Avengers: Endgame (2019)

As is my default approach, this review does not contain anything that most people would consider to be a spoiler 

Directed by: Anthony and Joe Russo

Written by: Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeeley

 

null               Last week I gave myself an exercise of sorts. Rather than allowing myself to write my typical, mood-in-the-moment driven review, I decided I wanted to set a standard in advance for how I would review Avengers: Endgame. While reviewing is no exact science, in this case, I worried my extremely dissonant relationship to superhero films would render my review inappropriate. As it turned out, I quite enjoyed Avengers: Endgame, and as such did not need a pre-set rubric to safeguard against irrational frustration. Nonetheless, I will stand by my word and use my pre-set evaluative categories. If nothing else, they give me a way of deciding what to say about this particularly long (181 minutes) and detail-rich work.

Does Every Character Feel Like They’re There for a Reason?

The very premise of Avengers: Infinity War was a battle between all-powerful villain Thanos, and virtually every superhero the Marvel Cinematic Universe had known to date. It was a combination I did not much care for, as it relied on audiences having pre-established investments in characters, rather than providing much character development on its own. Endgame by contrast, is set following Infinity War’s apocalyptic events and, as such, has a better economy of characters. For the most part its main cast are the original Avengers (Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). This decision allowed for further development of the friendly rivalry between the brooding and somewhat selfish Iron Man and the idealist, team-player Captain America. In fact, the film takes this dynamic to another level, by presenting an Iron Man with a more nuanced brand of selfishness (wanting to start a family). Thor’s role in the series, meanwhile, is improved. Thanks to the stylistic developments of Thor: Ragnorak, he is no longer a  quasi-Iron-Man-type, and instead, along with Hulk, fills a comic-relief niche in contrast to Iron Man and Cap’s leading-man personas.

Other important heroes in the film include Rocket (Bradley Cooper), War Machine (Don Cheadle), Nebula (Karen Gillan) and Ant Man (Paul Rudd) all of whom find their niches. There is a degree of fourth wall breaking in Ant Man’s writing. Marvel’s two Ant Man movies have been described as lower-stakes than other Marvel efforts, and as such, Ant Man (who was not in Infinity War) appropriately makes contributions to the movie by asking questions on behalf of confused audience members about what exactly is going on. Given my misgivings about the chaos of Infinity War, I appreciated this low-key act of self-deprecation on the writers’ part.

One issue that may have been a source of tension in the writer’s room was the role of Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), who seems to be introduced as a major character at the beginning of the film, but is subsequently removed since she has duties to protect the galaxy. It is understandable that she is not given a bigger role in the film, given that she has only just been introduced to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and as such, having her and her overwhelming power save the day would feel like a bit of a deus ex machina. Still, I can’t help but wonder then why her solo-film was released in the midst of what is now called Marvel’s “Infinity Saga” and her subsequent involvement in Endgame was promoted at all, when surely the Marvel writing-team must have realized Endgame would have to be a story about the core Avengers. All I can speculate is that, as members of comic-book-rooted-studio (and also as part of a big business), a lot of Marvel’s team is genuinely convinced that pumping out as many superheroes as fast as possible is better than having good narrative development.

That said, while Captain Marvel’s presence in the film may show that pure narrative coherence was not all Endgame’s writing team had in mind, the presence of her and other semi-relevant characters does not interrupt Endgame’s overall flow in any meaningful way. Furthermore, given the film’s lack of gender parity (Black Widow and Nebula do, luckily, play memorable parts) its hard to fault the studio too much for being eager to bring Captain Marvel into the picture.

 

How Good is the Humor and is it There for its Own Sake?

As I noted above, Thor Ragnorak (which I did not appreciate at the time of its release, but have since warmed up to), made a major change to the structure of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It confirmed that Mark Ruffalo’s version of the Hulk was a comic figure (in contrast to the quiet, brooding soles portrayed by Eric Bana and Edward Norton) while also establishing Thor in a similar niche. Endgame’s depiction of new Asgaard ranks amongst its best scenes thanks to the presence of Thor, as well as the return of his New Zealand-accented comrade from Ragnorak. This segment, alongside the film’s unique take on the Hulk (a character whose awkwardly polar persona is one filmmakers have struggled to convincingly represent), suggests that Endgame’s writers agreed with me as to where Marvel’s humor had previously been lacking. Humor in fight scenes (common practice in the M.C.U.) just feels like another weapon. Humor in dialogue is charming and memorable.

 

How Intimate is the Action? Is there a Disproportionate Amount of Action?

I previously wrote that rather than having a general aversion to action sequences, I (and perhaps many who “don’t like action movies”) can find action scenes to be entertaining so long as they focus on the characters and not just the explosions involved. While the fighting in Endgame is admittedly consistent with the non-intimate style employed in most other M.C.U. movies, at very least its context gives it special emotional weight.

I should clarify that there is in fact one “intimate fight” in Endgame. I can’t say too much about it without revealing a major spoiler, but I will say that it is a higher-stakes continuation of a conflict first seen in Captain America: Civil War.

 

 How Good is the Film as a Standalone Movie?   Does the Film have a Memorable Villain? Does it Make an Interesting Philosophical Point?

Avengers Endgame was not designed to be a standalone movie, and as such this point of criteria was always a bit unfair. I will say though that there is a real cost to this film bringing in numerous heroes in minor roles as these appearances likely make the film feel too chaotic (despite a main plot that might otherwise be enjoyable) for first-time Marvel viewers. On the flip-side, the film’s dearth of guest appearances and cameos are certainly satisfying (we even get a few seconds of Thor’s ex-love interest Jane Foster (Natalie Portman)), as are its throwbacks to past movie sets and one character’s iconic deployment of a catchphrase.

As for the question of its villain, Endgame both memorably builds on and fails to meet the standards set by Infinity War. While I can’t say much more on this contradiction without spoiling the movie, I think this problem has its roots in the contradictory writing of Thanos (Josh Brolin) over different M.C.U. films. While Thanos’ twisted idealism was the strength of Infinity War, he also appeared in The Guardians of the Galaxy saga as a more conventional villain.

The questions of Endgame functioning as a standalone movie and having a memorable villain both in turn point to the bigger question of whether the movie makes an interesting philosophical point. The Avengers’ first confrontation with Thanos in the film is indeed shocking. It’s a moment where notions of justice and purpose are brought into question. The effect of this scene, however, is ultimately not political. What the scene does do is introduce an element of despair into the Avengers’ world, and that despair in turn is what gives the film its unique character.

In short, Endgame lacks the overall character to be the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s “greatest film,” but it nonetheless may be its most enjoyable. It resolves character arcs, assembles a range of characters and uses (by Marvel standards) a range of storytelling techniques. While viewers should be warned that it is probably worth doing their homework (ie watching 2/3 of the previous M.C.U movies at least) before giving Endgame a try, at very least, for this superhero-movie skeptic, the effort was worth it.

A final note: The film does not have an end-credits scene save for a subtle sound some fans might appreciate. The first part of the credits, however, is worth staying for.

 

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Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

NOTE: I usually aim to write spoiler free reviews. In this case I cannot since the very thing I want to discuss is very much a spoiler.

Directed by: Anthony and Joe Russo

Written by: Christopher Markus  and Stephen McFeeley

  Captain_America_The_Winter_Soldier                I write this review at almost an inappropriate time. The specifics of Captain America: The Winter Soldier are fading from my mind. Nonetheless, in a period in which I am writing somewhat regularly about Marvel Cinematic Universe films, I feel this one in particular deserves commentary. Aesthetic wise, The Winter Soldier did nothing special for me, and its most memorable line was a slogan rehashed from the previous Captain America film. Nonetheless, when it comes to storytelling-concepts, The Winter Soldier ranks amongst Marvel’s best.

The story reintroduces us to Cap/Steve Rogers (Chris Hemsworth), now living in modern America and working for the intelligence agency S.H.I.E.L.D. He works alongside Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Nick Fury (Samuel Jackson), making his story somewhat less of a standalone work than some of the other early Marvel films (but those characters aside it doesn’t really feel like an Avengers movie either). The pair are joined by one other sidekick for Cap, a fellow soldier named Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie). Wilson falls perhaps a scene and a half short of being the well developed character that it appears the writers intended him to be, with his presence, like Cap’s, providing a likeable and vulnerable, but in no ways critical understanding of the American soldier.

The particular tale is one that unravels gradually. It opens with Cap participating in a mysterious, hostage-rescue mission. this event, in turn, is followed by Nick Fury being attacked by a mysterious assassin. Finally, Cap and Black Widow discover a far grander and more sinister scheme at play.

The actual “Winter Soldier” storyline is a weird one. While its not a poor fit in this movie per se, it does rely on the more chaotic Captain America: Civil War (which is an Avengers movie in all but name) to be brought to completion. That’s not a bad thing , but it is worth observing. What Captain America: The Winter Soldier is really about, however, is something far more political than any one superhero-super-villain rivalry could be. The first Captain America movie tells the story of an idealized patriotism; of a courageous and selfless young man who joins the army to stand up to Nazis. As I discussed in my last review, the first Captain America is likeable but largely because it hides from the question of “what would Cap do in a less justifiable American war?”

Captain America: the Winter Soldier both does and doesn’t answer that question. It is a film whose political villains again are “Nazis.” Well, technically they are part of the splinter-Nazi group Hydra, and appear to have leading African-American member, raising the question of whether they actually practice Nazi racial ideology or simply have a vague obsession with power and fascist aesthetics. While the ambiguity of Hydra’s racial-political character could cynically be read as an attempt by the film’s creators to keep their work from getting too politically flavorful, I feel that ambiguity, in its own way, enriches the film’s meaning.

While, like many Marvel films, The Winter Soldier lacks a particularly memorable main villain (I suppose in this case he’s at least played by a memorable actor), it does include a memorable from-the-comics villain in a brief, but important role. This character’s ascent to super-villaindom, and his commitment to the Hydra-cause come as a surprise, as he was previously presented as someone who was a Hydra-member-by-convenience rather than a passionate ideologue. Unlike, the self-serving, individualistically power hungry, Red Skull, however, this character turns out to be very committed to Hydra’s “cut one head off, three more grow back” mantra. His sinister plan, it turns out, was joining the American intelligence world and then re-growing Hydra from within it.

Through this subplot, Captain America: The Winter Soldier questions the idea that Cap’s idealism is a mere product of the American way, presenting America as a society that very well could be infiltrated by agents of another racist, Western state. This is why I say the watering-down of Hydra’s potential racist ideology “enriches the film” “in its own way.” On the one hand, The Winter Soldier falls short of making a fully coherent critique of America’s own racist character. On the other hand, by presenting (non Hitler) Nazis as somewhat ideologically flexible, The Winter Soldier provides a plausible vision of the agents of two, once-adversarial, imperialist states coming together.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier puts out a bold idea. Does it take it to its logical conclusions? Not quite. Once Hydra’s involvement in American intelligence is revealed, we notice that its American recruits are not mere stooges or sellouts, but actually ideological converts who utter the phrase “hail hydra” amongst themselves. The result of this image is that The Winter Soldier still passes for being a movie about a weird and massive conspiracy, rather than an actual reflection on America’s “he may be a sonofab**** but he’s our sonofab**** foreign policy.” Again ,this is not a bad thing per se. It’s ok for movies to have cartoonish, rather than perfectly political allegorical plots. That said, both the existence and the limits of The Winter Soldier’s Hydra plot cannot go unnoticed. As I’ve written before, Marvel often flirts with exploring philosophical and political ideas, but then abandons them in favour of, play-it-safe, cash-grabbing good-versus-evil stories. The Winter Soldier doesn’t quite break this mould, but much like Black Panther it comes close enough. As such, save for its modest-failures in functioning as a standalone movie it is one of the Marvel films I see myself as most likely to recommend to superhero-movie fans and non-superhero-movie fans alike.

 

Ant Man (2015)

Directed by: Peyton Reed

Written by: Edgar Wright & Joe Cornish (first draft) and Adam McKay & Paul Rudd 

Ant-Man_poster                 This is the fourth Marvel related article I find myself writing in a short time span, and as with the first two, one question reigns firm in my mind: that of ideology. Part of me doesn’t like taking this approach. Cinema is such a sensory experience, that it seems a shame when certain critics reduce their analysis of its products to political commentary. With Ant Man, however, I feel this is an apt approach. The story is a fairly straightforward one to follow. It is not at all subtle, but its narrative is different enough from that of other movies that the lack of subtleness does not lead to corniness. Rather, it makes it a movie that’s more about its ideas than its execution.

Protagonist Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is introduced to us in a prison-fight, that turns out to be a harmless performance. Lang is a thief, differentiating him from typical superheroes, but what’s more unique about this portrayal is that he is in no sense an anti-hero. The Guardians of the Galaxy are introduced as criminals who have to overcome varying degrees of selfishness to become a team. Tony Stark is perhaps not a criminal, but an arrogant war profiteer who can never quite be virtuous with a straight face. Lang, by contrast, steals out of a combination of need and principle, and he shares neither the Guardians’ lack of empathy nor Stark’s inability to be sincere.
It is because of this unique portrayal of Lang and his good-vibes thieving buddies (Michael Peña, T.I., and Dave Dastmalchian) that it’s so tempting to think of Ant Man in political terms. Early in its story we see Lang being fired from a Baskin Robbins because of his criminal record. The absurdity of this is rendered plain, both because of the specific character of Lang’s crime and because it shows how, contrary to what our courts say, there is double-jeopardy in capitalist societies. Criminals are punished both through the carceral system and subsequently through an unregulated sentence of poverty.

I had previously written that in films like The Incredible Hulk and Iron Man 2 the M.C.U. has a pattern of floating critical ideas before comfortably retreating to the status quo. In its first act Ant Man seems primed to take this approach. We are introduced to Lang’s ex-wife Maggi (Judy Greer), daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson) and Maggie’s new partner Paxton (Bobby Cannavale). Paxton is a cop, and while he is portrayed as inappropriately judgemental, Maggie’s preachy monologue to Lang about how he is unready to be a father has an ominous air to it. Maggie’s presence as a moral authority seems to imply: “yes critiques of the criminal-justice system are an interesting idea, but let’s just stick with status quo, tough-on-crime thinking.”

Luckily, Ant Man doesn’t quite go where Maggie’s presence suggests it will. Instead, it abandons its earlier political character in favour of a simpler one. Lang does not flip from “criminal” to “saint,” but instead transcends that divide through becoming a superhero. While Ant Man, therefore, might not be the most iconic of the Marvel movies, it nonetheless feels like a perfect representative of what they are: the biggest thing in Hollywood right now. Through critiquing our society’s approach to criminal justice, Ant Man certainly shows Hollywood’s supposed left-leanings. On the other hand, by avoiding political resolution in favour of a big-budget action one (ie overcoming your past by becoming a superhero), the film ultimately shows what Hollywood is really about: appealing to the masses with ideologically vague cinematic magic.

Political questions aside, Ant Man is further defined by its straightforward story and, perhaps not memorable but at least distinguishable and charismatic characters (Michael Douglas as scientist/mentor Hank Pym, Evangeline Lilly as Pym’s doubting daughter Hope and Corey Stoll as rogue scientist Darren Cross). That said, sometimes a movie can be about its ideas, even when its an action movie made for popular consumption. Ant Man might not be the next great political treatise, but it also doesn’t shy away from raising a question that the justice-world order of superheroes really needs to address.

A Rubric for Marvel: My Thoughts Going into Avengers: Endgame

My review of Avengers: Infinity War was not glowing. That troubles me. One does not have to like every movie, but I fear my reasons for not liking last summer’s release are, if I can say this, invalid. One of those reasons is simple frustration. I see superheroes as an omni-present part of our culture: as figures that much of the population probably has some degree of positive associations with. Growing up, for instance, I loved the idea of drawing and reading comics, playing with Batman, Superman and Spiderman action figures, and watching the cartoon depictions of their associated villains.  Therefore, as one example of a person who exists on the continuum of superhero fandom without being an all-out fan, I had hoped that I could enjoy the all-star fest that was Infinity War without having religiously seen most of the previous Marvel films.

I was wrong. The film relied on the ability of fans to recall secondary details (such as the presence of the tesseract and infinity stones) set up in previous movies. Furthermore, had I seen the previous films I would have better appreciated the subtle personality difference between the various comedic-cocky-heroes (Thor, Iron Man, Star Lord, etc) as well as the less subtle difference between them and Captain America. I also would have been less distracted by the presence of less recognizable Avengers like Black Widow, Scarlet Witch and Vision.

This “invalid” reason for disliking Infinity War is not entirely misplaced: it just would make for a better critique of the Marvel Cinematic Universe approach to filmmaking as a whole, rather than as a critique of an isolated film.

My other reason for disliking Infinity War, however, feels worthier of discussion: my general dislike for action movies. It feels foolish to go into superhero movies only to critique them for containing too much action; for being what they are. I will nonetheless continue to attend superhero movies for the reasons describe above. As such, I would like to sharpen my analysis and learn to critique them in a way that is not simply dismissive of their defining logic.

Over the past few weeks I have been catching up on the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies I haven’t seen. Below are criteria I’ve established for differentiating what I like from what I don’t. While I don’t wish to close my mind I hope this will help give me a vocabulary for evaluating Infinity War’s sequel End Game.

 

Does Every Character Feel Like They’re There for a Reason?

Marvel’s The Avengers was not my favourite of their films. None of its funny moments really stuck with me, nor did its aesthetic. Nonetheless, it made for a fairly enjoyable viewing experience since it gave each member of its ensemble cast ample screen-time and substantially different personalities. This quality was less true of Avengers: Age of Ultron, however. In addition to throwing in Iron Man and Captain America’s sidekicks War Machine and Falcon, Age of Ultron also brings the Maximoff twins and Vision into the fold. While Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch has the potential to be an interesting character, her being thrown into a chaotic plot (alongside her less relevant brother) makes her someone we have to consciously realize we are invested in: that investment is not drawn out naturally.

 

How Good is the Humor and is it There for its Own Sake?

Humor is not just about its content, but also how it is delivered. I regularly hear Guardians of the Galaxy described as one of the M.C.U.’s funnier products. While indeed it stars an eclectic set of wisecracking characters, much of the film’s humor is delivered in the context of its parade of action scenes. The effect of this is that the jokes don’t feel like jokes,  but just another weapon in the fighters’ arsenals. I only embraced Guardians in its final moments when a security official played by John C. Reilly has a friendly-awkward exchange with Drax and Rocket. By contrast, I quite enjoyed Guardians Volume 2 . That film is also rife with character-eccentricity driven humor, but unlike with its predecessor (save for the John C. Reilly scene) that humor comes out through relationships: particularly those between Drax and Mantis, Rocket and Yondu, and Groot and everyone. Its humor is about heart, not mere sass-battles.

 

How Intimate is the Action?

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Tom Hiddleston and Chris Hemsworth as Loki and Thor in The Avengers (Source: https://images.app.goo.gl/M7Z2Tj1ChAj1TkpF6)

Perhaps this is simply the bias that stems from what I was raised with (and what I wasn’t), but my disinterest in action sequences isn’t all encompassing. I enjoy watching Star Wars fight sequences, for instance, particularly those with light-sabres. Another example that comes to mind is Pokémon battles. The reason I find these fights are more enjoyable than the typical Marvel sequence is two-fold. One is that these fights resemble games. As children at play, one can harmlessly recreate the idea of clashing sabres or giving orders to magical creatures. The same is not true of hyper-powerful people viciously throwing each other at concrete and setting off explosions. Therefore, fighters such as those in Star Wars connect more intimately with their audiences, than do fighters in Marvel. The intimacy of these fights, however, is also between the characters themselves. Star Wars light sabre battles are the products of great will and training and bring enmities to their climax. While perhaps there is no equivalent one-on-one battle in the M.C.U. to Anakin vs. Obi-Wan or Vader vs. Luke, Thor and Loki’s brief clash in Avengers easily struck me as more entertaining than the film’s many more-violent, big-budget encounters.

 

Is there a Disproportionate Amount of Action?

This is the criteria I admittedly feel shakiest about applying since “too much action” for me, is probably too low a threshold to reasonably hold superhero movies to. That said, there are undeniably some Marvel movies where the inevitable presence of action is used in place of storytelling. Age of Ultron for instance opens with a fight scene, and has many more along the way. In a film rife with characters (including major new ones), these fights offer a poor replacement for character development

 

 How Good is the Film as a Standalone Movie?

The fact that Marvel films exist in a shared universe isn’t all bad. Black Widow’s presence as a freelance sidekick is not unjustified in Iron Man 2 and is very effective in Captain America: Winter Soldier. Still, while watching Guardians of the Galaxy and Avengers: Age of Ultron I couldn’t help but feel the inclusion of references to Thanos and infinity stones (setting up Infinity War) would have either confused me or been details I dismissed entirely had I not gone into them knowing the Infinity War story. This is particularly true of Guardians of the Galaxy where no one villain (a group that includes Ronan, Thanos, Nebula, the Collector and Yondu) gets consistent screen-time.

Admittedly, some movies deserve to be critiqued on these grounds more than others. Guardians of the Galaxy and Age of Ultron really should have been standalone movies, whereas the undeniable raison d’être of Infinity War and End Game is bringing worlds together. Still, if Endgame aspires to feel like a classic movie, and not just a resolution to a series, it should strive to have a memorable opening and conclusion and a logically satisfying bridge between those two. If that basic quality is compromised in favour of making speedy references to other elements of the M.C.U., I shall be disappointed.

 

  Does the Film have a Memorable Villain?

Erik-Killmonger-Black-Panther-Killmonger

Michael B. Jordan as Erik Killmonger in Black Panther, Source

I regularly find myself counting villains amongst my favourite characters in Marvel movies: Loki (particularly in the underrated Thord: Dark World), Killmonger, Yondu, etc. Because villains have done such wrongs, they are inevitably more complicated and thus more compelling than heroes. Of course, for such complexity to come out it has to be allowed to come out. Too often Marvel cloaks its villains in black and gives them a forgettable objective. Thanos so far is one of Marvel’s deeper villains, but its certainly possible that since his motives came out in Infinity War his function in End Game might end up being more generically-action oriented.

 

Does it Make an Interesting Philosophical Point

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Captain America (Chris Evans) and Black Widow (Scarlet Johanson) discover not just a villain, but a systemic injustice in Captain America: The Winter Soldier 

                  This last quality is less of a requirement than a bonus. That said, as someone who has recently taken to writing about Marvel in terms of its political thought (as well as its tendency to retreat from the ideas it raises), I have no doubt that End Game will at least in some tangential way be worth analyzing in this regard: its villain after all is a violent Malthusian. So far my favourite Marvel movies have been Black Panther and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, both of which offer political ideas well beyond what is required for the construction of a superhero movie. Based on this precedent, I hope End Game will not disappoint.

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

Directed by: Joe Johnson Written by: Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeeley

Captain_America_The_First_Avenger_posterIt’s been eight years since Captain America: The First Avenger was released and I’ve finally seen it. I’ve long held ambiguous feelings about the character, who I admittedly know little about. On the one I’ve always liked the character’s design, on the other hand I didn’t have a particularly strong appetite for a story I feared might be patriotism-propaganda.

In my previous post, I wrote about the elusive political and moral philosophy of the Marvel Cinematic Universe; it sometimes raises interesting questions, but ultimately seems to push its viewers back to the safety of status-quo thinking. The interesting thing with Captain America is that precisely because its starting point is blatantly pro-status quo, its trajectory ends up feeling slightly more critical of the status-quo than some other marvel films. Slightly.

Captain America is set during WWII, and its scrawny, well meaning, eager-to-serve protagonist Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) feels like he’s part of a feel-good-nostalgia tale. There’s nothing ground-breaking about this portrayal, but it does make for a nice aesthetic interruption from the typical trajectory of superhero movies. Steve repeatedly tries and fails to join the army and is rejected on health grounds, before he is brought in by a military scientist (Stanley Tucci) who sees his potential. The relationship between Steve and the scientist is largely what saves Captain America from feeling like a propaganda flick. While interviewing Steve to be recruited (in the role that turns out to be “Captain America”), the scientist asks him if he wants to kill Nazis. Steve struggles with the question before finally giving the correct answer that he “hates bullies.”

If the logic of this scene was used to its full potential, it could have set Captain America up to be a very powerful allegory. In its first episode, Steve, an embodiment of an idealized imagining of America would stand for “anti-bullying” against Nazi Scientist Johan Scmidt (Hugo Weaving). Over the course of a series (or even the single film) Steve could then face the reality of his own idealized conception of America clashing with America’s own global record of “bullying.”

But of course Marvel doesn’t go there. In part this is because Captain America: The First Avenger marked the end of an era. In the lead up to The Avengers Marvel introduced an arrogant-genius-businessman, a fallen god, an emotionally-broken-near-anti-hero and, old-fashioned, idealistic Steve. Once these characters were brought together, the uniqueness of their storylines arguably became secondary to the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s bigger commitment to building their collective Avengers’ epic. But the choice to avoid complicating Cap’s political arc is, again, because of what I hinted at in my last article. Marvel knew their film would not be as compelling if they portrayed Steve as a stereotypical, rigid patriot, but they also didn’t want to make a provocative political work that messed with the status quo too much.

Political questions aside, Captain America: The First Avenger is also guilty of employing characters it doesn’t quite know what to do with. Steve is given a love interest, Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), who on the one hand is an army officer (superficially challenging 1940s gender norms), but on the other hand, feels a bit paint-by-numbers in her personality and does not have too much power outside of that symbolic title. Another important character, Steve’s best friend James Barnes (Sebastian Stan), feels a bit under-used and underdeveloped given the emotional impact he supposedly has on Steve’s life. On the other hand, the villainous Schmidt is a fairly well thought out figure (a Nazi who’s supremacist thought process leads him to see himself as above even other Nazis), though it can be argued he to is underused, and his schemes (particularly one involving a mysteriously blue cube called the tesseract) are under-explained.

I hesitate to play the what-if game, asking what if the Captain America series had stayed a historical-work instead of incorporating Cap into the Avengers’ universe. I realize there’s a good chance that such a sequel would not be as progressive as I would want. In the MCU’s status-quo imaginary, Communists could conceivably replace Nazis as the villains. Still, I think playing such what-if-games are a good way of thinking about Captain America. Sure, they expose where the film fell short for me, but the very fact that I felt inspired to ask such questions shows what the film got right. Captain America is somehow the kind of superhero you can like even if you do believe in kneeling during “The Star Spangled Banner,” and firmly reject patriotism and militarism. Steve is a kid who cared for others and stood up to Nazism. In that sense, he’s everybody’s hero.

 

 

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

Written by: Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely

Directed by: Anthony and Joe Russo

Avengers_Infinity_War_poster[1] When I first saw the trailer for Avengers Infinity War, I mentally sorted it into the so-bad-it’s-good category of film. In other words, it was the kind of thing I secretly desired to see but would make fun of in respectable company. Its trailer reminded me a classic viral video called Too Many Cooks (which you should watch, but in case you don’t the joke is…well…too many characters). The film seemed like the kind of thing that was parodying itself. Surely, I thought, no wise writer would try and fit that many main characters into a story. How, for instance, I asked could they find screen time for the eighth most important character in Black Panther? How, I asked, could they justify bringing in all six Guardians of Galaxy characters, when their’s feels more like a sci-fi than a superhero franchise?

In short, going into the film, part of me knew it had too much going on to be well written and as such I was willing to dismiss it. On the other hand, part of me wanted to believe that the writers were aware of this absurdity, and as such would brilliantly weave all of those fates together into a masterpiece (or at very least present a self-aware piece with Too Many Cooks style humor). Unfortunately, it was the first of these statements that proved true.

Avengers: Infinity War opens with Thor (Chris Hemsworth) confronting Thanos (Josh “I’m having a very good Marvel Month” Brolin). This is the point where I have to admit I’m no comic-book-nerd nor have I systematically seen each Marvel film. That caveat noted, I found this introduction oddly direct yet simultaneously very confusing. We are not introduced to Thanos, we are just expected to know who this purple giant is and somehow make sense of the complex dealings he has with Thor and Loki (Tom Hiddleston). Thanos, it turns out, is a solid villain. His ambition is to save the universe by wiping out half of its population. He is a twisted idealist, who despite being incredibly powerful, makes himself sufficiently vulnerable to regularly engage with, and even take a punch or two, from the film’s heroes.

Following the opening confrontation, the Avengers (an all star team of Marvel heroes) are gradually brought together. This allows for some pleasant comedic moments. Marvel heroes tend to be at least mildly funny, allowing for banter between Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) and Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) or Thor and Star-Lord (who, in my Marvel naivety, I briefly confused for the Iron Giant (now that would be a cool, Too Many Cooks-esque cameo)) to be somewhat entertaining. From then on  the film gradually re-introduces characters including The Hulk (a funny, if, inevitably underused, Mark Ruffalo) Spider Man (Tom Holland) Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), and Captain America (Chris Evans), leaving time for funny banter, as well as some compelling drama (particularly in Thanos’ relationship with Gamora (Zoe Saldana)).

Infinity Wars’ problem, however, is that its humor peaks too early, giving way to dull action scenes. Its comedic style is also off-putting when it comes to its portrayal of Spider Man. That Marvel’s most famous superhero is left fairly one-dimensional (his one personality trait being that he seems to constantly, and nervously seek the approval of Iron Man) rings somewhat hollow. I could rant now about how hollywood needs to get over its intellectual-property bullshit and just accept that there were already good Spider Man movies made in the 2000s and there was no need to reinvent the character, but I suppose that’s going off topic.

Infinity Wars’ drama meanwhile, suffers from being too spread out, due to the film’s dearth of protagonists. Numerous characters die in the film, but these deaths lose their dramatic effectiveness due to our understanding that they exist in a cinematic universe. In some cases we know these deaths to be temporary: some characters die way too quickly and unmarkedly given their importance in the franchise (also we know some of these characters are slated to appear in future movies). I understand that the writers had their hands tied when it came to writing these “deaths.” More frustrating, however, is the death of one character which is stylistically distinct enough from the others to give off the impression that it is a permanent.  This death scene is nonetheless,  so rushed and early in the script that it does no justice to its target. This character (who I will not name) is a sad casualty of Marvel’s Too-Many-Cooks-foolhardiness that simply left them without enough screen timing to meaningfully tend to all the characters they chose to depict.

R.I.P. *CHARACTER NAME CENSORED TO PREVENT SPOILERS*: you will be missed.

Perhaps Marvel nerds will love Infinity War. It certainly takes the Avengers’ struggle to a new level. Nonetheless, I suspect casual fans (especially ones like me who don’t watch the movies for their action scenes) may be disappointed by the film’s narrative structure. Thanos is an engaging villain, and Thor, The Hulk, the Guardians and perhaps some of the others are fun protagonists. Unfortunately, the film seems to rely too heavily on the premise of “look at these cool characters fighting,” rather than truly considering how best to make their narratives collide.

Black Panther (2018)

Directed by Ryan Coogler: Written by: Coogler & Joe Robert Cole

Black_Panther_film_posterThe one subset of action movies I’ve reliably enjoyed over the years has been Star Wars films. There’s probably more than one reason for this. Part of it may just be how much it’s drilled in to our heads that we’re supposed to love Star Wars. That may explain in part why I was able to enjoy the later fight scenes in Black Panther that bear some aesthetic resemblance to the final battle in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menaces.

Another piece of the puzzle here is that Star Wars, unlike most superhero media, tries to make its characters appealing beyond their tendency to fight. While this trait is most apparent in R2, C3-PO and Yoda, it extends to the franchise’s humans too.

Black Panther doesn’t really have droid equivalents. All of its characters are intelligent, fully capable fighters. The partial exceptions to this logic are Everett Ross; (Martin Freeman) a CIA agents, whose loveable loser affect is simply an illusion of his being overwhelmed by Wakandan society; and Shuri (Letitia Wright), Black Panther (aka T’Challa)’s little sister whose competence comes across as comically exaggerated (she’s a 16 year-old who seemingly singlehandedly invents every high-tech gadget in Wakanda). Nevertheless, Black Panther shares Star Wars’ ability to make you care about its characters beyond their ability to pull a punch.

The result for both films is that even non-action fans can be made to love their action scenes. Why? Because viewers can really appreciate the tension: revelling in a conflict between strong-willed characters while wanting neither to die. This is the feeling I get when watching Rey fight Kylo Ren, and the feeling I get when watching T’Challa face Killmonger.

So for those with no idea, what is this Star Wars of Marvel movies all about? It’s the story of T’Challah (Chadwick Boseman) as he ascends to the throne of Wakanda, a fictional African country. The film follows loosely from events in Captain America: Civil War, giving its beginning a bit of a chaotic feel. Rest assured, however, one need not remember the original film (or have any appreciation of the many facets of the Marvel universe) to enjoy Black Panther. Wakanda is believed by the outside world to exist in dire poverty, but that’s because it is highly secretive about its voluminous access to an all-purpose metal known as vibranium, which in fact makes Wakanda a global technology leader.

Wakanda, however, also maintains a form of government that many of might view as dated. It is ruled by what appears to be a hereditary, male-centric monarchy. The line of royal descent can be interrupted, but only if the heir to the throne/monarch is challenged to participate in combat on a waterfall’s edge. The first depiction of one of these fights is as visually stunning as it is terrifying.

The film’s plot is ultimately driven by fights over vibranium access. T’Challah, along with his lead guard Okoye (Danai Gurira) and Wakandan spy/his ex-girlfriend, Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), leave Wakanda in pursuit of Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) a South African arms dealer who has irked a desire for vengeance from Wakandan guard/rhino trainer W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya). The pursuit of Klaue, however, brings Wakanda face to face with Killmonger. The latter villain is more dangerous than Klaue both because of his raw strength and because he actually has convictions (for what it’s worth, Serkis describes Klaue as being motivated by a desire to expose Wakandan hypocrisy, however this is a level of nuance that doesn’t really make it into the story).

Black Panther is in some ways a political movie, a narrative that has broken into the world of social media. Some have argued that its problem is that its heroes, the Wakandan rulers, collaborate with the CIA, unlike Killmonger who as an anti-colonialist is the true hero. This critique in its simplest form is exaggerated. Firstly, the CIA character largely comes across as a feeble tool. Only his fleeting appearance at a UN meeting at the end of the film can be said to legitimize his political work (one could also argue the film creates a problematic good-white, bad-white dichotomy between South African Klaue and American Ross, but that’s a stretch). Secondly, the film makes it pretty plain that one is supposed to sympathize with Killmonger, and even more so with his ideals, regardless of the fact that he fills the antagonist niche. Marvel has already given us a likeable villain in Loki.  Killmonger can easily be understood as a reapplication of this concept, albeit in a more serious context. Thirdly, the film is not as political as some descriptions make it out to be. Both Killmonger and T’Challah have inherited their politics via a game of broken telephone with older generations. Therefore, their ideologies are not fully coherent, meaning their political battles aren’t so much clashes of ideas, but heartbreaking wars between two idealistic human psyches.

In so far as Black Panther is political, however, it raises some interesting issues. One way to describe its political clash is as being between identitarian leftists (Wakanda) who fight for their ability to express their distinct way of being as a people, and universalist leftists (Killmonger, to an extent), who see liberation as coming through global collaboration against colonialism. The film also evokes a similar idea to Ta-Nehaisi Coates’ We Were Eight Years in Power (I refer to the title/broad idea of the book, I haven’t actually read it). Coates’ book speaks to the idea that even having a black president couldn’t end racism in America. Coogler’s film takes that idea to the next level by positing that even in a world with a black superpower, global black oppression may not be brought to an end.

Finally, there’s another political question that may not be appropriate to ask, since Coogler and Cole may simply not even have considered it in creating the film. Every Wakandan we see knows the royal family personally. This begs the question of whether Wakanda is in fact a wealthy country, or whether it is yet another case a third world state with a very comfortable, and perhaps blissfully ignorant, ruling class. While I believe Black Panther is supposed to be viewed with the assumption that T’Challah and his comrades are well-meaning in their approach to governance and social-justice, it is certainly possible that Wakanda’s idealistic shortcomings are the result of it being a feudalist and/or capitalist society.

Black Panther has a lot going for it including a diverse visual pallet, gripping tension, and a good range of characters (I’ve neglected to mention appearances by Angela Basset, Sterling K. Brown and Forest Whitaker). Perhaps most importantly, the film features not just one, but two compelling villains (a quality lacking in films such as Thor: Ragnorak). While Killmonger particularly stands out, Klaue is no place filler either: there is something unique to his giggly-murderousness. If you are a Marvel fan, I think its safe to say that Black Panther lives up to the hype. If you’re not, this Marvel-meets-Star-War-meets-Afro-futurism-oeuvre may pleasantly surprise you.