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WATCHING THE MOVIES – Alita: Battle Angel, Avengers: Age of Ultron

This week’s big theatrical release disappoints on almost every level, and a Marvel movie frustrates me.

I may have spoken too soon last week when I said good movies were heading into theaters. Oh, and there was that other blockbuster from a few years back that made me feel all angsty because I don’t really know how to review it.

Let me explain.

ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL

Are adaptations of anime going to become Hollywood’s new unsuccessful movie genre, kind of like adaptations of video games? There was the underwhelming Ghost in the Shell a little while ago, and now there’s this … thing.

Alita: Battle Angel is bad, creatively bad. It finds novel ways to pile incompetence on top of dreck with a driving passion I haven’t seen since I, Frankenstein. I mean, at least it’s more visually interesting than Frankenstein’s grey-black smudge of a color palette, but that’s pretty much the only thing going for it.

Here’s an easy way to make an awful film. First, put the plot before the characters, to turn your people into exposition-spewing puppets who change motivation because the story demands it. Second, write your script in such a way that almost no one on screen talks normally. And third, make your film’s world complicated to the point that your audience can barely follow what’s going on, yet somehow clichéd enough that everything feels familiar and thus boring.

Alita does all three of these with aplomb.

The characters that aren’t blank-slate ciphers (looking at you, main male love interest whose name I can’t remember) shift opinions, allegiances, and even physical locations with the greatest ease because the plot demands it. Take Alita’s father figure, Dr. Ido. After giving him a tragic backstory that gives him a reason to overprotect Alita, he outgrows it offscreen, retrofits Alita with a new body, and helps her prep for this dystopian future’s Most Dangerous Game (think pro wrestling meets Transformers meets Rollerball).

It’s not just that these characters don’t make meaningful choices. Sometimes they do. But those choices do not mesh with their established motivations.
The script is co-written by resident King Of The World James Cameron and Laeta Kalogridis, the scribe behind ponderous bore-fests Alexander and Terminator: Genisys. It shows.

The actors don’t have much to work with. Rosa Salazar muddles shakily through her starring role as best she can, while Christoph Waltz and Mahershala Ali do their best. Ed Skrein is a standout, having a ball as a sword-wielding psychopathic prettyboy cyborg bounty hunter. Jennifer Connelly phones it in.

Countless lines of dialogue sound completely inhuman; others are unintentionally hilarious; most of the delivery is wooden and uninspired. Constantly, characters blurt out exposition that could easily have been shown rather than told.

But the exposition’s almost unavoidable given Alita’s unnecessary complications and turns, doubling back and reversing character development and story beats seemingly on a whim. Yet the plot never truly surprises or provides a reason for interest.

Alita’s a good-looking dumpster fire of a film. It reminded me so much of Cloud Atlas and Jupiter Ascending that I actually checked to see whether The Wachowskis directed it. They didn’t. It feels like they did. That’s not a compliment.

RATING: 2/10

AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON

There’s a good movie buried somewhere in this film, I just know it. Not in the Passengers sense where one good re-edit could have saved the whole thing, but more in the Spider-Man 3 sense, where one good re-write could have saved it.

Avengers 2: Electric Boogaloo is constantly almost good. And that’s what makes it so hard to review.

A sequel shouldn’t just be a retread of the character arcs and stories of the first film. It has to maintain ties to its predecessor while developing the plot and characters further. I just reviewed a sequel that follows this rule in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. If Age of Ultron just stuck to that simple formula, gave everyone some growth, teased the end of the trilogy it glues together, it could have been great.

(Mild spoilers ahead from now on.)

And at points, I think that’s what good ol’ Joss Whedon was trying to do. Most of the Avengers get a new direction or dimension for their character. Bruce Banner/Hulk’s tragic love and loss was particularly surprising and impactful. Though a relationship with Black Widow hadn’t been remotely hinted at in prior movies (in fact, we saw Widow flirting with Captain America and Hawkeye), it made sense.

What doesn’t is Tony Stark’s complete collapse as a character. All of the development we saw in Iron Man 3, where Tony blew up all his suits, conquered his fears, and realized his attempts to control everything were a coping mechanism? Undone in the first five minutes of the film. The Iron Legion’s back, and Tony’s making AIs to protect the world because he’s terrified of losing his friends. In fact, Tony’s utter selfishness, borne out of the same fear of what he saw through the wormhole in The Avengers, gives him the same martyr complex I thought we left behind.

Yet like so much in this movie, there’s another way you can take this choice. Maybe Whedon and his screenwriting cronies are trying to show us that sometimes fear is so strong that it leads us to relapse, and that’s exactly what happened here.

See, this is why this film gives me fits. I can’t decide what it’s trying to say, or what its aim is. 

The plot feels bloated and overbuilt, shaking under its own weight, desperately trying to introduce the Infinity Stones, several new characters, Wakanda, the Hulkbuster, and Vision in the span of just over two hours. It’s an ambitious endeavor that should have been scaled back – as I said, the script needed a re-write.

At times the movie seems like it’s about whether the Avengers, a bunch of individuals with their own interests and goals, will stay together long enough to destroy Tony’s creation Ultron (voiced with hilarious psychopathy by James Spader). And at times the film shifts focus to whether the Avengers will stop Ultron, period. It’s a subtle difference. The first direction is character-focused; the second is more about the events.

Ultron himself is an underrated Marvel villain. He’s Tony Stark’s darkest side, constantly improving himself and seeking world peace to such an insane degree that he realizes that humanity must be destroyed in order for such improvement and peace to occur. At his worst, Tony’s exactly like that – casting aside the opinions of the other Avengers because he thinks he knows better, because he’s convinced it all depends on him.

But Tony never really learns that it doesn’t. Instead, his second relapse into fear-based action results in something positive: Vision. And before Thor swoops in with his lightning to awaken that Jarvis-infused literal deus ex machina, Tony’s well on his way to breaking the team apart for good. Vision refocuses them by lifting Thor’s hammer in a supremely clever callback to the end of this movie’s first act. That early scene serves to set up the movie’s true, if imperfectly realized, theme: all of the Avengers are hampered by flaws, but together they can save the world. By the end, sure, the world is saved, but the original team is scattered yet again. Cap and Black Widow are training new heroes, Tony jets off in his sports car again, Hawkeye retires, Hulk runs from his problems, and Thor peaces out to hunt down some Infinity Stones.

This twist on the expected team-comes-together ending means the movie juuuuuuuuust succeeds. But with the amount of foreshadowing and bulk thrown on top of this central conceit, Avengers: Age of Ultron paradoxically doesn’t quite hold up.

RATING: 5/10

Post a comment below and let me know what movies you’d like me to watch next. Until next time … roll credits.

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