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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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.

Deadpool 2

Written by: Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick and Ryan Reynolds. Directed by: David Leitch

Deadpool_2_poster     When I first saw Deadpool it struck me as one of the biggest compromises I’d ever seen: it broke enough rules to call itself experimental, while still meeting all expectations as a big-budget, crowd-pleasing action movie. I was pleasantly surprised by it, I’ll say that much.

I nonetheless did not think Deadpool 2 could be a good idea. Deadpool was interesting as a standalone work, but nothing it featured (fourth wall breaking, referentialism, self-deprecation, and excessive violence on the part of its protagonist) would be interesting when employed a second time around. My thoughts were all but confirmed in the film’s opening scenes in which Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) narrates his killings with Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5” blaring in the background.

Then a plot twist happened. I won’t say what it is, and for your sake you probably shouldn’t search it (don’t spoil the future moment). What I will say is that twist changed my impression of what I was watching for the better.

Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi succeeded because its writers asked the question “what kind of story should a sequel be?” and got the answer right. Rather than simply revisiting the gags and powers of its characters, it used them as an infrastructural base for telling a new kind of story: one that questions the nature of the Star Wars universe rather than simply continuing it. While I wouldn’t say Deadpool 2 challenges the nature of its predecessor, it also manages to be a significantly different kind of story, that nonetheless, uses the original film as a springboard for its success. Deadpool, as introduced in the original film, is an anti-hero. His motives rarely seem as pure as they should be, as he seems more driven by the prospect of annihilating his enemies than by the ideal of fighting for justice. Deadpool 2 gives us a character with those same traits, but one who has matured enough so that he is also ideal driven. Then the plot twist happens, temporarily shattering Deadpool’s sense of purpose. The result of this trauma is not Deadpool regressing back entirely to who he was at his worst. The shock does, however stimulate various elements of his persona including his hot-headedness and immaturity. In essence, Deadpool is a character created to entertain with his punches and foul mouth, yet he manages to come off as thoughtfully developed.

Deadpool 2 is also bolstered by its supporting cast. Josh Brolin plays an antagonist who is not stunningly original, but is made compelling via the emotional weight laid-bare on his rugged face. Karon Soni, whose character, Dopinder, appears in taxi-cab gags in the first movie, returns as a quasi-side kick in this film. Dopinder is not Deadpool’s only sidekick, however. At one point in fact, Deadpool recruits a whole team of them. While these characters come across as parodies of superheroes, many are in fact (loose) adaptations of Marvel comic characters.

Most prominent among the film’s side characters, however, is Russell Collins (Julian Dennison), an anti-hero in, ironically, a film about an anti-hero. Russel is a mistreated orphan with super powers, and his appearance essentially makes Deadpool Hunt for the Wilderpeople with a big budget. This superficial textual similarity, however, contributes to Deadpool’s originality and effectiveness as a piece of story telling. Hunt for the Wilderpeople tells the story of an orphan bonding with a curmudgeon over a prolonged period while they are chased by a comically, pathetic antagonist. Deadpool 2 challenges Deadpool and Russell to develop similar bonds, but in a very different context: one that is higher-stakes, much faster-paced.

Deadpool 2 is full of silly references, but as superhero films go, it manages to be thematically deep. This depth goes beyond the story of Deadpool and Russell. A prolonged portion of the film is set in a prison, a horrible place in which people’s pain is ignored and inter-inmate bullying goes unchecked. For a moment, it seems, the tough-on-crime logic of super hero movies is paused to critique the school-to-prison pipeline and prisons in general.

Of course, Deadpool 2 would not be a Deadpool movie if it was fully idealistic, and it ultimately maintains its protagonist’s commitment to gore. Even the relatively pacifistic Colossus (Stefan Kapičić (who repeatedly tries to teach Deadpool that killing is not the X-Man way) is implicated in the film’s violent ethos, at one point electrocuting a character in an unmentionable place. Whether this is a shortcoming or not is hard to say. Deadpool 2 ultimately comes across as a pretty strong superhero movie. Whether it could have been more, and whether it needed to be, is a question too abstract to answer.