Chris Evans

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures

Fans of Iron Man, Captain America and the other members of the notorious Avengers clan don’t have to worry about. “Avengers: Age of Ultron” not living up to the legacy of its action-packed predecessor. “Ultron” is on par with “The Avengers” in terms of CGI-laden action and great humor, but it doesn’t aspire to add anything groundbreaking.

The film is exactly what audiences expect from a Marvel film. It’s a fun, thrilling ride that, despite a few story hiccups, serves as an entertaining summer blockbuster.

After the events of the previous film, Captain America (Chris Evans) and the rest of the Avengers struggle to protect the world from an ever increasing number of threats. Desperate to create a way to guard the planet so that the Avengers aren’t constantly needed, Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) creates a sentient computer program called Ultron (voiced by James Spader) designed to patrol for crime. Upon uploading himself into a mechanized body, Ultron goes rogue when he determines mankind is the greatest threat to the planet and teams up with two mutants to rid the Earth of humanity. The Avengers race to stop Ultron as deep-seated divisions among the team threaten to tear the group apart.

“Ultron” again proves that Marvel films can be light-hearted despite the destructive action sequences and heavy themes of doubt throughout. Unlike movies based on characters from Marvel’s rival DC Comics, such as the colorless, brooding “Man of Steel,” “Ultron” is filled with humor that makes the characters more relatable. Sequences, such as the celebratory party thrown at the Avengers headquarters early in the film, work as great character development while providing some laughs. It proves Earth’s “Mightiest Heroes” are interesting even when they’re not battling bad guys.

Director Joss Whedon expertly handles the action scenes. He thoroughly plans every shot to clearly capture every punch and explosion. Watching Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk and Iron Man go toe-to-toe in a citywide rampage is a delight. The only downside is the climactic battle, which takes place in a crumbling city besieged by Ultron’s robotic army and feels derivative of the final battle from the first film.

The film’s heart comes from its strong acting. Downey carries a majority of the film’s one-liners, and his sarcastic demeanor is charming. Evans’ Captain America is a good-natured and forceful leader, but Downey’s presence overshadows him. Evans only truly shines in the fast-paced action sequences. Spader’s Ultron possesses the charisma of a megalomaniac with a major God complex, and his sardonic nature is humorous and eerie at the same time.

The film does have flaws that keep it from being a true superhero epic. Some weak side-stories plague the plot. Chris Hemsworth’s Thor is sent on a pointless side-quest, and the payoff only turns out to be a setup for the next sequel. Meanwhile, Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk and Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow suddenly become love interests, a twist that comes out of nowhere. The motivation behind their attraction is so thin that it’s difficult to believe. The film’s pacing is also off in some crucial moments. Ultron’s “birth” is rushed through too quickly, while a few quiet, sentimental moments run far too long.   

Overall, “Ultron” proves that superhero films still have some punch left in them. It may possess a few structural issues, but it remains a solid action film that embraces the fun and excitement of comic book stories. With heartfelt, funny performances by both the leaders of the team and the villain, “Ultron” is easily the next hit in Marvel’s long string of successes.

 

  • Director: Joss Whedon
  • Genre: Action
  • Runtime: 141 minutes
  • Rating: 8/10 Robot Armies

All good science fiction really needs is a great hook, and “Snowpiercer’s” setting is just that: in a post-apocalyptic icescape, a train holding the last scraps of humanity circles the globe in a never-ending loop. But “Snowpiercer” is more than a mere survival story, and proves to be a brainy, elegant sci-fi tale, using a familiar rags-to-riches arc in creative fashion to deliver one of the year’s best films.

Much like any train, the Snowpiercer is divided into classes, with the social elite in the front of the train and the “freeloaders” confined to the back few cars. Those in the tail are crammed together like sardines and fed saggy protein blocks, and a rebellion slowly begins to brew under the leadership of Gilliam (John Hurt) and his reluctant protégé, Curtis (Chris Evans). Once the inhabitants of the front, represented by the ruthless Mason (Tilda Swinton), go too far, Curtis leads the charge towards the front of the train.

The beauty of “Snowpiercer’s” pointed social commentary comes from the effortless set-up, the class system of the train a potent allegory for the deeply set social divisions that prevail all over the world today. But the film is far from a ponderous treatise on social mobility, crafting a tense, harrowing journey for Curtis and his mangy group of allies. The film’s production design and world-building is remarkable, with the beauty and small details of excess in the train’s front cars striking a strong contrast to the dank pit our heroes are fighting to escape.

Director Joon-ho Bong, making his English-language debut, stages a host of impressive action sequences. The first moment of rebellion is a breathless, exciting explosion of tension, feeling almost accidental in its suddenness, while a showdown with a train car full of masked men with axes is a monumental, impressive fight with several great twists worked in. Bong also displays a knack for making the characters fighting for their lives feel like living, breathing people, and not soapboxes from which he can deliver social commentary.

Coming off of playing the squeaky-clean Captain America, Chris Evans seems relieved to sink into the unapologetically dark role of Curtis, who slowly stumbles into his leadership role, making several mistakes and hard sacrifices along the way. Evans gives a fantastic, conflicted performance here, and even as Curtis reflects on some truly reprehensible steps he’s taken to survive, Evans brings such unfiltered regret and anguish to the role that it’s impossible not to feel for him.

Way on the other end of the spectrum is Tilda Swinton’s totally insane performance as the delegate from the front of the train, Mason. She initially appears to be a crisp picture of confidence, but as she finds herself coming into conflict with the rebels, she slowly emerges as a weasel, perpetually squirming to find the best angle for herself. Swinton’s extravagant, cranked-up performance plays beautifully off of Evans’ restrained turn, and she lands some of the film’s biggest laughs. The rest of the supporting cast is equally well-suited to the world Bong creates, with Kang-ho Song playing a stoic prisoner who plays a key role in the rebellion and Ed Harris bringing the film home with his languid, arrogant performance as one of the front car’s shadowy figures.

Harris emerges during the third act, which is the most puzzling aspect of “Snowpiercer.” The film’s finale is a muted affair, casting many of the previous events in a new light and introducing an intriguing morality play before ending on a visually stunning moment that could function as a cynical condemnation or an optimistic view on the future. The film’s final scenes may raise a few too many questions, but the ambiguity is welcome, and it’s a sign of a film’s power if its story is both potent and vague enough to leave ample room for discussion.

“Snowpiercer” is a science-fiction film rich with meaning, but it never gets bogged down in that, always remaining an entertaining, tense journey. Joon-ho Bong does a great job both playing in a new genre and directing in a new language, and his cast delivers terrific performances across the board. In a weekend sure to be dominated by a three-hour commercial for robot toys, “Snowpiercer” is a refreshingly adult alternative, and it’s unlikely that a film this smart, exciting, and original will come along again this summer.

"SNOWPIERCER"
Director: Joon-ho Bong
Genre: Science Fiction
Runtime: 126 minutes

“Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is a prime example of the growth of the Marvel film series. Just as the first “Captain America” film led into the events of “The Avengers,” “The Winter Soldier” also serves as a setup for larger events to come. Even though the movie connects with a much bigger plot, it still manages to tell an entertaining, self-contained story. “The Winter Soldier” is a fun, thrilling superhero flick that beautifully mixes serious action with funny humor and likeable characters.

After the events of “The Avengers,” Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) struggles with adapting to life in a modern age while embodying the role of Captain America. He stays loyal to the country by continuing to work with S.H.I.E.L.D. and its head, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). Finding a plot in the works to bring S.H.I.E.L.D. down from the inside, Captain America works with Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and former soldier Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) to stop forces that plan to simultaneously assassinate millions of citizens. Meanwhile, the three are stalked by a mysterious enemy, the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), who poses a deadly threat to the team.

Marvel films tend to include an appropriate amount of humor in their plots and often use it more naturally than the gritty DC Universe films. “The Winter Soldier” follows this trend, as most of the jokes stick while every subtle, humorous gesture possesses great timing. These action scenes are phenomenal and well-paced while maintaining a constant, pulsing thrill. The action-loaded climax, which takes place on a monstrous Helicarrier, demonstrates the excellent pacing and brutality of each punch. 

The effects, despite relying on an overload of CGI, seem real enough to enhance the setting. The story features a few gimmicky, predicable plot elements, but it unfolds with a smart instinct for audience expectations and is richly entertaining. References to other Marvel heroes and villains are dropped constantly, yet they feel like natural universe-building, not forced synergy. Directors Anthony and Joe Russo show a clear knack for balance as they paint a fun comic book story with heavy action and complex character relationships.

Evans steps up his acting game as Cap, who finds his loyalty to S.H.I.E.L.D. and his country tested. But it is clear that Johansson and Mackie are the real acting powerhouses. Johansson has Widow pegged as a sardonic, but dangerous, heroine who is enchanting in almost every scene. Mackie, who plays Falcon, is also a humorous and effective character who commands the camera. Jackson reprises his role as Nick Fury, who actually has a larger role in the film than he has had in any other Marvel film, and it seems that he has perfected a formula that keeps his performance of the character from growing stale. Robert Redford plays a big role in the film, dominating as a powerful S.H.I.E.L.D. official. Oddly enough, the titular antagonist is surprisingly underplayed. The Winter Soldier is offered as a small tool of a larger threat. Stan, who played a role in the previous film, portrays him as overly mysterious, and while he looks extremely cool with his robotic armor and lethal persona, he lacks much of a character. The Winter Soldier is more of a force of mayhem than a fully realized villain.

Overall, “The Winter Soldier” is perhaps the best Marvel offering since “The Avengers.” Its great action and fantastic story present pure blockbuster entertainment. Mixed with stellar performances and well placed humor, the film proves that Marvel has succeeded in finding the balance that keeps superhero movies fun without being too gritty or campy. Despite being considered a prequel for next year’s “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” “The Winter Soldier” is a great blend of elements that make an incredibly powerful superhero movie.

The Avengers

Thor portrayed by Chris Hemsworth, left, and Captain America, portrayed by Chris Evans, are shown in a scene from “The Avengers” (Photo courtesy of Disney).

Ever since Samuel L. Jackson poked his eye-patched head in for the post-credits stinger in “Iron Man,” audiences have been looking forward to the inevitable “Avengers” movie. In creating this film, Marvel Studios had to launch four separate franchises and establish four superheroes worth caring about in the process. One misstep, and it could have been a disaster. Not only did they do it, they absolutely nailed it. “The Avengers” is the best film in the Marvel canon, a massively entertaining summer blockbuster and a huge success for writer/director Joss Whedon.

Thanks to their respective setup films, we already know Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). It would be easy to say Whedon had all the tough work done for him since each of these heroes was established in their own film (or two), but juggling these big, distinct personalities could have been an equally foreboding challenge. Whedon doesn’t disappoint, and he crafts a true ensemble, even as each character gets his own big moment.

Each of the films preceding “The Avengers” had its own issues, but if there’s one thing Marvel has done right on a consistent basis, it’s casting. Chris Hemsworth has had a great month between this and the Whedon-scripted “The Cabin in the Woods,” and his Thor is much more layered and interesting as he is forced to battle with his brother, the nefarious Loki (Tom Hiddleston). Hiddleston is fantastic here, full of anger and insecurity, and his chemistry with Hemsworth gives the film’s conflict an emotional complexity that many comic book good vs. evil stories lack.

Evans and Downey are the characters who chafe the most often as Captain America’s unflappable optimism clashes with Iron Man’s shielded cynicism, and “The Avengers” is smart in the way it incorporates Tony Stark’s daddy issues into their relationship. Evans continues to impress as Steve Rogers is relocated to a time period he doesn’t understand, and Downey’s Tony Stark comes so naturally at this point that it’s impossible to discuss the character without thinking of his portrayal.

The only major cast member who didn’t get a chance to establish himself in a previous film is Mark Ruffalo, but he’s a perfect fit for Bruce Banner, and the Hulk ultimately ends up walking away with the movie. Ruffalo plays Banner not as an emotionally conflicted scientist, but as a man who’s come to terms with his unusual condition. When the Hulk finally comes out, it’s equal parts inevitable descent into madness and joyous celebration of destruction, and many of the best beats in Whedon’s sprawling Manhattan climax focus on the green force of nature..

For “The Avengers” to work, Marvel needed not only someone who could write well for its heroes, but someone who could deliver action scenes on a massive scale, and Joss Whedon turns out to be the perfect man for the job. His setup is quick and easy, and starting with the opening assault on a military base, Whedon stages his action scenes with incredible scope. From there, he just goes bigger and bigger, while never losing sight of his characters and infusing the most intense moments with a sharp sense of humor.

The film’s final action set piece, a sprawling alien invasion in Manhattan, is a climax in the truest sense of the word. Whedon finds a way to pay off character dynamics that have been simmering the entire film while staging one of the most impressive, massive action scenes to hit screens in far too long. Imagine the epic final battle in “Transformers: Dark of the Moon,” but this time, you actually care about the characters, and you have an idea of how insanely exciting and satisfying “The Avengers” is.

“The Avengers” is the event movie that every summer blockbuster wishes it could be, the final result of a grand, multi-franchise experiment that works better than anyone ever dreamed it could. Thanks to Joss Whedon, the strong cast and the undeniably smart people pulling the strings at Marvel, “The Avengers” is a resounding success and a wonderful start to what promises to be an unforgettable summer of movies.

Printed on Thursday, May 3, 2012 as: 'Avengers' blasts off with solid cast, staging

Since “Iron Man” was released in 2008, Marvel Studios has been slowly filling a world with characters, building the foundation for next summer’s “The Avengers.” With “Captain America: The First Avenger,” the last of the building blocks falls in place, and thankfully Marvel has saved their best film for last. “Captain America” is not only one of the best films of the summer, but it’s a benchmark for the superhero genre as a whole.

Chris Evans stars as Steve Rogers, a scrawny runt of a boy who wants nothing more than to join the Army and join his countrymen in fighting World War II. Rejected time and time again, Steve keeps coming back until Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) offers to make him the first in a line of scientifically enhanced super soldiers.

Evans shines in these early scenes as the barely-there Steve, giving the character a heart and inherent decency that informs the entire film. He’s even better once Steve becomes Captain America, dominating the screen with magnetic charisma befitting a superhero.

Stanley Tucci leads an impressive supporting cast. His Erskine veers between a hammy German accent and a scientist genuinely passionate about his work, but Tucci’s gentle, controlled performance makes the character work. Meanwhile, Tommy Lee Jones scores some unexpected laughs as a hard-headed Colonel, and Hayley Atwell shines as the radiant Peggy Carter, Steve’s love interest. This is one of the rare superhero romances that doesn’t feel forced, thanks in equal part to Peggy’s smart, three-dimensional characterization, no shortage of chemistry between Atwell and Evans, and an ending that’s decidedly unhappy. The surprising left turn for a superhero film was nonetheless necessary to get everyone into place for “The Avengers.”

Above all, “Captain America” feels like a classic action-adventure film. Many scenes could easily have ended up in a Bond or Indiana Jones film and not felt out of place, mostly thanks to director Joe Johnston, who has been making these adventurous, easily entertaining popcorn films for two decades. Johnston stages every action scene with enthusiastic vigor, but he also makes the slower expository scenes crackle with energy as well. He sells Steve Rogers’ transformation into a true American hero without making him overpowered or unlikable.

If there’s one thing truly wrong with “Captain America,” it’s the film’s brevity. With such a massive supporting cast, several characters get shorted. In addition to the characters already mentioned, there’s also the film’s villains, played by Hugo Weaving and Toby Jones, and an entire team of characters who back Captain America on the battlefield. The film takes place over several years, and Johnston paces things well enough that it never feels episodic, but an extra 20 minutes or so could have done wonders to add some detail to the world and characters.

Unfortunately, “Captain America” also ends with little chance of having sequels set in the World War II environment the character is created in, which is quite a shame. However, it’s a film that doesn’t really need a sequel — a truly entertaining superhero film that tells a commonplace origin story with enough flair. The film never feels like something you’ve seen before, and it’s an excellent primer for next summer’s “Avengers.” If the quality seen here and in some of the other Marvel Studios films carries over into that film, we’re certainly in for a treat next summer.