Crimson Peak (2015)

Directed by: Guillermo del Torro 

Written by: del Torro and Matthew Robbins

Crimson_Peak_theatrical_posterMonster vs man: that’s the recurring motif in Guillermo del Torro’s films. Pan’s Labyrinth and The Shape of Water are set during the Spanish civil war and early-cold war respectively. Both feature literal monsters that at times can be scary, but both films make plain that their real villains are fascists and conservative-militarists respectively. Between those two films del Torro came out with Crimson Peak. Set in late 19th century America and England, the film is consistent with del Torro’s tendency to attack right-wing ideologies. This time, however, the ideology is as old-fashioned as the film’s setting. The ideology is British arastocracism. 

Crimson Peak is a mildly amusing watch in 2020, in that it shares a plot theming device with the recently released Little Women. Its protagonist, Edith (Mia Wasikowska), is a young American woman with the literary talents to impress publishers, who is nonetheless blocked from getting published by their sexism. Edith is told that a quasi-ghost story she has written might be publishable if she adds a romantic element, but she promptly dismisses the proposal as sexist.

Edith’s sense of direction is promptly complicated by the arrival of  Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston),  an English aristocrat, who hopes that Edith’s father Carter Cushing (Jim Beaver) will invest in his clay mining technology. While Edith takes a liking to Thomas, her father is quick to quell his ambitions. He refuses to offer him money arguing that Thomas is a lazy son of privilege, whereas he (Cushing) has earned his wealth.

Despite having a constant air of horror, and some memorable bursts of color, Crimson Peak struck me as a bit underwhelming for much of its middle. Carter’s telling off of Thomas seemed to settle the film’s moral message once and for all (a message conveyed, unfortunately, from an uncritical-capitalist perspective). Another key point, established a bit too early in the script for my taste, is that Thomas’s sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain), is morbid to say the least. Lucille is established in a scene in wish she glibly tells Edith about the death of butterflies, all the while a close-up depicts a dying butterfly being ripped apart by ants. In short, much of Crimson Peak is spent with the audience already knowing that Thomas and Lucille are corrupted by their inherited positions, and that Lucille may be particularly sinister. Subsequently, the audience is left with the dull experience of waiting for these apparent truths to explicitly reveal themselves and add up to something.

Luckily, there is more to Crimson Peak than meets the eye. There is some element of twist in the film’s third act and the film ends up making somewhat unpredictable observations about both aristocracy and the plasticity of love stories. Ultimately Crimson Peak proved a memorable movie, but the memorable was too little, too late to render the work overall entertaining. One weakness, I suppose, is that the film lacked del Torro’s signature (literal) monsters: they’re there, but not frequently, and certainly not to the degree necessary to register as characters. The film’s problems, however, go beyond the absence of charismatic monsters. Its real problem is the presence of blasé people.

One thing I’ve struggled with in reading English classics over the years is parsing what exactly is so attractive about their leading men. Mr. Darcy, Captain Wentsworth and Mr. Rochester all struck me as just rich men whose names got repeated a lot: yet in their respective stories they count as real heartthrobs. To del Torro and Matthew Robbins’s credit, they perfectly captured this dynamic in Thomas Sharpe. The character may be the one who pushes Edith away from her intellectualism-over-love lifestyle, but nothing he does on screen really rises above the standard of blandness.

Thomas’s blandness is to blame for the arguable overwriting of his sinister sister (his lack of charisma had to be made up for somewhere). It is also to blame for why the film’s middle feels lacking. Most importantly, however, it is what prevents the film’s twist from truly tying the work together. Thomas proves a complicated character, and the subject of what is perhaps del Torro’s most tragic and nuanced exploration of reactionary power structures. Crimson Peak’s structure ,unfortunately, makes his character development seem less like an arc and more like a list of bullet points; a list that’s quite repetitive prior to its conclusion.

While Pan’s Labyrinth spoke to an evil characterized by an acting body: a military force, Crimson Peak went for a target that wasn’t exactly moving. In fact that is its point: that aristocrats are hauntingly trapped in the past. The disturbing stagnancy of aristocratic culture might very well make for a good cinematic theme, but one has to be careful that one’s own film doesn’t take on that stagnancy itself.

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; he even takes 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. Gradually the film 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 more 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). At least it can be said 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 meant to be 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.

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.