Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road vs. The Avengers: Age of Ultron

Junkyard Wars Rising

Joss Whedon and George Miller are awesome. Creative geniuses, both.

But aesthetically, Fury Road kicks Avenger ass.

Fury has an absolutely stunning, incredibly coherent visual look, filled with magnificent vistas and worn-in costumes and machinery. The cinematography is awe inspiring in its simplicity: the color palette switches between hot orange, muddy metal, and cool blues.


The ominous money shot: George knows when to hold it

Avengers: Age of Ultron, an even more expensive movie with greater resources to call upon, is hard pressed to compete. It's a mish-mash of looks, a cacophony of cluttered visuals flashing by at light speed. It tries to do too much and it's exhausting as a result. Great individual designs, but together they become overwhelming.

The vision behind Fury Road is laser sharp. The vehicles are characters in and of themselves, and the environments are emotionally evocative: the great fortress of Immorten speaks of power, egomania, and oppression, while the vast desolate wastes reflects Max's own emotional isolation. It's great.

With Ultron, you've got competing voices all struggling to be heard, which makes the film feel less cohesive. That and the fact they cut almost an hour from the run time of the first cut, which clocked in at over three hours.

Yet if anyone could pull off a blockbuster like this, Marvel's mighty flagship, you'd think it'd be Joss Whedon. As skilled as he is humble, he nevertheless struggled with this one:

"The story’s there, the structure’s there, everybody basically knows what they’re going through, but there’s still some scenes that absolutely need to be much better. This happened on the first one because I came in so late and it happened on this one because I am an idiot. I am a stupid. And so I have that to deal with, but it’s good because it makes me feel guilty about how late the script is when someone says, ‘What am I reacting to?’ and I say, ‘Something I wrote on another page that you haven’t seen yet, oops! It’s ok, I’m totally on top of this. I’m the leader of the whole movie!’”

Welcome to the chaos of movie making, where even the veterans are flying by the seat of their pants.

A surfeit of characters

Joss Whedon has talked openly about how he clashed with Marvel executives. To get scenes he liked (Scarlett Witch's dream), he had to put in one he wasn't so keen on (the cave).

Says Whedon:

"The dreams were not an executive favorite either — the dreams, the farmhouse, these were things I fought to keep … With the cave, it really turned into: they pointed a gun at the farm’s head and said, “Give us the cave, or we’ll take out the farm,” — in a civilized way. I respect these guys, they’re artists, but that’s when it got really, really unpleasant.”

There was a lot of compromise.

Working on a big budget studio blockbuster is unquestionably a stressful experience, requiring the diplomatic skill of a modern day Metternich, and Patton's instinct for knowing when and where to pick your battles. Something the young Josh Trank may not have been up to with Fantastic Four, unfortunately.

In some ways, it's amazing any of these behemoth films turn out. Ever.

George Miller's visual feast cost a whopping $150 million, which allowed his imagination runs riot over the post-apocalyptic landscape. But that's the key thing: it's the imagination and vision of one man: George Miller. He conceived Mad Max, wrote and directed the first film, and is the first and last word on the whole Mad Max universe. There's nobody else. So the film isn't cluttered up by sops to an expanded universe. It isn't burdened by all the concepts and characters and plots created by dozens of other writers, over a period of several decades and across hundreds of issues of comic books.

I'd love to know what Whedon would have produced had he been given free reign. He can make almost anything work. He's like The Cleaner (from La Femme Nikita) of movies gone wrong, and has been parachuted in as a script doctor to save pictures that are spiraling out of control, such as Toy Story, which went on to become a huge hit and an iconic film. Thanks to Joss, it's known for having a Pixar perfect tale.

Unfortunately, Age of Ultron feels cluttered. Action scenes are lightning fast, with cuts so quick you barely have enough time to register what's happening. You have no time to savor the art. I don't know if this is to cover deficiencies in the CGI, reduce costs, or shorten playing time, but my old eyeballs had a hard time keeping up with the quick cut mayhem.

It was like being visually bludgeoned for two hours.

Which is not to say that Fury Road doesn't also indulge in music video paced quick cuts. It does, and lots: according to The Verge, Fury Road has 2,700 cuts in two hours, while The Road Warrior had 120 cuts in 90-minutes. So twenty two cuts per minute. That just seems to be the way it is now, and all I can say is that I hope it doesn't get any worse.

Yet Miller has the good sense to know when to slow down and let us soak up the wonder of it all. There's one particular shot of a magnificent oncoming storm where he pulls back and just lets the camera sit on it for a moment, letting the audience soak in the scale.

In terms of story, Ultron has too much, and Fury Road too little.


Basically, Fury Road is the chase sequence from The Road Warrior expanded to feature length and lovingly shot with a massive budget. There's some story wrapping around it, but that's it, and it's not much. Instead of gas, it's people they're after.

It's an excuse for a two hour long chase scene.

From an emotional point of view, it's pretty slight, and not nearly as rewarding as the second Max film, which built up the characters more.

Which isn't to say they don't make an impression in Fury Road.

I loved the first scene Theron has with Mad Max, the way she played it with a slow, quiet, deadly burn. She looks at him the way a predator looks at prey; you can feel the killer intent behind her eyes.

The War Boy, however, stole the show, with his zany fanaticism and wonderful quips. 'Oh, what a wonderful day!' 

The pregnant bride of Joe was a close third. She used her body as a shield for the others, placing herself between them and Immorten's gun, daring him to do something rash.

Great stuff and deftly executed with minimal dialogue. Yet I wanted more.

On the other hand, Fury is visually magnificent. A feast for the eyes that deserves to be seen in a theatre, or even IMAX. The stunts alone are mind blowing.

Bungie catapult
But after two hours, even that gets a little wearing.

The art direction is flawless. Well. Except for the little girl Max sees which didn't blend well (admittedly I think it was deliberate) and that's a quibble. Everything else works perfectly. It's over the top, bat shit insane, but it works.

Ultron's story by comparison is muddled. Given the number of characters and everything they had to do, that's hardly surprising. Seriously, you'd need a miracle worker to prevent it from feeling cramped.

Unfortunately I never really understood what Ultron wanted, why he hated Tony, or why he went from wanting to seemingly destroy mankind to, instead, making humanity 'evolve'. Was he just a puppet of Thanos?

Perhaps I just wasn't paying attention.

There are great quips in Ultron, as usual with Whedon, and the cast does their duty.

The core characters of Age of Ultron. One, two, three, four, five...
Sadly Hawkeye and Black Widow pale compared to Tony, Banner, Thor, and even goody-two-shoes Captain America. Just not as compelling. The actors don't have nearly as much to work with, character or power wise. The bad guys have to be dialed back when they shift from pummeling demi-gods to mere flesh and blood humans.

With both films, honestly, I could have done with less action, and more character development.

Amazing. Can you believe I just said that?

It surprises me, too.

George Miller was on track at one point to direct a Justice League film, and that may be back on. Will he be as successful with DC's sacred babies as he was with his own IP, or will behind-the-scenes politics fracture the aesthetic integrity of the project?

Perhaps he and Whedon should go for a drink or two before he begins…

Next up: Apples vs. Oranges!

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