Category Archives: Joss Whedon

Avengers: Age of Ultron– a review– please don’t kill me….

Yesterday I finally got to see Avengers: Age of Ultron

INTENSE AND HAIRY SPOILERS HEREAFTER!! I MEAN IT!!
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I loved the first Avengers movie, even though I have never been a huge fan of the comic (always X-Men for me, with a dash of Spider-man and Fantastic Four). Joss Whedon did a superlative job pulling together the disparate and often damaged individuals of the first film and creating a credible origin story that welded them together into a team. In the process he gave everyone the screen time and the attention they needed to become grounded characters in our minds. And the action suited the character development, and vice versa. All-in-all, it was a very well-written, tightly plotted action piece.

I can’t quite say the same for Age of Ultron.

Not that the movie is bad— the action sequences are intense, some of the twists Joss gives the characters are interesting (Natasha and Bruce Banner? Really?), and James Spader’s Ultron is a delightfully charming nutcase of a villain. The movie is well-done, in general.

But…to this (admittedly) picky, jaundiced old fart, the story-line seemed a little contrived, and some elements a tad too pat. The rescue of civilian bystanders during the climatic battle felt too safe, almost something that could muster the approval of the old Comic Code. At one point Thor disappears to figure out a vision given him by the Scarlet Witch (Wanda Maximoff), leaving the rest of the team to handle a further confrontation with Ultron on their own, a departure that felt to me like dereliction of duty. And, true to his well-known penchant for sacrificing characters for the sake of drama, Joss chose someone– Pietro (Quicksilver)– to die, selflessly, saving Hawkeye and a generic child. Somehow, though, his death didn’t elicit a lot of emotion in me. It was sort of, ‘oh, so that’s who Joss chose to knock off, okay, moving on.’ It almost felt rote.

But it was the climatic bit of peril the Avengers have to overcome that really left me cold. Ultron, obsessed with creating an extinction event for humanity so as to clear the planet for the next thing in evolutionary advancement (AI machines, of course), rips free a large portion of an Eastern European town from the earth and lifts it to about 20,000 feet, intending to drive it back into the planet by means of anti-gravity engines so as to recreate the effect of the dinosaur-killing asteroid of 65 million years ago.

Um, yeah.

To my mind there are a couple of things wrong with this scenario– 1. it’s hopelessly contrived and over-complicated, and 2. it probably wouldn’t work. It’s over-complicated because there are probably a hundred easier ways to accomplish the desired end (the annihilation of humanity), and it feels very much as if this particular modus exstinctio was chosen for its cinematic value. It wouldn’t work because of basic physics. The dinosaur-killing asteroid was not only massive, it was moving at many miles per second when it hit the Earth. Kinetic energy is directly proportional to the mass of the object, but it is also directly proportional to the square of the velocity at which the object is moving. The anti-gravity engines would have had to accelerate the mass of the town at something like (in very round numbers) 100 gravities (a delta-v the movie in no way depicts) to achieve the same terminal velocity, because the town, in just falling from that height, is going to hit the Earth in about 35 seconds anyway.

In short, I didn’t buy it.

And you, dear reader, at this point are probably thinking, Jeez, lighten up, dude, it’s just a superhero movie.

Well, you’re right. My problem is that I have high standards for my superhero movies.

I ran into the same issue, in a much smaller way, with Guardians of the Galaxy, and talked about it in my review of that film, months ago. I’m weird in that I actually want the science-fiction aspect of comic-book or superhero films (or comic-books, for that matter) to make sense, and not transgress the boundaries of known science too much.

As you might guess, I am often disappointed.

Still, as unreasonable as this expectation may be, it’s mine, I own it, and being disappointed in it with Age of Ultron meant that I didn’t enjoy the movie as much as I wanted to. ‘Nuff said.

My own weirdo prejudices aside, I think it is fair to say that, in general, Age of Ultron suffered, quite simply, from being a sequel– a very good sequel, but still basically a follow-on work that borrows its energy from its predecessor. It proves that, in the end, even a genius (yes, I use that word) like Joss Whedon cannot escape certain imperatives of story-telling– among which is the necessity of each tale to stand on its own and to find its own sources of strength. It also proves that that sort of loss of energy can happen to anyone.

A cautionary tale for any story-teller.

Later.

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WARNING!!– Incoming Grumpy Old Man Rant!! — STAR WARS!!

So, there is a rumor that a teaser trailer for Star Wars Episode 7 will be attached to The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies when it premieres on December 17th. Considering that I will be ardently boycotting THBOTFA, I am unlikely to see the trailer for Episode 7 until it hits the internet– and I may avoid it, even then.

It is safe to say that I am not anticipating Episode 7 with any sense of joy. True enough, the franchise has been taken from George Lucas’ dead hands and given fresh impetus– but as a part of the Disney (ugh) corporate machine, which seems to have an instinct to trivialize everything it touches, and then, placed in the hands of J.J. Abrams for execution (no pun intended. Well, maybe….).

Let me be clear about my feelings re: Mr. Abrams– he is a quite competent film director and producer. His two Star Trek reboot films have been technically more than competent. They do not have the embarrassment/silliness factor that afflicts the Star Wars prequels (Episodes 1, 2, and 3). He at least takes his material seriously.

But…I don’t think much of his story-telling chops. The two ST films were, in my opinion, unnecessary in the first instance, and untidy story junk-piles in the second, especially Star Trek Into Darkness, with its head-scratching revision of Khan Noonien Singh. Both left me dissatisfied and wanting more, or, better yet, a time-machine, in which I would go back in time and fix the whole business from the start.

I will admit that part of the problem is my distaste for Abrams as the creator of both Alias and Lost, shows which started out incredibly strong, and then withered under the weight of reboots (Alias) and muddled, unresolved plot-lines (Lost) (to be fair, I am aware that Abrams’ involvement with Lost was intermittent, and the collective sins of the production were committed by a number of people). To put it succinctly, I don’t trust Abrams to create a story-line for Episode 7 that I will find enjoyable or even comprehensible.

An online cartoon from some years back around the debut of Revenge of the Sith still pretty much sums up my feelings–

http://pvponline.com/comic/2005/05/10/tue-may-10/

Admittedly, this is all probably more than a little unfair, since Episode 7 is more than a year away. Abrams may yet pull a Wookie out of the storm-trooper helmet. I don’t expect him to, though, based on his past track record. More likely it will be an Ewok….

I will also admit that this rant is more-or-less just an old fart grieving the apparent inability of Hollywood in general, and probably Disney in particular, to deliver the kind of wonder and excitement I knew when I saw the first Star Wars. I will probably never again feel the kind of joyous punch-to-the-gut I felt the first time I saw that Star Destroyer pass over my head, chasing Princess Leia’s ship. That scene is so iconic now that those who didn’t see the film in first release in 1977 can probably never grasp just how stunning it was– how much, in short, this was something that had never been seen before, and how much it was a watershed in film history (both for good and bad). Perhaps it is unfair to hold up any subsequent film to comparison with that kind of culture-changing event.

But, then, I am not noted for being a very fair person. For me, the Star Wars franchise is dead, and neither Disney marketing pixie dust nor Abrams’ problematic story-telling skills are going to revive it. Requiescat in pace….

Meanwhile, if there are no earth-shaking movies on the horizon, there is at least the prospect of something good. And, by golly, guess whose fingerprints are on it….

Okay, what the BLEEEEP just happened?

Agents of Shield episode 117, which is not available online yet, ended just minutes ago here on the West Coast. It was heavily promoted as a tie-in with Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and I guess it was, kinda–

***SPOILERS***SPOILERS***SPOILERS***SPOILERS***SPOILERS

I mean, the story mentions Hydra and everything, but it seemed to be more about the villain of the moment, called the Clairvoyant, whom the team has been chasing around for weeks. Something about the episode felt tacked on, as if someone were trying desperately to tie it all together, as if they had too many Christmas packages to wrap and not enough paper.

And, yeah, surprises are good, and doing the unexpected is really good, but I felt jerked around by the story, which kept us guessing about the true identity of the villain, and exactly who was Hydra and who wasn’t, all the way through. The final twist at the very end of the episode didn’t feel very right, either, although I can’t say I was upset by who turned out to be the traitor in the team– I never liked that guy much anyway.

I think my main problem is certain dissatisfaction with the concept of Hydra in the first place– evil that can lie in wait for decades before springing– aha!– and taking over everything. It’s a comic book version of evil that doesn’t much resemble real life– and, as much as I liked Captain America: The Winter Soldier, I have to admit it shared this problem (if you tell me that, hey, this is all from comic books, well, I want my comic books to be realistic. So there). Real evil almost always shows its hand– it is about selfishness and power and self-gratification, and generally doesn’t take the long view of anything. Most evil, in fact, is committed by people who are telling themselves they’re doing the right thing. Self-delusion is a major component of evil, so cold-blooded and rational villains often strike me as fake and unreal. This is, in fact, a problem I’ve had with S. M. Stirling’s Draka.

I’ve complained in comments on other folks’ blogs that Agents of Shield has felt too safe. It’s obvious that Joss is making a bid to turn that around. This once, though, I am not sure I am buying it.

There is one bright spot, though– the next episode has Amy Acker in it. Hallelujah.

Movie review– “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”

I went to see Captain America: The Winter Soldier last night–

With this film the grand movie story-arc of Marvel marches on, with an important chapter in the sub-story of Captain America (Steve Rogers).

Wait a second–

***SPOILERS***SPOILERS***SPOILERS***SPOILERS***SPOILERS

There, I feel better.

This installment is a fast-paced action piece, in which the information comes fast and furious and you need to pay attention to what is going on or you’ll miss some important point. The basic plot is that Captain America, still working for SHIELD, continues to try to find his place in a future with which he still has not quite come to grips. Going out on a mission, ostensibly to rescue hostages on a SHIELD seagoing rocket launch platform, he discovers that fellow operative Natasha Romanoff has another agenda, to retrieve information from the ship’s computers. He confronts Nick Fury, head of SHIELD, who reveals a secret project to build new heli-carriers that are intended to eliminate terrorist threats.

It turns out, however, that not everything is kosher at SHIELD, and these heli-carriers are in danger of being re-purposed by SHIELD’s old adversary, HYDRA. Cap is also unexpectedly confronted by a piece of his past. At this point the elephant dung hits the turbine blades, and the action roller-coaster is screaming down its first curve.

That should give you a flavor of what this movie is about; despite my spoiler warning I don’t really want to give away too much. There are some nice twists and turns in the film, and a couple of serious points– how the mechanisms designed to protect people are vulnerable to being misused to oppress them, and the fact that some politicos might see advantages to themselves in the willingness of people give up their liberties in return for security– themes that are entirely too relevant in our real world.

The film does mostly take itself seriously, but there are some enjoyable lighter moments (one of the running gags is how everyone seems to be trying to get Steve a date). The interactions between Steve, Natasha, Nick Fury, and Sam Wilson (the Falcon) are sharp, and a refreshing aspect of the characters is that not everyone gets along perfectly– Rogers and Fury particularly don’t see eye-to-eye.

On the whole the movie is one more solid brick in the cinematic house Marvel is building. I give it four out of five shields (I am trying to re-calibrate my ratings to leave some room for the potentially perfect film. More Goodreads, less Amazon). If I have to criticize something about the film, it is exactly the fact that the information sometimes comes at you very quickly. The writers could have slowed it down a little and only added a couple of minutes to the running time.

Note: DO NOT leave the theater before the end of the credits. As has become typical with Marvel films, there are additional scenes midway through the credits and at the end. The middle scene is particularly interesting, although neither match the utter greatness of the shawarma scene at the end of The Avengers. God bless you, Joss Whedon.

A quick aside re: the Whedon Principle

Found this from a few months ago–

http://austenacious.com/?p=3338

We love you, Joss, but I have to agree with this poster– hands off the Austen! ‘Nuff said.

Later.

The Joss Whedon Principle

The last few days I’ve been dealing with a sudden crisis in the third draft of Princess of Shadows. There I was, innocently going along, inputing the hard-copy changes, when I was ambushed. Horrible cross-fire, screams, confusion, casualties mounting. Things looked grim.

To translate this into writer-speak, as I put in the changes (which has been amounting to a second read-through of the manuscript) I suddenly realized that an extensive passage right in the middle of the text just didn’t work. The passage was too long; even worse, things weren’t going badly enough for Kathy– there wasn’t enough tension and danger.

The sense that bad things need to happen to your characters is related to a concept that some people call “the Joss Whedon Principle”–

http://powertothemeeple.com/?p=443

Mr. Bourbeau’s blog is in specific reference to creating and running a horror RPG campaign, but the principle is derived from Whedon’s writing for Buffy the Vampire Slayer and his other creations. And, as far as I am concerned, it applies to any fictional universe.

This is how I phrase the principle– in a dramatic work, particularly a piece of action-adventure, you have to– have to— put your characters in jeopardy. The jeopardy has to be real– and, as a consequence, real prices have to be paid. People suffer and die. Even victories must be purchased with blood and suffering. The principle is applicable even to genres where the peril is emotional or spiritual, rather than physical. Whatever peril your protagonist is liable to get into, it has to be real.

Of course, Joss Whedon didn’t invent this idea– it’s been around since the Iliad. But his particular application of this concept is unique and pretty much a hallmark of his work. You fundamentally don’t know what’s going to happen to his characters, and that brings a fresh sense of life to his writing.

(More spoilerish stuff herein doth follow. If thou wisheth not to be spoilereth, avert thine eyes).

For me, the BtVS moment that proved this principle was “Becoming”, the finale of the second season. Angel, as the monstrous Angelus (cuddly Angel minus soul = meany Angelus), is about to awaken the demon Acathla and open a hell vortex that will destroy the world. The only thing that will seal the vortex and save the world is Angelus’ own blood. Buffy fights Angelus even as Willow, her buddy and budding witch, attempts to restore Angel’s soul remotely from her hospital bed (these guys have already been through some pretty rough times). Just as Buffy overcomes Angelus, Willow restores his soul and he becomes Angel again. But the demon is awakening, the hell-vortex is opening, and despite the momentary joy of Angel’s restoration, Buffy still has to stab him through with a sword and shove him into the vortex. World saved, but Buffy is left broken and hollow because of the sacrifice she has had to make.

I watched that episode when it first aired with my then-writing group. I remember our collective reaction as “No, NO, NOO!” But, personally, that precise moment was worth an entire graduate-school writing class for me. It brought home clearly the idea that dramatic writing needs conflict, peril and resolution, and maybe not always the happiest possible resolution, either.

So, regarding Princess of Shadows, in the first place I realized radical surgery was needed to cut the excess flab out of the sequence. As a result I cut about 5000 words in the interest of moving the action along. More than that, though, I needed to ramp the danger back up. I tried several things, some of which actually made the problem worse, but I have finally hit on what I think is a solution. A very sad and unhappy solution, but then Kathy is in a very sad and unhappy place, all of which makes for (hopefully) a better story.

One caveat– I’m not just sticking random danger into the story, like wandering monsters in World of Warcraft. The elevated peril Kathy finds herself in develops organically (I hope) from the tensions and dangers already established in the story. I just needed to exploit the possibilities of what I had already laid out. You don’t want random danger– the peril should (in theory) build toward a climax that ties everything together.

I think I am now on the other side of the ambush, having assaulted my way through. I will resume putting in the hard copy changes and hopefully, maybe have all of them in by October 1st. Shortly thereafter I can start handing over this puppy to my beta readers.

Assuming the bad guys aren’t setting up another trip-wire on the trail ahead….

Later.

Review of Joss Whedon’s “Much Ado About Nothing”

I have resumed progress on Princess of Shadows. I mean it. Really. In the meantime, though, I wanted to share some thoughts on another subject.

A few days back I went to see Joss Whedon’s version of Much Ado About Nothing.

I really looked forward to seeing this– I mean, oh, my God, it’s Joss Whedon! Doing Shakespeare! That’s almost as good as Joss Whedon! Doing X-Men! (ahem). Add to that the fact that Much Ado is one of my favorites of Bill’s plays, and the anticipation level was high.

And I will tell you what I thought of the movie just as soon as I figure out what I thought of the movie.

Actually, that’s stretching it more than a little. I liked the movie; but my initial reaction to it was very odd. This version, filmed on a tiny budget in Whedon’s own home in a few days, in black-and-white, no less, has so many actors Whedon has worked with before– Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Sean Maher, Clark Gregg, etc, etc. It was fun watching all these very good actors together, most of whom I remember from staggeringly great TV and movies, doing something different. Alexis Denisof was good as Benedict, and Amy Acker was a great Beatrice. Of course, I think Amy Acker is one of the most incandescently beautiful women in show business and I would watch her reading government press releases. As Beatrice, she is perhaps the standout actress in the ensemble– by turns funny, sad, fierce and sharp-tongued– and, man, can she do a heroic pratfall.

Another standout is Clark Gregg, who plays Leonato. Gregg is one of those actors who you always see in films as characters but who never seems to draw a lot of attention to himself– except, of course, he is now getting a lot of attention (at least among the fan-folk) for his roles in the Marvel Iron Man, Thor and Avengers movies. He broke everybody’s heart in Avengers in which he had one of the best death scenes in recent comic-book movie history. As Leonato he starts out quiet, until the wedding, when he explodes, torn between shame over Hero and vengeance for the Prince and Claudio’s insult.

And that brings me to my reaction to the movie. Basically, this movie is so very, very low-key that I had trouble at first tracking it– at least, until the wedding. In the first part of the movie, everybody delivers their lines easily and matter-of-factly and the action is easy-going. Beatrice and Benedict do spark off each other, but their repartee is cool and restrained. And that’s where I realized that my perception of Much Ado has probably been distorted by the Kenneth Branagh movie version from 1993. That version is fun, but it’s infamously over the top, especially with that cavalry charge opening sequence.

There’s no cavalry charge in Whedon’s version, and not just because they couldn’t afford horses on their budget (the Prince and his entourage show up at Leonato’s in cars, and not even limos). Whedon’s Much Ado is so laid back that I have to think it’s an intentional directorial choice– a decision to be the anti-Branagh with this material. As such, it’s refreshing– it’s just my own head that needed to be readjusted, because the acting is consistently good and the tension does build.

The first sign of trouble, naturally, is Don John. Sean Maher does a good job with Don John, establishing his malignant intentions, while, at the same time, creating a very different take on his relationship with his henchmen, especially a female Conrade. His scheme to destroy Claudio and Hero’s intended wedding unfolds pretty smoothly, and is played out rather more convincingly than in the Branagh version.

After being so laid back, as well as quite funny, during its first portion, the movie’s tension and conflict suddenly escalate by several orders of magnitude at the wedding, as you might expect. Everybody with speaking parts in this sequence is good, but especially Gregg and Jillian Morgese (Hero). The following sequence between Benedict and Beatrice is wonderful, and fully plays out the admission of mutual love and admiration these two people have for each other, against the backdrop of a disaster. For me this scene has always been the core of the play, the pay-off for all the tension and conflict between Benedict and Beatrice, and Denisof and Acker pull it off and make it look easy. The rest of the movie stays at this high level to the final resolution, relieved by the (again understated, but funny) Nathan Fillion as Dogberry.

Basically, this movie works, and works well, but don’t expect over-the-top. It’s easy-going and filled with humor until sudden disaster strikes, which is probably very close to Bill’s original intention, with a powerful contrast between light-hearted conspiracy and witty “skirmishes of wit” at the beginning and the horrifying catastrophe of false accusation and betrayal in the second part. Just make sure you see it with no preconceptions. Especially about horses.

Later.