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.

BOOK REVIEW: Inventing Iron Man by E. Paul Zehr

Inventing Iron Man: The Possibility of a Human MachineInventing Iron Man: The Possibility of a Human Machine by E. Paul Zehr

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

As the title suggests, this book examines whether Iron Man could exist in the real world. As with Michio Kaku’s book Physics of the Impossible, answering the question involves defining the various meanings of “impossible.”

One way to parse the question is, “Is Iron Man possible today given the existing state of technology?” In and of itself, this question is of limited interest because the answer is, “no.” There’s certainly a demand, and so if Iron Man could exist given current technology, he probably would. That’s not to say it isn’t interesting to learn about what technologies are holding us back and where the cutting edge of relevant technologies lies—both of which are addressed by the book.

Still, a more interesting inquiry is, “Will Iron Man ever be reality given the physical laws that we know to govern the universe?” While more intriguing, it’s also a harder question to definitively answer. It’s impossible to foresee all the technological developments that might come along to answer the seemingly insurmountable challenges (e.g. Tony Stark’s inevitable Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI).) The book deals with the critical question of what challenges would have to be overcome for Iron Man to be reality.

As Zehr suggests, the appeal of Iron Man is that he’s considered to be among superheroes for the common man. Like Batman, the sufficiently bright and diligent nerd may fantasize that, “That could be me.” You or I can’t be Superman or Wolverine, but given enough money, smarts, and training we could be Batman, or—even better—pilot the Iron Man suit. Put in this light, the book may seem like just another frivolous attempt to capitalize on the popularity of superheroes to sell books. However, there’s actually a great deal of food for thought packed in the book. Like others, I read the book because its title is Inventing Iron Man and not Neuro-motor control of a self-propelled armor system or some other suitably scholarly title.

Dr. Zehr has the bona fides to delve into this topic. He is a Professor who investigates questions of how the nervous system controls movement. That subject may not constitute the sum total of critical concerns, but it’s one of the most important challenges. For Iron Man to move the way he does in the movies and comic books, Tony Stark’s impulses to move have to be transmitted seamlessly to the servo-motors that move the suit. From dodging Col. Rhodes’ (i.e. War Machine’s) punches to ducking RPGs, Stark can’t be quick enough if he has to manually steer the device. Then, of course, there’s the issue of feedback. Any neophyte meditator who’s had his or her foot fall sound asleep will know how difficult it is to walk surefootedly when one can’t feel anything through one’s foot.

[Iron Man 3 spoiler commentary in this paragraph.] One of the most damning challenges for making Iron Man a reality is the high probability of severe concussions. Let’s say you make the suit out of a material that is virtually indestructible? This may be possible. However, the pilot’s mushy brain is still sloshing around inside that impenetrable armor. One can remotely pilot the suit in order to negate this (as has been done in the comic books and the third movie), but—at that point—is it still Iron Man? I know from a writer’s perspective it’s a lot harder to maintain tension if there’s nothing human on the line. In the third movie about 30 autonomously piloted suits get wiped out and the viewer doesn’t care—the only source of tension is that Tony Stark is without armor half the time.

Some of the most interesting discussions are about where the current state of the art lies with respect to: a.) direct mind control over mechanical systems; b.) a “flying suit”; and c.) robotic movement enhancers. Zehr conducts interviews with those engineers and technologists involved in such technologies, and finds out where we are presently. Letter “a” above seems to be the least developed of the three technologies, but they are all active lines of research.

I enjoyed this book and found it interesting. I think anyone who is interested in the state of technology and its limits will find it a nice pop-sci introduction to the subject. The use of superheroes as a pedagogic device may be overdone, but it continues to work because we are fascinated by the edge of possibility, and that’s what superheroes represent.

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