REVIEW: The sequel that doesn’t seem like a sequel

Iron Man's Hulkbuster armor vs. the Hulk, a highlight of Avengers: Age of Ultron

Concept art of Iron Man’s Hulkbuster armor vs. the Hulk, a highlight of Avengers: Age of Ultron

Director Joss Whedon, in his farewell to Marvel movies, has come up with a rarity: a sequel that doesn’t seem like a sequel.

Avengers: Age of Ultron, while not a perfect film, achieves something unusual. It’s a sequel that’s more introspective (at least for a time) than the 2012 original Marvel’s The Avengers, that Whedon directed and co-wrote. There’s a substantial attempt at demonstrating what makes its main characters tick that’s deeper than what came before.

It’s rare these days where there’s a “written and directed by” credit, but that’s what Whedon has here. It’s even more rare in genre movies not to mention a studio (Walt Disney Co.’s Marvel) that isn’t known as a haven for “auteur” filmmakers.

Still, the movie is all that and more. Whedon successfully walks a tightrope. He successfully balances commercial concerns (the 2012 movie had worldwide ticket sales of $1.5 billion), throws more than a few bones to the hard-core Marvel Comics fan base (including Tony Stark’s “Hulkbuster” armor, a popular bit from late 1970s comic books) to giving his main actors plenty of material to work with.

Concerning the latter point, the introspection occurs relatively early in the movie, something even more surprising. The super hero group encounters a set of brother-sister twins, who’ve been experimented upon by the evil organization Hydra. Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) can mess with the minds of people.

Whedon uses that as a device to explore the personalities of his main cast (Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Mark Ruffalo and Jeremy Renner).

Tony Stark and Bruce Banner (Downey Jr. and Ruffalo) have been working on something they believe can result in good. As it turns out, they’ve crossed into Dr. Frankenstein territory (and Whedon provides a couple of references for those not familiar with that story). As a result, Ultron (James Spader) is born, a robot with artificial intelligence who decides humans should be exterminated.

Since 2008, Marvel Studios has been on an amazing run of movies that have been highly successful (and then some) at the box office. At the same time, those movies haven’t been paint-by-the-numbers. That’s especially true with Whedon’s second Avengers movie. He shakes things up (though not too much).

Whedon has indicated that after five-plus years of living with the Avengers he wants to movie on to developing projects featuring his own characters. That’s very understandable. Nevertheless, he has set a high bar for his successors.

Directors Joe and Anthony Russo will helm a two-part Avengers movie due for release in 2018 and 2019. They’ve already directed one Captain America movie and are about to begin filming another featuring a Cap/Iron Man clash.

Yet, Whedon has demonstrated what can be accomplished in a genre film. Sam Mendes, director of the 007 film Skyfall and the currently filming SPECTRE, has been using Christopher Nolan’s Batman films as a guide to making James Bond movies. It’s too bad he didn’t get a chance check out Whedon’s work on the two Avengers movies as well.

Avengers: Age of Ultron has flaws. It’s a bit long and gets exhausting at times. For all that, it’s worth a look. GRADE: A-Minus.

007.com posts video blog about SPECTRE car chase

SPECTRE teaser poster

SPECTRE teaser poster

People who don’t want to know anything about the movie should stop reading now.

The official James Bond website, 007.com, posted a new video blog today which looks at a car chase scene in SPECTRE.

In the film, Daniel Craig’s James Bond is driving an Aston Martin DB10 and is being chased by a Jaguar driven by henchman Mr. Hinx (Dave Bautista).

The video includes comments from special effects man Chris Corbould and director Sam Mendes. The latter calls the sequence “a cat and mouse game through the night time streets of Rome.”

Here’s the video, it runs about 100 seconds. No real story spoilers, but, as stated above, the super-spoiler averse should not view.

UPDATE: To view a related tweet from the official 007 Twitter account, CLICK HERE.

SPECTRE: What could have been

SPECTRE LOGO

No plot spoilers for the actual movie. If you think nothing should be written based on the Sony hack, stop reading now. No further warnings.

Now that WikiLeaks has set up a searchable index of hacked Sony documents, pretty much anybody with patience and an Internet connection can check out the pre-production of SPECTRE.

The Bleeding Cool website PUBLISHED A LONG POST based on the WiliLeaks material that contained a lot of spoilers and ideas considered, but rejected, for the movie. There have been other stories, SUCH AS THIS ONE concerning details of product placement deals.

The following doesn’t concern what’s in the movie — but could have had things gone differently.

October 2013, a SPECTRE outline arrives: Sony executives are mostly enthusiastic. There are multiple references to “love” this or “great hook” are among the responses.

“Love the idea that their is a mole in MI-6 and it turns out to be Tanner,” reads one of the reactions from the Sony camp.

Hard-core Bond fans — especially those who like Ian Fleming’s novels — might beg to differ. Bill Tanner, M’s chief of staff, was a friend to Bond in Fleming’s novels. In The Man With The Golden Gun book, Tanner asks M if he plans to bring charges against a brainwashed Bond for trying to kill him.

In the Golden Gun novel, when M informs Tanner he plans to send Bond on a suicide mission — to take out the novel’s title character — the chief of staff responds, “You coldhearted bastard!”

March 2014, first draft is delivered: There’s a more mixed reaction. Executives comment at events on various pages, while some visuals get praised.

Tanner is still a traitor. The villain, at this point, is an African, Joseph Ki-Embu, who uses a familiar Bond villain name as an alias. Felix Leiter, Bond’s CIA agent friend, also is in the mix.

May 2014: Amy Pascal, at the time one of Sony’s top movie executives, types up some reactions, including page-by-page notes.

Highlights: Bond is “rejected by two women by page 30.” Bond lets Tanner commit suicide on page 91. On page 122, Leiter calls Moneypenny a “foxy lady.”

Late June 2014: BAZ BAMIGBOYE OF THE DAILY MAIL reports that veteran 007 screenwriters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade have been brought back to rewrite the script by John Logan.

Jonathan Glickman, an executive of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, which controls half of the 007 franchise, sends an e-mail to Sony executives. “Who spills the beans on this? P and W’s agents?” He’s also not happy with some John Cleese quotes in the Daily Mail story.

August 2014: There’s a debate because SPECTRE director “Sam Mendes is thinking about shooting 3 sequences in IMAX, a la (director Christopher) Nolan on Batman and Interstellar.” This will add $7 million to the movie’s budget. The same month, it’s decided that won’t happen. The three sequences will be shot “with full aperture, spherical lenses v. the rest of the pic which is anamorphic.”

WSJ on M:I and U.N.C.L.E.; new Kirby-Steranko story

Logo for The Man From U.N.C.L.E. movie

Logo for The Man From U.N.C.L.E. movie

Here’s a roundup of some Other Spies developments.

THE WALL STREET JOURNAL has a story about making movies based on television series, specifically looking at Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. movie.

One excerpt:

Why does TV continue to inspire movie dreams?

It is partly because of the extra time and money a feature can offer filmmakers. More fundamentally, even an aged television series can provide brand-name recognition, which acts as a commercial safety net—although an unreliable one.

(snip)
For every successful adaptation, though—from “Star Trek” to “21 Jump Street”—there’s the risk of turning out “The Lone Ranger.” The 2013 film with Johnny Depp as Tonto was rejected by audiences, who were uninterested in the plot, unfamiliar with the 1950s television show and more mystified than intrigued by Mr. Depp wearing a dead-bird headdress. The film led to a nearly $200 million loss for Disney.

The story includes quotes from M:I director Christopher McQuarrie about watching the original Mission: Impossible in returns (“It was sort of iconic to me.”) and U.N.C.L.E. movie co-writer Lionel Wigram, who says Warner Bros. wasn’t “interested in a contemporary story. But we could do a ’60s spy movie that appeals to a modern audience, and is very much the zeitgeist of ‘Mad Men.’”

Nick Fury

Nick Fury

COMIC BOOK RESOURCES reports that Marvel Comics plans to run a previously unpublished Jack Kirby-Jim Steranko art in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. No. 9 coming out in August.

Here’s text from a press release in the Comic Book Resources story:

First, this August, S.H.I.E.L.D. #9 answers a question half a century in the making. A mystery that lies at the heart of the origins of S.H.I.E.L.D. – who is the “Man Called D.E.A.T.H.”?! Written by Mark Waid with art by Lee Ferguson – this special, oversized anniversary issue features a never before published S.H.I.E.L.D. sequence penciled by Jack Kirby and inked by Jim Steranko! Plus – Al Ewing brings you a second story featuring the return of Dum Dum Dugan and the birth of the new Howling Commandos! Along with the very first S.H.I.E.L.D. story from 1965 and the original sequence that inspired S.H.I.E.L.D.’s creation – this is not one to miss!

Jack Kirby and Stan Lee both co-created Nick Fury (as the start of a World War II comic book) and S.H.I.E.L.D. (where an older Fury takes command of the agency). Steranko took over S.H.I.E.L.D. in 1966, first as artist and then as writer. Steranko’s early S.H.I.E.L.D. efforts had him doing finished art over breakdowns by Kirby.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E.’s comic book sensibility

"It's a memo from Stan Lee, sir."

“It’s a memo from Stan Lee, sir.”

MeTV on April 26 is scheduled to show The Foxes and Hounds Affair, a second-season episode of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. that’s one of the best of the series, that includes Vincent Price as a villain.

It also has a whopper of a “McGuffin” at the center of the story — a mind-reading device which, if it falls into the wrong hands, will cause all sorts of problems.

Of course, mind-reading machines didn’t exist then (1965) or now. U.N.C.L.E., during its 1964-68 run, embraced comic book-style science fiction concepts, giving its stories, on occasion, a taste of the fantastic. Here are some other examples.

Project Earthsave (The Double Affair/The Spy With My Face): The possibility that Earth might be invaded “from beyond the stars” was real enough that major nations funded something called Project Earthsave.

It’s apparently an energy source to use against aliens (it’s not explained in detail). Something that powerful, of course, is bound to interest villains.

Regenerating serum (The Girls of Nazarone Affair): A professor, who died under mysterious circumstances, invented a serum which causes the body to regenerate from even the most severe injuries or wounds.

The serum has fallen into the hands of villainous organization Thrush. It tests the serum on one of its operatives, race driver Nazarone, by shooting her with machine guns. She survives.

Regeneration is one of the powers of Marvel Comics character Wolverine (who didn’t make his debut until an early 1970s Hulk comic book). With the serum, you could have an army of Wolverines (minus the claws, of course). However, something Thrush didn’t foresee comes into play.

Vaporizer (The Arabian Affair): Thrush is developing a vaporizer that disintegrates items or people. In the pre-credits sequence, it’s tested on an unfortunate Arab man. So the Thrush scientists involved with the project wear special white outfits, similar to the radiation suits worn by Dr. No and his men.

We’re told the white outfits are “inter-molecular,” which prevents the wearer from being disintegrated. That sounds similar to the “unstable molecules” devised by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby used in the costumes of the Fastastic Four.

Age-reversal device (The Bridge of Lions Affair/One of Our Spies Is Missing): Another scientists has constructed a device (which includes the head of Robby the Robot from the MGM prop room) that can old men young again. As you might guess, this could cause problems if it falls into the wrong hands.

Cyborgs (The Sort-of-Do-Itself-Dreadful Affair): Part human, part machine they can really cause problems.

The Gurnius Affair
Mind-control ray (The Gurnius Affair): Thrush has invested $4 billion with some neo-Nazi types to perfect a mind-control ray.

The problem for Thrush: Nazis are prone to pursuing their own agenda, as Thrush operative Mr. Brown (Joseph Ruskin) finds out the hard way.

Cavill says U.N.C.L.E. movie has a ‘little bit of grit’

Logo for The Man From U.N.C.L.E. movie

Logo for The Man From U.N.C.L.E. movie

The Los Angeles Times has a preview of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. movie in which star Henry Cavill says the film has “a little bit of grit.”

Fans of the original 1964-68 series have, on occasion, expressed concern the movie might be too light, similar to the show’s third season, when the drama-humor mix got out of balance. Both Cavill, who plays Napoleon Solo, and Armie Hammer, who plays Illya Kuryakin, previously have said the movie’s sense of humor was an attraction to them.

In the Times story, Cavill’s full quote was: “There’s a coolness, a humor and a little bit of grit as well.” In 2013, when the movie was being filmed, Entertainment Weekly described a scene where Solo’s Cavill is attacked pretty viciously.

Here’s an excerpt from the Times story, concerning co-screenwriters Lionel Wigram and Guy Ritchie. The latter also directed the movie:

Ritchie and Wigram shared a love of early James Bond films — what Wigram called late Sean Connery/early Roger Moore — and wanted to make a spy film that returned to the glamorous era.

“People have reinvented Bond, but nobody’s gone back to the 1960s,” Wigram said.

To read the entire article, CLICK HERE. The film is scheduled to released in the U.S. on Aug. 14.

Marvel Studios and the Cubby Broccoli playbook

Avengers: Age of Ultron poster

Avengers: Age of Ultron poster

The Wall Street Journal, in a story by Ben Fritz, takes a look at how Marvel Studios operates. While it doesn’t come up in the story, it sounds like Marvel has read the old Albert R. Broccoli playbook.

Like James Bond movies produced by Broccoli, Marvel makes big, sprawling movies. But, like the Eon Productions co-founder, Marvel doesn’t spend top dollar for everything. Here’s a key excerpt:

But no company has eschewed A-list talent as consistently and effectively in the modern age as Marvel. All but one of its 10 films released so far have been hits, a record rivaled only by Pixar Animation Studios. And none have featured a major star or established action director.

Money is a key reason, say people who have done business with Marvel. The Disney subsidiary’s chief executive, Ike Perlmutter, is notoriously frugal and doesn’t believe that the millions rivals like Warner Bros. spend to get big-name stars like Ben Affleck and Will Smith are worth it.

“They are in the business of hiring the guy who hasn’t had a big success, because they don’t have to pay that guy very much,” said Mr. Whedon, adding that he made more money on his self-produced Internet series “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog” than he did directing the first “Avengers,” which cost $230 million to produce and grossed $1.5 billion world-wide.

When Broccoli (first with Harry Saltzman and then on his own) produced 007 films, a formula eventually emerged where the actor playing James Bond would be paid well but Eon didn’t usually pay for A-list actors for other roles. “Regulars” such as Bernard Lee, Lois Maxwell and Desmond Llewelyn were paid relatively modestly.

As directors, Eon would hire journeymen such as Terence Young and Guy Hamilton. Or, with John Glen, promote from within, elevating him to the director’s chair from the second unit.

Marvel isn’t exactly the same, but there are similarities. The Journal describes how Marvel’s approach to talent is to seek out actors on their way up (who don’t cost top dollar yet) or are making a comeback (such as Robert Downey Jr.). There’s a similar strategy with directors, including Joss Whedon (referenced in the excerpt above) and Joe and Anthony Russo.

As we’ve written before, Eon’s strategy has evolved since the Cubby Broccoli days. Bond movies employ more auteur directors (Sam Mendes, Marc Forster) and more expensive actors for at least some roles (Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes).  Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson, the co-leaders of Eon, have been putting their own stamp on the series.

In any case, if you want to read the entire Journal story about Marvel, CLICK HERE.