Sunday, 26 April 2015

Disassembled – Avengers: Age of Ultron

The below is my initial thoughts on Avengers: Age of Ultron, pulled together into some vague order. Warning: It's pretty damn' spoilerific.
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Let's start with the kind of brash prediction I have absolutely no business making: Age of Ultron will not break the same box office records as its predecessor.

As I understand it, the only way a film makes as much money as The Avengers did is from people going more than once, more than twice, to get another hit of whatever emotional reaction seeing it elicited in the first place. Age of Ultron just isn't that kind of film. In fact, much like Thor and Loki, the film is more or less the opposite of its older brother.

Back in 2012, I wrote about my search for meaning in the original Avengers. My feeling then was that while the movie was a remarkable achievement of craftsmanship – bringing together at least four disparate universes and styles and transforming the rote last-half-hour punch-up of the Marvel formula into one my all-time favourite action scenes, the dopamine hit I reckon brought people back to the scene over and over gain – it wasn't the piece of art I was hoping for.

Age of Ultron, on the other hand, is full of meaning and metaphor and all that good stuff, but (at least on a first viewing – and let's get two disclaimers out of the way here: 1, that the first Avengers only really came together for me on the second watch, though frankly that's not something to commend it for, and 2, that the cinema screen we watched the film in had the house lights on throughout, and horribly muddled sound, so thanks for that Streatham Odeon) the plot is borderline incomprehensible.

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I often found myself adrift, lost among the mass of plots and characters. The origin of the Vision, whatever the hell Thor was up to for the majority of the film's running time, Ultron's evil plan – each of these seemed to require its own synopsis. Worse, there aren't as many jokes.

Much of Age of Ultron is leaden in this way, like the film hasn't yet completed the alchemical process of editing, like it has been presented to us still halfway through transmuting into gold. But there are still plenty of nuggets which shine through.

I often found myself with mouth open and eyes wide, drinking in the sheer childhood-fantasy-realised spectacle. The moments of superheroes leaping into action, the emotional arcs that the film manages to find for an impressive (though not total) number of its gigantic cast, Ultron's philosophising soliloquies – each of these landed perfectly. There still aren't enough jokes, though.

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These two halves can co-exist in a single scene. I remember a point during the climactic brawl, my internal monologue (rarely a welcome presence in the dark of the cinema) still trying to work out how exactly we'd gotten to this point, while in the other half of my cerebellum, something was shifting.

The shape of the entire film fell into place. Not the plot, unfortunately, but the patterns of everything we'd been shown, how the stories of various characters cast shadow and light on one another – what I would call, if I wasn't trying to convince you this was actually a fun read about a blockbuster superhero movie, the subtext.

This is the stuff I really love about the film, and so with all the caveats already mentioned, I'd like to talk about the ways Age of Ultron tickled my brain, and the shape I saw in that moment. Which, to borrow the pithy tweet-sized thought that popped into my head then, is:
Age of Ultron is the biggest-budget movie about how hard it is to make a big-budget movie I've ever seen.
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Let's start with Hawkeye.

After a difficult first film (mind-controlled, bed-bound) that had Jeremy Renner reportedly threatening to quit, this time round he gets a role that you could argue makes Hawkeye not only the primary protagonist of  Age of Ultron, but an author surrogate for Joss Whedon himself.

Let's grab a quote from the recent Buzzfeed profile of Whedon, which I read a few days before sitting down in the cinema and, honestly, heavily influenced my thinking on the film:
By March, as he sat down to dinner near Disney’s Burbank, California, studio lot, where he had been living as he worked with two editors to finish Age of Ultron, that guilt was weighing especially on his mind. “I didn’t feel it was right to spend that time away from family, even before I had kids,” Whedon said. “I felt like if it wasn’t the headline experience, that I was being self-indulgent in being there, and it was frustrating.”
Around halfway through Age of Ultron, Hawkeye takes his teammates to a safe house, where it's revealed that there is a Mrs Hawkeye, and two baby Hawkeyes, and a third on the way. A family that live, in secret, away from the kinds of cities where those big super-hero/villain battles tend to take place. A family that, Black Widow excepted, none of his work friends know anything about. A family that he rarely sees because he's so busy Avenging.

Those dots aren't exactly hard to connect. But if Age of Ultron was entirely a autobiographical story about how hard it is to be a writer, it would have failed its audience dramatically. Luckily, I think the film stretches itself much wider than that, reaching for something we can pretty much all relate to.

See, for Hawkeye at least – and this is something he explicitly references a few times in dialogue – being an Avenger is a job. (And this is part of the difference between the character's solo films, where they combat problems that threaten them personally, and their appearances in the Avengers.) It's an unusual job, for sure, but one with a familiar challenge: balancing it with the rest of your life.

The revelation that Hawkeye has a family raises the stakes for the character, making every bullet headed in his direction a genuine, wince-inducing threat. As the film goes out of its way to point out, though, he isn't the only one with a reason to get home safely at the end of the day.
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Like, for example, the other character vying for the title of Age of Ultron's main protagonist: Tony Stark. The whole film is about Stark's attempt to retire, to make the world safe enough that he can leave behind the business of being Iron Man.

Whether retroactively or by design, this creates a perfect arc for the character across the five films. While he first wore the armour like a thrill-seeker, Stark has worked from remove himself. Iron Man 3 is filled with moments that separate Tony and the armour, and Age of Ultron builds on that with a legions of Iron Man drones driven by Jarvis, and the gigantic 'Hulkbuster' armour, able to lose and replace an entire arm without the man inside being harmed.

Part of this transition is practical, as both Stark and Downey Jr are getting too old for this shit, but it also seems to be personal. Tony has a seemingly stable relationship with Pepper Potts, who never appears in Age of Ultron except by name, in an adorable 'my girlfriend does...' brag-off with Thor, which also serves us to remind us she is CEO of Stark Industries – representing an alternative way for Tony to keep on saving the world, while also holding onto his own life.

It's a similar story for Natasha Romanoff and Bruce Banner – we'll get back to them later – and for Thor. As mentioned earlier, Thor's role in Age of Ultron is one of its biggest weaknesses, but the characterisation we do get hits similar beats as every other core Avenger. In fact, he's torn between three lives: 1, being with Jane Foster, the aforementioned girlfriend who Thor wants to make absolutely sure you know is a Nobel prize-winning astrophysicist; 2, being in Asgard to fulfil his duties to his family; and 3, being the best movie Avenger most underserved by the films he has actually appeared in.

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There is one major exception. The man who, by the proclamation of his own movie's subtitle, was the first Avenger, and the boss of a team with abilities that put his own firmly to the left of the bell curve: Captain America. What makes Steve Rogers such a perfect Avenger is the lack of any real life to compete with his work. Thanks to Rogers being put on ice for the best part of a century, his best gal is now in her nineties, and his former best pal (and potential love-interest, if you buy into that reading of Winter Soldier) is an on-the-run cyborg assassin.

Unlike Iron Man or Thor, Cap's only real relationships are with his work friends, and it's even hinted in his telepath-induced nightmare sequences that, even if he hadn't been frozen, Rogers would have struggled to find a life after the war was over.

If you don't think there's someone in your office that fits that description, you're probably the Captain America of your workplace – or, if you'd prefer, the Black Widow.

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In her previous appearances – and unlike most of the boys she has only ever appeared in other people's stories, forever on the job – Natasha 'Black Widow' Romanoff has been characterised that fits everything I said about Cap above. But Age of Ultron introduces a new wrinkle to her life, in the form of a budding relationship with Bruce Banner. It's an office romance but, vitally, Natasha wants to escape the world she and Bruce work in.

This relationship is the aspect of the film I'm most unsure about. A little because the softer scenes with the Hulk evoke Peter Jackson's eternally rubbish King Kong, but mostly because of what it means for Black Widow as the team's lone female. Romanoff is left to stand in for the story's attitudes to women in general, so it's a little problematic that she becomes a default love object. (Ignoring Scarlet Witch, who may provide a point of contrast in future but – as with all the film's new recruits – never quite finds her place.)

Eventually, though, my sheer affection for the two characters won me over on the issue, which meant that when the two characters are forced in two opposite directions at the end of the film, it stung.
This leaves Romanoff with no one again – but as Cap's pep talk reminds her, that just means she's ready to throw herself into the job again and have all-new adventures. Are we meant to pity her, or envy her?

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Age of Ultron isn't the 'dark' installment of the MCU saga, except chromatically speaking. Thank Odin. Tonally, I'd say it's more... downbeat.

The film it reminds me of most is Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg's The World's End – a writer/director and cast that I love, stepping away from what they've been doing for the last decade and working out all the difficulties of that in the process. Age of Ultron is Whedon's final word on the MCU – despite this only being the second Marvel films Whedon has directed, he's had his finger in a whole bakery's worth of pies both televisual and cinematic during his tenure as Marvel Studios' creative consultant.


In both cases, the resulting film is a bit of a bummer. This is the story of someone walking away from a job he loves because it's eating his life, both on the screen and on the set, and for that reason I don't see people wanting to rush back into the cinema to see Age of Ultron all over again.

Personally, though, I'm eager to see it again, mostly because I still have no idea whether I like it or not. If I was pushed to give Age of Ultron a rating, I'm not sure which end of the spectrum it would fall on. Maybe that will change with a rewatch, maybe not.

...And that's about as neat a resolution as we're going to get, I'm afraid. This blog has been an attempt to process how I feel about stuff, and trying to be entertaining along the way. Much like Age of Ultron itself, I think.

Monday, 13 April 2015

XCOM: Enemy Within

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In retrospect, waiting nearly a full year between getting my copy of XCOM: Enemy Within and actually playing it feels rather silly. I do think I know why I held out so long, though.

The challenges of vanilla XCOM are well mapped, its enemies not so unknown any more – but the game is still about as difficult as reading a Thomas Pynchon novel translated into Latin. So the idea of an expansion introducing more moving parts, parts that I don't know how to deal with, was frankly intimidating.

But I shouldn't have waited, because XCOM with all of Enemy Within's additions is pretty much a perfect game. Yeah. Stick that on the front of your game box, Firaxis-of-18-months-ago.

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As an expansion, Enemy Within does everything right. Every new addition pushes and pulls at what was already there in the base game, and at the other new features. So, the introduction of collectible Meld capsules scattered across most levels, each of which expires after a set number of turns, encourages you to push forward and explore. But on the flip side, the squid-like 'Seekers' – with their ability to sneak up to your soldiers unseen, then reappear and strangle them with their horrifying mecha-tentacles – punish you for letting a single member of your squad get too far from their teammates.

The missions themselves are a little more varied than the standard bug hunts of the original – including one memorable effort to stop a zombie-spawning infection at a boatyard that ended with the last survivor calling down an air strike on his own head.

The smaller details get a little extra colour too, right down to the tiny posters on the walls of mission location, which help sell the idea that these are real, lived-in places torn apart by XCOM's cast of ETs. There are new customisation options for your individual soldiers too, including stat-boosting medals you can award for valiant conduct, plus some cosmetic tweaks. The latter is just a cupboard's worth of helmet designs, some paint jobs for their armour and a handful of foreign languages, but it's more than enough to cement each character's personality.

The big back-of-the-box selling point, though, is augmentation, which comes in two affront-to-God flavours. Cybernetics lets you saw off the arms and legs of your infantry to create hulking MECs, while Gene Mods use alien technology to transform them into super soldiers.

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Like the the Meld canisters and Seekers, MECs help to re-shape movement around XCOM's battlefield. You can push them out in front to draw fire, while your infantry stays in the rear, but they can't be relied on to soak up bullets without exploding. They're basically tanks in any given WWII game, but with tiny yelling faces.

There's a nice mirror to the MEC in the aliens' 'Mechtoid' unit, almost identical but for the swollen head of a Sectoid popping out, the Area 51-style greys that traditionally filled the role of early cannon fodder. Even non-iron-clad Sectoids can now lend a psychic hand to a Mechtoid pal, transforming it from healthpoint-endowed nuisance to a wall of utter mechanical bastardry, in a relationship reminiscent of TF2's classic Heavy/Medic romance.

None of your units fill such an explicit support role, but having to pick off the vulnerable Sectoids hiding in the distance before you can make any dent in the Mechtoid barrelling through your squad is likely to give you some tactical ideas of your own.

It probably wouldn't be a revelation to anyone who hadn't avoided Total War-style strategy games their whole life, but manoeuvring MECs into position then withdrawing when it gets too hot, with the cover of less iron-clad infantry? That leaves me feeling like the General Patton of alien invasions, the Sun Tzu of plasma rifles.

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Genetic modification, meanwhile, offer yet another way to further tweak and personalise that infantry.

The original XCOM featured a bonsai tech tree of special abilities afforded by a character's class. As a sniper rises through the ranks, for example, she can take a perk to expand her view of the battlefield, or to target and disable enemies' weapons. The Gene Mods allow you hang extra baubles from that tree. So that same sniper might have the muscles in her legs modified so she can leap entire buildings in search of a good vantage point, or get her eyes augmented to improve her aim once she's up there.

Along with the medals and the languages and the paint jobs, GMs are another way to encourage you to build an attachment to individual soldiers. While these Captain America-a-likes are capable of superhuman feats on the battlefield, they're still as fragile as the rest of their fleshy comrades – and they're more of an investment. So, fair warning: when your favourite modded-up-to-the-literal-eyeballs Assault unit ceases to be, it's going to sting.

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Holding up a dark mirror to these GM soldiers is EXALT, the terrorist cell which introduces human enemies to XCOM for the first time. Made up of alien sympathisers, EXALT is toying with a more the same gene tech as you but, based on their scaly skin and sickly glow, on a considerably more DIY basis.

It's a reminder of the dangers of playing with alien genes, and of the humanity being sacrificed on both figurative and chopping-off-your-men's-limbs levels. In all senses, EXALT embody the 'enemy within' of the title.

Unfortunately, EXALT don't slot into the game's mechanics quite as neatly as they do thematically.
There's no real explanation of how to deal with the gene-altering bastards, or what the repercussions of their attacks are, until a new menu pops up to further obfuscate XCOM's base management game.

When the time comes to deploy your squad against EXALT, though, it's thrilling. The missions provide a chance to throw down with a mirror image of your own squad which evolves throughout the game, like a genetically-modified version of Gary/Red/Blue/That Nob-end From Primary School You Named Your Rival in Pokémon After.

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Enemy Within might have been gathering dust on my shelf for the best part of two years, but I've more than made up for that lost time over the last few weeks. I won't share my Steam stats here, for fear of dislocating your jaw, but suffice to say I'm now deep into my third game, having seen the world end twice, once with a bang and once with a whimper.

There are no two ways around it, XCOM is a timesink. I've written before about how the game's interlocking systems work to keep you constantly hooked, and I've neglected other games, and commitments, and loved ones to keep playing Enemy Within.

Maybe that's the real reason I waited to unlock the shrink-wrapped Pandora's Box – the knowledge that, the second it was open, I was committing dozens of hours of my life. But I don't regret any of the time I've spent exploring the curves and dips of Enemy Within. It's never a grind, or a meaningless number-chase. Perfect game, remember?

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London, United Kingdom
Videogames, film, music, comics: feed them into the Alex-Spencer machine and out come neat little articles. Like the ones you're looking at here.