The Films of Joss Whedon
Serenity (February 15/12)
Based on the short-lived Fox series, Serenity follows the ragtag crew of a dilapidated spacecraft as they attempt to evade the advances of a tenacious assassin (Chiwetel Ejiofor) out to abduct one of their own (Summer Glau's River Tam). The simplicity of the premise is initially at odds with filmmaker Joss Whedon's almost astonishingly cluttered sensibilities, as the writer/director has suffused the proceedings with a myriad of (mostly needless) subplots that effectively wreak havoc on the movie's momentum - with the less-than-engrossing atmosphere compounded by an emphasis on underwhelming action sequences (ie Whedon's overuse of shaky camerawork drains such moments of their impact). It is, as such, not surprisingly to note that the tremendously affable protagonists are, to a certain degree, lost in the shuffle, with Whedon's plot-heavy modus operandi resulting in a pervasively distressing lack of the smaller, character-based moments that were both prevalent and a highlight on the show. There's subsequently little doubt that one's ongoing efforts at embracing the busy narrative tend to fall flat, although, to be fair, Whedon sporadically perks up one's dwindling interest by stressing the jocular banter between the film's heroes - with the watchable vibe heightened by the inclusion of a few admittedly striking sequences (eg Nathan Fillion's Mal Reynolds delivers a stirring speech to get his crew moving). Serenity's status as a middling sci-fi thriller persists right up until the truth about the series' villains, the bloodthirsty Reavers, is revealed, after which point the movie's problems become (relatively) moot and the viewer is propelled right through to the entertainingly action-packed finale. The end result is a decent adaptation that's clearly been designed to appeal solely to hardcore fans of the show, with Whedon's narrow focus ensuring that neophytes (and even casual viewers) will find all-too-little here worth embracing.
Marvel's The Avengers (May 24/12)
The result of several films worth of buildup, Marvel's The Avengers follows a number of larger-than-life heroes, including Robert Downey Jr's Tony Stark/Iron Man, Chris Hemsworth's Thor, Chris Evans' Steve Rogers/Captain America, and Scarlett Johansson's Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow, as they reluctantly combine forces after a vicious supervillain (Tom Hiddleston's Loki) launches an attack against Earth. There's little doubt that Marvel's The Avengers establishes itself as a fairly underwhelming endeavor right from the get-go, as filmmaker Joss Whedon kicks things off with an overlong and surprisingly tedious Loki-centric prologue - with this stretch's failure due mostly to Hiddleston's hopeless inability to transform his character into a palpably fearsome figure (ie Loki is just bland, for the most part). The film's subsequent transformation into a disappointingly conventional, let's-assemble-a-ragtag-team sort of blockbuster doesn't help matters, with the less-than-engrossing atmosphere compounded by an incongruously sluggish pace and a pervasive lack of standout sequences (ie there's plenty of action here, certainly, but very little of it is actually thrilling or exciting). It's ultimately clear that Marvel's The Avengers fares best in its quieter, comparatively subdued moments, as Whedon generally does an effective job of eliciting strong performances from the admittedly eclectic cast - with, for example, the heart-to-heart between Tony Stark and Mark Ruffalo's Bruce Banner standing out as a rare respite from the otherwise erratic and overblown midsection. (It's likewise impossible not to get a kick out of an appreciative yet entirely head-scratching cameo by Harry Dean Stanton.) By the time the utterly routine (and decidedly endless) finale rolls around, Marvel's The Avengers has unquestionably squandered the potential of its premise and its cast - which is a shame, obviously, given the plethora of talented folks on both sides of the camera.
Much Ado About Nothing
Avengers: Age of Ultron (July 8/15)
It hardly seems possible but Avengers: Age of Ultron fares worse than its relentlessly mediocre predecessor, as the movie suffers from a pervasively lifeless, artificial vibe that's compounded by an almost total lack of compelling characters and a proliferation of hopelessly generic action sequences. The narrative, which follows the Avengers as they battle a deadly new threat called Ultron (James Spader), progresses at an almost glacial pace and possess few (if any) sequences designed to pique one's non-existent interest, with filmmaker Joss Whedon's pervasively wrongheaded sensibilities in evidence right from the word go. (The movie does, after all, kick off with a bland battle that feels like it'd be more at home within a video game, with the various battles that follow falling into exactly the same category.) Far more problematic is Whedon's ongoing failure to provide even a single engaging character-based moment, as Avengers: Age of Ultron is, for the most part, far more concerned with its often unintelligible storyline than with developing its characters or finding compelling things for them to do. (There is, for example, an ongoing romantic subplot involving Mark Ruffalo's Bruce Banner and Scarlett Johansson's Natasha Romanoff that couldn't possibly be less interesting.) The sole bright spot within the proceedings is Spader's sardonic turn as the title villain, as the actor delivers a sharp, charismatic vocal performance that stands in sharp contrast to the banal efforts of his many costars (ie the entirety of the movie's central cast phones in their work to a degree that's astonishing). By the time the movie finally lumbers to its typically over-the-top, meaningless finale, Avengers: Age of Ultron firmly confirms its place as the nadir of the Marvel cinematic universe - which is no small feat, certainly, given that the studio's output has been almost uniformly terrible.