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My week of superhero dreams

I’ve posted parts of this on the TrekBBS and Facebook, but since it adds up to a larger whole, I thought I’d consolidate it here. I’ve had two dreams in the past week of the sort where I’m both a viewer of and a character in a TV show/movie at the same time, and in both of them, I was a member of a superhero team.

First, on Sunday night (or more like Monday morning, since I only remember the dreams that happen just before I wake up), I had a DC’s Legends of Tomorrow dream that was unusually semi-coherent as dreams go, and that I remember more of than usual. There’s a lot I don’t remember, but I was at some kind of meeting or rally (in a library, I believe) where the goddess who was the episode’s villain was controlling people’s minds, including the Legends, using a glowing blue wine. (This is in keeping with the turn toward fantasy and the supernatural that this time travel-centric show has taken over the past two seasons.) Since I don’t drink, I demurred and remained uncontrolled — and I think some half-awake rational part of my brain was puzzled that I was allowed to get away with that. I also wondered what happened to Zari Tomaz, since as a Muslim she’s presumably a non-drinker too. The episode/dream went on in some stream-of-consciousness way in the library stacks, with the Legends being freed somehow, or my dreaming brain just forgetting the mind-control aspect, but the mystery of where Zari was remained.

Then we left the library and went oudoors for the climax, a big confrontation with the deity (now male due to my forgetful unconscious mind) over the font of power which he was about to merge with or draw on or do something cataclysmic with. And when we rushed there to try to stop the god, we found that Zari was there ahead of us, singlehandedly defeating the god because she’d been investigating the legal records and had found that the god had gained his connection to the font of his power through a murder centuries ago, and revealing that fact aloud somehow nullified the god’s power and bound him, either because that was how the font of power worked or because the god was subject to the human legal system within my dream logic. So while the other Legends and I were flailing around trying to fight evil the superheroic way and wondering where the hell Zari was, she’d been methodically doing the research so she could solve the whole thing far more easily. Also, in my dream, Zari was a lawyer. Who knew?

The second dream was the night after I saw Avengers: Endgame, so two nights later, and it was a dream about Thanos (no spoilers, because it’s a dream, not the actual movie). In the dream, as in the movie, it was after he’d won the previous battle, but his goal in this version had apparently been merely to conquer Earth. So he was the ruler of Earth… and he was living in the attic of what, in the dream, was my house. Or at least a house I shared with some dream version of the Avengers. The world, my house — in a dream, the difference doesn’t matter. Either way, it’s where I keep all my stuff.

So anyway, there was a point where Thanos, Ruler of All, came down from the attic to sit on our couch and watch TV. (Right next to where I was sitting. The dude takes up a lot of couch space, folks.) But I and my fellow Avengers/roommates/whoever weren’t just taking this occupation of our living room and/or planet lying down. (Most of them were standing or sitting in armchairs, since there was no room left on the couch. Personal space, Thanos!) No, we were planning to show him some book in the hopes that it would convince him that we didn’t need his rule anymore and he could go home. Because of course, even in this alternate dream narrative, he still thought he was a benevolent tyrant, and we just needed to prove to him, using the book’s contents, that whatever goal he’d conquered us to bring about for our own good had been fulfilled already, so we didn’t need him anymore and he could just fly off back to his home planet in his helicopter. (No, the Thanos copter wasn’t actually in the dream, alas. I’m interpolating. But it would’ve fit right in.)

I don’t recall whether the book in question was fact or fiction. We may have been trying to con him into leaving in much the same way Reed Richards conned the Skrulls in FANTASTIC FOUR #2 by showing them pages from Marvel’s monster comics to convince them that Earth was too dangerous to conquer. But we didn’t get very far before the dream ended. So it didn’t have the satisfaction of being a complete (if barely coherent) story like the Legends dream was — more just a vignette (or a comedy sketch, though in the dream we took it all seriously).Who knows? If the dream had continued, maybe Black Widow would’ve turned up some obscure legal precedent requiring Thanos to cede his claim to the planet. But then, as far as I recall, Black Widow was not in the dream. Alas, indeed.

 

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Spoilery thoughts on AVENGERS: ENDGAME, with spoilers (Spoilers!)

I made sure recently to see Captain Marvel before Avengers: Endgame came out, but I wasn’t sure if I wanted to see Endgame right away, since it looked like the theaters would be jam-packed in the first week or two. I didn’t want to go to the theater and find the film sold out. My Facebook friends told me that the major multiplexes were showing it on a bunch of different screens at once, so it should be possible to get a seat, but looking at the seat reservation pages online, it looked like I’d have to settle for something on the edge or too close to the screen (I generally prefer the very back row in the smallish theaters that are common today). And there was an extra fee for ordering online, and I’ve never done that and didn’t want to go through whatever registration or rigmarole would be needed to do that. So I was undecided. But yesterday it looked like the theater I usually go to had added an extra showing for Tuesday morning (discount day, when I’d prefer to go), and since it was a late addition, it had more open seats than the ones around it. So on Tuesday morning I checked and saw it still had plenty of open seats, so I decided “What the heck” and drove over to the theater. I was able to get just about the exact seat I wanted, or at least the one next to it, but the seats around it were reserved already, and I ended up with a somewhat talkative couple next to me, which got distracting at times. And nobody but me seems to listen to the announcement about turning off their phones anymore, though the people around me did seem to stop texting once they got drawn into the movie.

So the spoilers begin below, and I’ve inserted a “Read more” cut for the front page of the blog, but here’s some extra spoiler space for those of you coming to it through Goodreads or Facebook or wherever:

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Final warning:

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Read more…

Finally, my thoughts on CAPTAIN MARVEL (spoilers)

Since my advance check finally came last week, I finally got to see Captain Marvel yesterday (I still waited for the Tuesday discount). I wonder if it was just coincidence that the multiplex had Captain Marvel and Shazam! (based on the Fawcett/DC character I grew up knowing as Captain Marvel) running in adjacent theaters. I wonder if anyone’s gotten confused and asked for the wrong movie.

Anyway, Captain Marvel is a pretty good movie. I like its structure — the way it introduces us to the character of “Vers” in the present after she’s lost her memory and then gradually has her discover her origins (a nice break from the usual origin-story format), and the way it integrates the flashbacks into her real-time POV as dreams or memory-probe findings, which is deft and economical. And it’s effective in the way it handles the Kree and the Skrulls, setting us up to believe we know who the good guys and bad guys are, only to turn it around in a surprising way. I honestly didn’t see that twist coming. Which is partly because I’m used to seeing Jude Law in more or less heroic roles and know Ben Mendelsohn mainly as Rogue One‘s villain, so the casting helped to fool me. Also because the Skrulls are usually villains in the comics, although the loss of their homeworld is a plot point there too. (Come to think of it, if the MCU Skrulls have been reduced to scattered refugees in the 1990s, that explains why they’re not a significant presence in the 21st-century MCU.)

It was also a surprise, and a pretty nice touch, to tie the origin of Carol’s powers into the Tesseract, and along the way to explain how it ended up in SHIELD’s possession (although that’s a bit of a retcon from what we’d previously been shown about Howard Stark recovering it from the ocean floor; apparently the new version, according to the MCU Wiki, is that Stark helped found Lawson’s Project PEGASUS, although I don’t recall that being stated outright in the movie). They also connected their version to the original comics origin (of Carol getting her powers from Mar-Vell, the original Marvel character to use the Captain Marvel name) in an unexpected way, assigning the name Mar-Vell to Annette Bening’s scientist character.

Speaking of the project, it was weird to have the alien characters talking about a “lightspeed engine” created by a backward civilization like humans as some revolutionary breakthrough when they were already routinely far surpassing the speed of light by making hyperspace jumps. I mean, sure, we learned that the search for the lightspeed engine was just a cover for the (distinct) things that the Skrulls and the Kree were respectively searching for, but it’s implausible that it would even work as a cover story, because it doesn’t sound like something new or important to an already FTL-capable civilization.

As for the Earthbound stuff, it was interesting to get a look at a younger, more relaxed Nick Fury. It was more than just digital de-aging; he was a lot more whimsical and playful back then, which was an interesting choice, though kind of revisionist (but then, the character’s been revisionist since the moment Samuel L. Jackson was cast in the role). It was good to see Phil Coulson too, but he didn’t really serve that much role in the story beyond the indulgence of having him there. Well, I guess his actions do help lay the groundwork for why Fury placed so much trust in him later on, but aside from that one moment in the stairwell, he didn’t really have that much to do that any generic exposition-spouting subordinate couldn’t have done.

I’m not sure the friendship between Carol and Maria Rambeau came through as strongly as it was meant to, since most of it was just glimpsed in flashbacks, and most of the present-day (well, 1990s present) Maria’s role in the film was dominated by exposition and action. But young Monica and her relationship with Carol rather stole the show, which is good because Monica’s presumably the one we’ll see again in the sequel, although she’ll no doubt be played by a different actress.

As far as actors go, I’d say the standout here was Ben Mendelsohn, who did a great job making Talos a complex and engaging character and working equally well when we thought he was the villain and when he turned out to be the nice guy in need of help. Jackson and Gregg did their usual good jobs with what they had to work with. Law was effective too, although Lee Pace was just as wasted as Ronan here as he was in Guardians of the Galaxy, and Djimon Hounsou only had a little more to do here than there. Gemma Chan was also sadly underutilized.

As for Brie Larson herself, she was reasonably effective, but I’m afraid I find her a little bland. Carol/Captain Marvel in the comics has been a breakout character, impressive in her strength of character, charisma, and heroism as well as her physical power. I haven’t read many comics she’s been in, but I’ve read a fair amount of Ms. Marvel and seen her through Kamala Khan’s admiring eyes, and I remember Jennifer Hale’s effectively strong performance as Carol in the animated The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. Animation and gaming fans know that Hale is a pretty hard act to follow, and I’m afraid I find Larson a little underwhelming in comparison. She’s not bad in any way, but her performance just doesn’t really grab me the way Scarlett Johansson, Hayley Atwell, Gal Gadot, and others have grabbed me. (Like just a couple of nights ago, I was watching Caity Lotz in a guest appearance on Arrow as Sara Lance/White Canary, and there was a moment where just her facial expression and a single line reading made me think “Damn, she’s a compelling performer.” I’ve never had such a moment with Brie Larson in anything I’ve seen her in.)

I also feel the film was maybe a bit too humorous and light in the later portions. As a rule, I like most things that involve cats, but the business with Goose in the climactic portions of the film got a little too silly for me, and the explanation for how Fury lost his eye was a bit dumb.

Anyway, now I’m inevitably speculating about what role Carol will play in Avengers: Endgame. Since her powers come from the Tesseract/Space Stone, that kind of makes her a walking Infinity Stone, which is probably why she could be the key to beating Thanos. Too bad Fury never actually told the Avengers who it was they were named after and what she could do — it might’ve saved some trouble if they’d known to call her in sooner. (And if Goose had been there, he probably could’ve just swallowed the Infinity Gauntlet right off of Thanos’s arm.)

Oh, I almost forgot — the opening tribute to Stan Lee. That was beautiful. It brought tears to my eyes. “Thank you, Stan.”

Darkest before the dawn

First, I want to thank my fans for their generous donations and book purchases last month, which ensured I was able to pay my rent. Of course, the offer to Tuckerize anyone who donates or buys books worth $20 or more (i.e. name-drop them as a bit character in my next book) is still open, and smaller donations/purchases will get thanks in the acknowledgments. By the way, there are a few people who didn’t specify whether or how they want to be Tuckerized: Jeff van B., Ricarda D., Gavin S., and Darryl S. (Casey L., I did get your message last week.)

As for this month… Well, that’s tricky. I got my new contract on March 8, but the advance check is taking longer than usual to arrive. My editor reassured me on Monday that the check had been processed and cleared and was on its way… but it’s three days later, the mail just came, and it’s still not here. Knowing it’s on the way just makes it that much more frustrating every time I open that mailbox and it isn’t there. After all, taxes are due on Monday, so I can only pray the check arrives tomorrow or Saturday. (As for my sale of “Conventional Powers” to Analog, I only signed the contract 2 weeks ago, and in the past it’s generally taken about twice that long to see the check. I’m hoping this will be an exception to the usual pattern lately of things taking much longer than expected.)

I’ve resisted writing this post, wanting to wait until I could report good news. After all, it doesn’t feel right to make another needy post about my money woes (and implicitly or explicitly invite donations) when I might be better off 24 hours from now. But I think I need to just talk about it just for therapeutic reasons — to stop bottling up my feelings and share them with someone. I’m really, really stressed out and anxious right now. Even with assurances that I’m about to be pulled back from the brink, having to keep teetering on it day after day is frightening and emotionally exhausting. I’m in the middle of lunch right now but I’m finding it hard to work up an appetite (which is unusual for me, since I’m usually more prone to stress-eating). I’ve been doing my best to relax — deep breathing, listening to music, reading, going on walks in the good weather we’re fortunately having this week — as well as trying to focus on my writing to keep me occupied, but managing my emotions has never been easy for me. And I’m afraid I don’t have much of a social life locally, in part because I have so little money to spend on going out — though, admittedly, in part because I’ve inherited the tendency of Bennett men to be highly introverted. The last social event I attended was the memorial service for WGUC-FM’s Frank Johnson a couple of weeks ago. Which was a good opportunity to spend time with some local friends I usually just interact with through Facebook, but still a sad situation. (More so since I learned that WGUC is about to move out of the building it’s been based in since I was 12. I haven’t been there very often in the past few decades, but it still feels like a cozy, familiar place and it’ll be a shame to lose it. Although I won’t miss the ancient, malfunction-prone entry gate in the city-owned parking garage underneath it.)

I’ll be so relieved when the check comes and I can indulge in a little recreation. The mail these days usually comes before noon, so I keep hoping that maybe I’ll find the check in the mailbox and be able to go right out to the bank and then get to the theater in time to see Captain Marvel. I keep fearing, what if the check is so delayed that I miss the movie in theaters? I can’t see Avengers: Endgame without seeing CM first! And if the timing doesn’t work out for the movie, then at least I could go to the grocery store and splurge a bit, as opposed to the austerity measures I’ve been following in recent weeks. (I’ve had a lot of ramen noodles lately. You can make a pretty good soup out of a ramen packet by adding diced chicken and mixed vegetables, although you have to add extra water too.)

Of course, there’s always the possibility that the check will be in the mail tomorrow. But I’ve been thinking that 6 days a week for the past 2 or 3 weeks, only to be disappointed once again. So it’s hard to have faith in that. I keep trying to remind myself that this is going to be a good year for me career-wise, with new books and stories coming out and more prospective sales and opportunities on the horizon. But the wait for things to get better has taken so very long, and it’s coming right up to the wire now. I really hope this is the last time I have to make a post like this.

Thanks for listening, folks. It helps knowing you’re out there.

Thoughts on AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (full spoilers)

Yup, I finally got around to seeing Avengers: Infinity War. I got paid for a writing project at last — a bit later than I’d hoped, but enough that I figured I could spare 5 bucks for a movie ticket on discount day (last week — I’ve been busy since). Honestly, that spoiler warning in the title seems almost unnecessary; despite all the pleas from the filmmakers for people to avoid giving away spoilers, it was less than a day after the film’s release that I got spoiled on the ending by something online, and people have been talking about it pretty openly on the Web ever since. Then again, there were several people near me in the theater who seemed genuinely taken aback by the ending, so I guess not everyone’s been spoiled. So be warned.

Honestly, I’m not sure the film offers much to talk about but the ending. I mean, as a single story culminating the plot and character arcs of 18 previous films and uniting nearly all their casts, it’s a logistically and structurally impressive achievement in its way. It’s kind of a miracle they even pulled it off and that it’s actually a coherent story overall. But the drawback of fitting in all those characters is that few of them really have that much to do. Oh, they get their moments to do their schticks and be the characters we’ve come to know and love, and we get to see various pairs or groups of characters meet for the first time and play off each other in novel ways. (I liked it that they paired Spider-Man with Iron Man and Dr. Strange, two characters he’s often been close to in the comics.) But opportunities for meaningful character advancement and growth are few. The most important character arc left over from previous movies, the conflict between Iron Man and Captain America, is all but completely avoided, with Tony Stark and Steve Rogers never actually meeting at any point in the film.

So it’s certainly a well-done film for what it is, one massive action crossover spectacular. I enjoyed it while I was watching, and had fun seeing the characters I liked do their things (though I could’ve done without Star-Lord, who was really kind of a moron here). I even enjoyed the unexpected return of a long-absent MCU villain in a new role as the Soul Stone’s guardian, and it was fun to see Peter Dinklage playing a giant. (Really, come to think of it, it makes biomechanical sense that a giant would have more squat, vertically compact proportions than an average-sized human, so that’s actually very logical casting.) But it left me feeling less than satisfied after the fact, because there wasn’t much else to it in the way of substance. The biggest thing that happened to any of the major characters, mostly, was that a lot of them died. And that quickly lost its shock value as it happened more and more throughout the film. Really, I’ve kind of gotten tired of lead-character death as a story device, because it’s been used so often. Not to mention that there’s no telling how many of these deaths will stick.

Thinking it over, the only heroes who really get any meaningful character growth are the pairs of Vision & Scarlet Witch and Star Lord & Gamora. And both couples have the exact same arc — one urges the other to kill them to stop Thanos, the other resists but eventually finds the courage to try it, but it fails anyway because of the Infinity Gauntlet’s powers, yet the first one still dies anyway after Thanos got what he wanted from them. With so many different characters to play with, you’d think they could’ve found two different arcs there instead of the same one twice. Similarly, Loki and Nebula play quite similar roles — former villainous siblings who largely redeemed themselves in their last appearances and now solidify their redemption. Except in this case, one lives and the other apparently dies (though as soon as it happened, I was expecting it to turn out to be another of Loki’s faked deaths, and Thor suggested later that it might be).

The one character who has a real, complete story arc in this film is Thanos. In a very real sense, he’s the protagonist of the movie — he’s the guy whose quest drives the story, we learn of his motivations and witness his choices and personal struggles as he pursues his goal and overcomes the multiple enemies opposing him one by one, and eventually he prevails against the odds. And of course he does see himself as the hero of the story, believing his goal is benevolent. Although of course he’s a hypocrite. If he has the godlike power of the Gauntlet and can rewrite reality to his will, why not snap his fingers and double the amount of food and resources available in the universe? Or multiply it by a hundred times so there’s more than enough for everyone? He’s too fixated on his obsession with Death (albeit not as literally as in the comics) to see a better way. Still, he was an impressively rich and nuanced character for an MCU villain, and marvelously played by Josh Brolin and the CG animators interpreting and augmenting his performance. Between him and Killmonger, this has been a good year for MCU villains. I just wish Infinity War had had more room to do good work with the heroes.

You know, one thing that’s bothered me about comics’ mega-crossovers is the way they require the individual series to twist themselves into knots to accommodate the big mega-events, often getting dragged off course and forced to change their plans to accommodate the new status quo when they’ve barely even gotten started. We see that here with Spider-Man and Black Panther, two characters who’ve only just had their solo series get underway and have already been yanked in a whole other direction. Not to mention that the relatively happy ending of Thor: Ragnarok turned out to descend into tragedy literal minutes after that film’s post-credits stinger. (It’s a good thing that I ended up seeing Ragnarok out of order after Black Panther, since it works better there, its stinger leading straight into the opening of A:IW.) I find that the DC Arrowverse shows on The CW have done a defter job with their multi-series crossovers the past two years; instead of swerving the individual series’ storylines off course or negating their plot developments to serve the crossover, they construct the crossover so that it serves and advances the individual series’ existing storylines and character arcs, even if it’s a complete swerve from them in terms of the basic situation and the enemy they’re facing. Granted, this past year’s Crisis on Earth-X crossover had the advantage that most of the heroes had already met in the previous year’s crossover, or at least at the wedding reception early in the story, so there weren’t as many getting-to-know-you moments taking up time as there were in A:IW. (And if you think it was also because they had a lot more running time in a 4-part crossover, think again. With each part only being 40-odd minutes including recaps, they had maybe 10-20 more minutes than the 2.5-hour Infinity War.)

Of course, the saving grace for Infinity War is that it’s just the first half of a 2-parter. Despite the shock of my fellow moviegoers when the film ended with half the cast dead or disintegrated, it’s obvious that the ending will be reversed somehow in Avengers 4, resurrecting at least the characters turned to dust by Thanos’s snap, if not the ones killed earlier as well. After all, several of those characters already have announced sequels coming up after Avengers 4. Meanwhile, the next couple of films and the Marvel Cinematic Universe-adjacent TV series are apparently mostly going to keep themselves in a timeframe before Infinity War, while Agents of SHIELD is saving its next season until after Avengers 4, suggesting that the next film will pick up pretty much directly after this one and mostly restore the status quo in a fairly brief time in internal continuity terms.

Come to think of it, the advantage of killing off half the huge ensemble of IW is that it may give the surviving characters in A4 more room to breathe and develop. In a way, I’m surprised that most of the newer characters like Spidey, Dr. Strange, and Black Panther got dusted while the established core cast like Stark, Cap, Thor, Banner, and Black Widow is intact. But at the same time, I’m not surprised. It makes sense to keep the focus on the big stars. But I, and probably a lot of people, had been expecting that this duology would bring about a changing of the guard, a passing of the torch to the new generation of MCU heroes who will be more prominent going forward. Still, maybe that will happen in A4. Maybe the reason to give the old guard the focus there is to give them a proper wrap-up to their arcs so the new characters can take the lead thereafter. We’ll see.

Anyway, I suspect we’ll learn in A4 that the reason Dr. Strange gave up the Time Stone to save Stark is that the one possible future he beheld where Thanos was beaten was one where Tony saved the day after the Snap and somehow reversed things. It figures that the fate of the whole MCU would revolve around Tony Stark. I wonder if maybe he’ll find a way to reset time and give Thor a do-over for that final strike. Really, why didn’t he go for the head? Or chop Thanos’s hand off? You’d think a warrior with millennia of combat experience would’ve known better. So that was kind of contrived.

Speaking of contrivances, it’s kind of weird that the last Infinity Stone Thanos managed to claim, the Vision’s Mind Stone, originally came from Loki’s scepter — which Thanos gave to Loki in the first place! So did Thanos not know he had an Infinity Stone all along? Or did he give it up as an investment, knowing it would set events in motion that would expose the other Stones on Earth? Maybe Avengers 4 will finally explain that plot hole.

Oh, by the way, while the audience I saw the movie with may have been largely unspoiled on the ending, given their reactions, they did know one thing that most prior audiences in my experience have not: that for an MCU movie, you stay through the credits. Usually I’m practically the only person who sticks around to the very end, but this time, most of the audience stayed. Although it helped that there was only one post-credit stinger here and no mid-credit teaser for the next film. If there had been two stingers, most of the audience would probably have left after the first one.

Lots of spoilery thoughts on AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON

I saw Avengers: Age of Ultron Monday and have had a lot of thoughts about it, but was too worn out afterward to really focus on a detailed post. It’s a pretty intense, densely packed movie, although in some ways I wish it had been longer (and I look forward to the extended DVD cut).

Oh, where to begin? Well, maybe I should start with how pleased I am with the smooth transition from last week’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. episode to this movie. That episode featured Dr. List — Baron Strucker’s assistant in the Winter Soldier tag scene and here — experimenting with human enhancement, and ended with Agent Coulson discovering the location of Loki’s scepter in List’s files, then transmitting that info to Maria Hill so she could send in the Avengers. In the movie, we find that the Avengers have been together as a team for some time, hunting down Loki’s sceptre while cleaning up the remains of HYDRA. It’s a bit odd that we haven’t heard about their efforts in previous AoS episodes, but HYDRA’s a big, fragmented enough organization (cut off one head, two more grow, etc.) that I can believe that two groups would be involved in hunting them down and that their efforts would rarely overlap.

(Agents didn’t quite stick the dismount, though; last night’s episode following up on Ultron was a bit abrupt, just “Well, that happened; now let’s get back to our own problems.” The transition will be rather jarring on a binge rewatch unless you pause to watch the movie in between episodes.)

Anyway, I figure the Avengers have probably been back together as a team ever since the fall of SHIELD in The Winter Soldier. For one thing, they needed to pick up the slack, to fill the void of protection left by SHIELD’s fall; and for another, once HYDRA was exposed, it would’ve been discovered that SHIELD-held assets like the scepter were in HYDRA hands, motivating Thor’s hunt. This is probably also what drew Tony back out of his retirement at the end of Iron Man 3, though it would’ve been nice to have some acknowledgment of this.

Tony Stark’s arc between that movie and this is a bit awkward. It feels like he’s regressed from his growth at the end of that movie. But then, he is an addictive personality, and thus prone to relapse. And he did have a little help. It wasn’t until the Scarlet Witch’s psychic push that he started repeating his old mistakes in earnest and trying to create “a suit of armor around the world.” True, he did have the Iron Legion, an Avengers-branded version of his army of suits from IM3, but they seemed to serve a narrower, more specific function. They were a sign of his potential for relapse, but it took Wanda to push him over the edge. So it’s a plausible personality arc, even if I have to read (or write) between the lines to justify it.

Steve Rogers has less of an arc here; if anything, it’s more the resolution of his arc in the previous few films, as he moves on past his identity as a WWII relic and ex-SHIELD agent and finally embraces being his own man, his own superhero. He’s the rock upon which the Avengers are built (to borrow Ultron’s Biblical allusion), the stalwart moral center, and that’s what Captain America needs to be. And I continue to be impressed at how perfect Chris Evans is in the role. He’s the purest paragon of heroism onscreen since Christopher Reeve, but with more of a soldierly edge, as befits the character.

Thor has even less to do here, mainly just advancing plot threads for this and other movies and providing comic relief with his smugness. The visions that Wanda gave him were mainly about creating an excuse to include Heimdall and Eric Selvig in the movie, and about moving the Infinity Gauntlet arc forward a bit more (although it is neat to see that thread starting to coalesce). Apparently, according to this Whedon interview, this part went on even longer in the original version, but test audiences reponded poorly since it was so peripheral to the film itself, so the pool sequence was cut to the bare minimum.

The bulk of this movie’s character work was for the characters who don’t have their own film series, which makes sense. Black Widow in particular continues to be a dominant presence, as she’s been in every one of her appearances except Iron Man 2. And she’s grown a lot. What we see here is the payoff of Natasha’s arc from The Winter Soldier. There, she told Cap that he might be in the wrong business, because he valued friends more than secrets. As it turned out, she was right, and that movie ended with Cap leaving the spy game (indeed, kicking the whole board over) — and with Natasha following him out. When she told the Congressional committee “You know where to find us,” it was implicit to me that she was talking about Avengers Tower. Now Black Widow the spy has given way to Black Widow the Avenger, and she’s manifestly happier as a superhero — more open, more able to connect to another human being in a way she never allowed herself before. The team’s use of her as the keeper of the “Lullaby” to calm the Hulk probably started as an exploitation of her skills at seducing and manipulating people, but by the time we see them here, it’s grown into something more real to her, given her a human connection she wouldn’t have been open to while working for Fury and playing his games of secrets and lies. Now, I gather there’s some criticism of this plot development putting Widow in a more conventional feminine role than before (discounting her sexualized debut in IM2), making her less “strong” as a character, but I disagree. I think she’s actually stronger here, because she’s grown into a more complete, healthy person, one who’s added honesty and genuine kindness to her repertoire of assets. Real strength doesn’t come from fighting and killing, or from hiding your emotions from yourself or others. Any mindless force of nature can destroy; what enabled humanity to transform the world was our empathy, our ability to bond and work together. That’s real power.

As for Bruce Banner, I found his arc a little unfocused. The Avengers (Avengers Assemble to you UK folks) ended with Bruce apparently coming to terms with the Hulk, recognizing that he could direct the Hulk as a force for good. And come to think of it, The Incredible Hulk ended with the same epiphany, to an extent (“Maybe I can aim it”). How many times is he going to regress to thinking of himself as a monster? And what exactly did Wanda put in his mind to set off his Johannesburg rampage? Hopefully we’ll see that in the extended cut. His departure at the end seemed pretty arbitrary too.

(By the way, there were moments when I was watching Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce and I was struck by how much he reminded me of Bill Bixby. I think it’s the hair, and the way he plays the role. The face isn’t really that similar.)

It’s Clint Barton/Hawkeye who gets the most development here, given that he’s had the fewest appearances of any of the Avengers and spent most of his one previous big appearance under Loki’s mind control (which Whedon acknowledges and corrects here by having Clint be the only one who avoids Wanda’s mind-whammy). Turns out he has a whole hidden domestic life we didn’t know about, and Natasha isn’t his love interest but his best friend and his children’s favorite “aunt.” And Whedon nicely plays with genre cliches here, as he so often does, since he spends much of the movie doing all he can to set up Clint as the one who’s doomed to die — he’s severely injured in the first battle, then he has a family and a pregnant wife, and he’s talking about all his home renovation plans, so that when he steps off the evac shuttle and gives up his ride to safety to rescue that kid, it seems inevitable that he’s going to be killed — and then Quicksilver shows up and changes the narrative. In the interview linked above, Whedon admits that he had great fun playing with that cliche, really pushing all the “Hawkeye’s gonna die” buttons to set us up for the twist.

Beyond that, Pietro never really emerged as that interesting a character, with Wanda carrying the bulk of the emotion and plot agency in their arc (since she’s the one who sets Ultron’s creation in motion). Whedon says he’d always planned to kill off Quicksilver, so that there’d be a real price to what he considered a war story, so maybe that’s why his character development was considered the most expendable (apparently quite a lot of it ended up on the cutting-room floor). I also can’t help but notice: Now there’s no longer a Quicksilver in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and there never was a Scarlet Witch in the Fox X-Men movie universe. That would seem to resolve their dispute over the characters and their split rights — they’ve each ended up with half the pair. I’m not sure if that was planned, but it works out nicely for them.

I guess talking about Scarlet Witch brings me to the Vision next. In some ways, bringing about his creation seemed like one thread too many in an already-cluttered film. What made it work was the decision to retcon the Vision into an evolved form of the JARVIS artificial intelligence. JARVIS has been Tony’s stalwart ally from the start of the MCU, so the audience already has an investment in him as a character. And the film established him as a heroic figure in the first two acts, showing him fighting to stop Ultron at the latter’s creation, apparently dying heroically in the attempt, and then turning out to have survived and assisted the Avengers clandestinely in battling Ultron on the Internet. Giving him a body and a fuller sentience is basically a payoff he’s earned through all his prior achievements — although I think Tony underestimated how sentient he was to begin with. JARVIS was never just a voice interface, but had many behaviors that require sophisticated cognition — the ability to recognize and generate humor foremost among them, but also the ability to anticipate Tony’s thoughts, needs, and even feelings. (Like when JARVIS suggested calling Pepper when Tony was about to sacrifice himself in the Chitauri wormhole. No mindless interface could have that kind of empathy.)

And that was Tony’s real mistake here — underestimating the true intelligence of his own creation, so that he felt compelled to do something very stupid and plug an unknown alien AI from an evil sceptre into his mainframe and use it as the basis for his ultimate security system. True, it was Wanda’s amplification of his fears that compelled him to choose the more advanced intelligence, but he still didn’t appreciate the potential of his own “son.” I’m reminded of Harold Finch on Person of Interest and the way he continually underestimates the intelligence and the morality of his own AI creation. The Vision’s creation represents Tony finally trusting that his own brainchildren are good enough, that he doesn’t have to be forever unsatisfied and striving for more. And maybe finally recognizing just how much JARVIS has done for him over the years, and how worthy JARVIS is of being entrusted with the enormous power of the Vision.

And that moment with Thor’s hammer — I was literally agape and on the edge of my seat after the Vision lifted it. I mean, I knew that much-touted scene where everyone was competing to lift the hammer was bound to be setup for a later scene where someone other than Thor would prove worthy to lift it, but I was expecting it to be Cap. The fact that Vision did it so casually just made it more striking. (Although I love the final bit where Tony and Steve try to comfort Thor about how maybe it didn’t count. “An elevator isn’t worthy.”)

So anyway, Ultron himself… He was a pretty interesting villain, more nuanced and textured than a number of the MCU’s villains (I’ve seen sheets of plastic wrap with more texture and depth than Guardians of the Galaxy‘s Ronan), but still kind of rushed in a lot of ways. His creation in particular seemed to happen overnight, although I guess it probably took the Avengers a few days to gather all those party guests together after bringing Strucker down. Even so, it felt kind of abrupt, and a lot of Ultron’s character traits, while fun to watch thanks to James Spader’s performance, seemed a bit unmotivated. Why did he hate the Avengers so much? How did he end up as a reflection of Tony’s own personality, as seemed to be the case? Why did he turn to Wanda and Pietro as his allies? Maybe it would’ve worked better if Ultron had been a more direct outgrowth of Tony’s legion of suits in IM3 — if he’d been established there as a broader global security program, and if Age of Ultron had begun with the Avengers already relying on Ultron drones as a security program to take the place of SHIELD, and if it had been Tony’s effort to improve the system by enhancing it with the sceptre’s software that had pushed it over the edge. Then it wouldn’t have felt quite so abrupt, Ultron rebelling from the instant of his creation. It would’ve required a different ending to IM3, but would’ve unified the films more and helped set up Ultron’s rise better. (I may be influenced by how the animated The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes did it, with Ultron starting out as a set of robot prison guards and security drones for the Avengers before going bad.)

As far as the film’s ties to the broader MCU go, I like it that they managed to include so much, like cameos by Rhodey and Falcon and Peggy and mentions of Pepper and Jane, but I regret that they left out so much, like actual appearances by Pepper and Jane and maybe Darcy. (Although I do like it that Pepper and Jane’s absence was justified by the fact that they were just too awesome and important to have time for being mere extensions of their men’s lives. And I love it that Tony and Thor were competing with each other by boasting about how powerful and amazing their girlfriends were.) And I suspect that a fair amount of Sam/Falcon’s material was cut. In the climax, it felt like he was supposed to be there, providing air support alongside Rhodey, so it was odd that he didn’t show until that brief cameo in costume at the end.

But I’m glad we got the new character of Helen Cho. I recently watched Netflix’s Marco Polo and quite enjoyed Claudia Kim as Khutulun, so it was nice to see her again in another role so soon. And it’s interesting that she’s still around as part of the Avengers’ support team at the end. I wonder if we’ll see her in future films, or maybe in an Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. guest role.

So… at the end of the film, we see Iron Man step down from the team (justified, as it was his mistake that created the crisis), Thor take a leave of absence to research the Infinity Stones, and Hulk wander off for unclear reasons, while Hawkeye goes home to his family. And now we’ve got a new team of B-listers led by Captain America. This is an homage to the comics’ evolution in which the original Avengers team gave way to “Cap’s Kooky Quartet” of himself, Hawkeye, Quicksilver, and the Scarlet Witch. The new team at the end of Age of Ultron, by contrast, has Cap and Black Widow as the leaders and War Machine, Falcon, Scarlet Witch, and Vision as the new recruits. Which is a definite improvement on the all-white, one-female roster we started with. But I wonder if it’ll last. The next film after Ant-Man is Captain America: Civil War, which I’ve heard referred to as essentially Avengers 2 1/2. We know that most of the members of this Avengers roster (except War Machine and Vision, and including Hawkeye) are already confirmed members of its cast. So this is probably the team Cap will be leading at the start of Civil War. Whether it survives those events and continues into Avengers: Infinity War remains to be seen.

Anyway, I mentioned earlier how Cap and Widow have basically graduated from being soldiers/spies to full-on superheroes. Aside from the HYDRA raid at the beginning, the Avengers definitely felt more like superheroes than warriors here. One thing a lot of reviewers have called attention to — and it’s sad that this is unusual enough in movies to need calling attention to — is how much the action sequences focus on protecting civilians. This was something I noticed and liked in the climax of the first Avengers, the way Whedon kept the focus grounded on the reactions of ordinary people and showed us what it was the heroes were fighting for. And it’s an even larger focus here, with so much of the climactic sequence revolving around the logistics and difficulties of evacuating the civilians, and Fury/SHIELD’s Big Damn Hero moment being an act of rescue rather than one of combat. This is something I’m glad to see in any movie, particularly a superhero movie. As I’ve said before, I prefer seeing superheroes as rescuers, not warriors. It’s also a pretty clear “Take that” to Zack Snyder and Man of Steel, and I can totally get behind that. I just hope that Markus, McFeely, and the Russo brothers — the writers and directors of Civil War and Infinity War — follow Whedon’s lead in this regard. I felt they kind of dropped the ball on that front in The Winter Soldier, staging battles with lots of potential or implied civilian casualties and only making the rare token nod to protecting civilians. (Although it was a nice touch in TWS that the one character who was shown urging civilians to get to safety was Black Widow, showing that she had more hero in her than she realized.)

One thing I want to acknowledge in particular is the musical score, by Danny Elfman and an uncredited Brian Tyler (well, semi-credited — there’s a section deep in the credits that has one heading for the musicians who worked on Tyler’s score and one for those who worked on Elfman’s score; I gather Elfman replaced Tyler midway through). One thing the MCU has lacked in the past is musical consistency; they use different composers for the different movies in a given series, so we generally haven’t gotten character themes that have remained consistent from one film to the next. Only Alan Silvestri’s Captain America March has been used consistently, being at least briefly quoted in all four of Cap’s films to date. But with this film, there was more acknowledgment and consolidation of past themes. We got snippets of both Cap’s theme and Tyler’s Iron Man 3 theme at key heroic moments for those characters (and maybe more individual character themes I didn’t catch), and Silvestri’s Avengers motif from the first film was quoted here both in the underscore and in the end titles. It’s good to hear some continuity in the scoring at last, to accompany the continuity in storylines. And the score is solid overall, too. I don’t know how much or which parts Elfman did, but I think he’s become a more mature and versatile composer in recent years, growing beyond the single, somewhat repetitive sound his scores had in the ’80s and ’90s. There was a time when seeing Elfman’s name in a movie’s credits inspired a reaction of “Oh, not again” in me, but that’s no longer the case.

Ooh, what else? Physics! I can talk about physics. The science behind Ultron’s scheme at the end actually made a fair amount of sense, up to a point. The movie recognized that even if the big chunk of Sokovia fell back to Earth from even a relatively low height, at an altitude where people could still breathe fairly easily, the energy release of the impact would be cataclysmic — not enough to wipe out all life on Earth, but certainly enough to devastate the continent. This is something a lot of movies don’t get. In Independence Day, for instance, all those city-sized saucers crashing into the ground even from just a mile or two up would’ve caused an extinction-level event all by itself; heck, the simple act of their deceleration within Earth’s atmosphere would’ve converted enough kinetic energy into heat to devastate the planet. So points for understanding gravitational potential energy. A bit iffier is the fact that if Ultron’s engines were powerful enough to lift that mass against gravity, then they must’ve been capable of generating the same amount of energy that would be released by its impact, and then some (since some of the energy they generated would go into vibration, breakage, heat, noise, etc. rather than lift). So why not just use that device as a bomb and eliminate the middlemassif? But Ultron isn’t a perfectly logical being, and he seems inordinately fixated on symbolism and metaphor. He was thinking in terms of impact events causing mass extinctions, and was irrational and immature enough to focus on recreating that particular type of event rather than recognizing that there was a simpler way. So I can buy that.

The problem is the one you usually get in “stop the asteroid” stories — namely, that blowing up the impactor wouldn’t really help, because you’ve still got the same amount of mass delivering its kinetic energy to the Earth’s atmosphere and surface, just a bit more diffusely. It can actually make things worse, in the way that a shotgun blast can be more damaging than a single bullet hit. In this case, though, it might be somewhat justifiable, since the mass of rock was shattered at the very beginning of its descent. If you blew up an asteroid that was already incoming at high speed, all its fragments would still have that same velocity. But here, the mass is starting from zero velocity (or a low upward velocity). Intact, it would’ve all accelerated at once and would’ve been too massive for air resistance to matter; but with lot of smaller fragments starting from zero, air resistance would be more of a factor. So the millions of fragments wouldn’t be able to build up as much kinetic energy as the one big chunk. It would probably still be a lot worse than shown, but it borders on the plausible.

So what else is there to say? Mainly that Joss Whedon, in his interviews lately, sounds really, really tired. He worked damn hard to make this movie work, and he managed to pull it off, but he’s earned a good rest. I can’t blame him at all for choosing to step down from the MCU and go back to his own, more manageably sized projects. At this point, he can probably do whatever he wants in Hollywood. It’s impressive that he’s already gone back to focusing on his writing (which is apparently the real reason he left Twitter, despite certain claims that have been made — here’s the link, but watch out for “language,” as Cap would say!). I just hope the Russo brothers don’t burn out doing three big Marvel films pretty much in a row. At least there are two of them, so hopefully that’ll ease the workload.

(By the way, would Cap really have had an issue with his teammates using profanity? I mean, sure, he’s wholesome and clean-cut and a literal poster boy, but he was also a soldier in the trenches in WWII, so I’m sure he’s quite used to being around heavy cursers. He would’ve been uncomfortable with such language being used in front of a woman, but he’s been teamed with Natasha long enough to think of her as a fellow soldier. So that bit, while funny, didn’t quite ring true for me.)