Incredibles 2

Written and Directed by: Brad Bird

The_Incredibles_2      In a pre-show interview montage shown before screenings of Incredibles 2, writer-director Brad Bird is asked what has happened to his characters since their last film appearance. A smiling Bird assures us, very little, as Incredibles 2 starts ten seconds after the original film ended. Bird’s comment sums up my impression of his sequel: on the one hand its very much in the spirit of the original film, on the other hand it perhaps doesn’t do quite enough to cements its legacy as a standalone work.

Whenever a (non- Toy Story) Pixar sequel comes out, viewers will inevitably rumble about whether it is a truly inspired and justified idea or whether it is a mere money grab. With Incredibles 2 there’s a third explanation that lies between these two poles: it’s a superhero movie. We live in a day and age where Marvel (and other companies who make films about Marvel characters) are having great success producing story after story introducing different heroes and, to a lesser extent, different villains.

The Incredibles (2004) is not a superhero movie in the sense that Iron Man is. It was not created to be part of a complex, ever lasting universe and action-figure industry. Rather, like other Pixar films, it is an attempt to tell a story using a type of character (super heroes, as opposed to toys, bugs, monsters, etc) as a springboard. The impression I got from watching Incredibles 2, however, is that Brad Bird must have gotten into the fact he was now the creator of a superhero universe. Having ended the last film with the introduction of a new supervillain, The Underminer (John Ratzenberger), Bird felt he had another movie, or to put it more aptly, another metaphorical comic book issue, to put out.

The development of the Incredibles as a multi-film superhero universe has some good elements to it. The Underminer makes for a good villain in the Batman/Spiderman tradition. Furthermore, perhaps taking a page from The Avengers’ book, Bird used this movie to bring heroes besides the Incredibles and Frozen out of hiding. These characters are well designed, and the one we get to know a bit, Void, (Sophia Bush) has powers that perfectly straddle the line between being useful and being hopelessly cartoonish.

The downside of the Incredibles becoming a superhero franchise, however, is that the film relies heavily on its internal logic. What do I mean by this? Well, Pixar films are generally defined by being about a unique subset of characters, and their plots are creatively extracted from that source material. The Toy Story Series worked, because each film was based on the foundational question. “What themes should and could a story about toys deal with?” This led to a series of further questions that defined and distinguished the three films: What is it like to have your favourite toy status challenged?/What does it mean not to be real?; How do you deal with abandonment?/ Is immortality in a museum worth it?; and Can your human love you forever?/Is life with preschoolers bearable? Incredibles worked similarly, asking questions about what it means to have powers and to be admired for it. The difference between Incredibles 2 and Incredibles, however, is smaller than that between Toy Story and Toy Story 2. This is because Incredibles 2 was not rooted in the foundational question: “What would it mean to make a movie about superheroes?”. Instead, its foundational question was: “What would it mean to make another movie about the Incredibles?”.

Furthermore, the villain of Incredibles (I won’t be specific in case you haven’t seen it yet) has an origin story rooted, again, in the question of “What kind of characters could exist in a superhero movie?.” While this logic applies somewhat to the villain- origin story in Incredibles 2, the latter villainous motive feels a tad more forced: it is a motive that can’t be (or at least wasn’t) expressed as smoothly and succinctly as the motive in Incredibles. Further more, while the revelation of the villain in Incredibles is a clever, witty reveal, the equivalent moment in Incredibles 2 can be sensed from a mile away (the only surprise for me was the number of villains not their identity).

Another notable element of Incredibles 2 is its gender politics. The film casts Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) as opposed to her husband Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) in the central action roll. Mr. Incredible meanwhile is left to care for superhero kids Violet, Dash and Jack-Jack (Sarah Vowell, Huck Milner and Eli Fucile). Elastigirl is given the opportunity to go on missions after a billionaire hero-fan Winston Deaver (Bob Odenkirk) decides, she as the less reckless of the two, would be the best option for rehabilitating the reputation of heroes. For a moment this idea seems to develop into a deeper theme. At one moment Elastigirl and Winston’s sister Evelyn (Catherine Keener) share a conversation, in which Evelyn bemoans that her brother has been more successful than her, despite his reliance on her invention skills (a joint critique of patriarchy and capitalism). This theme, however, is ultimately left underdeveloped. The Incredibles has an intentionally ambiguous gender politics: on the one hand it depicts a traditional nuclear family, while on the other, hand making clear that Elastigirl had an assertive, Rosie Riveter side to her. Incredibles 2 rocks the boat a bit more, but ultimately stays loyal to this formula. Perhaps this was the wise move given that the series’ premise is that a family can thrive as a Fantastic 4-like-super-team despite its mild dysfunctions.

Incredibles 2 is dynamic and full of funny moments. It also manages to be better than most superhero movies in that it is not too reliant on action. When it is action rich, the action is humorous, or at least creative. Perhaps this Pixar sequel does not enrich its universe with characters comparable to Jessie, Lotso Huggin Bear or even Emperor Zurg, but even as Incredibles 2 doesn’t sore to new heights, it doesn’t disappoint either—dah-lings.

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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 for 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.

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

In Search of the Alt-Superhero Film: The Misplaced Hype Around Thor: Ragnorak (2017)

Thor_Ragnarok_poster        I don’t make a point of going to superhero films. I went to Thor: Ragnorak based on rumours that it was something different: that if not one of the funniest films of the year, it was one of the funniest superhero films ever made. I also went because of my interest in its director Taika Waititi, whose What We Do in the Shadows ranks amongst my favourite films of all time, and whose Hunt for the Wilderpeople would have near equal standing in my heart but for my discomfort with hunting.

Unfortunately, while he apparently did some editing, Waititi did not write the script for Ragnorak. Waititi’s influence in the work is certainly noticeable: for example in the understated comedic dialogue in scene I, the appearances by Wilderpeople stars Sam Neil and Rachel House, Waititi’s own character, Korg, etc. Nonetheless, as a whole, the film does not come across as the genre-transforming piece I’d anticipated. It’s not unusual for Superhero Films to employ the odd joke; Spiderman and Iron Man certainly have their sassy sides. Nothing about Ragnorak stands out as going beyond the comedic standards set by these aforementioned sagas. Deadpool with its anti-hero protagonist and regular fourth wall breaking, whatever one thinks of its crassness, was no doubt a more innovative work than Ragnorak.

            Granted, perhaps it is not my place to criticize Ragnorak. Its target audience is not people like me, but avid followers of the Marvael universe who are able to remember who the heck Idris Elba’s character was from the previous Thor films and get excited by action sequences. That said, surely some superhero films, do strive to be transcendently appealing, and with that in mind, I think its worth exploring how Ragnorak falls short.

The story of Ragnorak is essentially that Thor’s evil sister, Hela the goddess of death, (Cate Blanchett) breaks out of Asgardian prison and declares herself Queen of Asgard, and then promptly starts a killing spree. Thor and a his god-of-mischief-brother Loki must work to overthrow her, but along the way Thor is captured on behalf of another planet’s villainous “Grandmaster” (Jeff Goldblum) where he is detained to participate in prize-fights. This high stakes plot stands in stark contrast to Waititi’s What We Do in the Shadows, a documentary about vampires who eat some people, befriend others and go to an awkward party. The simplicity of this plot means that it derives its life from the personalities of its characters: the unexplainable awe the vampires hold for an IT worker named Stu, their fear of being exposed by non-humans (except the ones making the documentary) and their house rules and flat meetings. Ragnorak, by contrast, calls on its characters to overcome their quirks to participate in a high stakes, big budget battle to the death. While the battle scenes are not free of funny moments (Eg Thor suddenly remembering mid battle he is the god of thunder), they ultimately serve to divert the film from its comic potential.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople, provides another lens through which Ragnorak can be critiqued. That film does have a high stakes plot (a boy and his gruff, adopted father take to the woods to avoid his being found by child services). Unlike Ragnorak, however, Hunt for the Wilderpeople’s central antagonists are funny. Thor Ragnorak has no lack of silly bad guys. Goldblum’s character is whimsical and arbitrary in his tyranny. Loki, as god of mischief, is Thor’s friend one second, and his playful enemy the next. The film, however finds its sense of direction in the character’s confrontation with Hela, a conventional, clad in darkness villain who kills mercilessly in pursuit of power, leaving the more amusing Thor vs Loki (or even Thor vs Grandmaster) dynamics, underdeveloped.

My disappointment with Ragnorak is indeed largely attributable to its reputation as comedic, a reputation, I would argue, it fails to live up to. Its flaws, however, can more broadly be attributed not to how much humor it has, but the non-impact of the humor on the film’s skeletal plot structure.

Since seeing Ragnorak, I have also taken the time to see M. Night Shymalan’s UnbreakableposterwillisUnbreakable. The latter film is incomparable to Ragnorak in that it does not aspire to be comedic. Nonetheless, the contrast between these two works illustrates what it takes to make an interesting superhero film. Shyamalan has described the film as an “origin story that the audience doesn’t know is an origin story until its last image.” Unbreakable, thus satisfies audiences by taking traditional constructs (heroes and villains) and sneakily forcing viewers to reimagine them. Ragnorak may have its creative moments, but it is ultimately still the story of a hero overcoming (by his standards not overwhelming) odds to take on a plain-stated villain.

Unbreakable is also an interesting example of how a work can quickly redeem itself. Much of the film lies in an emotional grey zone: the character’s are clearly dealing with serious issues, yet these issues don’t always seem serious enough to feel like they’re going anywhere. When the film all comes together at its end, however, audiences are able to retrospectively appreciate the whole work. Unbreakable stands out in that its hero’s self-doubt is his defining feature (rather than the more typical lingering-back-of-the-mind concern). Its villain, meanwhile, stands out in that we get to know them almost entirely for their endearing personality and only minimally for their villainy. Unbreakable closes by taking its viewers into a novel emotional space. When it finally creates a confrontation between good and evil it is not exciting or nerve wracking, but tragically beautiful.

Ragnorak may make audiences laugh, but audiences will not laugh at its central thesis: the confrontation of Hela and Thor. The world needs more films like Unbreakable, or even Deadpool. If Marvel studios is going to keep riding on the talents of directors like Waititi, it should consider giving them the creative space to truly develop the superhero genre.

Conceptions of Villainy in The Dark Knight and Bonnie and Clyde

SPOILERS AHEAD

DunawayAsBonniePromo

While travelling I recently found myself with the opportunity to catch up on two classic films, 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde and 2008’s The Dark Knight. The two works make for very different viewing experiences: the former makes a (respectful) comedy out of two ultimately tragic lives, the latter tells a gratuitously dark story despite being centre around a clown. Both films feature plenty of gunshots, but only The Dark Knight will alienate those who don’t like their stories to be drowned in action.

What unites these works, however, is that they are stories centred around “villains” (well at least The Dark Knight will be best remembered for its villain). Villains can be the best parts of films, and perhaps no narrative-universe has understood this better than Batman, entertaining viewers with characters like The Penguin, The Riddler, Harley Quinn and of course, The Joker. At the same time, writing a character as a villain can be a literary and ethical dilemma. It’s a literary dilemma as writing complex, three-dimensional humans, means not putting them in the hero-villain binary. Humans do “villainous things” out of need, due to misunderstanding, due to deep internal battles, etc.

Writing characters as villains can be a political dilemma, since the mis-categorization of humans on a good-evil binary is still applied by advocates of tough-on-crime/militaristic policies such as mandatory minimum sentences, extra-judicial detention, torture and the death penalty.

The Dark Knight is certainly not a film that ignores politics, featuring a Mayor, and more prominently, an elected district attorney: Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart). For both of these figures the political issue of central concern in Gotham is crime. If Gotham is in fact New York, the city’s well-known liberal side is nowhere to be seen. Justice in Gotham is simply understood as having a district attorney who can put as many people away as possible.

Despite these foundations, The Dark Knight does not give in to promoting a right-wing, good-evil dichotomy. How it avoids doing this is fascinating. Rather than showing us the moral of complexity of (most of) its villains, The Dark Knight introduces a villain in The Joker (Heath Ledger) who “just wants to watch the world burn.” The Joker defies the categories of (realistic) evil villain and complex-human-driven-to-evil-by-circumstances. Instead, his villainy manifests itself through his expression of a bizarre system of principles. When offered an immense sum of money for his work, the Joker sets it on fire, implying that evil should be done for its own sake. Another interesting choice on the writers’ part was to explicitly deny the Joker a backstory that explains his circumstances. A recurring motif in the film is Joker monologues beginning with the line “Do you know how I got these scars?” This line, superficially links the joker with characters like Shakespeare’s Richard III and (fellow Dark Knight villain) Two-Face; characters who explain their turn to the dark side citing marginalization related to their physical deformities. The Joker, however, defies this script by offering different explanations whenever he explains his scars; he does not explain his turn to evil, he mocks the idea of explaining his turn to evil.

As The Joker baffles audiences, Christopher and Jonathan Nolan’s script performs a bait and switch. The joker sets up an explosive system and presents two ships escaping Gotham with detonators, telling the passengers the only way to save themselves is to set off their detonator and destroy the other ship. After long deliberation both ships’ passengers refuse to give into temptation. Most notably, the first ship to refuse is the one populated by convicts. In this moment, the Nolans spell out that the Joker is not a rule, but an exception—a cartoonish exception. Contrary to Alfred’s advice to Batman, one should not read villains as simply “want[ing] to see the world burn.” The Dark Knight has its cake and eats it too. It thrives on the portrayal of a deeply evil character (the Joker), while still making clear that real criminals are not “evil” people who deserve to be detonated.

The Nolans further illustrate the message that there is no such thing as pure, irredeemable evil through the character of Harvey Dent/ Two-Face. Dent, who is portrayed as a hero at the beginning and end of the film, nonetheless develops a disproportionate, vengeful urge to kill innocents after the traumatic experience of having his face burned while learning his fiancé has died in an explosion.

I digress here to note that Dent’s portrayal is otherwise not one of The Dark Knight’s strong suits. Despite the film’s lengthy runtime, Dent’s turn to the dark side feels rushed and forced. A further oddity in Dent’s portrayal is that his corrupting is revealed to be a plot by the Joker to show that even the purest of souls can be turned evil. While (as I just noted) the contrast between pre-trauma Dent and Two Face is stark, Dent never comes across as a kindly or idealistic figure; his virtuosity only goes so far as prosecuting criminals (he even has a Joker like tendency of flipping a coin as a way of making moral decisions). While perhaps the Nolans aim is to challenge viewers to have a sense of morality that goes beyond what is plainly stated to them by the film’s cast, the presentation of pre-Two Face Dent as a “white knight” arguably realigns the film with a right-wing understanding of crime and justice, that the scene with the detonators rejects.

 

Despite its missteps in portraying Dent, The Dark Knight should still be recognized as a work that centred its plot around criminal exploits, without touting a tough-on-crime political message. Bonnie and Clyde, though otherwise a very different film than The Dark Knight, should be hailed for achieving the same feat. The latter film wastes no time in establishing its leads as criminals (carjacks and bank robbers, to be clear, we’re not talking Joker level villainy). It also wastes no time in establishing Bonnie’s (Faye Dunaway) motive—escaping her mundane life, and perhaps (though not explicitly stated) the limits placed on her as a woman in rural 1930s Texas. Clyde’s (Warren Beatty) motivations are less clear, though his own psychological side is exposed through his moments of brooding, and his attempt to celebrate his “career” choice as a stand against bank-tyranny.

Bonnie and Clyde, however, is not a biopic that sought to capture the psychological realities of two people. The film can instead be reasonably described as tragi-comedy. It uses the comic trope of an awkwardly put-together gang featuring the adventurous Parker, the troubled but equally adventurous Barrow, a naïve but eager youngster (Michael J Pollard), Barrow’s doesn’t-want-to-be-there-daughter-of-a-preacher sister in law (Estelle Parsons), and (briefly) a couple of very gracious hostages played by Gene Wilder and Evans Evans (yes, as far as I can tell that’s her real name).

The story of Bonnie and Clyde is not simply a comedy to its viewers, but in a way, a comedy to its participants. An unmistakeable characteristic of Parker is her playful side, seen most notably when the gang ties up an unsuspecting Sheriff and takes a goofy photo with him. Bonnie and the gang’s criminality thus essentially comes across as a game of cops and robbers. In the eyes of the gang members they are not stealing and shooting so much as they are playing.

Bonnie and Clyde are ultimately assassinated by a sheriff and posse, but crucially, not mid-robbery or at the hands of someone they had shot at. Rather, their killer is the same sheriff they had earlier humiliated (a historical inaccuracy, as the posse was in fact headed by a sheriff who had never deal with them before). This was an important decision on the part of the writer. Viewers are thus not inclined to see Bonnie and Clyde as having faced their just deserts, but instead as having faced a cruel end to their game at the hands of a humourless sheriff.

There is much stylistic difference between Bonnie and Clyde and The Dark Knight, but the two share a common accomplishment—making good art about crime, without making reactionary statements about the role of crime in the real world. The Dark Knight depicts its central criminal as the twisted being that many want to write off real criminals as, while making it clear that this cartoon villain is not at all representative of crime in the real world. Bonnie and Clyde, meanwhile avoids making its titular bank robbers symbols of real world criminal danger by making their criminal exploits appear (both to viewers and the characters themselves) as playful escapades. In doing so, it simultaneously separates the character’s actions from real world criminality, while also sympathetically portraying a psychological state that some real criminals may have (a playful naivety to the consequences of their actions).

So riddle me this Batman, can we have a cinema rich in crime that isn’t tough on crime? These two films suggest we can.