A Movie A Day #279: The Ambulance (1990, directed by Larry Cohen)


Josh Baker (Eric Roberts) is an extroverted artist for Marvel Comics who meets Cheryl (Janine Turner) while walking around New York City.  Josh and Cheryl hit it off but when Cheryl suddenly collapses, she is picked up by a mysterious ambulance.  When Josh goes to the hospital to check on her, he is told that Cheryl was never brought in.  Soon, Josh discovers that people all over New York have been put into back of the ambulance and have never been seen again.  Unfortunately, nobody believes Josh.  Not the veteran NYPD detective (James Earl Jones) who Josh approaches with his suspicions.  Not the staff of the hospital.  Not even Stan Lee!  The only people willing to support Josh are an elderly investigative reporter (Red Buttons) and an inexperienced detective (Megan Gallagher).

Yes, Stan Lee does play himself.  While he had made a few cameo appearances on television and had previously narrated a French film, The Ambulance was Stan Lee’s first real film role.  Josh works at an idealized version of Marvel Comics, where the artists are well-paid, no one is pressured into producing substandard work, and Lee is an avuncular father figure.  It is the Marvel Comics that I used to imagine working at when I was growing up, before I found out about what actually happened to artists like Jack Kirby, Joe Simon, and Steve Ditko.

Idealized though it may be, the Marvel connection is appropriate because The Ambulance is essentially a comic book adventure.  It does not matter how many times Josh gets hit by a car or falls out of a window, he always recovers in time for the next scene.  When Josh does discover who is behind the ambulance, it turns out to be a villain who would not be out-of-place in a Ditko-era Spider-Man story.

The Ambulance is another one of Larry Cohen’s New York horror stories.  Like most of Cohen’s films, it is pulpy, cheap, and entertaining.  Eric Roberts is as crazy as ever and the movie is full of good character actors like James Earl Jones, Red Buttons, Richard Bright, and Eric Braeden.  The Ambulance may be dumb but it is always entertaining.

 

 

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Film Review: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (dir by James Gunn)


(MINOR SPOILERS!  SPECIFICALLY, THE IDENTITY OF THIS FILM’S MAIN VILLAIN WILL BE REVEALED)

The Guardians of the Galaxy are back!

And this time, they’ve brought some new friends with them, friends with names like Kurt Russell, Sylvester Stallone, and … David Hasselhoff?

That’s right.  David Hasselhoff is now a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and somehow, it feels totally appropriate.  For all the words that have been written comparing Guardians of the Galaxy to the Star Wars franchise, it’s true ancestor is the 1978 Italian film, Starcrash.  (Perhaps not coincidentally, Starcrash was Hasselhoff’s film debut.)  Watch the trailer below and just try to tell me that you can’t imagine Chris Pratt and Zoe Saldana in the lead roles.

But enough about my obsession with Italian exploitation films.  I know the question that you want answered.  Is Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 as good as the first one?

Well, it depends on how you look at it.  Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 is an absolute blast, a wonderfully entertaining film that mixes subversive comedy with sci-fi action.  Everyone from the first film — Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Karen Gillan, Michael Rooker, and the voices of Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel — is back and they’ve still got the same winning chemistry that made the first film so much fun.  Everyone is still committed to their roles, delivering even the strangest of dialogue with undeniable flair.  Nobody’s gotten bored with saving the universe yet.  The new additions to the cast are all well selected.  Kurt Russell totally disproves the assumption that MCU villains are never as interesting as their heroic opponents but, then again, it helps that he’s playing a character who has a memorable and odd backstory.  Once again, director James Gunn combines crowd-pleasing moments with his own sharp sense of humor.  If the pompous tone of Man of Steel and Batman v Superman made you sick, Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 is the perfect antidote.

Unfortunately, Volume 2 doesn’t provide the same thrill of discovery as the first film.  It’s easy to forget that, before the first film came out, a lot of people were predicting that Guardians of the Galaxy would be the first MCU film to flop at the box office.  The conventional wisdom was that, as opposed to a character like Captain America, no one, outside of a few comic book readers, knew who the Guardians of the Galaxy were.  Chris Pratt was just the goofy guy from Parks and Recreation.  A talking raccoon?  A walking tree?  It was all way too weird, the naysayers proclaimed, to appeal to a mainstream audience.

However, James Gunn proved them wrong.  Guardians of the Galaxy was not only the most successful MCU film to that date but it was also my pick for the best film of 2014.  I can still remember watching it for the first time and immediately falling in love with both the film’s skewered sensibility and Chris Pratt’s funny but soulful performance.  As opposed to a lot of films that were nominated for and won Oscars that year, Guardians of the Galaxy actually holds up after repeat viewings.

(Seriously, has anyone tried to rewatch Birdman lately?)

Going into the sequel, everyone now knows who the Guardians are and Chris Pratt is now a beloved film star.  Volume 2 has a lot to live up to and, for the most part, it succeeds.  It’s a tremendous amount of fun and, at the same time, it has a heart.  (The heart at the center of the Guardian of the Galaxy films is perhaps the biggest heart in the MCU.)

What is the film about?  Much like the first film, it’s about family.  After years of telling everyone that his father was David Hasselhoff, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) finally meets his real father (Kurt Russell), a God-like figure named Ego.  Charismatic, cheerful, and just a little bit odd, Ego seems like the perfect father figure but he has some secrets of his own.  Russell gives a wonderful performance, making Ego one of the few MCU villains to be as interesting as the heroes.

While Peter is bonding with his dad, he is also being pursued by his adoptive father, the blue-skinned space pirate named Yondu (Michael Rooker).  Yondu has been rejected by both his adopted son and the rest of his adopted family.  The other space pirates are no longer loyal to him.  His former boss (Sylvester Stallone) wants nothing to do with him.  As silly as it all may sound, it’s also unexpectedly poignant, thanks to Michael Rooker’s performance.  Rooker has appeared in several of Gunn’s films.  He’s almost the Cary Grant to Gunn’s Alfred Hitchcock.  Rooker gives one of the best performances of his careeer in the role of Yondu.  It’s tempting to be dismissive of Yondu, with his blue-skin and his Alabama accent, but Rooker makes him one of the most compelling characters to ever be found in an MCU film.

Meanwhile, Rocket Raccoon (voiced again by Bradley Cooper) has become a surrogate father figure to Groot (voice by Vin Diesel), who is still just a baby tree.  (Groot, a living tree, was reduced to just a twig at the end of the first film.  Fortunately, Rocket planted the twig and, in another few movies, we’ll hopefully have a fully grown Groot.)  Yes, Baby Groot does get to dance, again.  At one point, one of the film’s villains forbids any of his henchmen from attacking Baby Groot because he’s just too adorable to destroy.  And he’s right!  After this movie, everyone will want a Baby Groot of their own.

Gamora (Zoe Saldana) has been reunited with her sister, Nebula (Karen Gilliam) and, once again, they spend most of the movie trying to kill each other.  I have three older sisters so I related to their relationship.

And finally, Drax (Dave Bautista) is still mourning his family.  Fortunately, he gets to spend some quality time with Ego’s odd assistant, an empath named Mantis (Pom Klementieff).  Drax and Mantis both have no idea how social interaction is supposed to work and their scenes together are definitely a highlight of the film.  Bautista and Klementieff share a really likable chemistry.  Bautista is one of those actors who can make you laugh just be giving the camera a quizzical look.  Drax may not be as a complicated as the other Guardians but that simplicity often makes him as interesting as his more complex compatriots.

The film’s not only about family.  It’s also a strike against elitism and a celebration for freedom.  Over the course of two films, the Guardians have battled against both an actual god and a fanatic who claimed to speak for God.  At a time when so many movie heroes are tools of authoritarianism, the Guardians of the Galaxy stand for freedom.  In many ways, Peter Quill is as much of a symbol for liberty as Captain America.  Captain America makes his point with a shield while Peter Quill makes his case by dancing.

As might be expected from an MCU film, Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 is full of thrilling visuals, exciting battles, and quotable one liners.  Even if it never reaches the heights of the first one, it’s a blast of a film and, as Arleigh told me it would, the finale brought tears to my mismatched eyes.  See it and have a good time.

Also, be sure to stick around through the entire end credits.  Along with a lot of clues about what might happen in the future of the MCU, there’s also one final Groot joke that made me laugh out loud.

Enjoy!

 

Playing Catch-up: Yoga Hosers (dir by Kevin Smith)


I have to admit that the main reason I watched Yoga Hosers is because I’m currently in the process of making out my “worst of 2016” list and everyone that I’ve talked to has insisted that Yoga Hosers happens to belong on that list.

Well, for once, I actually happen to agree with other people.  At the risk of losing my contrarian reputation,  Yoga Hosers definitely belongs on any list of the worst films of 2016.

I mean … Look, I get it.

I know that making crappy-looking films with juvenile humor has, in the past, worked out very well for Kevin Smith.  It’s made him an icon.  It’s won him legions of fans.  Some of my best friends love Kevin Smith and his movies.  I, personally, appreciate that he’s a fan of Degrassi.

And I know that there are literally thousands of interviews with Kevin Smith where he talks about the fact that he’s not the world’s greatest visual stylist.  He always pokes fun at the fact that he rarely moves the camera.  He’s open about the fact that he’s better at writing dialogue than filming it.  And I also know that he has regularly encouraged people not to take anything that he does too seriously.

I get all of that.

But here’s the thing … Yoga Hosers is really, really bad.  And Kevin Smith openly admitting that he’s not a very good director doesn’t make Yoga Hosers any less painful to sit through.

It’s actually kind of sad that Yoga Hosers isn’t better.  The film deals with two 15 year-old Canadian convenience store workers.  They’re both named Colleen and they’re best friends.  They’re also very well-played, by Harley Quinn Smith and Lily-Rose Depp.  In fact, they both give such likable performances that it actually makes the film just a little more bearable than it otherwise would have been.  And, hey — Kevin specifically made Yoga Hosers so that his daughter could have a starring role.  That’s more than my Dad ever for me when I was fifteen!

But, God, the movie is just so bad.

And by bad, I mean boring.  It’s not even so bad that it’s good.  It’s just a boring, bad movie.

Of course, If you just heard a rough outline of the film’s plot, you would probably think that Yoga Hosers was destined for cult immortality.  The Colleens are forced to spend a Friday night working at the store and they end up having to fight off a bunch of Nazi bratwursts, all of whom seeking to continue the hateful legacy of a Canadian Nazi played, in painfully unfunny flashbacks, by poor Haley Joel Osment.  Johnny Depp shows up as Guy LaPointe, a “man-hunter” who has a huge mustache and who speaks with a thick accent that’s obviously supposed to be hilarious.

But seriously, it takes forever for those little Nazis to show up. First, you have to deal with about an hour of the Colleens obsessing over their phones and saying “aboot” a lot.  This is one of the slowest films that I’ve ever seen and Kevin Smith is not the type of director to make a joke and then move on after he gets a laugh.  No, instead, he’s going to make a joke and then make it a second time and then keep pounding you over the head with it.  Watching Yoga Hosers is the equivalent of having Kevin Smith in your face for 90 minutes, screaming, “This is funny, right!?  RIGHT!?”

For instance, do you think it’s funny that Canadians say “aboot” and “oot?”  If you do, Yoga Hosers might be for you.  Or it still might not be, because how many times can you laugh at the Colleens saying “aboot?”  After the 10th time, you’ve gotten the joke but rest assured, you’re going to hear it a hundred more times.  Do Canadians ever get tired of Americans demanding that they say “aboot?”  I think I would.  I’m from Texas and I know I get sick of people from up north going crazy whenever I say “y’all.”

I think the main problem with Yoga Hosers is that Kevin Smith apparently didn’t trust his audience to pick up on all of the film’s comedic details.  Hence, the film never makes a joke without then beating us over the head to make sure that we understand that we’ve just heard or seen a joke.  For instance, it’s clever that, in Yoga Hosers, Canadian cereal is called “Pucky Charms.”  I saw one of the Colleens walking around with an open box of Pucky Charms and I smiled and I thought it was a clever little joke.  But it becomes less clever once Smith starts to have other characters specifically point out that Canadian cereal is called “Pucky Charms.”  Then it becomes just another mildly funny joke that quickly gets old.

I love Canada!  And I’m pretty sure Kevin Smith is a nice guy too.  But seriously, Yoga Hosers is the worst.

Spider-Man: Homecoming Slings In With Two Official Trailers


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It’s been rumored that the Spider-Man: Homecoming trailer will appear in front of Rogue One: Star Wars Story. It’s logical considering Sony has let Spider-Man to play in the Marvel Cinematic Universe sandbox which also happens to share spot in the Walt Disney Empire with Lucasfilm. Yet, we don’t have to wait for next week’s Rogue One to see this trailer. Like all superhero blockbuster films the trailers themselves get their premiere on-line (after a live premiere on Jimmy Kimmel Live) and this is no different with the first official trailer for Spider-Man: Homecoming.

So, without further ado, here’s not one, but two trailers for Spider-Man: Homecoming.

Domestic: this one definitely focuses more on the high school aspect of Spider-Man’s life.

International: this one a bit more action-packed with a focus on Spider-Man’s heroics and more time showcasing the villains.

Film Review: Deadpool (2016, directed by Tim Miller)


Deadpool_posterWade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds) is a mercenary with a sense of humor and a heart of not quite gold.  When he is diagnosed with terminal cancer, he leaves his girlfriend, Vanessa (Morena Baccarin), and agrees to allow a secret organization to experiment on him.  They will cure his cancer but, in return, they expect him to serve as a super powered slave for their own clients.  After being severely disfigured by the sadistic Ajax (Ed Skrein), Wilson develops a super human healing ability.  Eventually, Wilson escapes but now fears that he’s too twisted to return to Vanessa.  Taking on the identity of Deadpool, Wilson tries to track down and get his revenge on Ajax (real name: Francis).

From the moment I heard that 20th Century Fox was producing a Deadpool film, I had only one request: “Don’t fuck it up.”

After all, there is a reason why Deadpool is one of the most popular characters to come out of Marvel’s later period.  He’s certainly the best thing that Rob Liefeld has ever had a hand in creating.  First introduced in New Mutants and subsequently used in the various X-books before getting his own ground-breaking series, Deadpool has earned the right to be known as “the merc with a mouth.”  Deadpool was popular because, out of all the characters in the Marvel Universe, he alone understood that he was in a comic book.  He would frequently break the fourth wall and talk about how ridiculous life as a comic book antihero was.  At a time when almost all other super powered characters were presented as being grim and troubled, Deadpool was the often vulgar antidote to comic books that took themselves too seriously.

(My favorite Deadpool moment was when Deadpool had been once again incorrectly assumed dead.  When Blind Al told Weasel that Deadpool was dead, the footnote at the bottom of the panel read, “Guess the series is over!”)

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I saw Deadpool last weekend.

They did not fuck it up.

My biggest fear was that the Deadpool movie would present a neutered or toned down Deadpool but there was no need to worry.  Though the film’s plot may be a standard origin story with a revenge subplot tossed in, Deadpool distinguishes itself by staying true to the character’s anarchistic and self-referential humor.  This is not a case of Dolph Lundgren putting on a trenchcoat, driving a motorcycle, and calling himself the Punisher.  And it is certainly not a case of the strange character that Ryan Reynolds played in X-Men Origins who was supposed to be Deadpool but definitely was not.  Deadpool allows Deadpool to be Deadpool, right down to the red uniform, the broken fourth wall, and the R-rated humor and violence.  Deadpool earns its R rating and wears it as a badge of honor  This is not a movie for children.  Everything that most heroes do and say off-camera, Deadpool does and says for the entire audience to see and hear.

That's not Deadpool!

That’s not Deadpool!

That's Deadpool!

That’s Deadpool!

Deadpool ends with the promise of a sequel, perhaps one that will include Cable.  Since Cable is one of my least favorite Marvel characters, I hope that the sequel will at least see the return of Colossus (rendered by CGI and voiced by Stefan Kapicic) and Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Briana Hildebrand), both of whom make welcome appearances here.  Negasonic Teenage Warhead especially deserves her own spin-off film.  Let her blow up shit for two hours.  I’ll watch.

Also, if the sequel has to feature Cable, I hope it will also include Dr. Bong.  Deadpool needs all the help he can get!

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5 Heroes From Marvel’s Golden Age Who Deserve Their Own Movie


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Captain America is the best remembered and most prominent hero from the Golden Age of Marvel Comics (or, as the company was known back then, Timely Comics).  One reason why Captain America: The First Avenger was so successful was because it exploited the nostalgia that audiences had for that golden age, a time when the world was united against the greatest evil known to man and there was no doubt who was fighting for good and who was fighting for evil.

However, Captain America was not the only Marvel super hero fighting gangsters and Nazis during the 1940s.  If Marvel Studios ever decides to take another trip back to World War II, these five Golden Age heroes would be worthy additions to the MCU.

The Blonde Phantom

The Blonde PhantomCreated by Stan Lee and artist Syd Shores and first introduced in 1946, The Blonde Phantom was a part of Marvel’s post-war attempt to appeal to young female readers.

Originally from Hoboken, New Jersey, Louise Grant was the secretary to private detective Mark Mason.  Bored with her job and in love with Mark, Louise would regularly grab a .45 caliber pistol, don the sultry disguise of the Blonde Phantom, and help her boss solve his cases.  While Mark barely noticed his loyal secretary, he fell in love with the Blonde Phantom.

It would be tricky to reimagine the Blonde Phantom from a modern perspective but I think it could be done.  Instead of emphasizing Louise’s unrequited crush on the sexist Mark, a modern Blonde Phantom film would focus on how becoming the Blonde Phantom allows Louise to discover her own inner strength.  As Agent Carter proved, there is an audience for a strong female character in a period setting.

Claire Voyant

Claire_Voyant_(Earth-616)Introduced in 1940 and created by George Kapitan and Harry Sahle, Claire Voyant (who was also known as The Black Widow, long before the first appearance of Natasha Ramanoff) is considered to be the first costumed female super hero and also one of the darkest.

A medium, Claire is possessed by Satan and used to put a curse on the Wagler Family.  After most of the family is killed in a car accident, the sole remaining Wagler shoots and kills Claire.  Claire immediately goes to Hell, where Satan himself gives her the power to kill by simply touching her victim’s forehead.  Satan then sends Claire back among the living, on a mission to kill evil doers so that Satan can claim their souls before they have a chance to repent and ask for forgiveness.

Along with her dark origin story and her flirtatious relationship with Satan, Claire Voyant was distinguished by both her lack of remorse when it came to killing and for having the sharpest eyebrows of almost any character from the Golden Age.  As the star of her own MCU film, she would provide an interesting contrast to the wholesomeness of Captain America.

The Destroyer

The DestroyerA journalist-turned-spy, Keen Marlow was captured behind-the-lines in Nazi Germany.  Held in a prison-of-war camp, Marlow met Prof. Eric Schmitt, an anti-Nazi German scientist who had created a serum that was similar to the one that was used to transform frail Steve Rogers into Captain America.  After taking the serum, Marlow donned a mask and a dark costume and used his new powers to battle the Nazis from within Germany.

The Destroyer was a popular character during the Golden Age, though he was never as prominent as Captain America, The Human Torch, or the Submariner.  The Destroyer became far more interesting when his origin was retconned in the 1970s and it was revealed the Keen Marlow was an alias used by British aristocrat Brian Falsworth.  Before the start of World War II, Falsworth had been a prominent supporter of appeasement.  By becoming The Destroyer, Falsworth both defended his country and sought redemption.  When Falsworth eventually took on yet another costumed identity (Union Jack), his friend Roger Aubrey took over the role of the Destroyer.

The Destroyer was one of the first super hero characters to be created by Stan Lee.  Not only is his origin similar to Captain America’s (Cap was introduced in March of 1941 and the Destroyer made his debut nine months later) but it is also a forerunner to Iron Man’s.

Namor the Submariner

SubmarinerNamorCreated by artist and writer Bill Everett, Namor was the son of human boat captain Leonard McKenzie and Fen, the daughter of the emperor of the undersea kingdom of Atlantis.  As a hybrid, Namor had the ability to live under water but, with his human appearance, he could also go above the surface and safely mix with human society as well.  While the arrogant and hot-tempered Namor had little use for humanity (with the exception of New York City policewoman Betty Dean), he did side with the Allies in the war against the Nazis.

Despite being a prominent member of the Marvel Universe for over 70 years, Namor has yet to even appear in a movie.  Not only was he one of the most popular of the Marvel Golden Age heroes but his battle with the original Human Torch has regularly been cited as being the birth of the Marvel Universe.  Unlike many Golden Age characters, Namor remains active today, sometimes fighting for humanity and sometimes trying to destroy it.

There have been efforts to make a movie about Namor but, so far, none of them have been successful.  Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige has said that there are many deals and contracts that need to be sorted out before it can be definitely determined who owns the rights to the character.  It will probably be a while before the Submariner swims to a theater near you.

The Phantom Reporter

The Phantom ReporterThe Phantom Reporter is actually Dick Jones, a former all-American fullback who was also a college boxing, wrestling, and fencing champion.  As a reporter, Dick always tried to protect those who could not defend themselves.  When he couldn’t help them as a journalist, he would put on a mask, a suit, and a cape and he would battle evildoers.

The Phantom Reporter only appeared in one Golden Age comic book, 1941’s Daring Mystery Comic Books #3.  65 years later, he was brought back as one of the lead characters in The Twelve, a limited series about a group of World War II super heroes who, after spending decades in suspended animation, are revived in the 21st Century.  Returning to his career as both a costumed hero and a journalist, The Phantom Reporter also develops an unlikely relationship with Claire Voyant.

The perfect Phantom Reporter movie would be a cross between the screwball comedy of The Front Page and the heroics of Captain America.  It would be a reminder that not all heroes have super powers.  Some of them just have the desire to do the right thing.

Film Review: The Avengers: Age of Ultron (dir by Joss Whedon)


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In some ways, I think I may be both the worst and the best possible person to review the latest installment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, largely because I’ve seen all the films but I don’t know much about the comics on which they are based. As a result, I can judge each film solely by what is on screen but, at the same time, I know that there are a lot of references that go straight over my head. For instance, when we saw Avengers: Age of Ultron earlier tonight, I had to get my boyfriend to explain to me why certain members of the audience got so excited when Iron Man mentioned an African country called Wakanda. But what’s important is that I would have still enjoyed Age of Ultron even if I had never known why Wakanda was important. The MCU has, so far, managed to maintain a balance between keeping the Marvel fans happy while also remaining accessible to viewers like me. The MCU has created its own separate reality, one that even someone like me can feel comfortable exploring and reviewing.

However, before I get around to giving you my feelings on Age of Ultron, let’s be honest about something.

There are a lot of critics out there who have been waiting for a chance to attack the latest installment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Some of them have disliked the MCU since the very first Iron Man film. They have been lone voices in the wilderness, arguing that the entire franchise is overrated and, in some cases, creatively destructive. Much like the Old Testament prophets, they continue to warn of the future while other filmgoers ignore the pillar of fire forming over the nearest theater. And then there are other critics who have praised previous MCU efforts but have never really been comfortable about it. These are the critics who resent having to write positively about a mere genre film. These are the critics who still haven’t gotten over just how good Guardians of the Galaxy truly was. They have been waiting for an MCU misfire so that they can do their penance for suggesting that Robert Downey, Jr. deserved Oscar consideration for Iron Man 3.

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These critics are going to watch The Avengers: Age of Ultron and they are going to pounce. They are going to point out that Age of Ultron puts too much emphasis on action over nuance and, as impressive as the CGI may be, it’s impossible to deny that Age of Ultron almost robotically follows the classic action movie formula. They’ll point out that none of The Avengers really develop as characters over the course of the film. Depending on how they’ve felt about the MCU up to this point, some of them will point out that Age of Ultron feels a bit like a step backwards. It doesn’t have the political subtext of Iron Man 3 or Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It lacks the satiric edge of Guardians of the Galaxy. And, ultimately, it’s just not as much fun as the first Avengers film.

And they won’t necessarily be wrong. I mean, let’s be honest. I write this as someone who has enjoyed (and, in some cases, loved) the previous MCU films. Avengers: Age of Ultron is not going to be remembered as one of the best of the MCU films. This is a flawed film that never reaches the heights of the original Avengers. All of the criticisms listed above are perfectly valid.

But, with all that in mind, I still enjoyed Avengers: Age of Ultron and I happily recommend it without a bit of hesitation.

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Age of Ultron opens with the Avengers attacking a HYDRA base and we quickly discover that the Avengers are exactly the same as we remembered them. Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) is cocky, self-destructive, and torn by guilt over his past as a weapons manufacturer. Captain America (Chris Evans) is earnest and idealistic. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is … well, he’s a God. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) is scared of what he becomes when he transforms into the Hulk. Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) is still shooting arrows and feeling out-of-place. Natasha (Scarlett Johansson) is still flirty, enigmatic, and apparently in love with Bruce Banner.

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One of the reoccurring themes of the MCU is that whenever Iron Man tries to make the world a better place, he instead ends up nearly destroying it. His latest attempt leads him to create Ultron (voiced quite chillingly by James Spader), a robot who has Tony’s personality and who has decided that the only way to bring about “peace in our time” is to destroy all of humanity. Ultron’s motives are as close as this film gets to any sort of thematic subtext. Ultron stands in for every ideology that would take away a person’s individual freedom in the name of the greater good. Age of Ultron doesn’t explore this subtext as much as I would have liked it to but, at the same time, I appreciated that it was at least there. That’s more than you can say for a film like Man of Steel.

Ultron is not the only new character to show up. Andy Serkis has a small role as a character that will undoubtedly be a villain in a future MCU film. After voicing JARVIS in several films, Paul Bettany finally gets to actually appear onscreen. I can’t talk too much about his character without spoiling the film but Bettany makes good use of his limited screen time.

And then there’s Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen. Previously, they played lovers in Godzilla. In Age of Ultron, they play siblings who just seem like lovers. Taylor-Johnson is Pietro, who can move at super speeds. Elizabeth Olsen is Wanda, whose powers are a bit less defined but mostly seem to consist of being able to do whatever the script needs her to do at the time. (As the film explains it, “He’s fast, she’s strange.”) In the past, I’ve had mixed feeling about Taylor-Johnson. I thought he was brilliant in Nowhere Boy and Anna Karenina but, in other films, I found him to be excessively mannered and a little dull. But, in the role of Pietro, Taylor-Johnson really shines, achieving a good balance of arrogance and vulnerability. As for Elizabeth Olsen, she is perfectly cast as the angry but sensitive Wanda. At the very least, Age of Ultron better serves both of them than they were served by Godzilla.

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(Add to that, Wanda and I share similar tastes in fashion, which will make it easy for me to dress up as her for Halloween.)

Director Joss Whedon does a good job with the film’s many battle scenes, especially the final one. And, as someone who hated the mindless destruction of Man of Steel, I appreciated that, as characters, the Avengers spent as much time trying to protect innocent bystanders as they did battling Ultron and his henchrobots. At the same time, it was hard not to feel that the film’s emphasis on action did sacrifice some of the character moments that have made other MCU films so memorable. Early on in the film, there’s a great scene where the Avengers simply hang out at a party. They dance, they dink, they laugh, and eventually, they all take turns attempting to pick up Thor’s hammer. It’s a fun scene because it brings these heroes back down to Earth and, for a few minutes, we get to relate to them in the way that we would relate to our best friends. Age of Ultron could have used more scenes like that.

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That said, the cast of Age of Ultron provides enough old fashioned movie star charisma that they overcome the script’s shallow characterization. In many ways, it’s like one of the old Frank Sinatra rat pack movies, where you forgive a lot because you enjoy hanging out with the cast. They’re just fun to watch. Robert Downey, Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, and Mark Ruffalo; at this point they are so identified with these characters that the actors and their roles might as well be interchangeable.

(And, at this point, if it were revealed the Robert Downey, Jr. owned a suit of armor, would you really be surprised?)

Ultimately, Age of Ultron feels a lot like one of the less acclaimed James Bond films. It’s flawed, it’s imperfect, but fans of the franchise will find a lot to enjoy. Much as you wouldn’t introduce someone to James Bond by showing him Moonraker, you probably wouldn’t want to introduce someone to the MCU by showing him or her Age of Ultron. If, somehow, you’ve managed to exist without ever seeing any other MCU films, then Age of Ultron will leave you confused and wondering what the big deal is. But, if you’re already a fan of the franchise, you’ll find a lot to enjoy here.

And, flaws and all, you’ll walk out of the theater looking forward to the next installment.

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