Leave No Trace (2018)

Directed by: Debra Granki Written by: Anne Rosselini

Based on My Abandonment: by Peter Rock

Leave_No_Trace[1]  I don’t know if there’s a name for a movie made with two largely distinct motives. Leave No Trace is one such movie. It is on, the one hand, a piece of scenic exploration that leads its characters from place to place, unapologetic when potential plot points are left unresolved. On the other hand it is a social film, an exploration of a, one could say politicized, mental illness. These two elements of the film are not disconnected as the mental illness of one of the characters explains their constant movement. Nonetheless, there’s a disunity in the film’s two underlying traits. Some version of Leave No Trace still would have been made even if mental illness wasn’t the driving force behind its plot, and similarly, its message about mental illness is too important not to have eventually been the subject of one film or another.

Note, I have not as of yet described Leave No Trace as a nature movie. Those who’ve seen its trailer or movie poster, perhaps even those who have simply heard its title, may be surprised by this omission. Leave No Trace can certainly be called a nature movie, however it’s one that breaks the rules of the genre, so much so that it’s probably safer to avoid labelling it a nature movie altogether. I would avoid this absolutist position and argue it is a nature movie in so far as it explores the concept of “nature” as something separate from “humanity” and hints at the question of what it means to go back to nature. Another positive, from my perspective, is that it is one of the few nature/survival movies I’ve ever seen that does not depict the killing of animals.

The quality of subverting expectations has notably been attributed to The Last Jedi. Other recent films that fit the description include Sorry to Bother You (in terms of its absurdity) and Mother! (in terms of the ridiculous degree to which it intensifies). All of these films, however, are science fiction works and rife with vicious energy. As I left Leave No Trace I was unsure as to whether subverting expectations works in a film where the subversive moments are all realistic and gently stated. It certainly made for an interesting work, but it also left me with an ambiguous feeling of calm unease.

The subversion of expectations continues up until Leave No Trace’s final moment; a moment when the film’s mental illness theme is really brought to the forefront. It is an opaque scene when a seemingly drastic, divisive and heartbreaking decision is made, but the characters involved handle it cooly. Perhaps this scene was a revolutionary imagining of human social potential: one critic hailed the film as one in which “compassion fills every frame” and I think they might be on to something. In my critique of  The Light Between Oceans, I asked why movies had to rely on the trope of characters refusing to understand each other (a trope we should be trying to overcome in our day to day interactions), and in its conclusion Leave No Trace indeed suggests its possible for people with radically different world views to accept each other.

Still, part of me was left frustrated by this application of the trend of  indie-movie-ending-ambiguously. I agree, admitting ignorance can be more powerful, empathetic, and intellectually rigorous then coming forward with more blatant, but forced analysis. Nonetheless, since Leave No Trace dealt with a particular mental illness and was clearly trying to teach something about it, it’s refusal to be more lucid about the affected character left me feeling something was missing.

Even if Leave No Trace falls a bit short as an-issue movie, it’s aesthetic motif is absolutely on point. The film shows us hidden campsites, Portland transit, the christmas tree industry and a youth agricultural fair to name a few things. While logically connected, the film’s locations nonetheless come across as individually inspired choices.

In short, Leave No Trace is a solid, artistic film which in retrospect has a lot of traits (its imagining of human and interspecies relationships, its breaks with cliche, etc) that speak to me as an individual viewer. I suspect viewers who are particularly passionate about the survival genre and stories of parent-child relationships should find this film and its radical empathy even more captivating than I did.

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The Social Network (2010)

Written by: Aaron Sorkin Directed by: David Fincher

Social_network_film_posterThere are scenes in the social network that make me really dislike the concept of lawyers.  It’s not a fully rational dislike, but it’s close enough to rational to justify the mention. The legal system of the historically-British-colonized world is known as “adversarial.” It means that lawyers are trained to think that doing their job well requires unequivocal advocacy for their clients, as opposed to trying to reach a mutually beneficial, just outcome. The coldness of this system comes out in a scene when Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg’s) lawyer Sy (John Getz) coldly tries to take down his much younger adversary by drawing on an unflattering story about him from a student newspaper. Perhaps more damningly, however, is a moment when opposing council pettily  insists that Zuckerberg and his team address their opponent as “Mr.” irregardless of the fact that the pair are the same age and were friends. In this moment, the lawyer opts for cartoonish property, snuffing out any possibility of amicability in the proceedings.

The antithesis to these lawyers is a junior member of Zuckerberg’s council (Rashida Jones). She attends the proceedings largely to watch and get the experience, though her function in the screenplay is to offer some exposition on the law to viewers. She is also unique in her compassion to Zuckerberg. While her colleagues are unpleasant, she is pleasant but oxymoronic. The legal profession is an odd one. Many will go into it with idealistic aims  and indeed revisit those aims along the way asking questions such as whether law firms have diversity initiatives. At the end of the day, however, many of them will end up practicing kinds of law that at best has nothing to do with social justice and at worst advances the harsh realities of inequality and the adversarial system.

I suppose I’m getting a little tangential here in talking about lawyers, but I believe this gets at some of the key themes in The Social Network: some of its underlying contradictions.

In a much more extensive review of the film (written at the time of its release), Zadie Smith contrasted the real Mark Zuckerberg with Zuckerberg the film character. The on-camera character shares the basic traits of The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper but is less cartoonish and is notably more cruel. The real Zuckerberg, Smith posits, was not rendered an evil genius by his social ineptitude, but instead was made bland. This difference may not be a mere error or matter of confusion. The on-screen version is the Zuckerberg audiences want to see: his scheming entertains the masses and provides fodder for his ideological critics.

Nonetheless even the film gives Zuckerberg the occasional sympathetic or at least lucid moment. Smith notes the artistic significance of such moments, but they are politically informative as well. The film’s most important political scene comes when Zuckerberg discusses the motives of his adversaries. Zuckerberg’s implicit driving code in the film (I don’t think ideology is the right word here) is that wealth is a privilege, not a right. The idea of telling people they don’t have rights, of course, reeks of Ayn Rand: the cold side of libertarianism. Yet Zuckerberg (the character) flips this logic on its head. He is not depriving the huddle masses of anything, only his fellow-privileged ilk, who rightly or wrongly think they are entitled to be a top-dog amongst the nouveau-riche as he is.

The Social Network focuses on the lives of a number of young men. They are well differentiated and yet, despite theirs being a modern story (a story of generation 2.0s as Smith puts it), they all feel like they are parts of some Shakespearian tale. In King Lear Edmund is a “bad guy” since he’s willing to turn to violence to usurp a dukedom. Yet it’s hard not to see Edmund as justified in his critique of the arbitrariness of his brother Edgar inheriting their father’s title, since Edmund is deprive due to the mere technicality of his being a “bastard.”The Social Network is similarly full of disgruntled nobility. The Winkelvoss twins (Armie Hammer) and business partner Divya Narendra (Max Minghella) are princely enterpreneurs. In the context of the film they seem worthy of sympathy, but perhaps that wouldn’t be the case if Eisenberg was less of a MacBeth and more of a Robin Hood. Chief amongst the film’s cocky princes, meanwhile is Sean Parker (Justin Timerblake), the founder of Napster, whose role in the film seems to be to show that Zuckerberg has not reached the utmost echelon of corporate arrogance.

Finally, one more character features in the film’s noble cast: Zuckerberg’s Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield). Much like Eisenberg’s Zuckerberg, Garfield’s Saverin is a memorable figure: trusting, and nervous, but never quite a pushover: he’s the “good guy.” Garfield’s portrayal is so strong, however, that we forget this “good guy’s” aspirations are to be a Wall Street billionaire and a member of an elite fraternity (apologies if it’s technically not a fraternity, I can’t see the difference). In 2010 Zadie Smith called this film emblematic of a generation, but that begs the question, has the generation already changed? Where, I ask, are the social justice warriors? There is, I suppose, in this film of Shakespearian aristocrats one character who breaks the mold a little. Zuckerberg’s one-time girlfriend Erica Albright (Rooney Mara) serves as a bit of a Cordelia to Zuckerberg’s Lear: a little bit I say because it’s more that that’s the role he wants her to fill than the one she does.

So how does this all come together? The social network is a story of warring principalities, some of whom are “good King Richards,” and some of whom are “wicked Prince Johns.” There’s an absurdity in this logic, of course. Should anyone rightly be a billionaire? Are people ready for the responsibility of designing a hegemonic social network fresh off designing a website that ranked female Harvard students on their hotness?  It makes for a good story to see Saverin as very different than Zuckerberg or Rashida Jones’ character  as different  than the other lawyers, but this is not reality. Fighting adversarial IP and contractual battles with those close to you is not “wrong” it’s  “just business,” and business can be conducted by people like Eisenberg’s Zuckerberg and Garfield’s Saverin alike.

Artistically speaking, Sorkin and Fincher decided to depict Zuckerberg as an anti-hero. Politically this is a questionable, if not wrong choice. The darker side of Facebook and Zuckerberg is inseparable from the logic of capitalism as a whole, a system that can exist even without anti-social schemers like the on-screen Zuckerberg. I do not conclude this way to make this a “negative” review. Eisenberg and Garfield’s adaptations of their characters are engaging and make for a good story, even if they are not the most politically informative. The Social Network,like all political texts needs to be consumed alongside other sources. Regardless if it is the defining film of this generation, it cannot be the end-all of this generation’s political education

Hereditary (2018)

Written and directed by: Ari Aster 

   Hereditary               Last fall, commenting on some of the horror highlights of 2017, I noted they had a quality which I described as “thorough horror.” This is to say that these films were rife with disturbing details, which either were mere compliments to the main horror (It) or were complete red-herrings (The Killing of a Sacred Deer). Hereditary feels like a film made in a similar vein. The good side of this is that it regularly reinvigorates viewers with shots of eerie excitement. The negative side is that, unlike the aforementioned movies, thorough horror is not a mere trait of Hereditary, but its premise.

In order to explain this matter further I will have to spoil a little of the film, not too much, but perhaps more than I’d like. Since surprise is particularly important to the experience of watching a horror film, consider yourself warned.

 

Hereditary opens with a funeral eulogy, as miniaturist artist and mother of two Annie Graham (Toni Collette) speaks on the life of her mother, a woman who was distant from her family and whom we latter learn struggled with a mental illness. When Graham and her family return home we get the sense that her son Peter (aged roughly 16) (Alex Wolff) and daughter Charlie (13) (Milly Shapiro) did not feel close to, or at least can not be outwardly emotional about their grandmother. We further learn that Charlie never cried as a baby. Finally, we learn she is into art projects, one of which involves decapitating a pigeon corpse.

When I said I would have to spoil things I’ll say this much: the grandmother is a red herring (to a degree at least), and Charlie, the disturbed grand-daughter is certainly a red herring. Can I say certainly? It’s hard to say with the plot of this film: anyway, Charlie is not one of the film’s antagonists, and the grandmother’s funeral feels like the first five minutes of a Simpson’s episode (as in its there to be interesting, but is almost unnecessary for the ultimate plot trajectory).

Another oddity in the film’s development is its use of a dollhouse motif. We regularly see Annie at work. The instant appearance of the dollhouse in the film sets up the audience to figure it is part of the logic of the film’s horror. Annie, we are lead to believe, is intentionally or unintentionally doing some sort of voodoo work. This (as far as I could tell), is yet again a red herring. The logic of the film’s horror has nothing to do with dollhouse voodooism.

Now you may say, why do you keep throwing the term red herring around like it’s a bad thing? Horror movies are mysteries in a way, and red herrings are an essential part of the mystery genre. I agree on this point, and thus should qualify, Hereditary is not a bad film due to its rifeness with red-herrings. It can be appreciated as a collection of vignettes: a bit with a séance, a bit with a cult, a bit with sleepwalking, etc. What frustrated me about Hereditary, however, is that a) these vignettes were not quite vignettes (alone they did not have beginnings, middles and ends) and b) they did not feel like they were contributing to a thorough story. Sure, it matters that Peter and Annie have deep issues between each other, but this never seems to add up to anything, and only marginally matters when the film’s final confrontation takes place.

It’s hard to say what it would take to fix Hereditary since lots of its individual components are strong. The dialogue is believable, the horror/occult elements are creatively introduced, and the concluding scene is visually, if not narratively, satisfying. Perhaps, its problem, however, is that it tries to both be a thorough horror film, while also maintaining a subtle affect. Perhaps horror films don’t need to make sense, they can be collections of beautiful chaos. It’s hard, however, to be beautifully chaotic, when you constantly interrupt your nightmare scenes with realist depictions of mourning family dynamics. Another way to put it, is that horror movies can have two possible agendas: 1) to scare, or 2) to leverage horror as a mechanism to tell a witty story. Aesthetically, Hereditary took approach 2, but its aspirations seem more in line with agenda 1.

Then again, I could be missing something. I, for one. still find the title confusing, unless the writers felt simply having a family in your story justifies it being called Hereditary.

Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)

Written by: Jonathan and Lawrence Kasdan Directed by: Ron Howard

Solo_A_Star_Wars_Story_posterSolo is a film that was released with a lot of weight on its shoulders. For whatever reason, Disney has decided to bombard audiences with new Star Wars films for the past few years, and the last one polarized audiences (yes, reactionary white men in particular but alas their viewpoint is widespread). Solo, like Rogue One before it, is not part of a trilogy: it is a “Star Wars Story” film. Its being “extra” adds another layer of pressure, as viewers will not simply question its quality but whether it deserves to exist.

Rogue One had the advantage of being about heroes whose identity and significance was unknown to most viewers at the time of the film’s release. Solo, by contrast, is about a well established Star Wars hero. As such it risks a mediocrity innate to many prequels: when you know a character’s fate, its hard for a script about them to bear much tension. Early into Solo, I feared the film would fall into this category, especially as I knew A.O. Scott softly-derided the movie as a “filmed Wikipedia article”. As I watched Han fight Chewbacca, for instance, I wanted to be a bit more compelled than I was, but felt the scene’s value was limited by my familiarity with both of these “adversaries.”

Solo, however, manages to work by being the mirror image of Rogue One. While the 2016 film connects unknowns to the main saga, Solo takes a familiar character and tells his story by linking him to figures otherwise independent of the main Star Wars series. Rest assured, however, the necessary links (Chewie, the millennium falcon, Lando, Jabba (sort of) ) to the character of old are there (I’ll throw in that I was disappointed not to see Greedo).

Solo is justified as a piece, not just because of Han’s individual significance to Star Wars, but also because his type of story is one the series has not previously covered. We’ve seen tales of white knights, and white knights-turned-supervillains, but not yet a tale of morally-middle-of-the-road figures. Solo’s story holds onto lots of the aesthetic charm of the Star Wars universe but, for once, it is not a fight between the light-dark binary, and for once, does not rely on the mysterious “force.”

Solo’s unique persona is shaped by the fact that he lives outside of the mythical realms of good and evil. In fact, is is almost as if he lives in a world that anti-heroes have all to themselves. This is a bizarre universe made up of compassionate people who also express quick willingness to kill those who stand in their way. Granted, these threats are not always acted upon, so perhaps are not meant to be taken literally: but they’re certainly not empty. The unpredictably of anti-hero society allows for surprise and confusion. There’s something very touching about seeing two outlaws (not previously revealed to be in a relationship) kiss and there’s something bizarre (an under-explained logic if you will) about a group of armed thieves with a ship refering to another group of thieves as dangerous “pirates.”

Solo, himself, is not an evil character, but he has shades of selfishness and arrogance that can lead him to be problematically self-serving. This too, at times, feels like a problem for the film. Wanting to make their protagonist likeable, the filmmakers imagined Solo not as the outright bad-boy outlaw he was in his first films but as more of a Luke Skywalker with just a pinch more of arrogant flavouring. This makes for an interesting character, but also left me wondering how he could plausibly develop into the Han Solo we know. Luckily, the film ultimately, though not implicitly, answers this question. Han’s story is made up of a series of traumas that could believably come to harden him, even as (and perhaps because), unlike Luke or Anakin he cannot simply break down and cry.

Perhaps one thing for viewers to ponder is whether Solo’s tale resembles Luke’s, or whether it is an entirely different kind of story. Indeed, both Luke in The Last Jedi and Han in Solo have been described as inconsistent with their characters’ original personas. While I disagree with this view (particularly when it comes to Luke), I can’t help but acknowledge that recent developments in the series have indeed shed light on Luke and Han’s similarities. One idea that struck in Solo is that its hero too has paternal issues: less intense and less literal than Luke’s, but they’re there nonetheless.

Action wise, perhaps some of the scenes in Solo are a bit drawn out. Nonetheless, there’s still that Star Wars charm to them. There aren’t lightsabers, but blaster bullets are still infinitely more beautiful to watch than the mundane ammo of other action movies. There’s also a wonderfully shot action scene in which a train snakes around a snowy mountain. One need not like action to appreciate Solo, however, as the film is rich with characters. It introduces, however sparingly, good additions to the Star Wars alien and droid imaginaries (Jon Favreau and Phoebe Waller-Bridge); Woody Harrelson as a thief whose persona I would argue mirrors that of his cop character in Three Billboards Outside Ebbings Missouri; and Donald Glover as Lando, a character who oddly enough seems relatively docile immersed in a world of anti-heroes. The cast is completed by Qu’ira (Emilia Clarke), Solo’s love interest whose exact nature (whatever that means) remains mysterious.

In short, I cannot understand why Solo has flopped at the box office. It tells the tale of an established hero; creatively fills in gaps; balances action and character development and even features a great final cameo. Literally speaking the force is not with this one, but who needs the force when you’ve got the self-proclaimed greatest pilot in the galaxy at your helm.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)

Written by: Steve Conrad Directed by: Ben Stiller

 

The_Secret_Life_of_Walter_Mitty_posterIt’s easy to be dismissive of a film like The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. The film follows an “inspiration trajectory,” by which I mean its beginning tells us exactly how its going to end. It is the story of Mitty (Ben Stiller) a photography editor for Life magazine who struggles with an inability to form romantic connections, a slightly offbeat (though I wouldn’t say dysfunctional) family and employment precarity, as Life is taken over by a “modernizing” new manager (Adam Scott). Walter’s problems fit into neat thematic categories, so I can understand why certain film critics might be put off by the film’s having a “predictable,” “inspirational” message.

Nonetheless, I am also weary of people deciding whether or not they like a film because of pre-conceived metrics like “predictability” and “preachiness” (in my last few posts I’ve similarly criticized by own heuristic of “subtlety”). The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is particularly cloying in its final moment, but when it comes to appreciating the film, this shouldn’t matter. That’s because, despite being the tale of a spiritual journey, Walter Mitty is decidedly secular.

After a photo by famed photographer James O’Connell goes missing (costing Walter his job), Walter decides to find the photographer, a decision that leads him to overcome his mundane existence and take a helicopter to Greenland. This moment, however, is not a celebration of Walter “facing his fears,” “seizing the day” or some other clichéd value: rather, it’s a mildly captivating moment of magical realist randomness. Smitten by love, and having recently discovered the song “Space Oddity,” Walter takes to the sky. Walter’s journey to Greenland sets up the domino chain of events that define his stories. He proceeds to Iceland, Afghanistan and the Himalayas. Again, one could jump to the conclusion that this trajectory of Walter going from nobody to worldly traveller reeks too much of self-help books to be thematically interesting. This kind of judgement, however, is one I believe critics reach after-the-fact. While watching Walter’s story, I found his character development to be perfectly paced. A weird episode leads him to Greenland, and from there he becomes impressed with his new coolness and experiences self-actualization at a believeable rate. Walter’s character development thus blends in smoothly with his dramatic surroundings. Audiences are thus not left to gaze too closely at the film’s feel good plot, but rather to appreciate the sparkling photography Walter’s journey passes: mirror lakes and abyss-laden mountain ranges.

For a spiritual journey, Walter’s is also a rather silly one. The leadup to his journey features a cutaway to a parody of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. The conclusion of his journey introduces him to a spiritual guru of sorts, who in fact is a carelessly playful, not all that insightful, famous actor in an extended-cameo. Along, the way Walter is also exposed to a recurring character (Patton Oswalt) who’s very becoming a recurring character is itself a playful gesture.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is visually ambitious, moderately experimental and certainly has funny moments. These qualities combine to make it at very least an interesting viewing experience. Critics have found reason to criticize it, but, and I levy this criticism cautiously, in this case I feel they are simply thinking too hard, instead of appreciating the easily captivating creative, and sensorial experience that is The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.

On Chesil Beach (2017)

Written (the screenplay and the original novel) by: Ian McEwan

Directed by: Dominic Cooke

On_Chesil_Beach_(film)          When a film is “so good that its bad” that generally means it was written to be appreciated in one way (eg as a serious drama) and ends up appreciated in another (as a comedy). I would not consider On Chesil Beach to be amongst the ranks of “Bad Movies,” however, it’s certainly got a small dose of their character. The film opens to newlyweds Florence Ponting (Saoirse Ronan) and Edward Mayhew (Billy Howle) walking on a beach before returning to a hotel where they dine together. The set up and the dialogue is cartoonishly posh. Perhaps its just because I’m used to thinking of Ronan as a “young” actor, but there’s something about her character’s wedding night that feels fake : it is as if we are watching a parody of proper British couple eating. Having not read the novel on which the film is based, I was left in those moments wondering: “am I about to watch a piece of absurd comedy?”

My hypothesis about the film being a comedy was able to linger a few scenes longer.  For example, I was struck by a flashback scene which features a character abruptly being hit by a train. Something about the delivery was off. It resembled the slapstick violence of Amelie rather than the tragic moment that it was supposed to be.

Soon, however, the film’s seriousness became apparent as the plot went back and forth between present and future: Florence and Edward’s joyous courtship, and their troubled wedding night. This contrast at times felt interesting, however, the darker side of the film’s plot felt poorly paced. It is revealed that Florence has a tragic secret. The nature of this secret quickly becomes obvious, however,  making the build up to it feel underwhelming.

On Chesil Beach thus starts which tonal weirdness, and has a predictable middle. As for its ending: it’s rather sentimental. It’s the kind of thing you’ll like if you’re particularly invested in the story, but will dismiss as predictable if you are not particularly in love with the characters. That said, I have recently written about the danger of using heuristics (words like “predictable,” sentimental” or “subtle”) in criticizing films.Yes, On Chesil Beach has all of those flaws, but the film is an example of how the sum of parts can be greater than the whole.

Sure, on its own, “the end” of On Chesil Beach is too sentimental to feel interesting, yet when viewed with “the middle” in mind, “the end” feels like a stroke of genius. The middle of the film seems to imply the story will be about the revelation of the dark secret, yet that dark secret ultimately takes a back seat to another problem. This other problem, we learn, is what the story was, in a way, about the whole time.

It’s hard to say what the film is ultimately about with out giving too much away, so I’ll say this much. The film sets us up to believe it is a story with a “bad guy.” When the sort of plot-twist happens, however, the film becomes about a different kind of story, one in which there isn’t a bad character, but a good character made bad by the rigidity of social convention. This theme in turn enriches the film’s awkward beginning. The poshness displayed in the early dinner seen can no longer be written off as awkward, unintentional comedy. Instead it comes to fit in within the film’s theme that people can undermine their own best interests, and perhaps principles, because they are actors rigidly playing roles as written in the script of social convention.

On Chesil Beach does not feel like a subtle film, but upon reflection, you may find there’s more to it than immediately meets the eye. It is a film that speaks to how alien and unpleasant the social politics of “the past” can feel. And by default, it also begs the question of how social convention continues to turn people against each other to this day.

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 too rely to heavily on the premise of “look at these cool characters fighting,” rather than truly considering how best to make their narratives collide.