Month: 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. 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. 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. 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. 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 […]

XCOM: Enemy Within

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 XCOMwith 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. Enemy Within might have been gathering […]