technologies tailor-made against their powers. This makes it seem like the Black Panther was introduced as a villain, but he’s hunting them for the challenge rather than out of ill-will.

As would be expected from an award-winning author, this arc is well-written and sets up a fascinating story. As this is a comic book, I should also talk about the artwork, which was done by Brian Stelfreeze. However, I don’t know what to say beyond that I liked it well enough. I’m not particularly competent to speak on the subject–other than to say that it was generally easy to tell what was going on in the frames, and the action seemed to be well conveyed. I can’t speak at all to coloring as I read the Kindle edition in black & white (Not that I’d have anything interesting to say on the subject.)

I’d recommend this comic. There’s plenty of butt-kicking, but there’s also a thought-provoking tale of political intrigue.

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BOOK REVIEW: The View From the Cheap Seats by Neil Gaiman

The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected NonfictionThe View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Not every writer—not even many literary greats—could pull off a book like this. It’s a collection of random speeches, front matter from books (not his own), liner notes, and the occasional eulogy for individuals living and dead. While the book is organized into sections on topics like other authors, comic books, films, and music, it seems that organization derives organically from the topics on which Neil Gaiman is asked to comment–rather than a desire to tighten the book’s theme.

If you’re a Neil Gaiman fanboy/girl, you’ll need no excuse to read anything that he puts out (even though–if that is the case–you’ll probably have read much of this before in separate outings.) So the question is why the rest of us—who may enjoy Gaiman’s writing tremendously but who don’t qualify as fanboys / fangirls—should read this. The reason that it’s worth reading is that Neil Gaiman is funny, has a way of framing ideas that makes them thought-provoking and interesting, and frequently writes quotable bits of text that are essentially brain candy.

The book’s title comes from an essay on Gaiman’s experience attending the Oscars from the upper balcony. As mentioned, the book is divided into thematic sections–ten of them to be precise. The book starts with “Some Things I Believe,” which presents speeches on the virtue of reading, libraries, books, and bookstores. The next section discusses people he has known and worked with—largely writers and graphic artists. Then Gaiman offers thoughts on the nature of science fiction, again mostly through book forwards on seminal works from the genre. There is a section on films and Gaiman’s experience with them—several of his works have been made into films and many others have been considered. The next part is on comic books and the works and artists that influenced Gaiman. The next section bears the title “Introductions and Contradictions” and it offers introductions for various books (not Gaiman’s but those written for other writers.) There’s a musical section about a few recording artists including They Might be Giants, Lou Reed, and—of course—Gaiman’s wife Amanda Palmer. Next, Gaiman presents some introductions and forwards for works of fantasy. One section includes only a solitary entry–a commencement speech entitled “Make Good Art.” The final section is sort of a catchall of essays that includes the title piece and one on events in Syria.

I’d recommend this book for those who enjoy reading (or writing) in the genres for which Gaiman is known. His comments offer interesting insight, and you may learn about some books and authors that you’d never heard of before.

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BOOK REVIEW: Captain America: Civil War by Ed Brubaker

Civil War: Captain AmericaCivil War: Captain America by Ed Brubaker
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Captain America has gone rogue. In the wake of the passing of a law that requires heroes to be registered and regulated, Steve Rogers (a.k.a. Captain America) leads a resistance movement. The arc conveyed in this four-book collection tells a story of the resistance at once battling S.H.E.I.L.D. Cape-Killers on the one hand and a HYDRA plot on the other. It should be noted that it’s at least as much a Winter Soldier collection as a Captain America one. In fact, the third book in the collection is the only one in which Steve Rogers / Captain America can be said to be the lead.

The books included are: “Captain America #22 [Civil War / The Drums of War, pt. 1],” “Captain America #23 [Civil War / The Drums of War, pt. 2],” “Captain America #24 [Civil War / The Drums of War, pt. 3],” and “Winter Soldier #1: Winter Kills.”

The first issue features Sharon Carter meeting with a S.H.E.I.L.D. psychiatrist, or so she thinks. Carter is the agency’s liaison with Captain America, and has developed a close relationship with him. While S.H.E.I.L.D. is trying to get her to exploit the relationship to bring in the Captain, others are manipulating Carter for their own nefarious purposes.

In the next issue, Bucky Barnes (i.e. the Winter Soldier) breaks into a secret facility at the behest of a disembodied Nick Fury in order tap into a fake robotic Nick Fury. Next, Winter Soldier takes on a group of “Cape Killers” (i.e. agents of the government working to bring down Captain America’s resistance forces using Tony Stark technology) in order to capture some of their technology.

In the third issue, Captain America breaks into a HYDRA facility on a mission that goes bad. When he’s discovered by Cape Killers, he’s “rescued” by Sharon Carter. During his infiltration, he learns something that will help him in his mission to defeat the Red Skull, if only he can succeed before the Red Skull destroys him.

In the final issue, the Winter Soldier is sent by a disembodied Nick Fury to interrupt a group of Young Avengers who think they are about to attack one of Tony Stark’s facilities when, in fact, it’s a HYDRA base. After a brief skirmish, the Winter Soldier succeeds in talking these young heroes out of their mission, only to be discovered. As a result, Bucky and his new group of young comrades are forced to take down the facility. The setting of the story on Christmas Eve, with flash backs to Christmas Eve 1944, are used to make the story more poignant.

As a collection, I didn’t care for this book. It didn’t provide a satisfying narrative arc. Though I’d say the individual issues were worth reading, and if the collection went a little further, it’d have something. But nothing is resolved at the end, and the jumping between Captain America and the Winter Soldier stories doesn’t provide the makings of character development. It’s a series of missions with varying objectives. The collection does offer quite a bit of action, much more than the “Iron Man: Civil War” collection that I recently reviewed. However, it doesn’t provide nearly as much of a story as that book, and is not as artfully grouped as the Iron Man collection. In summary, the tone setting and action are good, but it’s a collection of action that doesn’t go anywhere.

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BOOK REVIEW: Iron Man: Civil War by Brian Michael Bendis et. al.

Civil War: Iron ManCivil War: Iron Man by Brian Michael Bendis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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With the “Captain America: Civil War” movie set to come out this year, one would have to be living under a rock to be unfamiliar with the basic premise of the Civil War story line. (Not that the movie will—or even can—follow the comic books exactly. But the gist is the same.” The government passes a Registration Act that would require superheroes to be registered, regulated, and trained. This splits the Marvel universe of heroes into two battling factions. (In the movies, it’s just the Avengers, but the comics include members of the Fantastic Four, X-men, etc.) One side, led by Tony Stark—a.k.a. Iron Man, supports the Registration Act. The other side, led by Steve Rogers—a.k.a. Captain America, staunchly opposes the new law. The four issues collected here offer insight into the mind of Tony Stark.

The four issues in this collection are: “Civil War: The Confession #1,” “Iron Man #13,” “Iron Man #14,” and “Iron Man / Captain America: Casualties of War #1.” Putting the issues in this order contributes to the somber tone of the storyline, as the chronological end of the events is put up front in the form of Stark’s confession. The start is a little like the very beginning of “Saving Private Ryan” (before the battle scene begins.) As with “Saving Private Ryan,” this opening does little to detract from the story and in fact builds immediate intrigue.

This isn’t the most action packed collection, but it is an emotional story line. Tony Stark is serious, somber, and sober (in both senses of the word.) This isn’t the cocky, witty playboy philanthropist one associates with Iron Man. It’s a man whose convictions are forcing him to fight his friends and comrades in arms. The irony of the situation is that Stark is certain the Registration Act is necessary because of people like him. In other words, if everybody was like his friend-turned-enemy Steve Rogers (i.e. a pinnacle of virtue) then the Act would be unnecessary.

There is some awkward expositional dialogue / monologuing in this book—a common problem among serial comic books. However, overall the story is engaging. If you want battle scenes, you may be disappointed, but this book makes one sympathize with Stark—even if you’ve previously thought him an arrogant douche.

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BOOK REVIEW: Cimarronin by Neal Stephenson, et. al.

Cimarronin: A Samurai in New Spain #1Cimarronin: A Samurai in New Spain #1 by Neal Stephenson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Cimarronin opens in Manila in 1632 with a masterless samurai (i.e. a ronin, hence the latter part of the name) about to commit ritual suicide. The ronin, Kitazume, is interrupted by a Catholic priest who Kitazume knows and who—it’s hinted—has the kind of nefarious past that one has trouble reconciling with the priesthood. The priest offers Kitazume a mission.

The opening hooks one. It raises several questions that the reader will want answered: Why is a Japanese samurai hanging out in the Philippines in 1632? Students of Asian history will recognize that Japan’s long warring period is a couple of decades past and there are a lot of warriors out of work. But is that all? Is the priest really a priest, and, if so, how does a blackguard end up a holy man? And most crucially, will Kitazume take the mission, and—if so—will he succeed (and will he be glad he did?) The reader always knows that the priest has something up his sleeve, but it’s only gradually revealed what that is.

We soon discover that Kitazume has some skill as a detective. This enhances our curiosity about the character. The higher echelons of law enforcement in feudal Japan were staffed by samurai, but it still adds another interesting dimension to the character.

The three book collection continues with the discovery that the priest is facilitating the transport of a Manchu princess to Mexico. (Philippines to Mexico, hence the “New Spain” subtitle reference.) The priest’s plot unfolds in the middle book, and we get a better picture of his scheme.

The second book ends with a fight with the Cimarrones—a bellicose, indigenous tribe (and the reason for the first part of the title,) and in the third and final book the Manchu Princess’s own scheme is revealed. The differing goals of the various major characters set up the potential for an excellent story. Kitazume has the simplest goal: to have a mission that makes life worthwhile and to conduct his life with some semblance of the virtue for which the samurai were known. The priest and princess weave a more complex web of scheming.

The story is peppered with flashback sequences that give us some of Kitazume’s backstory, and a substantial part of the third book is such backstory. The graphic artist uses a subdued scheme to make it readily apparent which panels are flashback and which are in the timeline of the story arc.

As this is the first three books of a larger collection, the ending is lacking (which is to say it’s not so much an ending as the set up for the story to unfold.) The story is much stronger in its beginning than its ending. The third book ends trying to entice one to read the concluding volumes more than it tries to wrap anything up. This situation also results in the fact that we don’t get a good picture of why Kitazume is the lead character in the story. I suspect that’s why there is so much backstory, to try to build sympathy and curiosity for the character while making him weak enough that his success is not apparent. At any rate, Kitazume doesn’t come off as the strongest or most competent character in the book by a long shot. Hopefully, this is so that he can pull out an underdog save in the end, but that’s just speculation.

I found this collection to set up an interesting story, but it doesn’t stand alone. It does have plenty of action and intrigue. If the historical fiction premise intrigues you, you may want to get the complete collection.

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MOVIE REVIEW: Avengers: Age of Ultron

Avengers-Age-of-UltronAvengers: Age of Ultron opened across India today, April 24, 2015. This film is set sometime after the events of the second films in the Captain America and Thor solo “trilogies.” We know this because Thor is on Earth and the Falcon (in a cameo) makes an offhand comment indicating that he’s spending time looking for Bucky Barnes / Winter Soldier. Furthermore, we know it because the opening scene is the Avengers working as a team to take down Baron Von Strucker’s fortress (re: Captain America 2 end-credit scene) in a fight to obtain Loki’s scepter. This scene suggests that the team has been working together for a while in taking down Hydra bases of operation globally. (Many have jokingly inquired why Steve Rogers (Cap) wouldn’t have called in his avenging friends during the events of the Winter Soldier film.  This film reinforces, rather than solves, that riddle.) At any rate, that opening scene contains an awesome action sequence.

The core premise of the film will not come as a surprise to anyone who has seen the trailers for this film–not to mention the previous Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) films and post-credit scenes. Tony Stark (Iron Man) tries to “create a suit of armor around the world” and the program–dubbed Project “Ultron”–goes terribly awry.  After Ultron comes into existence, he quickly moves to co-opt the Maximoff twins (better known as The Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver.) Because the twins have an axe to grind with Tony Stark, they willingly side with Ultron. The Scarlet Witch is instrumental in Ultron’s plan. If you haven’t seen the trailers don’t finish this sentence, but for others it will be apparent that the Scarlet Witch’s mind control is used to pit some Avengers against either themselves or others.

The tone of this film is different from the first Avengers movie. In the first film much of the tension springs from unfavorable first impressions and standoffishness. Now the characters know each other and love-hate relationships are rife–some more loving and some more loathing than others. This may make it easier to relate to what’s going on between the major characters. The strained relationships inside the team remain an important factor, and are crucial to the films going forward–most notably Captain America 3: Civil War.)

While the trailers may have led one to believe this would be a big film for Natasha Romanov (aka Black Widow) given the flashback scenes, it’s actually Clint Barton (aka Hawkeye) who has a more pivotal and revealing role in this film. (Perhaps to the chagrin of the many who wonder why he’s even on the team.) However, the evolving relationship between Romanov and Bruce Banner gets a fair amount of screen time–though the need to pack a lot into the film given the huge cast makes this drama feel a bit thin. The twins and their tormented past are also critical to the tone of the film. They hold an event from the past against Stark, but they are ethical people at their core.

The Vision is the character that has been held closest to the vest by Marvel. I won’t say much about Vision to avoid spoiling anything other than that it’s an intriguing character. I was worried that either the way this character was created or the effect he had on the story would be a disappointment, but it wasn’t.

I think James Spader did an excellent job of playing Ultron–a character that vacillates between being childlike and being a grim psychopath. (One may not get the childlike part from the trailers, but this is a brand new intelligent entity, and so it’s clever to show that.)

Like the first Avengers movie, this one has its bit of deus ex machina (bolt from the blue solutions to once insolvable problems), but it’s not the perfection of story that makes these movies engrossing. (I didn’t find it as deus ex machina as the first film–though there is at least one moment that springs to mind.)

What sells these films is: a.) the witty dialogue;  b.) the stunning visuals of the action sequences; and c.) the tension between characters both friend and foe. (Probably not in the aforementioned order.) On those three items this film doesn’t disappoint.

I won’t even bother to recommend you see it, as I’m sure–like everybody else on the planet–you will.