Some infinities are bigger than other infinities

Eh, I’m not gonna try to spoil the movie, but you’re probably not going to get general descriptions. Anyway, it’s been two weeks… you have seen the movie already.

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10 years down the line of a nakedly pre-ordained order of films of varying quality, nobody gets a cookie for observing how much the Marvel Cinematic Universe registers at this point as an assembly set of products developed to advertise each others’ existence and move us up to the next BIG EVENT picture, like an exhaustive bombarding of tentpoles.

Nor could that be an inherent point against Avengers: Infinity War. It’s hardly the first crossover created on that basis of self-generated hype. It’s not even the first Avengers movie to do that. It IS the first movie since Iron Man 2 to function more of an obligation/trailer sprinkling several references from previous installments (including a scene where the punchline is characters verbally recapping the last movie they were in).

It’s also attempting to trade off the strength of the previous Marvel film that directors Anthony and Joe Russo were involved in, Captain America: Civil War, a fun and breezy exercise in pairing up characters as scene partners and turning up some fun combinations of action and comedy. Which in turn was something the first Avengers accomplished as well on a similar scale. The novelty and fun from that movie didn’t come from any stakes or tension, but from how these different personalities get to collide both verbally and physically.

I can’t say that novelty translates well to Avengers: Infinity War, where it wants to accomplish that levity but demands those stakes are activated like Thanos (Josh Brolin) activates his gauntlet. The result is a tonal juggle between doom harbinging (with most of the characters in one storyline having their lines be some variation on “Thanos is coming, we are going to die!”) and the modus operandi of the MCU’s comedic bathos with extended scenes of snappy banter trying to one-up each other. It is less fun to witness Sorcerer Supreme Master of the Mystic Arts Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and billionaire genius playboy inventor Tony “Iron Man” Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) try to see who has the bigger dick than, say, Civil War having Iron Man encourage naïve high-schooler Peter “Spider-Man” Parker (Tom Holland) with him responding in idol worship or Stark and temperamental monster scientist Bruce “Incredible Hulk” Banner (Mark Ruffalo) bonding over science and stuff in The Avengers. It feels just like an improv group trying to one-up each other instead and it brings a lot of attention to the fact that most of their characters are some slight variation on the same Whedon-esque egotism with heart.

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In that turn, screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely dealt with just two different story strands that were going in the same direction anyway. Avengers: Infinity War trades up from 10 above-the-line named stars in that last film to 19 and now we have four different plot strands going on with one thoroughline between them: the afore-mentioned demented alien despot Thanos, who had been watching in the shadows since the first Avengers, wields the Infinity Gauntlet and seeks the six different cosmic Infinity stones that will power that powerglove enough to accomplish his goal of balancing the universe (read: kill half of its inhabitants). Thanos acquires most of the stones with relative ease but two in particular are in the possession of characters with a lot of fight in them, so…
Plot Strand #1 – Doctor Strange is kidnapped by one of Thanos’ CGI Star Wars henchmen due to his tenacious guarding of the Time Stone, with Iron Man and Spider-Man racing to rescue him.
Plot Strand #2 – Super-soldier Steve “Captain America” Rogers (Chris Evans), spy Natasha “Black Widow” Romanoff (Scarlett Johannsson), and flight inventor Sam “Falcon” Wilson arrive in time to help reality manipulator Wanda “Scarlet Witch” Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) rescue Mind Gem-animated android Vision (Paul Bettany) from more CGI henchmen.

Meanwhile,
Plot Strand #3 – The Guardians of the Galaxy are notified by God of Thunder Thor (Chris Hemsworth) that Thanos is on the hunt for the Infinity Stones. Rocket Raccoon (Sean Gunn mo-cap; Bradley Cooper voice) and adolescent tree-man Groot (Vin Diesel) accompany Thor to grab a weapon that could kill Thanos while
Plot Strand #4 – Remaining Guardians Peter “Starlord” Quill (Chris Pratt), Thanos’ adopted daughter assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana), literal-minded muscle Drax (Dave Bautista), and psychic empath Mantis (Pom Klementieff) try to intercept the remaining stones before Thanos can.

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There is of course the reading that can be made that Thanos himself is the protagonist of Avengers: Infinity War. Indeed, he is introduced into the film within the first few shots (remains until the very last shot) and he gets the brunt of an emotional narrative arc including a backstory to explain his logic beyond the comics explaining “he wanna bang-a Death”. I align with the reading that Thanos is one of the central characters of Infinity War, but I absolutely cannot align with him being THE protagonist. Save for the final shot, we never have him in a scene unless another one of the Marvel heroes are and that’s a lot of movie without his appearance.

A lot of movie especially between those four plotlines where only two of which has any real incident (The Thor/Guardians ones) and the rest leave us with a fractured sense of pacing. We’re jumping between the Guardians trying to stop Thanos in Knowhere cut to Captain America’s crew sitting around trying to decide where to go with little segue. It also means this film is overstuffed with characters having little to do – Captain America and Black Panther King of Wakanda T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) being the most apparent victims of this. And that means a jilting of any dramatic heft for recognizable characters who don’t really get developed within Infinity War itself. Obviously, Infinity War was trying to match the structure of a crossover event comic book, but do you notice how in those events some character’s issues will be shorter than other character’s issues in the comic book world? Yeah.

It should be obvious at this point that my preference was the Guardians side of things – not only for its reliance on comedy and humor (which is the only thing that kept me entertained throughout the entirety of Infinity War, though Holland was a reliable source of levity) – but because the space backdrop was a better atmosphere for the cosmic alien elements than anything on Earth. The effects and design mixed better in a fantastical space. It worked better to see Thanos in these wildly colorful zones than his cronies wrecking shit in Europe. Thanos’ previous connection with the Guardians (his only previous major appearance being in their first movie) means there’s more tension to pull out in their conflict, while the mid-film kidnapping of Gamora actually gives Quill and the crew an active objective beyond “Let me be at Titan/Wakanda by a certain point of the film”.

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They only need to be in those locations to start a fight with Thanos’ forces, leading to a first for a Russo brothers Marvel film: the action is disappointingly bad. There are glimmers of collaborative hero charm within the opening battle in Greenwich Village or the second to last pile-on on Thanos’ home planet Titan (Doctor Strange evidently the most formidable of combatants), but the whole of these fights don’t feel at all as creative or weighty as the stuff the Russos previously brought us in Civil War. It is just much less interesting to watch heroes get punched down by an unstoppable CG mass than it is to watch them fight each other and try to dodge each other’s strengths and be intuitive on the spot. The other major battles are messes: Wakanda feels like it wants to be cross-cut with Titan and yet already shoots itself in the foot by having two theaters between the field and Shuri’s lab. And I can’t tell you what the bloody fuck is going on in the Scotland fight.

Which leads us to the infamous finale and… god, I honestly didn’t feel a thing. For one thing, there’s the impermanence of the whole matter translating from the comics but not as a strength, instead removing any semblance of stakes. Whether you want to hitch on to the fact that we have scheduled movies with many of the characters outside of Infinity War‘s premise or you want to acknowledge how often this franchise effortlessly reversed many of its “consequences” in the past (usually within the same movies!), there’s no denying that nothing lasts in the MCU and that cripples their drama. The decision of whom the finale targets is another problem. While one actor is able to make his exit affecting with a frightened performance (as well as the smart decision to remove any music so that we only hear his desperate last words), most of the characters who are chosen don’t have much response to their fate and what is left is the safest selection of heroes you could have in a movie called The Avengers.

But all of that still doesn’t recognize the movie Infinity War is preceding that finale doing little to make me emotionally invested in this outcome. We recognized The characters that disappeared from their previous movies that we loved, but they were not characters in Infinity War. They were plot devices with little identity or personality or drive that the screenplay gave them. Any emotion you had for them needed to be hitched onto them from your previous encounters with them. Which, y’know, is how a franchise sometimes works…

And here’s the thing: the movie worked for the majority. Not just financially, but in acclaim-wise. That positivity people had for these characters latched on to the movie with ease. They vibed with the premise and everybody in my theater cheered the second almost every character showed up. So, if you walk in with that excited mindset about seeing these characters interact on spaceships, you’re going to be satisfied.

Me, I’m just an anomaly. Between the action’s inability to work out or the characters standing around waiting for a chance to throw hands without being involved in the premise proper, there’s nothing here for me. I certainly had an attachment to most of the characters (if not based on their performance based on their film or comics), but I expected more to be done with them and watching them stand around made Infinity War feel like an infinity to sit through.

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Cat People

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It has been at once amusing and bemusing to see a lot of the critical praise go to Black Panther for being “different” from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. If there’s anything admirable about Black Panther‘s storytelling, it’s that it accomplishes being a great popcorn movie while being very much the same as the rest of the MCU’s style and elements. And it’s also co-written and directed by Ryan Coogler with evidently very little corporate interference (As they’d kind of have to. It’s not the first MCU film directed by a person of color – Taika Waititi just preceded Coogler with Thor: Ragnarok – but it’s the one where the most attention was brought towards it being a person of color telling a story about people of color), whose previous (and still best) film Creed also dealt with similar thematic conceits (a character dealing with the trials of his rise adjacent to an absent father) and similar aesthetical conceits (taking the elements familiar to the home franchise and arranging them in a manner that evokes surprisingly new concepts and emotions from the story).

In general, it is a film that takes the two most recent handicaps of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and surpasses them: their fixation on daddy issues and their inability to craft great action setpieces with any director not named Gunn or Russo. I’d dare say in the case of the former, it’s an active strength by expanding on that singular issue to observe much larger social elements. In the case of the former, it’s just disappointing given that Creed revolved around incredibly well-shot and edited fight sequences while Black Panther‘s are often painfully underlit and a climax involving a mess of three-tier cross-cutting and carrying some very dubious CGI.

But enough of that, I come to praise Black Panther, not to bury it, and it is a very easy film to praise. It takes place not very long after the events of Captain America: Civil War (where the character made its big-screen debut and blew nearly every other character out of the water as a presence) and wisely establishes enough of what occurred there to make it unnecessary to watch Civil War to understand what’s going on: the former Black Panther and King Wakanda T’Chaka (John Kano) was killed in an attack in Vienna, leaving his son T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) to take up both the throne and mantle of their symbolic superhero Black Panther with uncertainty on how to helm the responsibilities inherent in these seats of power towards the isolated African nation he rules, the wealthiest and most technologically advanced nation in the world.

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That sort of establishing of an African nation far more progressed than any other nation we can see in our real world (which Black Panther certainly wants us to bring Wakanda into and succeeds in making it convincingly grounded) allows for some visually rich designs in terms of production and costumes (provided by Hannah Beacher and Ruth Carter) indulging for possibly the first time in commercial cinema in the aesthetic of Afrofuturism which means exactly how it sounds: Black Panther is full of vibrant greens, reds, and blacks and especially blues bringing life to the East African biomes of grassplains and mountains and waterfalls, populating it with brilliant coded hierarchal robing and architecture that looks like the World Fair’s dreams. The design team wisely weave in between the two concepts by finding common ground in the generous usage of lines and fluid movement through hues they can utilize, most tremendously in sequences involving the ancestral plane certain characters visit – a dusky purple sky blanketing a serene serengeti landscape.

It’s quite possibly the MCU movie to date with the most visual personality and so soon after Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. But here I am, getting so dazzled by the designs of Black Panther that I interrupted my recap.

It is in fact insane that Boseman turned out to be possibly the best thing about Captain America: Civil War when he’s not even the best performance in his own movie and not for lack of trying. Coogler and Joe Robert Cole’s screenplay toss T’Challa a barrel of new political pressures that popping up one by one and give Boseman leeway to construct them into a thoughtful arc where we can actually watch T’Challa’s stance go from point A to point B (and yes, this is a political film. Not a VERY political film because Disney is scared of politics*, but its themes take observation of the state of race relations in the world from its very first scene and an awareness of Africa’s history of colonization and applies them both to the current closed borders refugee matter).

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The biggest of those pressures happens to be Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), an armed forces veteran from Oakland, starts making waves enough to challenge T’Challa’s claim to the throne and bring out very violent skeletons from the late T’Chaka’s actions that T’Challa must deal with in his father’s stead, taking a leaf out of Creed‘s book once again to explore a father-son conflict with an absent father. In fact, there are two of them as Killmonger reckons with the source of all his rightful anger and hate. I’ve heard it used as a criticism that Killmonger’s clearly Black-American urban style in costume, dialogue, and performance is a coding against the sort of young African-Americans that are most targeted by police brutality in America and I honestly think that’s ignoring how much Coogler (who shares Stevens’ cinematic Oakland origins and so probably imbued a lot of his background into the character) is possibly more generous to Killmonger’s point of view than T’Challa’s**. It’s not hard to figure why Jordan, Coogler’s regular weapon of choice actor, is cast as Killmonger (other than the fact that Black Panther is already cast) and with his powerful and aggressive performance comes a perspective of the marginalized individual outside of Wakanda’s borders begging for resolution (a perspective the film aligns with sympathetically) and a core of soulful hardness most prevalent in a late scene shared with the brilliant screen partner of Sterling K. Brown (my first time seeing him perform after hearing so much hype about the actor and the hype is founded in my opinion).

Jordan, Boseman, and Brown are of course only a few of a full-on cast of extraordinary performances acting as the leads to their own stories on the side: Forest Whitaker’s secret-holding priest, Daniel Kaluuya’s frustrated herder, Letitia Wright’s scene-stealing intellectual, Winston Duke’s charming rival, Danai Gurira’s strong-willed warrior, even Andy Serkis playing Mel Gibson all embody different strands of life for T’Challa to look over and consider in his arc. Which is probably the last and greatest credit I feel I can give to Black Panther, Coogler and Cole can facilitate the narrative and themes all day and Beacher and Carter can create this dimensional environment, but it’s the cast themselves that have to inhabit it and sell every inch of its liveliness, its stakes, and its humor and I don’t think the Marvel Cinematic Universe has ever had an ensemble more qualified to provide that in spades.

*I believe Carvell Wallace of the New York Times said it beautifully – “The film arrives as a corporate product, but we are using it for our own purposes.”
**This is also much more apparent in the official original soundtrack created by Kendrick Lamar, of which only two songs appear in the film itself so it’s slightly extraneous but still a good and illustrative work of how Black Panther grabs hold of Killmonger’s point of view and gives it a validity even despite being unambiguous about his villainy. It is also, because I’m sure certain people around these parts know I’m a Kendrick fan and so will probably ask me, a decent album though significantly less revelatory or engaging than anything else he made in his career.

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Ragnarok n’ Roll

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Now I know what you’re thinking. “Oh no, STinG isn’t in love with the new Taika Waititi-directed film the way he wanted to and has to reckon with whether or not it was as huge a disappointment as he expected.” How did we end up here? Well, it’s kind of a long story.

I was expecting a Taika Waititi movie. Well, that’s not such a long story after all, never mind.

And to be fair, Thor: Ragnarok – the third film in the Thor series and 17th in the gigantic Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise – is not not a Waititi film. But it’s interrupted by the side of it that’s a Kevin Feige-produced MCU film. There’s no reason to hold that against Thor: Ragnarok since the result is still roundly the best Thor film and the out-and-out funniest MCU picture in their whole lineage, but the fact that it’s unfortunately short bursts and portions does leave me a bit disappointed with the result.

For one thing, it takes its sweet ass time getting to the good stuff. The previous Thor film, The Dark World, and the second Avengers film, Age of Ultron, left so many threads open ended that co-writers Franco Escamilla, Craig Kyle, and Christopher Yost had no choice but to address and resolve from square one the threat of Ragnarok – the end of Norse home world Asgard to be brought by demon Surtur (mo-capped by Waititi, voiced by Clancy Brown) – and the absence of Thor’s father and ubergod Odin (Anthony Hopkins) replaced by Thor’s trickster step-brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston, who has now reached the sort of casual obligatory tone in playing this character as Robert Downey Jr. in playing Iron Man), neither of which are the main conflict of the story for our thundergod himself (Chris Hemsworth). For a movie where Waititi claimed in an interview that his modus operandi was to ignore the previous (and frankly) mediocre Thor films, Ragnarok is certainly happy to do a lot of clean-up.

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Now granted, the movie is still joyful and funny at points, as Hopkins does a hilarious job imitating Hiddleston and we witness a cult of personality formed around Loki with a wonderful play featuring three brilliant cameos I must remain mum over for the poor souls who haven’t seen Ragnarok yet. But the fact that we also get the obligatory MCU character cameo before Odin can proper introduced us to the villain in a very clunky monologue is quite frankly annoying and a nuisance in storytelling.

The villain herself is Hela – Odin’s firstborn daughter and the goddess of death – and played by the brilliant Cate Blanchett in full ham and scenery-chewing glory commanding every fucking shot she gets to appear in effortlessly and the sad thing is that Hela is the only reason I enjoyed the Hela/Asgard end of the story. Because quickly after her appearance the film splits based on her expulsion of Thor and Loki and her subsequent conquest of Asgard and attempts to expand her realm being thwarted by the brave Bifrost guardian Heimdall (Idris Elba). That’s her side of the story and it’s mostly just a reminder that evil stuff is happening that Thor must stop, while meanwhile, Taika Waititi is making a Taika Waititi movie (that just so happens to be a low-key adaptation of the “Planet Hulk” story) on the industrial trash planet Sakaar where Thor and Loki have landed.

Ruled by the flamboyant Jeff Goldblum Grandmaster (but it may as well just be recognized as Jeff Goldblum himself), Sakaar turns out to be home to a vicious gladiator deathmatch tournament that Thor is shanghaied into participating in against the grand champion: The Incredible Hulk himself (Mark Ruffalo). And this reunion is the catalyst to Thor’s attempts in building a team to save Asgard with Hulk and his troubled scientist alter-ego Bruce Banner, the comfortably lucky Loki, an alcoholic and disillusioned former Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson, best in show that’s not Goldblum and a born action star), and a failed revolutionary yet infectiously friendly rock monster gladiator named Korg (Taika Waititi) and his robotic sidekick Meek.

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Sakaar isn’t necessarily the stuff of brilliant visual craftsmanship – the lighting is mostly as muted as any other MCU film beyond a mindblowing flashback sequence and this is not the best effects work of the franchise – but the physical design of it is absolutely fun to look at in all of its shapes and mounds and kitchiness, full of a mix of tones between bazaar and industrial and nightclub. It’s clear that Waititi himself walked into this production ready to make a space opera and he sure as hell gave his all, providing a wonderfully colorful and bouncy world full of a variety of bipedal alien races. All of which tuned into a vibrant weirdo tone that takes a few leafs out of the 1980s thanks to Goldblum’s absolute relaxed rock star of a performance and Mark Mothersbaugh’s techno epic of a score. And with a hangout atmosphere courtesy of Waititi’s wonderfully amiable brand of humor, best personified in Korg’s lovable presence even when in the middle of a fight trying to act polite. It’s exactly the MCU film I was waiting for and unfortunately it only lasts as far as the movie spends time in Sakaar.

This is not to say Asgard is a slouch in design, but Waititi’s heart is so obviously in Sakaar and not Asgard that returning to Hela’s storyline where she has literally no momentum thanks to Heimdall’s efforts feels a severe buzzkill to what is otherwise an extremely fun movie. That doesn’t override the fact that the sum of it all IS that is a poppy concoction that’s even able to make the best of the usually unbearable Hemsworth, who proves so much more capable at comedy than he is at drama. Nor is it unclear that there are full consequences to Ragnarok, ones that feel a lot more permanent than the last few times in the MCU where it seemed like consequences of Iron Man 3 and Captain America: Winter Soldier were just brushed aside. Whatever obligatory MCU drama we have to push through, it’s rewarded by a much more engaging film than at least half of the MCU preceding it and while it seems like a good illustration of how studio interference obstructs with auteurism, the biggest thing I took away from Thor: Ragnarok is that we should give Waititi money for science fiction and fantasy extravaganzas that have really personable talking rock creatures in a Kiwi accent.

P.S. Rachel House from Hunt for the Wilderpeople (my favorite Waititi film) is also in this playing no less a psychopath than her character there and I’m rooting for her to be in, like, everything now.

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There’s No Place Like Homecoming

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There is a beautiful moment in Spider-Man: Homecoming, perhaps my favorite moment in the whole film where the youngest-looking incarnation of Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland) yet is trapped under a hell of a lot of rubble after a building collapsed on him in an image nearly reminiscent of the famous cover of Amazing Spider-Man #33 (something I doubt was unconscious on the part of the mothership company Marvel themselves finally getting to co-produce the superhero after all of these years). And there’s obviously no way Spidey won’t make it out of here but for once Holland breaks away from his otherwise joyously bubbly and bright performance as the young kid to start crying for help under the weight and selling the threat of his crushing death, before getting to see his makeshift Spider-Man mask under a puddle of water with his reflection filling out half of the watery darkness, thereby recreating another famous Spider-Man image halving Peter’s face and the Spidey cowl as one. And it’s a very inspiring and self-reflective moment for the character that assures both Parker and the audience and gives him the resolve to get himself out of this situation.

And the movie redundantly ruins this wonderful moment with a hamfisted voiceover reprise of Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr. both literally and metaphorically phoning his performance in) saying “if you’re nothing without this suit, then maybe you shouldn’t have it.” Which is not only a shitty misfire of tone in its condescending wording, even if it’s an attempt to re-establish the message, but it’s also emblematic of exactly how I feel about Spider-Man: Homecoming. It’s not exactly a classic in the sense of Raimi’s works, but it’s a movie with its own strengths that could stand on its own if only the Marvel Cinematic Universe would kindly stop butting in every once in a while.

I do have to give Spider-Man: Homecoming (and that title keeps me just shuddering at the unnecessary shade of Marvel Studios towards Sony Pictures) some credit. As would be common sense, producers Kevin Feige and Amy Pascal, director and co-writer Jon Watts, and the dizzying six man revolving door of the writing team knew that it would be completely unnecessary and redundant to re-establish the origin story of one of the most famous superheroes of all time and yet Homecoming feels every bit like an entry tale for our favorite webslinger. And it wouldn’t be able to do that without the greater context of the Avengers and how Spidey is THIS close to earning Stark’s approval and joining them, but I wonder if it would be a bad thing if we didn’t have that?

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It just feels so ultimately divorced from the truly stellar element of Homecoming: the “friendly neighborhood” aspect. Holland is so boyishly charismatic and engaging within the part that just having him interact with anybody – the people on the streets in which he helps out, the A.I. in the suit Tony Stark gifts to him, the overabundance of high school friends that doesn’t fit my idea of “outsider” Peter Parker but certainly gives us a lot of charming high schooler material – is not only wonderfully entertaining, but reverses the scope of the whole MCU and gives a sense of tactility to the community sense of localized superheroes, a concept that doesn’t really come to play anywhere else in the MCU except their Netflix series.

The entire cast is the best salesman on this premise: Holland wrestles eagerly with this sense of anonymous celebrity, Michael Keaton as the villain Victor Toomes has a sense of frustrated blue-collar workaday escalation to his aggression (his one big EVIL moment where he kills a man on-screen is undercut by him mistaking the weapon he used and I don’t think it’s an accident that Keaton sells that surprise very well). Donald Glover, in a two-scene cameo, essentially delivers the tired inconvenience you’d expect New York would have facing alien forces and consistent destruction. The strength of Homecoming is in the smaller human elements, those touches of a living city underneath (even if it’s Atlanta playing New York City in a conspicuous way). It is no accident that the best setpiece in the whole film is a comical one of Spidey finding it very hard to swing webs in a suburban residential area and forced to superpower-Ferris-Bueller his way around, a wonderful moment of character and geography.

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It is unfortunately the ONLY great setpiece, which is a shame because anybody who has seen Holland at work on stage knows he’s certainly the most athletically capable of all of the screen Spider-Men. But Watts and editors Dan Liebental and Debbie Berman just don’t give him his due, never finding a true rhythm to the moment whether it’s a bank robbery, a jet heist, or scaling the Washington monument and never finding dynamic ways to represent the high-flying physicality of Spidey the way Holland’s hollerings do so, nor does it bother to cover up its CGI much beyond the “night time means no lighting to see it”. And that’s really disappointing for a climax as restrained as this film’s.

I can’t say it feels less like a product than Marc Webb’s time with the character, but it also is a lot more fun with it. Sure, the aggressively eager-to-please nature of having every character that isn’t Mac Gargan (Michael Mando) be able to perform a quick gag seems kind of insincere, but it’s nothing less than platonic. Spider-Man may have found himself in a new prison confined to being another stepping stone to the next Avengers movie, but he seems to at least be having fun there and he’s got great company, so there’s no big problem. It could be worse.

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We Can Jack Up Our Prices on Two-Time Galaxy Saving.

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I’ve been struggling to write my pained angry review of Beauty and the Beast partly because I have no way to not turn everything all around to the injection of Daddy Issues and that is, at best, just a couple of scenes.

James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 is proving to be a tougher time as it is loaded to the brim with Daddy Issues and, while this was a shocker even before the trailers with Kurt Russell’s reveal as Peter “Starlord” Quill (Chris Pratt)’s father Ego showed up (given Yondu’s very last lines in the first movie), I’m not 100% certain it felt organic to the film. Largely because Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 means backpedaling a lot on the relationship growth between the central group: Starlord, Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper, motion captured by James’ brother Sean Gunn, who also gets a live-action role as a space pirate Ravager), and Baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) are almost all pushed backwards into feeling more like people who just met each other than a team who had their fair share of trials together. This is most severe on Rocket, whose retrograde is how the plot kicks off, but it’s also lessened by the fact that Cooper is just a fantastic voice actor in the role and sarcastic and biting things to say are like a second language to him. Can’t say the rest about most of the other cast members – the energy in both Pratt and Bautista’s comic element seems to be draining, but they put up a good fight and Diesel’s voice is at this point so altered he feels like a practical non-entity. Saldana at least gets more to work with in Gamora’s continued feud with her cyborg adopted sister Nebula (Karen Gillan) (with its own amount of ties to daddy issues), but it’s tough to keep yourself engaged in that story when one of the characters is a stern and terse figure and the other is written as a one-emotion character of rage. Which is not to see Saldana and Gillan can’t make their arc work, but it doesn’t make for compelling cinema.

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That’s a lot more words than I intended to open with ragging the hell on a movie that I actually walked out enjoying and liking. Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 may have not known the proper way to bring back its characters, but it’s actually some of the most impressive visual work Marvel has done since the first movie came around. The bold and bright color palette design of the first movie is now bolder and brighter and yet still balanced by the hands of Scott Chambliss, even when it’s complete blocks of one shade like the gold of the Sovereign throne room and the wonderous kaleidoscopic fauna of Ego’s… well Ego’s home world, I will stick to in order to avoid spoilers for people who aren’t fans of the comic. And this in itself is home to some wonderfully kinetic comic book framing by Gunn and cinematographer Henry Braham, which in turn lends themselves to the most creative fight scenes the MCU has brought us this side of Captain America: Civil War. A zippy arrowflight shown via closed-circuit television, an opening monster battle out of focus in the background as Baby Groot dances along to the best soundtrack he could. Yep, there is now a second Awesome Mix with songs I am compelled to say I overall prefer to the selections in the first movie’s Awesome Mix – Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain”, Cat Stevens’ “Father and Son” (which was on the soundtrack to my high school angst), and Sam Cooke’s “Bring It On Home to Me” – but I’m not so sure about how its used in the film. A lot more inorganically (like the character developments) and sometimes blatantly recycled or out of place (“The Chain” appears in one scene it doesn’t need to and the movie cuts the song before it reaches its awesome climax) and yet there are moments like the aforementioned arrow battle that it works like magic or Rocket’s ambush of Ravengers using traps and guerrilla tactics. Basically as an aesthetical delight, this movie delivered some and more on feeling like the trailer to Thor: Ragnarok thought it was gonna be the first zany and bouncy MCU film.

And then there’s still the fact that not all of the characters are a wash. Sure, Michael Rooker is not playing Yondu, but instead a version of Space Merle, but the extended screentime in the presence of Space Merle and the new ties he has with the Guardians (and chemistry with Rocket) is wonderous thing (generally, getting a closer look at the Ravagers culture appeals to the punk in me). Kurt Russell has moxy enough to believe that he and Pratt could be related while turning his charm levels up high for when the movie is expects him to about face as a character. And Pom Klementieff is the best possible new discovery as Ego’s cute socially awkward empath Mantis, who seems to have stolen all of Bautista’s oblivious humor and yet is generous enough to make the two actors a perfect odd couple to share the screen with together. Yeah yeah yeah, she’s a Born Sexy Yesterday, but a fun and unsexualized version.

It’s weird to admit I was dreading this as a simple retread (and it IS) and sure it does not earn its 130 minute runtime, but it is the most fun you could have being recycled another storyline and isn’t it enough to ask we have a good time? If Marvel can keep things at that level like Vol. 2 and Ragnarok promise, I can see myself getting tired of the “same-old comic book movie” criticisms.

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When You’re Strange

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I’m not very well read on Doctor Strange as bigger fans (ie. I know his story and mythology, but I never ever picked up a comic book where he headlined. It is one of the few comic books where my knowledge comes solely from wikipedia or other comic appearances) and so I don’t know the extent to which Doctor Strange’s famous red Cloak of Levitation has a sentient life of its own in the comics and I feel even if it did, it would not be with the clearly Disney-esque personality they gave it here in the newest installment of the MCU. The Cloak plays the same role in Strange’s (Benedict Cumberbatch takes on the role) path as the Magic Carpet in Aladdin and certainly feels just as much a product of Disney’s buying into Marvel as Ty Simpkins’ character in Iron Man 3. Regardless, the cloak is very much a character in its own right, absolutely one of the most lovable and enjoyable on-screen, and one of several impressive works of visual effects in the best effects-extravaganza ever released in a franchise that’s constantly tried to be an effects-extravaganza powerhouse. That pretty much is a good sum-up of my attitude on Doctor Strange as a film. Not to say this hurts the film when Ted and Rise/Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and Life of Pi and The Jungle Book and The Lord of the Rings all pull this off as well without being a mark against them, but yes. Potentially my favorite character in the film is just another one of the many special effects.

After all, that was obvious from the moment Doctor Strange‘s trailer came out that its special effects were the name of the game and it’s absolutely dazzling and outstanding effects, make no mistake. Effects so damn good I whispered to my girlfriend during the most shameless yet absolutely fun homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey‘s Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite scene “maybe we should have caught this movie in 3D”. Effects that can still manage to supersede Ben Davis’ kind of underlit photography to fill scenes with color and shape (especially in fractal form that cut into the image) that – while it’s nothing that absolutely breaks the ceiling – keep things fun and dare I say even immersive at moments. I don’t want to go 100 on that last part because one of the problems with Doctor Strange in the end is that it feels like Inception as directed by someone who is not Christopher Nolan. Scott Derrickson doesn’t really know how to keep a grip on where Strange and other characters relative to each other when the world starts bending and that becomes absolutely bothersome in one of the setpieces, a chase through a four-dimensional New York where the point is to make sure that villain Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen in a thankless role whose main arc is given a monologue to another character) is far away and see how close he is to catching Strange and Derrickson doesn’t seem to know how to shoot a chase for that matter.

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This is however easily Derrickson’s best work otherwise and I know that’s kind of faint praise for the director of The Exorcism of Emily Rose and Deliver Us from Evil, but it’s praise nonetheless. He’s not overall bad, he keeps things in rolling and moving once the effects start a-showin’ up, there’s a pretty fantastic astral fight between Cumberbatch and Scott Adkins that isn’t Gareth Evans here but is a great amount of fun. The anti-climax to the film is a fantastic comic bit of repetition that also lends itself to some creatively violent moments in the MCU. And of course there’s also that lovable cape.

But I said things are rolling and moving once the effects start showing up and that’s another big problem with me and Doctor Strange. I didn’t stopwatch the movie obviously, but I can’t imagine it was any longer than 45 minutes that passed before the movie’s best sequence – that very same 2001 homage – showed up to show Strange and the audience what’s what, yet it felt like it took an agonizing hour for me. Part of this is because Cumberbatch makes no effort to have this performance prove to me he’s worth all the hype he’s given. The script by Jon Spaihts, C. Robert Cargill, and Derrickson clearly sets the character up to be arrogant and intolerable in all the same ways Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark is and yet the difference here is that where Downey Jr. knows how to turn his sarcasm and wit to charm, Cumberbatch really ups the despicability and nastiness of Strange as a person to 11. I’m sure it’s deliberate and yet it’s a miscalculation (like, Ben, this isn’t an HBO series) and it very quickly gets to a point that I don’t like the guy and can’t be even slightly sorry for the severe damage to his hands early in the film that kickstarts his search for the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and her (I’d like to say “it” as a celestial being but the movie refers to “her”) potential in making his hands suitable to be the great surgeon he once was.

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And with the Ancient One means kind of dealing with an elephant in the room… the white-washing of the Ancient One from a Tibetan old man to a Celtic woman portrayed by Swinton. To be frank, it’s extremely obvious the change was deliberately to avoid crossing China, no matter what the filmmakers say. It’s bothersome and problematic and the filmmakers attempts to off-set this are gaggingly awful – by including Chiwetel Ejiofor playing the same damn fundamentalist character he played in Serenity in the role of Strange’s future nemesis Mordo (who also has the utterly tasteless line that they’re “not savages” because they have wi-fi) and Benedict Wong as a character whose given a stereotypical role of the humorless wise Asian man who OBVIOUSLY gets a laugh at the end and whose choice to be mononymous is constantly berated by Cumberbatch (this is probably a good time to note that the comic relief is garbage and the worst thing about Doctor Strange) – but it was an inevitability in the great big machine that is Hollywood moneymaking, knowing that China is where much of the international bucks was to be grabbed. They clearly don’t want to alienate them and it leaves a bad taste in my mouth, but if we were going to have any non-Tibetan play the Ancient One, I’d certainly rather it indeed be Swinton.

Because Swinton is absolutely the best performance in the movie hands-down, no contest. She gives the supernatural character the ethereal presence she’s always been very good at, a sort of ability to make us feel like she’s levitating even when her character is clearly on the ground and yet we know the Ancient One isn’t a deity but a human being with the same desperations and faults as Strange or Mordo or others, which leads to the second best moment in Doctor Strange where she gets to wrap her characters’ emotional arc in a great bow and a tenderly delivered monologue. Most of the characters in the script are throwaway like Mikkelsen, Rachel McAdams or even Michael Stuhlberg (I swear to God, I didn’t even know he was in the film until AFTER I saw it), but Swinton gets to make up all for it and takes over the movie every time she gets to appear in a shot.

Before Swinton came up, it was starting to sound like I was burying the movie so I may as well quit before I do. Doctor Strange is not a perfect movie, nor the greatest in the MCU. It’s complicated. It’s as complicated as Michael Giacchino’s score blatantly pulling a James Horner on himself with lifting themes from Star Trek for the sake dramatic yet familiar undertone (as well as Pink Floyd themes too). But the moment the Ancient One shows up, it’s a complicated film that makes for a very satisfying fantasy feature and some very wondrous special effects work that I would be very surprised and disappointed if it doesn’t get nominated for an Oscar. And I will not pretend that I did not walk out of the film realizing that I had a good time, forgiving all of the flaws I elaborated on and forgetting they were there until after the fact. Isn’t that what a good popcorn film ought to do in the moment after all? Or is time just relative when you’re moving through dimensions?

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Captain v. Iron Man: Dawn of Spidey

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I always approach my personal opinion towards every movie from the most possible objectivity I can, but before I go deep into Captain America: Civil War, the latest in the now-thirteen movie Marvel Cinematic Universe and third entry in the Captain America sub-franchise, I need to acknowledge a few potential disclosures and biases. I’ll start with the one least likely to affect my opinion.

I have a friend – maybe at this point reverted to acquaintances now, given we are not still in contact; hence I don’t think it’s gonna matter – who has worked on Civil War. I worked as a 1st AD on two of her productions in film school and she wrote a couple of letters of recommendation for me as the President of our alma mater’s Film Association before I chickened out of attending grad school for… I think the second time. So, there’s that. Pretty small and ineffectual (needless to say, I am extremely proud to have known her), but no stone unturned when it comes to disclosure.

The second one that threatened to matter but I actually don’t think occurred in the back of my mind is… I hate Mark Millar. The comic writer who is the head – I don’t wanna say brain – behind the Civil War comic book event where the superheroes get to arguing about being registered and regulated by the government made that story into an overflowed, inconsistent mess in every front and one that was ignorant of motivations and characterizations. As a comic book reader, I find it one of the great farces of the medium. And as a hater of Mark Millar, I think it’s a miracle he didn’t shoehorn sexual assault into it like he does literally everywhere else.

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That doesn’t seem to be a problem with the film itself. Sure, it’s not a perfect script but Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely do an admirable job of condensing the storyline without losing its ambitious international scope, of fleshing out character psychologies by having them be anchored by the events we’ve already seen them go through, and by having an ear for the language and cadence of certain interactions. The script is not perfect – certain characters are completely disposable by all means and nearly all of them have no real change between their characterization in the beginning of the movie and the end – but it works and satisfies me.

The third and final bias, one that actually sort of affects my attitude towards the movie, is how I was on the edge of my seat until I finally saw the movie a few hours ago flipping over whether or not we’re getting a new Captain America movie or an Avengers installment. The former has consistently been the most enjoyable rung on the MCU branch that isn’t Jessica Jones or Guardians of the Galaxy for me, while the latter felt like a constant obligation and remarkably divided from the development of any character.

I half-regret to inform you all that it is leaning more to Avengers story than Captain America entry. Only half because regardless, it is maybe the most consequential of the MCU works yet. Everything has a weight, everything feels like it matters.

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The Marvel Cinematic Universe has always had some amount of self-awareness towards collateral damage and casualties, so it is no surprise when after such a disastrous mission occurs in Nigeria at the opening of the film, Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) and the rest of his 2.0 Avengers are met by Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and General Ross (William Hurt) with the Sokovia Accords. After all the damage done, the UN demands to have oversight over the Avengers. Stark jumps at the opportunity to sign it and try to convince his supermates to do so as well, given his hand in Ultron’s wrath during the previous Avengers film as well as other factors I’ll get into. Rogers is not so convinced, particularly on the aftermath of the revelation of liars and villains living inside their very own government in the previous Captain America film. Thus he and Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) are met with certain retirement.

That is until a terrorist bombing occurs at the sight of the Accords’ ratification in Vienna and it appears that Bucky Buchanan/The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) whom Rogers was once allied with in WWII is behind it. Knowing that Stark, Ross, and the rest of the authorities will undoubtedly take Buchanan dead without intervention, Rogers jumps into racing to find him first and causing a massive rift between Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.

In a movie like this, there is easy ability to bog one self down in fan service and, to be fair, Civil War does take advantage of that for part of a time – that’s kind of the reason Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) and especially the newly procured MCU version of Spider-Man portrayed by Tom Holland are in the movie – but… Civil War gets well enough away with this apparent overindulgence by having the best ensemble of the entire MCU. And I’m not just talking about the front-and-center superheroes themselves, though we can clearly see where Evans, Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow, and all the others grew more and more into their characters. Chadwick Boseman as Prince T’Challa/Black Panther gets the most to do with his vengeance arc after his father is among those killed in Vienna and nails it, Daniel Bruhl breaks Marvel’s curse of having uninteresting villains with a broken humanity unexpected, and Downey Jr… after a series of films that implied he was fucking done with the character and giving little effort behind his choices, Downey Jr. did the unexpected and raked in all the psychological aspects of Stark’s breakdown as a character – especially the PTSD and uncertainty of his actions and the exhaustion behind all the decisions he made in the franchise – to give his best performance as Iron Man yet, above and beyond even the first film. His line readings show him clenching muscles playboy Tony Stark wanted to pretend he didn’t have and the trailers don’t show half the internal commentary behind his response to Rogers’ “He’s my friend”: “… so was I.” It is the “I wish I knew how to quit you” of this movie.

Hell, even if I’m not as impressed with Holland, he’s a damn sight better than Andrew Garfield. Stan is the only weak link, but that’s ok, we were stuck with him from the beginning.

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The result of these performances being as well-tuned as they could possibly be is that we get a movie that can move by swiftly on its dialogue and clashes, even if it doesn’t really give its arguments depth, which is fine. I don’t really think a politically charged MCU film is ideal if the third act of The Winter Soldier nearly ruining it is any indication. But even moreso, we have an entirely familiar gallery of characters so that the latter half of Civil War, where conflicts truly come to a blow, can actually experiment with how the characters fight and work together and as a result, the battle in the Berlin airport becomes just a fun bombastic piece of action cinema, never running out of things to do with anybody.

And the true miracle of Civil War is having a fully impactful third act, with a central fight scene between Captain and Iron Man that turns fucking vicious early on and feels every bit exhausting and relentless. Being a fan of Community and thus the Paintball episodes that got directors Anthony and Joe Russo their job here, I couldn’t help thinking of the tension in the end of “A Fistful of Paintballs” with the four-way standoff and realizing that the final fight in Civil War is essentially all of that tension completely let loose.

In the end, Civil War still little more than a product by Kevin Feige to keep the MCU rolling, but it’s a product that did its job while entertaining me and leaving me more satisfied than I truly expected all things considered. The Captain America films continue to be the shining elements of the MCU and I’m only all the more excited to see how Ryan Coogler will treating Black Panther in his own upcoming movie. It’s refreshing after 2015 gave us the two of the most typical and uninspired comic book movies from the MCU.

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To Steal an Ant-Man

I’ve always never wondered how the hell an Edgar Wright picture would look as directed by anyone in the world other than Edgar Wright. I’m not sure if Ant-Man is the answer to that curiosity, but the possibility is off-putting enough that I don’t want to see Edgar Wright kicked off of another project he puts development into ever again.

Ok, that’s kind of a bit. Harsh. Ant-Man as directed by Edgar Wright Adam McKay Kevin Feige Peyton Reed is not a bad movie at all and certainly the fact of its quality is impressive in the fact of less troubled developmental projects like The Amazing Spider-Man or evidently Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four. It’s perfectly enjoyable, it’s light, it’s funny at many points…

It’s just also simply the most ordinary of all Marvel Studios’ films to this day. And while I know we can blame many faults on the Studios’ need to fan service up the draft by Wright & Joe Cornish (a task upheld by previous directorial consideration Adam McKay and Paul Rudd, the latter also starring in the film), I’m not quite sure it would have been much better, even without shoehorned moments like the opening of the film where Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) walks into a room filled with characters we already know and get mad for his secret or something or the scene where Scott Lang (Rudd) mentions Tony Stark and Pym gets ever angrier and kills the mood for a good five minutes before making a whiplash shift to smiles. Or just about every appearance by a character already established in the MCU from there on forth, both simply there to herald in the mention that “HEY! THERE’S A CAP’N MURIKAH: CIVIL WAR A-COMIN’!” I swear, when it came to the opening scene, it was so inconsequential that when a character returned later in the movie, Pym had to mention punching him in the nose for me to remember the dude’s fucking face. And I still have to go to Wikipedia to recall the names of MOST of these characters.

I mean, they’re giant bothers and marks against the movie but it’s not like the movie had much material to warrant its 117 minute runtime in the first place. The simple gist of it is that there was already an Ant-Man in the universe well before we’ve arrived here (something that – for once – would have been welcome in the previous films would have been hints or moments where something happened that makes no sense up until the reveal of Hank Pym’s WWII work. The closest we got is a reference in Thor so obscure Feige had to point it out). Ever since Pym retired his work as Ant-Man around the same time as the apparent separation from his wife (obviously obscured so that Marvel can cast her for a bigger role in the franchise), he’s been entirely touchy on anybody even asking about his Pym Particle – which allows him to shrink to the size of an… ant, man.

When his former protégé Darren Cross (Corey Stoll continuing the line of MCU villains being extremely two-dimensional and arbitrary; also his name is way too close to Darren Criss for me not to have made that mistake at first) finally discovers video evidence of Ant-Man’s existence in the form of his former mentor (you’d think that video would have been unearthed, like, a long while ago), he vows to emulate the original formula in a more powerful form.

Pym isn’t down with that almost as much as he’s not down with his own capable daughter Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly being the only feet-on-the-ground performance and unfortunately witnessing that job becoming especially thankless with this particular cast) taking on the mantle of Ant-Man for reasons which, even after Pym explains, kind of feel patriarchal. So, he figures to steal an Ant-Man, you’d need an Ant-Man that steals and so he recruits Scott Lang straight out of prison to take back whatever progress Cross has made to recreating Pym’s formula.

And then we throw in some background about Lang’s family and everything and the claim that Pym can totally reunite Lang with his daughter (Abby Ryder Fortson doing an adorable job of being the single weirdest character in this movie). And some sidekicks, one of which played by David Dastmalchian with another bad Eastern European accent as Marvel Studios has been now obviously wont to do since Iron Man 2 with cartoon lines like “it’s the work of gypsies”.

It’s a very small movie for Marvel to have worked on and well, that’s all well and fine because I did enjoy myself by dismissing its plot. It practically encourages when the only stakes are “Oh I want my suit back” as opposed to “Alien Army coming from another dimension to fuk wit Earth.”

And even without that, there’s still a lot to enjoy about its aesthetic neither taking cares like Thor: The Dark World or Guardians of the Galaxy, but also being able to feel more like our world in a less morose manner than The Incredible Hulk. The production design and cinematography is tempered enough to make the comic book stuff look like comic books and everything else bring us back to Earth and that’s kind of a strongly disciplined approach.

That and basically, to be straightforward, Michael Pena is the single best thing about the movie. Seeing him do wonders with the remnants of Wright’s script (I want to believe the conversation flashback gags are Wright’s but evidence actually leads to it being Reed’s brainchild) and approach the character with a zoned-out ray of smiles never ceased to give me a big grin, even with the dark humor of his very first scene as he recounts all his grievances. Like, I want Michael Pena in an Edgar Wright movie to-fucking-day. That is the biggest thing I took away from the movie. Michael Pena is hilarious and we need him to work with Wright (same for Douglas, but y’know, that’s cause it’d be great to see).

And I feel like it’s fine that Pena was the biggest takeaway from Ant-Man. It’s not anywhere close to an impressive movie and at no point in the development (even with my beloved Wright at the helm) did it feel like it was going to be such an impressive movie, but I guess in the end, that’s what it’s meant to be. Just a brief respite before the bigger messes of the MCU come into play. One hopes for more smaller stand-alone work like Guardians of the Galaxybut we can’t all get what we want.

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OK, I DID IT! I FINISHED THE MCU! LYNCH, YOUR ASS IS MINE, NOW!!!

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Alright, I made it! I made it to my first destination! Let me go ahead and repeat all the bullshit I was saying coming to this point!

Remember when I was talking all that shit during the Marvel Cinematic Universe Phase 2 reviews about how this movie right here, Avengers: Age of Ultron, threw fucking EVERYTHING that suggested that Iron Man 3 and Captain America: The Winter Soldier would matter to the overall universe out the fucking window by the very first shot.

It’s maybe a bit more upsetting that the first shot is basically the single best shot in the whole movie (one of many that implies that Joss Whedon is slowly evolving more and more from a writer who can direct to a full-out director; such a shame that he’s too burnt out to want to have anything to do with Marvel Studios anymore). The first shot is a blast of pure energy, throwing us straight into the familiar good fight alongside our many Avengers – Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johannsson), and Thor/Thor (Chris Hemsworth) – all busting the straight fuck out through a fortress in a winding, busy element-crazy CGI shot that feels like a drunken Emmanuel Lubezki beast (even sloppy Lubezki knock-offs make me happy). It makes for a very exciting setpiece that gave me enough of a buzz to get over the fact that STARK BEING IN THE SUIT NEGATES THE VERY DECISION HE MADE AT THE END OF IRON MAN 3.

I mean, yes, I already stated I’m not too crazy for each movie in the series to be a stepping stone/trailer for the next movie in line, but for fuck’s sake if Marvel Studios is going to bother to suggest that promise, then deliver on those promises. Sure, the main premise of the film – Stark’s decision to invent an A.I. to take over the Avengers’ job for them, leading to the self-awareness and ego of Ultron (James Spader, never has an actor been so perfectly cast for a character only to be put to poor use) – actively demands that character development over Phase Two is ignored but holy shit, if they’re that dedicated to just having another product, no wonder this movie felt like a fucking obligation.

And I’m serious. It felt like an obligation. For Whedon, for the cast (Downey Jr. looking more and more bored within the role with every appearance), for the audience to show up, everyone who isn’t producer Kevin Feige. It retreads every single beat – character, comedic, arc, every single beat – from the first Avengers and unfortunately this time around it isn’t able to catch itself being as fresh 3 years past its expiration date. It’s bottom feeder Whedon-esque material and while I don’t hate everything Whedon has done enough (The Firefly franchise is much too wonderful), I don’t find it as enjoyable as James Gunn or Shane Black work and having to settle for this shows Whedon’s immense limitations as his primary golden talent: as a writer.

But hell, for a retread, at least this time around characters do have stuff to do for the most part. We’ve got each Avenger having their own primary stake in the conflict this time around beyond simply “saving the world”, even Hawkeye – who is probably given immense narrative and character compensation due to Renner being sidelined for the majority of the previous film. I mean, it ain’t perfect – Thor’s still wandering around a bit prior to the BIG BOOM climax of the film.

Speaking of characters, there are of course some newbies that don’t entirely work. James Spader as Ultron, the giant motherfucking robot who is unstoppable, ambitious, and hateful of humanity, is a matchmade in heaven, with his sly low tenor voice and ability to make every line sound like it slithers out of his gut in terrifyingly cynical manner (this was a John Hughes muse at one point, wasn’t he?). How disappointing it is to take this villain to becoming a very less than amusing extension of Tony Stark’s personality. Maybe he had to carry the weight from how sleepy Downey Jr. feels as Stark by now and it makes sense on a narrative standpoint, but having Whedon drop all of his leftover quips on the villain makes him less than menacing and more like a clown. But of course, Spader is no joker of an actor and he knows how to keep his character afloat. The same cannot be said of his little sidekicks, Pietro and Wanda Maximoff – played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olson respectively. They are paper-thin existences who only exist to be cannon fodder without any real personality behind them beyond trying to be caricatures of impoverished and persecuted Eastern Europeans and even faker accents from each of them that have more slips than a girl’s locker room.

Taylor-Johnson especially is my least favorite performance. I already hated the shit out of him but he plays Slavic victim of persecution the same fucking way Ansel Elgort plays cancer sufferer, with a shitload of smug white boy attitude that makes me think the guy has never heard of a third-world country in his fucking life. I mean, hell, if they were so desperate for such an obnoxiously egotistical character why not have him performed by Zlatan Ibrahimovic and have him actually be likable.

But of course, there are some shimmering lights that come in the way of introducing Paul Bettany to the MCU in a flesh-and-bone performance as Vision. The solemn gravity that Bettany brings to the lines that Whedon has written as pseudo intellectualism comes off as Shakespearean. It’s the opposite of Whedonisms bringing Spader down, it’s Bettany elevating that shit. With facial expressions that tell all even underneath the most believable make-up job I’ve ever seen, allowing Bettany full and free movement whilst giving him the façade of looking like he’s made out of actual metal.

But of course, we can’t all be Bettany doing backflips over the chewy dialogue or Renner being given well enough material, Samuel L. Jackson enters again feeling like an obligation to give the team their motivational speech after a due butt-kicking and once again it feels entirely reminiscent of moments in the franchise we already saw. Scarlett Johannesson and Mark Ruffalo deal with a romance subplot that isn’t too much of a chore until Johannsson has to recite lines of dialogue about her anatomy that kind of don’t seem like things Whedon really knows how to talk about (in fact, it quit him under a hail of Twitter fire that eventually forced him to leave the site). And Evans tries desperately to make it seem like he’s not reciting the same ideals he already did in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

Anyway, some setpieces impressing me (including the Hulkbuster vs. Hulk being a proper mix of slapstick and monster rampage that I for once could smile at – even with its anti-climactic ending that punctuates it as fan service) and characters being able to be more involved doesn’t stop me from being disappointed from how Avengers: Age of Ultron is the most dismissive thing the Marvel Cinematic Universe could ever have done to itself – admitting that nothing in any of the characters’ lives matter if they get in the way of the next moneymaker and implying the worst to happen to Thor: Ragnarok and Captain America: Civil War, where we will have to watch characters skip over entire beats to undo their development in service to the plot.

It is one giant billboard to how Marvel Studios has now begun to lay its cards.

Winter Has Come

Note from STinG: You will probably notice something strange, I don’t have any pictures besides the above one and none of the movie titles are linked to IMDb. The very immediate post after this one will explain hopefully.

I find it immensely necessary to address something before I go so bold as to state that Captain America: The Winter Soldier is not my favorite of the Marvel Cinematic Universe – I really really wanted it to be. I really really thought it WAS going to be. There was not much in the first couple of hours of the film that suggested it was going to be any lesser than its predecessor Captain America: The First Avenger, which was my favorite MCU film at the time (now since overstepped by Guardians of the Galaxy). Hell, it even started off IMPROVING things from the former picture, like having a focus on plot (as much as it suffered for style) and Chris Evans now having a more confident certainty than his original hesitance in the titular role of Captain America. It could have been something to stand against The Dark Knight, I swear to fucking god! (Keeping in mind that I don’t necessarily consider The Dark Knight the best superhero movie, but it seems more brethren to The Winter Soldier than any other MCU film). But alas, the film turned about to being superhero film boilerplate and then ended on a sour note for note for me – only further ruined by Avengers: Age of Ultron actively erasing any sense of consequence The Winter Soldier has left as a picture.

But fuck that noise for a moment, I’m going to rewind to a much better time.

The beginning of the picture.

The ninth picture in the MCU finds Steve Rogers/Captain America now working under Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) in S.H.I.E.L.D., seeing as how he completely has no place to go and the world has turned without him. As it turns out, the world has become less one of ideals and more one of back-turning, even within the man Rogers is forced to trust. Particularly S.H.I.E.L.D.’s pet Project Insight – based in Helicarriers in the sky killing enemies of S.H.I.E.L.D. preemptively – give the biggest implication that S.H.I.E.L.D. no longer believes in a fair fight.

Nor really in the trust of others, as almost immediately after we are revealed Insight, Fury is assassinated and S.H.I.E.L.D. official Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) demands Rogers is himself investigated for responsibility. Rogers knows better and escapes with the help of Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johannsson) to help him get to the bottom of the matter and see just how broken S.H.I.E.L.D. has been since he left.

Most of the consensus has been that Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a paranoid government thriller in the same vein as Redford’s more popular 70’s fare such as All the President’s Men and Three Days of the Condor, but it makes me think that nobody who says that has ever seen one of those pictures. Sure, The Winter Soldier is verily a movie based on secrecy and mistrust, but it’s not nearly as asphyxiatingly with the atmospheric lack of certainty that defines that genre of picture. Points for trying.

Still, I hope that plot summary sounded awesome (as much I wanted to keep hidden in the case that any reader hadn’t seen the movie) because the movie absolutely is so awesome for the first 2/3 of the movie. Writer/Director Team Anthony & Joe Russo (from Community of all things! There’s even a cameo by Danny Pudi!) are able to meet with the pacing demands of a story where our two main protagonists are on the run, so on fucking point, even at the moments where it is essential we sit down and gather information alongside Cap and Black Widow. There is always a knowledge that we’re one step ahead of the unseen enemy and yet an urgent necessity to catch up with the next scene. In the meantime, both Evans and Johannsson are able to keep the picture alive with remarkably natural patter to their dialogue, it doesn’t take much to believe not only in the characters the same way we just buy Robery Downey Jr. as Tony Stark, we also believe in what they mean to each other. Johannsson lets up a little bit later on, but by that time Anthony Mackie joins in the cast to make the exchanges quite a juggle anyway.

And for all I will state that The Winter Soldier feels a little bit too washed-out in style (which is quite the same for The Dark Knight anyway), it still started off wowing visually, kicking us off with a sea rescue that introduces all the intense yet clear cutting that we expected of any action movie are surprised we’re getting in this type of picture. A lot of the thrilling chase and fight scenes also happen to carry that same level of fun going all-out (especially the elevator scene that was kind of shown in the trailers of this movie, taking advantage of the geography of the scene to make itself cramped and heavy – although it cheats its way out at the end of the scene). And the movie even takes care to have at least one scene that smacks of expressionist shadowplay borderline-supernatural horror works (well, supernatural enough for a superhero film) with the help of Toby Jones returning to give a very creepy twist to his presence in the form of voicework.

I’m telling you, it was promising to be… well, a Marvel!

And then it all came crashing down by the end of the picture. The third act of The Winter Soldier starts off by taking back everything that happened except what is essential to still promise some kind of climax and then pays off by giving us the most bloated and confusing mess of a climax we could have ever received, the single worst setpiece in the MCU since The Incredible Hulk’s BLAHTHROWSOMECGIATIT finale. I mean, it’s not even how the CGI seems to attempt to compensate for bigness in a manner that is entirely visible to any audience member or even how the final fight has some clear cut objectives for the heroes and WAYYYYY TOO MUCH TIME for them to get through it (I swear you could make a drinking game out of all the moments where they should have failed by now and certainly not expect your liver to function ever again). It’s how it obviously runs out of ways to make itself interesting, becoming increasingly repetitive so that it’s attempt to be a triple threat of spectacle just comes off as waiting for the resolution already. The closest it gets to interesting is on Nick Fury’s front where the conflict is more verbal and character-based than on the moment when, ashamedly, Jeffrey Ford and Matthew Schmidt seem to have just dropped their shit as editors.

It really busts my balls to see that the movie doesn’t deliver on its initial promises, but oh well! It’s not enough to make Captain America: The Winter Soldier fail as a picture, since it still has plenty of fantastic storytelling and visuals in its first two-thirds and the main thematic twist of the film is shown to linger a bit longer within the Marvel franchise (namely with the tv series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) but it could have been so much more.

It could have been so much more. And the finale of Captain America: The Winter Soldier was the beginning of my outright disillusionment (fuelled by my fatigue) of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (briefly stilted by Guardians of the Galaxy being amazing, but anchored back by Age of Ultron).