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Inside Out

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***

Take her to the moon for me. Okay?

This film has excellent animation. For Pixar it is their best ever — although the faces & bodies fit into the Pixar-verse.1 There are a couple of unique, interesting characters, like Bing Bong, Riley’s former imaginary friend. The film makes an excellent point which is that when kids have imaginary friends they do not have the constraints on their imaginations that screenwriters do. Thus he has an elephant’s trunk, a fluffy tale, a torso made from cotton candy and he cries candy. Unfortunately, much of the film lacks the creativity that would have made the rest of this world great. Are you angry that I do not love this film? Then just stop reading, because my contrarian position will not go down any easier with me saying that dumb characters are difficult to relate to.

It's Bing Bong leading us on a short cut in Inside Out.

It’s Bing Bong leading us on a short cut in Inside Out.

Speaking of dumb characters, pretty much without exception everyone, inside and out, is extremely dumb. That made the film difficult for me to relate to.  There are basically two worlds inside the film: the real world, with human beings, houses, schools, and meals; and the anthropomorphized emotions in our brains. Each emotion is a unique (dumb) individual. Only by working together can you be a whole person. Obviously. There, now you do not have to see the movie. This lesson is obvious from minute ten. The start of the film, with only one emotion—Amy Poeler’s “Joy”, has promise, but as more ostensibly humorous emotions arrive (sadness, anger, fear, and disgust) the film never becomes what it could have been. Unfortunately, Riley is a child, so maybe that is why her emotions are so unintelligent; the mirror emotional teams inside of Riley’s parents’ heads were great and humorously flawed, instead of showing the over the top incompetence of Riley’s.

The problems do not stop with just the characters, other aspects of the world that should have been great, like the Harry Potter memory balls, get derailed by terrible geography. Joy and Sadness—Phyllis from The Office—screw up and destroy their human’s personality, winding up far away (sometimes) from the headquarters (yeah, that is the level of comedy, Urkel-esque physical bungling, that dominates the film). By not having a map, either visually or aurally, I did not know when to be excited or depressed about the hero’s journey. The film tries to break the rules by doing that. Another way it tries is by going for a joke about a giant puberty button/light. This setup should have a satisfying payoff before the end of the movie. This rule comes from James Bond gadgets—if you show a watch with a laser in it, you have to use the watch laser. It was a daring strategy to eschew convention, but it backfired. Had the logic within the film either been inconsistent and the film had committed to that premise, instead of merely having inconsistencies, then it could have been great. To be extremely predictable without providing the expected satisfactions is like any number of movies with excellent casts that wasted their talent: Shoot Em Up2, Fast 6, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, to name three.

On balance, there were several scenes with the kernels of greatness. There were moments like an escape sequence with Bingbong that reminded me of Batman’s escape in Dark Knight Rises. The technical beauty of the animation is undeniable and from that standpoint it might be worth watching. The story is not bad, but it is kind of like Sucker Punch—a waste of incredible imagination and impressive beauty, in something pretty average.

1 You know, the ones they conceived in the mid 90’s for Toy Story.
2 Recently got a trivia question wrong about what Paul Giamatti is eating throughout the movie. I would have gotten it right had I not blocked out 99% of it for being Gary Marshall level bad.

Captain America: Civil War

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captain-america-civil-war-team-cap1

Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War L to R: Falcon/Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), Ant-Man/Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), Hawkeye/Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner), Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Scarlet Witch/Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), and Winter Soldier/Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) Photo Credit: Film Frame © Marvel 2016

Our people’s blood is spilled on foreign soil. Not only because of the actions of criminals, but the indifference of those who pledged to step them. Victory at the expense of an innocent, is no victory at all.

Call it what you want. Captain America 3, Avengers 2.5, Civil War, this movie kicked ass. This has everything that people loved about Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and so much more. This has the elements of espionage that people liked in 2, but has action that rivals The Avengers. I use that as the gold standard, but is it? A discussion for a different time. In the moment I thought, “these are the greatest action sequences I have ever seen”. They were well spaced out. All looked perfect. Each action scene served a function and hit its marks. The internal logic of the action was pretty much consistent, which is pretty damn rare. For instance, Captain America is amazing with his shield. He is Minnesota Fats with it.1  But one character2 says to him, “That thing doesn’t obey the laws of Physics at all!”  I like having a cinematic world conscious of this quirk, which allows me to have the pleasure without the guilt.

The best way to describe this film in two words is “ethical dilemmas.” The premise is the world is grateful to the Avengers, but also afraid of them and the collateral damage they cause. They operate without any sovereign authority and thus the Sokovia Accords are created and shall be ratified by the United Nations [UN]. The Avengers would come under the auspices of the UN, which would have the sole authority to dispatch them. Iron Man feels guilty because Ultron was his fault and (Stark) wants to be controlled. Captain America was a pawn for the American government and after the collapse of S.H.I.E.L.D. from Hydra within it, he does not trust any governments. As Cap says, it comes down to this, “What if this panel sends us somewhere we don’t think we should go? What if there’s somewhere we need to go and they don’t let us?” This is similar to the question posed by Batman v Superman earlier this year.

This was a much, much better movie than Batman v Superman, however, that does not mean that this movie presented a more interesting question. Because this causes the Avengers to schism there can be no Hulk and no Thor, because their power levels are too high. I guess. I bought that line initially but Scarlet Witch and Vision are 6/7 on the powers scale.3 Batman v Superman has an unpowered, less armored Iron Man facing an amalgam of Thor + Hulk + Vision. Both films did a great job of creating reasons for heroes to fight each other. Batman v. Superman asked, with unlimited power, great collateral damage, and no authority, should there not be some sort of restraint? Batman followed up by posing an even tougher question, “He has the power to wipe out the entire human race, and if we believe there’s even a one percent chance that he is [humanity’s] enemy we have to take it as an absolute certainty… and we have to destroy him.” The same could be said of the Avengers. However instead of posing this as a question in the film, the villain, Zemo—Rush‘s Daniel Brühl—tries to destroy the Avengers for personal vengeance.

daniel-bruhl-captain-america

Daniel Brühl (the German guy in the beginning of the Bourne Ultimatum whom Jason Bourne tells that he, meaning Bourne, killed in the middle of the last movie) as (not Baron) Zemo, in Captain America & the Winter Soldier 2: Civil War 1, © 2016 Marvel.

The largest criticism of this generally well received film was the villain’s plot. Some people care about the feasibility and logic of plans. People like that reject The Dark Knight because the Joker’s plan was ridiculous on almost every level and every stage. Then there are the majority of people who loved The Dark Knight and only demand enough logic so as to not end the enchantment we call the willing suspension of disbelief. Lastly there are people who like Transformers—a/k/a people who seek a wholly visual and subconscious movie experience. The good news is that this film should please all of those people. Zemo’s elaborate plan was achievable and relies on Bourne levels of espionage. When Martin Freeman with an American accent asks, “So how does it feel? To spend all that time, all that effort, and to see it fail so spectacularly?” Zemo retorts, “Did it?” I get chills just typing that out and that is what makes this film great. Even after all the action, his hypothesis might prove to not only be correct, but to have succeeded where gods have failed.

An empire toppled by its enemies can rise again, but one which crumbles from within? That’s dead… forever.

This might be a record for quotations in one of my reviews, especially since none are super badass. The film is just so well written, so well acted, so well cast, and so well executed. So kudos to the screenwriters—Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely—and to the directors—the Russos. For me, this felt like how Captain America 2 felt to most people.

****½

Mini-review of the Mid-Credits Scene: Well, it serves a purpose to explain why that character will not be back in the future, and gives Chadwick Boseman—Jackie Robinson—another opportunity to sound awesome as T’Challa–the Black Panther.

Mini-review of the End-Credits Scene: Not worth the wait. It is the guy who talks about physics and the shield looking at a ceiling because his watch now has his superhero logo.

1 First, I initially wrote Fats Domino. Second, Minnesota Fats is a real life billiards hall of famer, made more famous by his fictionalized version appearing in the The Hustler. Obviously, he shows an amazing ability to bank shots, just as Captain America can, but with a pool ball, instead of a vibranium shield. Know what vibranium is? It comes up a lot in this film.
2 Trying to avoid a spoiler here, but the last preview gave him away, here’s a hint, in one universe he went by Ben Reilly.
3 According to Marvel’s wiki Thor has the maximum in strength and speed, Hulk has the maximum in strength and endurance, whereas Vision has 6/7 for durability and energy with a 5/7 for strength, and Wanda Maximoff only has 6/7 for energy. But Scarlet Witch did depower almost the entire world’s mutant and created a false reality for the entire world…that is almost limitless power.

Minions

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**½

This is Queen Elizabeth! And I really, really, really want her crown!

orlando

Bob, Kevin, and Stuart, trying to get to Orlando for a conference. Minions, 2015.

Going into Minions, I thought they would be shown going off on adventures in the post Despicable Me 2 world. Not at all. Instead I learned the origin of these yellow its, particularly how they were saved from ennui by Kevin, Bob and Stuart in the 1960s. There are plotholes-a-plenty, but it is just a silly kids movie. The animation was pleasant, and in the mold of the Despicable Mes. Still, as art it seemed pretty awful.

Best of 2015

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This is just getting ridiculous. My annual lists are getting to become like reverse car releases—more and more disconnected from year attached to the item. So get excited for the Best Films of 2016, coming to you in early June 2017!

  1. Liza, the Fox Fairy – Liza, a rókatündér in the original Hungarian
  2. Spy – Melissa McCarthy + James Bond = better than actual James Bond
  3. Star Wars: The Force Awakens – It felt like Star Wars in a way that no movie has since Return of the Jedi
  4. A Second Chance – I would like a second chance to watch this movie…*rimshot* Just kidding, it is horribly depressing!
  5. The Big Short – Our economy and version of capitalism are horribly depressing!
  6. I’ll See You in My Dreams – Great to see a film starring an excellent older actress. Not as depressing as it could have been considering just the plot.
  7. Dope – An original take on a traditional story—like Hustle and Flow
  8. Tangerine – I still do not know why it is called Tangerine
  9. The Wolfpack – A great new documentary from a new documentarian. In some ways her novelty really helped, and in other ways it made for an unsatisfying ending.
  10. A Few Cubic Meters of Love – The single most depressing film of the year, which is saying a lot, considering the competition.

Best Short Film: Kung Fury.

Worst Film: When Animals Dream. The tone of the film was excellent. Nothing else about it was.

The Big Short

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It’s like someone hit a pinata full of white people who suck at golf.

THE BIG SHORT

Left to right: Rafe Spall plays Danny Moses, Jeremy Strong plays Vinnie Daniel, Steve Carell plays Mark Baum, Ryan Gosling plays Jared Vennett, and Jeffry Griffin plays his assistant Chris in The Big Short from Paramount Pictures and Regency Enterprises, 2015.

This is an infuriating film, a maddening film. As the final credits rolled I legitimately felt angry. It felt like I had watched Roger and Me for the first time again, except it is 2016 and we should know better than we did in 1989. That is not to say that I did not enjoy the film. Remember, not every great film is an enjoyable one.1

I really appreciated how great Ryan Gosling’s performance was. He made playing a financial tool seem effortless. His confidence elicited laughter and always captured my attention. His character was unique in that he played both sides of the system. As a bank employee he sold shorts on the secondary mortgage market, even though he saw that they would pay out—which would cost his employer Deutsche Bank probably billions of dollars. 2  Assisting the bankruptcy of your employer seem unethical, but was actually less unethical than the banks that sold securities that were overvalued by the falsely impartial ratings organizations and ignored by the underfunded and frequently conflicted watchdog, the SEC. This SEC argument was really under presented, unlike the corruption of the banks. Everyone knows that a Ponzi scheme is an illegal fraud, but what most people ignore is how much of the stock market is based on that same premise.3 The movie does a great job of breaking the fourth wall and having people actually explain things like this well. Margot Robbie in a bathtub was the best at this, particularly since she played an evil, dumb woman in The Wolf of Wall Street, which glamorized the system that allowed/caused the housing market to form a bubble and to collapse.

Margot

Like I said, Margot Robbie getting paid to take a bubble bath (relaxing!) in front of a movie crew (not relaxing!), © 2015 Paramount Pics.

The character who highlights the bailout and the true insidious nature of it was Mark Baum (“The Office’s” Steve Carell). He does a good job of playing someone with a personality disorder. His performance is very consistent, even if he is pretty damn annoying and rude. He is the film’s conscience. The would-be cynic who should know that the market is a fraud built on the backs of the bruised. And he get to make the predictive speech near the end about the banks learning nothing, getting bailed out, continuing to perpetrate frauds, and how the immigrants and the poor will get blamed.4 Since he caught onto this new market of betting against mortgage bonds he has the right to say this, even if it seems unlikely he specifically said it in real life. The one wrinkle, the maddening wrinkle, was that Gosling starts by teasing that he was wrong and that thousands went to jail and the banks were broken up and Congress reinstituted regulation of mortgages. But then he basically goes, “Psych!” And he adds that teachers were blamed too. As unpleasant as it is to address, and as inappropriate as the middle of my review is to address it, we could be looking at the true decline of our American empire. As the war on education grows5 and more people get dumber and more extreme, this leads to worse politicians who do not even try to succeed. In 2016, as a politician, it is better to be right about a failure you caused, than to be part of a solution that actually helps the poor.

The character who actually thought to investigate the quality of mortgage bonds was Dr. Michael Burry—former Batman, Christian Bale. So as the movie progresses his bet keeps failing to pay off, so you root for the full collapse of the US mortgage market so that he gets paid; since you cannot stop the damn collapse of our economy, at least someone who acknowledged the sham of it should profit—not the just the victimizers. There are also two young people, Charlie and Jamie—played by John Magaro and Finn Wittrock, who with the help of Brad Pitt made a killing by realizing that the entire system of betting on huge collections of mortgages6 was phony, even the AAA rated ones. Together the cast won best ensemble from the Screen Actor’s Guild. Bale received (another) Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination, but Gosling did not. Bale did a very good job with Burry, perhaps it was his more subtle performance that won over the nominating voters. I expected to find that the producers nominated the more famous, “better” actor Christian Bale and promoted him, but both he and Gosling were offered “For Your Consideration” as supporting actors, while Steve Carell was sacrificed as the Best Actor from an ensemble, which did net him a Golden Globe nomination. Point being, Gosling was the best of the best, despite no Oscar nomination. There were so many great performances by actors in this, which leads me to…

This movie did a poor job of including women in the story—or life itself did. Carell’s character had a wife and she was played by the excellent Marissa Tomei—an excellent wife in The Wrestler and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. And then there is Heighlen Boyd, who more than competently portrayed “Florida Strip Club Dancer,” who owned six houses thanks to subprime mortgages. Compared to The Wolf of Wall Street though, this is the 9 to 5 of financial corruption and wealth movies. Still, kudos to Adam McKay and Charles Randolph for writing such a good script. Kind of. At least it won the Oscar for best adapted screenplay. So I am so proud of McKay for growing — even if this was primarily a collection of character studies… And this was Michael Lewis who also wrote the book Moneyball, which made analytics exciting… So maybe McKay still is not very good at crafting a good plot and just relies on well performed characters to carry the weight of the film. The key here was creating more interesting characters than just letting Will Ferrell do whatever he wanted to do. Still, the more I take away from McKay the co-screenwriter, the more credit goes to McKay the director!

****½

1 “Hey, it’s Saturday night, who wants to watch a 5 Star movie?? Alright! Schindler’s List it is!” – no-one, ever.
2 First, shorting stocks is something that everyone should know. Because it was a plot point in Casino Royale, which is one of the top 3 Bond Movies of all-time, so everyone should have seen it. A “short” is an option to sell a stock back to the seller at a fixed price, which pays off when the actual value has dropped below the price the option is set at. Now here is what Jared (Gosling) said in the film, When you come for the payday, I’m gonna rip your eyes out. I’m gonna make a fortune. The good news is Vinnie, you’re not going to care cause you’re gonna make so much money. That’s what I get out of it. Wanna know what you get out of it? You get the ice cream, the hot fudge, the banana and the nuts. Right now I get the sprinkles, and yeah – if this goes through, I get the cherry. But you get the sundae Vinny. You get the sundae.
3 If you own a computer, that computer has a value. If you own 1/100th of a computer, you should have 1/100th of that value. Now here are three points. First, the value of that computer, the true value, not the perceived value, should not change based on who owns it. It either works, or it does not work. Second, there should not be a legal market for betting on whether or not the computer works—adjusting for inflation, this creates literally no value to society. Third, let’s say the 99 other owners sell their interest at almost the same time and people worry that the computer does not work, so the price they get drops and drops. The computer’s functionality actually operates independent of that perception. That is the flaw, or lie, in our stock markets, they do not reflect the actual value of things and thus are just schemes to misrepresent value while brokers gain a commission and the more commissions they get the more bonuses they get.
4 I have a feeling in a few years people are going to be doing what they always do when the economy tanks. They will be blaming immigrants and poor people.
5 See states like Iowa and Wisconsin who have elected anti-education conservatives who have slashed funding universally and at the university level tried to undercut any field that promotes critical or independent thought.
6 Packs of mortgages are known as CDOs (collateralized debt obligations) and their even more secondary market of collections of CDOs. Margot Robbie does a better job of explaining it. Repacking the crappiest ones as new products gets explained by the wonderful Anthony Bourdain.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 2

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**½

Our lives were never ours, they belong to Snow and our deaths do too. But if you kill him, Katniss, all those deaths, they mean something.

Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen in the final Hunger Games film.

Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen in the final Hunger Games film.

This was the first Hunger Games film I did not see in theaters. Still, I wanted to know how it all wrapped up. It turns out that Mockingjay did not need to be two films and by bifurcating it the characters’ behaviors seem mostly arbitrary. It almost gets 3 stars for overcoming the loss of Philip Seymour Hoffman (Plutarch) during the filming. As Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) invades the capital she finally becomes the leader of the rebellion for which she had been cast as the figurehead. Julianne Moore’s President of District 13 has a heel turn once victory is in grasp. The love triangle around Katniss falls apart as Gale–Liam Hemsworth–the one truly decent character throughout the series basically betrays Katniss, and Peeta is still a madman who knows he will kill Katniss if left unguarded. Sound depressing? Well it is. Sound fun? Not really. I kept waiting for Katniss to turn to the sexually adventurous Johanna Mason—the criminally underused Jena Malone, The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys—as a burgeoning bisexual woman choosing someone who was reliably different.

Amidst the depressing betrayals and deaths, Katniss moves ever closer to President Snow (Donald Sutherland) so that she may kill him and end the rebellion. But in off screen action the rebels destroy the empire. Generally the look of the film is fine, although it came across as the least realistic of the four films. The low point was the subterranean chase by “mutts”. In the dark at the end of The Hunger Games, those “mutts” looked very threatening. Here, they look fake. Having worse special effects years later with a higher budget is a pet peeve of mine, I call it “X-Men Origins: Wolverining it”, which I addressed in my review of Deadpool.

Finnick (Sam Claflin) fighting some mutts in a sewer, Mockingjay - Part 2 © Lionsgate 2015

Finnick (Sam Claflin) fighting some mutts in a sewer, Mockingjay – Part 2 © Lionsgate 2015.

All told I am glad I watched it so that I knew how the story ended. There is one excellent scene where Katniss makes a difficult moral choice that parallels the training exhibition scene from Gary Ross’ The Hunger Games. Francis Lawrence directed the final three movies, and unfortunately each has been less good than the prior film. In case the tone of this review has been unclear, this is an unspoilable film. Had I known what would happen—most of which is pretty predictable anyways—I think I would have gotten the same things out of it. Perhaps I would have enjoyed it more because I would not have been disappointed at lack of surprises.

Epilogue: This was some Harry Potter meets Notting Hill garbrid. Garbrid? Hybage? Hybrid + garbage = ??? At least we know that Peeta does not kill Katniss in the intervening decade.

Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox

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Umm…this cartoon was actually a good movie. I put this on because I thought that like most DC cartoons I could ingest it easily and get out an easy review because it is hard to watch enough movies to review for my movielog. This is made even easier by having either read the source material, or seen the jumbo Marvel movie version of it.1  A month ago, I would have set the odds of this being better than Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice at about .2%.2  So now I will try to explain why I think it is actually better, despite the format, budget, and source material.

Her hero; how noble. Oh, wait! You didn’t stop JFK from getting assassinated or make sure Hitler stayed in art school. You saved your mommy. You missed her… And in a supreme act of selfishness shattered history like a rank amateur, turned the world into a living hell moments away from destruction and I’m the villain?

This story comes from a Geoff Johns crossover centering around the Flash’s greatest nemesis, the Reverse-Flash, Eobard Thawne, aka Professor Zoom. I thought that it was an okay comic book series, with an over-powered Aquaman and unethical Wonder Woman. Removing Superman from the equation is generally an appetizing proposition, but then he always seems to come back. The premise is that Flash (Barry Allen) goes back in time to save his mother from being murdered. By doing so he dooms the Earth to apocalyptic war. At least thanks to Zoom it does. So it is still Earth but everything is a little different. The same is true in the movie: Thomas Wayne is Batman (Bruce dies in the alley instead), Flash never got his powers, his enemies are heroes, the Atom becomes a weapon of mass destruction, and Captain Marvel is Captain Thunder and he is the Captain Planet with six kids saying “Shazam” to form him. Basically, Aquaman and Wonder Woman are way more villainous versions of Batman v Superman’s Batman and Superman.

Justice_League_Flashpoint_Paradox_34

Prince Orm (Ocean Master) leading the Atlanteans in an attack in Justice League: Flashpoint Paradox, 2011.

The movie’s animation has the same excellent style and quality as in Justice League: War. But there are a couple of things that this movie has that are just more impressive, specifically the water based weapons of the Atlanteans3, and nuclear explosions. There is only about 90 minutes of storyline here, so it fits perfectly into a cinematic timetable. The movie adds an introductory scene where the Justice League foils an attempted attack on The Flash Museum, masterminded by Zoom and with Zoom’s taunt the whole story makes more sense and feels more satisfying than relying on the reader’s appreciation for the status quo in DC. This desire never gets satisfied as a reader because this came out in 2011 in the 52 DC reboot which rebooted the DC universe. Even the voice acting features a who’s who of returning DC cartoon actors, including Kevin Conroy (THE Batman) with Kevin McKidd voicing Thomas Wayne’s Batman, Nathan Fillion (Hal Jordan/Green Lanten), and Steve Blum (Lex Luthor this time, but Darkseid in War). The newcomers also had some good chops, particularly C. Thomas Howell’s Zoom—I loved him as Foyett in “Criminal Minds”, Cary Elwes’ Aquaman—unrecognizable, but best known from The Princess Bride, and Michael B. Jordan’s boy scout version of Cyborg—star of Creed. They must have spent a fortune on the vocal talent, but it paid off. The cast list of the comics are longer, but in a wise choice certain less crucial characters like Enchantress get written out and have their actions performed by the prime time players. Specifically, instead of Enchantress betraying the heroes and killing Captain Thunder, Wonder Woman uses her lasso of truth to force Captain Thunder to transform. It is both more brutal and more effective.

I guess much of the credit should go to veteran animated comic book adaptation filmmaker Jay Oliva. Of the 10 or so Marvel & DC animated movies he has done, this one is the best. After this he did JL: War, so the improvement must not have been permanent. Still, I am glad he did this one.

****

1 I believe that the Cinematic Marvel Universe has greater ties to their “Ultimates” universe than the traditional one. What I call the traditional one is Earth-616. The “Ultimates” were on Earth-1610. See why I said traditional or just Marvel Universe instead of specifying? To be picky, all of the alternative Earths are part of the same gigantic Marvel Universe, which has a potentially infinite number of Earths. Now the big blockbuster Avengers line of movies take place on Earth-199999, which is called the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or MCU for short. And yes, each universe is named for its Earth. I mention this because Marvel’s The Avengers seems closer to Ultimate Avengers: The Movie, than to Earth-616’s Avengers, which I discuss in my “Accuracy in…” for Avengers wave 1 and co. 
2 I watched this before watching Batman v Superman. Yet I am writing this after publishing its review.
3 Aquaman is the king of Atlantis and his subjects are known as Atlanteans.

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