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Film Review: The Incredible Hulk

The Incredible Hulk (2008; Directed by Louis Leterrier)

Louis Leterrier’s The Incredible Hulk was the only remaining movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe that yours truly had yet to see. Which is fitting, given its redheaded stepchild profile in the MCU. As the second MCU installment after the more consistently appreciated (and even beloved) hit Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk sees Marvel Studios still getting their footing, figuring out the casting, structure, themes, cinematography, tone, and action profile that would define their outrageously successful superhero blockbuster formula for the following decade. As a result, this is one of the MCU’s weakest films, and its aftermath represents one of the rare times that Marvel would decide to retool their movie universe on the fly.

The Incredible Hulk was not only one of Marvel Studios’ clumsy first steps towards the culture-spanning shared cinematic universe that they would eventually put together. It was also a re-orientation attempt following Ang Lee’s Hulk in 2006, which featured Eric Bana in the Bruce Banner/Hulk role and approached the material with a mix of comic-book goofiness and open-eyed poetic sincerity typical of its auteur. Critical, commercial, and fan reaction to Lee’s Hulk was mixed, hence Marvel and Universal (the latter studio owns the solo Hulk film rights still, hence the character’s supporting appearances only in Disney-produced MCU films) neither embracing its particular aesthetic and tone nor entirely disowning it with a hard reboot. This kid-gloves page-turning effort lead to The Incredible Hulk being billed as a “requel”, a nigh-on insufferable movie-biz buzzword portmanteau of “reboot” and “sequel” that feels like a bitter root on the tongue.

The half-empty/half-full nature of “requel” does actually typify the inconsistent tone and effect of The Incredible Hulk, a movie with one foot in confused standard-issue genre conformity and another (all too tentatively) in the confident scope of the later MCU. Much of this uncertain tone stems from the movie’s star, Edward Norton, taking Bana’s place as brilliant but isolated scientist Bruce Banner and (with ample CGI assist) as the hulking, destructive, impervious, gamma-irradiated green creature that he turns into when his heart rate becomes a bit too elevated. Norton is too good an actor not to be good in the role; his own sense of responsibility when it comes to the actor’s craft shows through in Banner’s sense of responsibility for managing the danger of the Hulk, and he treats Banner’s anxiety and determination regarding his predicament very seriously. But maybe too seriously; Norton strains to give such convincing interiority to Banner’s struggle with the forces that give rise to the Hulk that the exteriority can be lacking.

The big green monster is plenty exterior, of course; the Hulk is a comic-book Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde conceit, but it’s also a very blunt metaphor for internal psychological turmoil personified and made physically manifest in hypermuscular verdant form. Norton is a fine casting choice for a psychologically realist Banner/Hulk, but this is a film only intermittently interested in exploring that angle on the character, frequently choosing spectacle and humour instead, the latter which is patchy and awkward compared to later MCU films. Little wonder, given this angle of focus, that despite Norton’s interest in continuing in the role (and perhaps partly because of his creative seriousness and insistence on input into the future direction of the character on a screenplay level), Marvel re-cast Mark Ruffalo to give the role more rounded contours for the character’s next appearance in The Avengers.

The movie commences with a fleet, opening-credits background exposition montage of the laboratory accident that gifted/cursed Banner with his dangerous green co-pilot and alienated him from his significant other Dr. Elizabeth “Betty” Ross (Liv Tyler) and her military father General Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt, whose character is one of the few elements here with any recurrence in the MCU after this film). The general and his hordes of soldierly minions are on the hunt for any sign of Banner, who has gone off the grid in Brazil’s favelas while working quietly at a guarana beverage plant (the drinks’ green hue suggesting the slumbering Hulk, no doubt soon to awaken). Banner also corresponds with a mysterious online colleague (eventually revealed to be Tim Blake Nelson as eccentric cellular biologist Samuel Sterns, whose last-act appearance injects some comedy, albeit a tad forced), who suggests treatments for his condition to try out and teases him with hints of a cure.

Random chance (and one of Marvel Comics maven Stan Lee’s more amusing cameos) reveals Banner’s incognito location, and General Ross descends on him with a strike team that includes Russian-born Royal Marine Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth). Blonsky is a grizzled black ops veteran and little fazes or even challenges him anymore, so when the strike team corners Banner in the beverage factory and the Hulk comes out to flatten them, the soldier is intrigued even more than terrified. As Banner moves up the spine of the Americas to his old lab, to Betty, and to Manhattan in search of a solution to the Hulk problem, Ross injects Blonsky with a super-soldier serum (similar to that used on a certain scrawny Brooklyn native during WWII) intended to make him a match for the green behemoth but which will instead make him into something more abominable.

The Incredible Hulk doesn’t know entirely what it wants to be. Letterier emphasizes the Hulk smashing more than Ang Lee did, but none of the big sequences carry the punch that Hulk‘s final action sequence did. The first act is essentially a big-budget remake of an episode of the late 1970s The Incredible Hulk TV show (that series’ Hulk, bodybuilder Lou Ferrigno, is given a fawning cameo, and also gets to vocalize the CG Hulk), with sadsack Banner wandering crowded streets and dusty roads, forever alone with his big green secret. Norton is often in a bracingly honest psychological drama in the middle of a relatively mediocre action movie, for which Roth is a sneering comic-book villain. Even the look of the CG Hulk, with its moppish hair and excessive vein-y-ness, was reworked before the character’s reappearance four years later.

Perhaps, all things considered, the Hulk works better in the supporting doses of Ruffalo’s later appearances as part of an ensemble, with superhero foils of the intellectual (Robert Downey, Jr.’s Tony Stark, Banner’s later brother-in-science, who appears in a not-very-good credits stinger scene before the credits roll; yeah, they were definitely still figuring things out in 2008), physical (Chris Hemsworth’s Thor, Stark’s Hulk-busting armour), and emotional (Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow, with whom Banner has a never-to-be relationship) variety. There’s no reason that should be the case, of course, and perhaps the character’s success in Ruffalo’s hands in the MCU will lead Universal to team with the home-run-hitting Marvel Studios creative squad for another swing at a successful Hulk headlining gig. But The Incredible Hulk wasn’t it, that much is certain enough.

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Categories: Comics, Film, Reviews

Film Review – Avengers: Endgame

Avengers: Endgame (2019; Directed by Anthony & Joe Russo)

Disclaimer: This review contains spoilers for Avengers: Endgame, Avengers: Infinity War, and some of the other twenty films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies as well. Although, honestly, if you’re interested enough in this movie to be reading this, you’ll have seen it by now, perhaps more than once. If you haven’t and you’re still reading anyway, you should be prepared to be “spoiled”, whatever that’s supposed to mean at this particular point in our current chaotic cultural discourse. And really, really honestly? Every day we subsist on this beautiful, disgusting carbon ball we call our home planet is one big spoiler, 24 hours cycles of draining disappointment in perpetual limbo between a glowing past we can never recapture and a shining future we may never reach. Life doesn’t provide spoiler alerts, so you should be glad that this obscure little blog has deigned to bother with one.

In reviewing the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first big, ambitious Avengers Assemble tentpole blockbuster in 2012, I referred to Joss Whedon’s inevitably successful film as being so huge and unwieldy and grounded in multiple precursor films, corporate cross-promotional synergy, and latent authoritarian undercurrent as to be effectively post-criticism. But what comes after a post-criticism blockbuster, and at least three more of them, for that matter (Avengers: Age of Ultron, defacto team-up flick Captain America: Civil War, and Avengers: Infinity War)? Avengers: Endgame is the answer, at least until Marvel Studios and Disney come up with another one (which they assuredly will).

The MCU has lumbered on relentlessly for just over a decade now in a loose, frequently-branching narrative and thematic continuity, but what’s held it together and focused audiences’ interest and investment more than anything along the way has been its characters. Their arcs of triumphs and errors, quirks and flaws, tragedies and growth, consistency and inconsistency, and above all their connection to each other and to some amorphous but hard-won planet-safeguarding sense of duty have made the cinematic Avengers endearing and even indelible to millions worldwide, who do not merely follow these heroes’ adventures and dramas because multi-billion-dollar media-producing conglomerates that are marching towards industry monopoly status insist that they do but because they want to (to whatever extent we can untangle those intertwined impulses and tell them apart in any way).

Are the Marvel movies massively overblown affairs, inconsistent in quality from one to the next and even in and of themselves, sometimes barely managing to function as recognizable movies in their own right and not half-sequels, half-trailers for future installments? Are they silly, tonally wild, often superficial, full of questionable political implications and gender and racial representations, movies crafted not for children exactly but for adults with a children’s perspective (and not in that good flower-chain glory-of-innocence way that hippies reified in the 1960s)? Sure they are. They’re friggin’ superhero comic books. Superhero comic books brought to the big screen in vivid modern CG magnificence with budgets and grosses and cultural penetration that the late Marvel Comics co-founder Stan Lee must have had to pinch himself 14 times a day to spur himself into believing were true, yes. But superhero comic books they are nonetheless, transposing to cinema screens the longer-term audience commitment, communal interpretive efforts, and economically canny delayed gratification of the serial narrative form, and doing so simultaneously with steely-eyed profit-driven cynicism and overflowing, fan-servicing passion.

But again, the characters, flaws and all, are what has sustained the MCU through numerous side-trips and genre tangents and the sometimes contradictory ideas of artistically diverse (although mostly white male, until rather recently) filmmakers. The core Phase One Avengers have been the human (though not always strictly human) face of this ambitious serialized movie-making experiment since the early days of this Universe, and Avengers: Endgame is rooted in the popular engagement with their journeys while also providing something like an end to their multi-movies arcs (in some cases, at least; others are left surprisingly open-ended).

There’s Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), the square-jawed, duty-bound all-American supersoldier whose moral rectitude has often set him at odds with the fellow members of the super-team that he ostensibly leads, to say nothing of the country he pledged long ago to serve (and only rarely lives up to his high moral standards) or the planet he risks everything to protect (same). There’s Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the golden-maned space Viking thunder god whose self-regard in his considerable powers is often comically arrogant (although he is a god, after all) but who has been tested and humbled by tragic losses and failures (a pretty important one of which closed Inifinity War) and humanized by his contact with earthlings. There’s Bruce Banner/The Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), a brilliant scientist with an angry all-smashing green monster lurking inside him that he intermittently learns to control and even less frequently learns to live with morally and psychologically. There are trained warrior-assassins Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), mere mortals compared to the others despite their formidable skills of targeted violence; Natasha is haunted and driven by guilt at the bad things she’s done, and Clint puts them behind him by immersing himself in the love of his family, something which very few of his fellow Avengers have (outside, of course, of each other). And there’s the elder statesman, the character whose 2008 origin film kicked off this whole strange and lucrative trip: Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), ludicrously rich playboy tech genius gone from amoral arms dealer to world-policing powersuit designer and user, smugly superior and freewheeling and pompous but wounded and insecure and seeking out a role as a father figure to compensate for the father that he lost (Howard Stark, played again here by John Slattery) and that he maybe only barely had in his life in the first place.

These Phase One-vintage superheroes, along with Stark’s sidekick James Rhodes/War Machine (Don Cheadle), make up most of the surviving cohort of Avengers and connected characters following the apocalyptic events of Endgame‘s direct precursor, Infinity War. As it surely must be safe to discuss now, given the passage of a year and the moment’s dissemination and meme-ification across popular culture, that movie ended with mad Titan Thanos (Josh Brolin) snapping the fingers of a golden gauntlet studded with the six universe-equilibrium-depending Infinity Stones (powerful objects strewn like foreshadowed breadcrumb MacGuffins through numerous MCU films over the years) and wiping out half of the life in the universe, a perverse non-judgemental genocide in the (psychotically deluded) name of totalizing habitat balance.

It would take another lengthy paragraph to name all of the Marvel characters erased in what is known as the Decimation (half of life gone, get it?) or the Dusting (for the eerie but bloodless turn-to-dust effect used to depict these deaths). But the important ones for the purpose of this movie at least are: Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland), whom Tony Stark was mentoring and whose loss he felt like that of a son; Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), magic-wielding sorceror and former protector of the Time Stone, who looked into the future and foresaw a single outcome in which the Avengers triumph over Thanos (though he reveals it to no one before being dusted); King T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), whom I mention only because he is ill-served by both halves of this Thanos saga, doing little but provide an army of Wakandans to counter the Titan’s hordes for the climactic CG battle both times.

Endgame delves into (very few of) the consequences of these vanishings and others, as well as revealing additional key ones. Rocket (a talking, gun-toting raccoon voiced by Bradley Cooper) is the only remaining Guardian of the Galaxy, along with Thanos’ abused adopted daughter and honorary semi-Guardian Nebula (Karen Gillan); both fall in with the post-Snap Avengers, with nothing else to usefully occupy them. Barton’s whole family is disintegrated in the film’s opening scene, setting him on a path of murderous “revenge” against immoral criminals and thugs who did not disappear like his blameless wife and children. Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), as revealed in the post-credits scene of Ant-Man and the Wasp, lost his “family” too, the Pyms/van Dynes (Michael Douglas, Evangeline Lilly, and Michelle Pfeiffer), which vitally stranded him in the microscopic Quantum Realm for five years, though it seemed only a few hours to him.

Time travel chicanery, as basically everyone who was paying attention to these movies at all in recent years had guessed, figures centrally in the remaining Avengers’ plan to undo the cataclysmic effects of Thanos’ Snap Heard ‘Round the Universe. Going back in time becomes the only path to defeating Thanos when – with the help of Captain Marvel/Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) who was summoned to Earth by Nick Fury’s (Samuel L. Jackson) pager in the post-credits scene of Infinity War and arrived at Avengers HQ in the post-credits scene of her own film – the team tracks down the Titan on his idyllic galactic retirement farm and discovers him weakened from a recent decision to destroy the Infinity Stones to remove the temptation of using them again. Although Thor makes good on his promise to dispatch Thanos, it’s a pyrrhic victory, and the team grinds away five years in their various outlets of survivor’s guilt: Cap goes to therapy groups, Natasha obsessively keeps the Avengers going, Hawkeye goes ninja-esque Ronin and slays gangsters, Banner toils in the lab to bring a certain equilibrium to him and the green guy, Thor becomes an overweight alcoholic (a sort of Big Thorbowski, complete with Taika Waititi’s hilariously polite CG rock-man Korg as his video-game-playing slacker buddy) in the last bastion of Asgardian refugees, and Stark has a daughter with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow).

But then, by pure chance, Scott Lang is zapped back from the Quantum Realm, and he seeks out the dwindling Avengers (whom he aided in Civil War) with an idea to use the Realm’s flexible sense of time to pull off what he calls a “Time Heist” of the Infinity Stones before Thanos can get to them, which they can then use to bring back the lost. The deflating encounter with a weakened Thanos and a half-hearted Marvel crib-notes version of The Leftovers occupies the film’s first act; veteran MCU screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely have a lot to do and mostly do it well in Endgame, but they put much less thought into the widespread consequences of Thanos’ Snap than does this 18-minute YouTube video on the subject from Alternate History Hub (which makes Thanos’ reasoning for the Snap seem even more flawed, especially if half of the livestock and plant life in the universe is catastrophically gone, too, as MCU producer Kevin Feige confirmed but which neither this movie nor the last one suggests).

But in Endgame‘s middle section, the film ramps up its entertainment quotient with delightful dual genre exercises. First, the scattered band must be gotten back together, then they must pull off Infinity Stone heists in four (actually five, before they’re done) points in the past. The Time Heist scenes operate as alternately clever, perfunctory, and agonizingly self-referential callbacks to moments in MCU history (complete with copious cameos): the opening scene of Guardians of the Galaxy, the elevator scene from Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the aftermath of the Battle of New York at the climax of The Avengers, one of Infinity War‘s most emotional scenes, and Thor: The Dark World (between being comically saddled with an obesity suit and being forced to not only return to but also recap to the plot of The Dark World in dialogue, it might seem that Hemsworth is being punished for dismissing that movie as “meh” in an interview). Rogers and Stark even make an unplanned stop in 1970, where they each encounter an important figure from their pasts that inform their late-film decisions.

Unfortunately, these stone-snatching incursions in time draw the attention of powerful, pre-Snap Thanos (I won’t, and likely couldn’t, explain how but it involves the digital entanglement of the past and present-day incarnations of Nebula), who manages to draw his considerable forces against the Avengers for an epic battle in the ruins of their bombed-out HQ that also involves (biggest spoiler here, which isn’t really a spoiler at all because half of them have sequels in the pipe!) all of the once-Dusted superheroes returning in force. Even so, only with heroic sacrifice will they be able to carry the day, in that one in 400 million chance alluded to by Dr. Strange.

This is a lot of plot synopsis and critique (and you may note I’ve sidestepped some of the bigger spoilers), but then Avengers: Endgame is a lot of movie, likely the most prominent and highest-grossing 3-plus-hour movie since The Lord of the Rings (its multiple-endings denouement will remind many of LOTR‘s capper The Return of the King as well, albeit more streamlined). It’s a bit of a mess because what else could it possibly be, with so many loose ends to tie up along with the pesky necessity of crafting an entertaining and involving movie as well. But it’s probably less of a mess than Infinity War, and as a narrative it’s less constrained and undercut by factors internal and external in nature than its predecessor.

Narratively and emotionally, it is, I suppose, satisfying, and baffled reports are already filtering in of manly sobbing being heard in opening weekend screenings. One could wish that the final battle was a touch more geographically and visually clear (the Russo Brothers, directing their fourth MCU joint, have unleashed some of the best and most spatially coherent fight sequences in the franchise but generally in more confined quarters), but it’s hard to imagine anyone being disappointed at the sheer scale of it, its cathartic hoot-and-holler moments (one of which was teased in Age of Ultron but was purloined from The Force Awakens and only barely makes sense), not to mention the impressive number of characters who play a meaningful role or at least get a notable beat somewhere in it (and whose entrances, as they were in Infinity War, are cheer-worthy, although an all-female charge at one point lays the studio’s late-coming pop-feminist marketing pose on a little thick).

As Endgame is a movie whose plot relies heavily on time travel, it’s already easy to predict the Online Champions of Rationality rubbing their hands, placing their conically-shaped Quantum Physics Expert hats on their heads, and switching on their webcams to record comprehensive rants about every picayune LOGICAL INCONSISTENCY on display here (“Everything WRONG with Avengers: Endgame in 582 Minutes!”). Endgame crafts its own time travel rules that are deliberately and explicitly stated to work differently than they do in any time-travel movie that you’ve seen. Rhodey (who wisecracks with unrelenting and uncharacteristic frequency here; you can tell that the writers miss being able to give these lines to the Guardians and Peter Parker, as they did last time) provides a list of movies depicting time travel (he even namedrops Nicholas Meyer’s Time After Time, which is very, very silly and thus memorable), and Banner flatly tells him (and the audience) that the version of time travel they are attempting doesn’t work like that.

Endgame establishes time travel ground rules in a chat between Banner and the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), who wields the Time Stone before Strange does: basically, changes made by a time traveller in the past create alternate realities, but do not change their own present or future once they return to it, and the alternate streams of time can be closed off if what is done in the past (say, an Infinity Stone is taken) is later undone (the Stone is put back where it was found, which would seem to be a lot harder than taking it but not to this movie). Some loose strands are left tantalizingly dangling during the Time Heist (we’ve got a potential start point for the Tom Hiddleston-fronted Loki series on Disney’s forthcoming streaming site, for one), but the rules are mostly followed, at least until time travel is used sentimentally to give one exiting Phase One vet a happy ending, at which point they’re all out the window.

Bending entirely hypothetical time travel rules to suit your movie’s moment-to-moment needs is one thing, and one whose cleverly cynical cheekiness I can appreciate. But the bending of several character arcs is quite another. While I say that Endgame is emotionally satisfying, not all of the characters’ arcs sit quite right. Hemsworth’s Thor has been swung wildly and cartoonishly to and fro in Infinity War and Endgame, and if he continues in the MCU with the franchise strand that the ending suggests (word was that the actor was done with the character altogether, but perhaps not, considering the more comic angle that’s been taken to Thor since Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok), that may continue. As good as Ruffalo has been as Banner/Hulk (most of the best jokes in this film are his, including a bit about how the Big Green Guy hates taking the stairs), his arc since the end of Age of Ultron is erratic at best, confused at worse; if he isn’t finished with the role, Ruffalo could really use a solo movie to sort it out, but Universal has the Hulk title movie rights and won’t play ball with Marvel Studios. The Guardians, so integrated and important in Infinity War, are afterthoughts in Endgame, and Rocket’s grief at the loss of his surrogate family, especially after his Yondu-inspired emotional growth (see good video essays on this element of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 here and here), is badly underplayed. Sideline characters Hawkeye and Nebula are given more complete arcs than many of the more primary players here, which might not have been expected. There is at least a neat symmetry to the conclusions of the arcs of Captain America and Iron Man, the dual hearts of the MCU: selfish Tony Stark learns quite finally to be selfless, and selfless Steve Rogers learns quite finally to be selfish.

I wonder, too, at the unseen planning/brainstorming decision about who is sent where and when on the Time Heist; most of the combos make sense because the film needs them to, but the team after the Soul Stone on Vormir would be able to accomplish their goal only in very certain combinations, any of which would involve tragedy and none of which would have played out in the specific way this one needed to. Which begs the question: does anyone know what cost the acquisition of that Stone extracts? Nebula at least is aware of what Thanos gave up to get it, but she doesn’t inform her allies of that, so does she otherwise subtly manipulate the assignments to ensure a proper combination before they set off, signing a death warrant in the process? Moral quandaries do abound, if so.

The larger quandary: is Avengers: Endgame a good movie, after all of this? One feels it is, even if one’s higher faculties take to the barricades in defiance of that conclusion as often as not. Points of resistance are numerous: that vaunted “fan service” which runs through so many contemporary nostalgic geek-culture franchises that have grown into mass culture events; growing ennui with superhero movie climaxes involving epic but increasingly empty CGI battle scenes and powerful but dull villains (Thanos here is more of a megalomaniacal stock villain than in Infinity War – he is a different Thanos, it should be noted – but also more seemingly poweful than the gauntleted version in that film, somehow); and the constant inability to settle on a tone, which makes Endgame surprisingly funny but also serves to dilute its sadder moments, which are driven forcibly to tearjerker territory by a shameless button-pushing score from Alan Silvestri.

But Endgame, like basically the entirety of the Marvel Cinematic Universe before it, engages, absorbs, and compels investment from its audience; I loved at least as much of it as gave me pause, and probably more. Few are strong enough to resist its powers completely (unless they kept themselves out of its clutches from the get-go, and I will say that I envy them as the living envy the dead), and most are happy to submit, feeling (not without reason) that they are receiving something in return. Call it what you will: emotional satisfaction, fulfillment, closure; call it brainwashing or mass manipulation or insidious marketing persuasion, if that is your wont. There was a #ThankYouAvengers hashtag trending on Twitter throughout the movie’s opening weekend, a mass expression of gratitude for a decade of entertainment, escapism, and occasional emotional and intellectual transcendence from a series of hegemonic corporate products.

But let’s pause before we shake our heads and bemoan our culture’s decadent decline (Thanks, Kevin Feige!). These movies operate on reproduceable narrative and thematic formulas, have come late and not nearly strongly enough to progressive politics and minority representation, and their huge box office success has been the spearpoint of Disney’s imperialist conquest of contemporary Hollywood, the effects of which are not yet fully apparent but portend great ill. But people who go to movies care about this serialized story, these characters, and the journey they have been on with them, and Avengers: Endgame works diligently, intelligently, and with real emotion to do right by those people (while, of course, gladly taking as much of their money as they are willing to part with in the process). We of a critical bent may seek to deny or diminish this investment to signal our independence of mind and our resistance to imperatives of monopolistic corporate domination, but we do so at our peril.

Categories: Comics, Film, Reviews

Film Review: Iron Man 2 & Iron Man 3

April 15, 2019 Leave a comment

Iron Man 2 (2010; Directed by Jon Favreau)

Iron Man 3 (2013; Directed by Shane Black)

As the multi-film, multi-phase character arc of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s founding and primary figure, Robert Downey, Jr.’s Tony Stark/Iron Man, draws to a (probable) close with the forthcoming Avengers: Endgame, it’s worth taking a few moments to return (for the first time, on my part) to the latter two parts of his own movie trilogy. From the halcyon days when the character featured in movies with his own superhero name in the titles and the culture-dominating MCU still counted releases in the single digits, Iron Man 2 and Iron Man 3 are actually fairly disparate films in terms of tone, theme, and quality. It doesn’t necessarily make sense to consider them together, which is why it makes perfect sense to consider them together.

Iron Man 2 was the direct sequel to the origin story of 2008’s Iron Man, and represented distinct growing pains for both the titular character and the embryonic rhizomatic megafranchise that it sought to kickstart. Much of the film, directed like its predecessor by the stalwart elevated hack Jon Favreau (who also appears as Stark toadie Happy Hogan), sees Tony Stark not so much wrestling with his increased fame after revealing himself as the powersuited Iron Man (in a twist ending of the first film apparently adlibbed by Downey) as basking hedonistically in its saturating glow. Tony amps up his zillionaire playboy genius act to stadium-level proportions, posing for adoring crowds at the opening of the World’s Fair-like relaunched Stark Expo with costumed dancing girls, impulsively hopping into a racecar at the Monaco Grand Prix, and donning his Iron Man suit to blast champagne bottles with beautiful party people for his birthday.

But Tony Stark’s jet-setting lifestyle is characterized by Justin Theroux’s screenplay as being fueled by a death drive. He’s partying himself into an expected early grave, a consequence of the blood-poisoning palladium that powers the arc reactor keeping fatal shrapnel away from his heart and running his flying, blasting power suit. Just as the arc reactor is a technological metaphorical substitute for the often-callous Tony Stark’s gradual moral education (a constructed heart that catalyzes the character to develop real heart), the palladium poisoning is a metaphor for the corruption of his poor choices, of his egotistical employment of his gifts and the resurrectionary second chance represented by his emergence from the cave (how Platonic, in hindsight) in Iron Man.

Confronting his imminent mortality has, however, also made Tony Stark thoughtful about his legacy, and how that legacy compares to that of his father, Howard Stark (John Slattery). To the extent that Iron Man is about anything, it’s about the bright and darker sides of legacy, and about reconciling with both those sides. On the bright side of the ledger, Tony revives the Stark Expo, dormant since his father halted its yearly exhibition of the wonders of technology, out of a desire to leave something positive behind as his father did (and his father, as it happens, leaves him a very specific blueprint for the resolution of his palladium poisoning problem). He also names his soon-to-be-girlfriend and hyper-competent business fixer Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) as his successor as Stark Industries CEO, with an eye to leave the company in better hands than his own. After a physical, powersuitted fight with friend and ally Lt. Col. James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) over Stark’s self-destructive behaviour, he allows Rhodey to fly off with one of Iron Man prototypes to share with the U.S. military-industrial complex, whom he self-aggrandizingly refuses to cooperate with at a Congressional hearing at the start of the film.

On the darker side, Tony contends with the antagonistic Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), a Russian physicist whose father worked with, and saw his career destroyed by, Howard Stark. Avenging the slights against his now-dead father by targetting the Stark son, Vanko employs an arc reactor and crackling energy whips (the character is called Whiplash in Marvel Comics) to assault Tony in Monaco, and with the funding and facilities of Stark’s rival Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) masterminds a plan to sabotage the Stark Expo with battle drones and an upgraded whip-apparatus.

Iron Man 2 functions nicely enough on these lines, even if Stark’s defeat of Vanko and his drones with the aid of Rhodes’ War Machine concludes a little anticlimactically. The film gets unfortunately lost, as many a later MCU installment would, laying down the breadcrumb trail of world-building. Jokey moments lay the groundwork for then-forthcoming MCU films Captain America: The First Avenger and Thor (and, retroactively at least, even the MCU’s version of Peter Parker/Spider-Man), but mid-film and denouement appearances by Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury foreshadowing the Avengers are more awkwardly shoehorned in. A supporting character in those Avengers movies is introduced as well, but is singularly poorly-served: Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow, mostly posing as a Stark employee before emerging as a badass S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, is horribly, inexcusably objectified by the dual male gaze of Favreau’s camera and Downey’s character perspective. She would be poorly treated in other ways in future (particularly by Joss Whedon in Avengers: Age of Ultron), but her presentation does get better in later MCU films. It can’t help but do so, given what is done here.

Freed from such franchise-building asides and entrusted to the skilled hands of director/co-writer Shane Black, one of the most particular film artists who survived the corporate meat-grinder of the MCU, Iron Man 3 has fewer such issues (and one less icky Elon Musk cameo, to boot). Indeed, it might be the strongest of the three Iron Man films: stakes-raising as sequels are expected to be, but surprising and misdirecting, with a smooth set-piece-to-set-piece flow and rhythm that strikes one as quite nearly miraculous. Black’s peculiarized treatment of violence – as random, painful, pregnant with consequence but also darkly comic – works obscenely well when applied to an Iron Man movie starring Robert Downey, Jr., who dwells comfortably in-world while forever teetering on the edge of fourth-wall-breaking meta-deconstruction.

The Tony Stark of Iron Man 3 has just come off an epic, draining, worldview-questioning Avengers movie, and in particular the cataclysmic alien assault on Manhattan at its climax has shaken his usually unimpeachable confidence in his ability to solve any problem and defeat any threat with his genius and his technology. Tony is sleepless and prone to anxiety attacks, a sufferer of PTSD who immerses himself in building Iron Man suits and often neglects his now-girlfriend, Pepper Potts. When the mysterious bombings of an enigmatic terrorist called the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) lead to a serious injury for Happy Hogan, Tony challenges the Mandarin to come after him, which his cronies do, devastating the coastal Stark mansion in Malibu and leaving Tony apparently dead and his many Iron Man suits destroyed.

As Pepper becomes enmeshed in a complex, switchback-heavy plot involving the Mandarin (who is both more and less than he seems, with Kingsley masterful in both iterations) as well as a discarded former lover (Rebecca Hall) and admirer (Guy Pearce) of Tony’s, Stark himself is ripped from the wealthy coastal enclaves that he knows too well and follows a lead on the bombings into the humbler red-state flyover country of Rose Hill, Tennessee. Out of his comfort zone among the heartland salt of the earth and left with only a scrambled J.A.R.V.I.S. (the artificial intelligence sidekick voiced by Paul Bettany, who will later become phasing superhero Vision) and half-functional remnants of his latest prototype suit, Tony reorients and learns to deal with his psychological trauma with the not-at-all-cloying aid of a precocious, pragmatic local boy named Harley (Ty Simpkins). A spectacular airborne rescue following a plane crash which pivots breathlessly into an equally fantastic vertically-integrated battle with Pearce’s Aldrich Killian and his Extremis Project heat-projecting minions at Miami’s container port is one of the MCU’s best sustained action arcs.

Iron Man 3 also has the most on its mind in terms of political resonance of the three Iron Man films. Lest it is misplaced in Black’s breakneck twists and reversals, the dangerous, Osama bin Laden/ISIS hybrid version of the Mandarin is revealed to be a ruse, a fearmongering front by vengeful, power-hungry think-tank capitalist-industrialist Killian that is part of a larger coup to seize control of the White House. A tackily jingo-ized version of Rhodey’s War Machine, re-dubbed the Iron Patriot and painted red, white, and blue, is hijacked in this effort, which is not merely a matter of force but is meticulously stage-managed for media propaganda effect by Killian. It’s hardly the first movie villain who takes the form of a corrupt and evil capitalist, nor one who takes advantage of knee-jerk patriotism to steal power in America, but it’s easily the most effective one in the Iron Man saga.

That saga represents an arc of change and painful maturation for Tony Stark. MCU movies featuring the character are always reluctant to relinquish the quipping, arrogant Stark, which Downey does so magnificently; even the truly axis-shifting Infinity War had him mostly trading barbs with Benedict Cumberbatch’s Dr. Strange and Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill until the heavy stuff lands in the last act. As much as the Avengers installments have carried the weight of weathering Tony Stark and pressing him down with the heft of the responsibility that his power carries, Iron Man 2 and especially Iron Man 3 each do strong work (if of variant quality) in this regard as well.

Categories: Comics, Film, Reviews

Film Review – Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

December 17, 2018 1 comment

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018; Directed by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey & Rodney Rothman)

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is an out-of-left-field triumph. It is unquestionably the best animated film of the year, likely the best comic-book superhero movie of the year (no mean feat in a year including the confident and nuanced Black Panther), and maybe the best comedy of the year, too. Frankly, this exciting, innovative, hilarious, and moving film ought to be in the conversation for one of the best films of the year, period.

It really shouldn’t be, at first glance. It’s an animated spin-off of Sony’s Spider-Man franchise (more the Sam Raimi/Tobey Maguire/Kirsten Dunst trilogy that ended a decade ago – and whose high and low moments are shouted out in the introductory passage – than the largely unloved Marc Webb/Andrew Garfield/Emma Stone reboot that followed it), which has grown so moribund that they booted its latest restart beneath the comforting, predominantly unchallenging Marvel Cinematic Universe umbrella. Generally, movies like this one are the stuff of straight-to-home-video fodder (back when there was such a thing as home video to go straight to), and moving the property under the aegis of Sony Pictures Animation, whose most notable releases these days are the Hotel Transylvania movies, hardly inspired further confidence. But from such middling origins comes one of the most astonishing animated films you will see this year, or any year.220px-spider-man_into_the_spider-verse_282018_poster29

It’s tempting to look solely at two names in the credits as difference-makers: Phil Lord and Chris Miller, writer-directors of The Lego Movie, 21 Jump Street and its sequel 22 Jump Street, and the cult-classic animated series Clone High, produced Into the Spider-Verse, and Lord wrote the story and co-penned the screenplay (with 22 Jump Street writer Rodney Rothman, who co-directs the film with Peter Ramsey and Bob Persichetti). Feature animation is a highly collaboration medium, even more so than live-action filmmaking, and resists auteur theory absolutes, but Into the Spider-Verse is a Lord/Miller joint all the damn way: frenetic action, whipcracking comedic wit, dense, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it referentiality, and strong, surprisingly affecting thematic surges. Indeed, it contains a hefty helping of repurposed elements of the duo’s feature breakthrough and notable past Sony Pictures Animation success Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. It borrows that film’s central thematic and emotional relationship between a rebellious, creative son and a more traditional, duty-bound father, as well as at least a trio of specific beats: silly names for techno-McGuffins (in Cloudy, a key device with the unpronouncable acronym FLDSMDFR; here, a kill-program-equipped USB stick called a Goober), relatably mundane computer-age frustrations in the midst of high-intrigue plot suspense (in Cloudy, a hilarious scene of talking a clueless technophobe through attaching a file to an email; here, cracking into an evil scientist’s computer only to be frustrated by her hopelessly cluttered desktop), and high-tech labs accessed through unassuming backyard structures (in Cloudy, an outhouse; here, a garden shed).

This is not to say that Into the Spider-Verse is anything like a retread of its various influences and sources. This is a blazingly inventive movie, visually innovative and impressively original in adapting the look and feel of comic books to the screen: panel borders, thought bubbles and boxes, and onscreen onomatopoaeic sound-effects text flit cleverly by, but are also used to amplify and emphasize story and emotional moments. This may sound like Ang Lee’s maligned editing methods in Hulk, but I can assure you it works far better. And added to it are flickering and pulsating bursts of pop-art psychedelia worthy of the most incredibly imaginative art of late Marvel Comics co-founder Steve Ditko (like his one-time creative partner who also died this year, Marvel movie cameo king Stan Lee, Ditko gets a tribute card at the end of the credits).

If Into the Spider-Verse was only saturated with visual astonishments, dotted with breathless action sequences, and consistently blessed with impeccable comic timing, it would be a fun and noteworthy rainbow-candy trifle that would still earn plaudits for its sheer energy and joy. But what makes it a great cinematic experience is how it tells an involving, potent story with beautifully-pitched emotional beats for even its minor characters, all while acting as a effluent visual summary of the Spider-Man character and of comic book history alike (it opens, after all, with the familiar Comics Code Authority seal of approval that was emblazoned on comic books for almost half a century). Its technicolour exhilarations are built on strong foundations of thematic and emotional intelligence.

Into the Spider-Verse employs multiverse theory to cover numerous versions of Spider-Man existing in multiple dimensions, but its focal point is biracial Brooklyn teenager Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore). A fairly typical teenager with some talent as a graffiti artist (the art form’s jagged coloured shapes and sprayed dots provide a strong anchor point for the film’s astounding multidimensional-glitch visual effects), he is encouraged in this countercultural artistic vein by his “cool” Uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali), whose influence on Miles is disapproved of by the boy’s cop father Jefferson Davis (Brian Tyree Henry, doing a lovely job giving depth and contours to a character largely adapted from Mr. T’s father/cop Earl in Cloudy), a disapproval that is more right than the father can know (though to say more is to say too much). Miles is made to attend a prestigious boarding school that is not quite his speed and struggles to live up to his father’s high (but loving) expectations for him (Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations is assigned for reading and an essay as a nod to these), but his adjustment pains at school are quite suddenly made far worse by a fateful bite from a radioactive spider.

Miles’ awkward puberty-metaphor discoveries of his body’s new abilities and the identity tug of war between the clashing poles of his two male authority figures are soon complicated by his inculcation in a villainous reality-threatening scheme of multidimensional proportions. Beneath Brooklyn, he stumbles upon Spider-Man (Chris Pine) battling a massive Green Goblin (Jorma Taccone) in an attempt to deactivate a huge particle supercollider funded by imposing crime lord Wilson Fisk/Kingpin (Liev Schreiber). Because this is a superhero film in 2018, even this hulking, square-shaped personification of the crooked crossroads between capitalism and organized crime has an understandable and even sympathetic motivation for fracturing the space-time continuum: Kingpin is seeking to locate and bring back versions of his wife and son, dead in his own dimension, from another one. He has no qualms about doing anything necessary to get what he’s after, and his determination costs the established Peter Parker/Spider-Man his life.

Kingpin’s dimensional portal-opening has unintended consequences, and Miles’ world soon includes more Spider-Beings than it really has room for, his own hesitant, unsure Spider-Self included. He first meets Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson), who is like the idealized and heroic Spidey from Miles’ own dimension in most ways, but has let himself go physically, morally, and personally after getting divorced from the love of his life, Mary Jane (Zoë Kravitz). He wears sweatpants for most of his early scenes as a marker of his apathy and dissolution.

Peter B. nonetheless grudgingly accepts Miles’ aid in obtaining a new kill-program USB Goober to neutralize Kingpin’s collider and allow him to return to his own dimension, and becomes a reluctant semi-mentor to the fledgling Spider-Miles. They are soon enough joined by white-hooded teen Gwen Stacy, a.k.a. Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld) from another dimension, who met Miles at his school in disguise, and a trio of other multiverse Spideys: 1930s-vintage black-and-white private detective Spider-Noir (Nicolas Cage living his best voice-acting life: “Wherever I go, the wind follows. And the wind… smells like rain”), Kawaii tween Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn) and her symbiotic Spider-Bot biomech suit, and cartoon pig Peter Porker/Spider-Ham (John Mulaney), who wallops bad guys with oversized mallets and anvils. Covering Shadow-type noir-detective comics, manga and anime, and classic Looney Tunes cartoons, these supporting characters provide knowing genre nods, flashes of those generic animation styles, as well as a support squad for the embryonic Spider-Miles in his efforts to thwart Kingpin.

Despite all of this busy background colour and detail (and even more than previous Lord/Miller-verse efforts, this film is chock-a-block with them), Into the Spider-Verse is simply and effectively about a pretty normal young boy (radioactive spider bite aside) working out who he is and who he wants to be in relation to the many influences and reference-points in his life. In this way, Into the Spider-Verse‘s thematic hybrid of competing traditional roles of African-American masculinity and dazzling cornucopia of multiverse cultural elements constitute a smart and convincing approximation of the complex web of identity-formation influences that can so confuse and fragment young people (young males, especially) in our oversaturated post-capitalist milieu. We live in a multiverse already, in cultural terms, Lord and Rothman’s script suggests. Little wonder that no one, especially the young and impressionable, can make sense of it.

But Miles Morales does find a way to make sense of it, a way to embrace both the great power and the great responsibility of being Spider-Man just as we must all embrace adult citizenship in a globe-spanning society of rapid change, complication, and uncertainty. Envisioned and metaphorized as a very literal but also highly figurative leap of faith, Miles’ awakening plunge is a blazingly memorable sequence, richly earned by the development and growth of character and themes up to that moment and featuring one particular adaptation of comic-book visual language to cinematic technique that acts as a spectacular, even poetic, elevation (as well as being given a banging soundtrack from Blackway & Black Caviar). In the midst of such overwhelming visual spectacle and imagination, this leap might seem like a sop to traditional blockbuster conventions. But like the rest of the remarkable, wonderful Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, this moment rewires or resequences those conventions. Indeed, this movie acts on the the superhero genre, on feature animation, and indeed on Hollywood movies as a whole like the bite of a radioactive spider: it injects them with new powers and possibilities, and if we’re lucky, none of them will ever be the same.

Categories: Comics, Film, Reviews

Film Review – Avengers: Infinity War

April 28, 2018 Leave a comment

Avengers: Infinity War (2018; Directed by Anthony & Joe Russo)

In the build-up to the release of Avengers: Infinity War, we have been told that the film represents the beginning of the end of an era, the first of the final narrative throes of an innovative, marketplace-dominating cinematic universe (that would be the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or MCU) that has spread out over 18 prior films. Of course, Marvel Studios and its corporate overlords at Disney are hardly stopping the money train with Infinity War and the untitled companion sequel, due out at this time next year, which will preusmably resolve its superficially-audacious cliffhanger. Indeed, further MCU titles are already mapped out for years to come. But the MCU will likely be transitioning to a new stable of marquee superheroes introduced in their more recent hits, with the original Avengers of the earlier Phases expected to hang up their suits. The retirements are almost certain to include Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) and Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), whose contracts are lapsing, with Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Bruce Banner/The Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), and any number of secondary figures also representing possible candidates for departure from the cycle.

The semi-insider knowledge of these future production details are a reality of our current movie moment, driven by the amplifying feedback loop of online film fandom, clickbait digital media, and corporate Hollywood marketing. Such known tidbits about the MCU’s future play into expectations of Infinity War and wind up affecting its storytelling choices in a manner not entirely expected but maybe not entirely advantageous. Just as Infinity War‘s penultimate position in a multiple-film branching franchise increases the emotional impact of its narrative and character arcs, the intended destabilizing shock of its heavy-body-count conclusion is inherently undermined by Marvel Studios’ already-divulged upcoming release schedule. Infinity War means to stun us with what it does to the established universe, but that undeniable stunned feeling that lingers in the theatre as the credits roll is diminished by a descending certainty that whatever has been done is more than likely to be undone in a year’s time. And, morever, that this inevitable undoing may well strain acceptance of the MCU’s internal reality, even if it is more true to the narrative conventions of the comic-book roots of the films.

To whatever extent a summary of the events of Infinity War is in danger of degenerating into a litany of characters whose in-text profusion would shame even Leo Tolstoy and planet names that you are unlikely to remember, some efforts in that vein are necessary. Its central animating villain is the Titan Thanos (Josh Brolin), previously teased in The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy but potently re-introduced in this film’s first scene presiding over the slaughter of the Asgardian refugees led into space by Thor and Loki (Tom Hiddleston) at the conclusion of Thor: Ragnarok. Thanos seeks the Infinity Stones, six magical gems spread across the galaxy that grant him tremendous power in isolation but, when combined and mounted on a specially-made gauntlet that he wears, will allow him dominion over all life in the universe. He seeks this dominion not in order to impose personal despotic rule over the cosmos, but to correct what he sees as an endemic and existential overpopulation and resource-depletion problem across those cosmos by wiping out half of all life in a random, indiscriminate genocide. He considers this mass snuffing-out of life to be morally enlightened and even merciful, which is an extreme contrarian hot take worthy of a column in the legacy media opinion pages.

The quest of this Troll to End All Trolls for the MacGuffins to End All MacGuffins is apt for a movie franchise that has frequently grounded its plots in megalomaniacal baddies with semi-convincing motivations in search of powerful objects of desire. Thanos’ pursuit of this apocalyptic destiny is granted surprising sympathy and emotional nuance by Brolin’s motion-capture performance and by the screenplay from Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, but the latter also lays down swaths of playful comic banter of the usual MCU type to keep Infinity War from becoming a self-serious or leaden experience (there’s a great Groot/Cap joke that you’ll be delighted not to see coming, for example). The titular gang of heroes, though fractured by past experiences, nominally reunite and join with cadres of unlikely new allies to combat Thanos and his henchman (mo-capped by Terry Notary, Carrie Coon, Tom Vaughan-Lawlor, and Michael James Shaw). The film, ably helmed by prior Captain America franchise directors the Russo brothers, mostly splits the numerous superheroes into mission-pursuing sub-groups to give them space to interact in more manageable and character-arc-advancing combinations.

Therefore, Thor is found drifting amidst the wreckage of his people’s destroyed ship by the Guardians of the Galaxy, whose ranks include Thanos’ adopted daughter Gamora (a deeply-felt turn by Zoe Saldana). Thor, grieving for his mounting losses and hungry for revenge, seeks out a galactic forge that could craft a weapon to kill Thanos, with the aid of sardonic gun-enthusiast raccoon Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and teenaged tree-creature Groot (Vin Diesel), Meanwhile, Gamora and Peter Quill/Star Lord (Chris Pratt) lead the remaining Guardians – Drax (Dave Bautista), whose family was killed by Thanos, and the empathic Mantis (Pom Klementieff) – to head off the Titan on Knowhere, a planet where they know the red Reality Stone to be kept.

Meanwhile on Earth, Tony Stark is warned of Thanos’ imminent coming by a returned Bruce Banner, and Iron Man joins with the time-wizard Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch, who engages in light-hostile exchanges with his fellow Sherlock Holmes actor) and Peter Parker/Spider-man (Tom Holland) on board a donut-shaped spacecraft hurtling towards a confrontation with Thanos on his ruined home planet, alongside Quill’s cohort of Guardians.

Also meanwhile on Earth, Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and her lover Vision (Paul Bettany), an android created by AI and the power of the Mind Stone which is embedded in his forehead, are torn from relatively blissful hiding in Scotland by the Stone-seeking Children of Thanos. Following a spectacular fight through Edinburgh’s Old Town, they are saved in Waverley Station by Rogers, Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Sam Wilson/Falcon (Anthony Mackie) and brought back to Avengers HQ to meet up with James Rhodes/War Machine (Don Cheadle) and Banner, before retreating to the hidden kingdom of Wakanda to stand with King T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and the deprogrammed ex-Winter Soldier Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) against the Titan’s invading army.

This is undoubtedly a lot, and arguably too much. The Russos do a good job rendering the screenplay they have into an entertaining blockbuster, giving even supporting characters showpiece moments while pushing the arcs of key figures into new ground, balancing furious, large-scale action scenes (though none quite as hard-hitting and vividly exciting as Rogers and Bucky’s battle in The Winter Soldier) with humour and pathos. They even deploy several theatrewide-cheer-winning iconic hero shots worthy of the bravura visual impact of the superhero-comic splash-page, among them Cap’s first appearance in the railway station, the initial cut to Wakanda with the rolling Black Panther theme music, and Thor’s (literally) electrifying arrival on the scene of the climactic battle. There is a great deal of narrative deferment going on, though, with characters appearing at just the right (or wrong) time for just the right (or wrong) plot development to take place. It’s hard to begrudge such storytelling shortcuts in such an overstuffed 2.75-hour movie, but some of these shortcuts involve hurried oversights that strain credulity.

The strains to credulity, mind you, are nothing compared to what is to come. Without spoiling anything in specific about Infinity War‘s ending, the coming story is going to require major timeline-altering shenanigans (some to include a yet-to-be-introduced Marvel superhero whose solo movie will arrive next year, if the post-credits stinger scene is any indication) to both bring narrative strands towards fulfillment and ensure the continued existence of the MCU. It’s perhaps unfair to hold a single film’s cliffhanger conclusion to account for movies that have yet to be made, or to the hinting effects of online casting rumours and corporate production slates. But the Marvel Cinematic Universe has not only changed how blockbuster franchises are made, but also how they are watched, thought about, and critiqued. What Marvel Studios and Disney have reaped will also be what they sow. While Avengers: Infinity War gains much in impact from paying off 18 past movies, it likewise handcuffs itself by being known to be the pivot point into potentially just as many future movies.

In writing about the first mega-combination MCU tentpole Avengers movie, I recognized an in-text/out-of-text frequency alignment between the film’s commercial hegemony, aesthetic grandiosity, and thematic treatment of absolute dominance that felt uneasy and unresolved. This species of anxiety becomes manifest in the closing throes of Infinity War, but it also feels constructed and calculated while also seeming generalized and without solidified form. My personal preference among MCU installments has been for peculiarized stories within the larger framework which leave room for personal vision and voices, for quirks of humour and perspective and politics. Infinity War leeches specific beats from these types of films but has too much that it needs to be doing to build any kind of tone or feel or artistry particular to itself. The MCU crossover-event films (even Captain America: Civil War, which I rather liked) often have such an issue, and despite their many fine qualities and dramatic, goalpost-moving developments, it makes them harder to love. Infinity War tries to be a difficult narrative and emotional experience, tries to push the MCU tentpole movie into more challenging territory. But it has neither enough of a vision of its own nor enough freedom from the corporate imperatives of its franchise’s continuity to pull off such an ambitious ascent. And so the Marvel Cinematic Universe goes on, perhaps to infinity.

Categories: Comics, Film, Reviews

Film Review: Justice League

November 28, 2017 Leave a comment

Justice League (2017; Directed by Zack Snyder)

Five films into the hastily-assembled DC Extended Universe (DCEU), Justice League, a massively expensive blockbuster featuring some of the most recognized and iconic superheroes in comics, has belatedly managed to ascend to the level of a lower-tier Marvel Cinematic Universe entry. Like, maybe Ant-Man or Iron Man 2, let’s say. That’s certainly better than it was when we last caught up with most of these characters, in director Zack Snyder’s frequently misfiring Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, but nowhere near the surprising heights reached by Patty Jenkins’ elevating Wonder Woman (which only came out this summer but already feels like a venerable classic from years before). Benefitting slightly from lowered expectations resulting from the DC Films stable’s weakness since Christopher Nolan finished his Dark Knight Trilogy, Justice League puts concerted effort into being a fun movie after several DC films with dour tones (not that the tone was their main problem). It largely succeeds, but lets down its characters left, right, and centre, while being saddled with no lack of other problems as well.

Chief among these problems is its stiff, planet-threatening supervillain (surely the nadir of this by-now common Achilles’ heel of the recent hegemonic wave of superhero films), the inadvertently-hilariously-named Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds). Descending from a column-like dimensional portal with a horned helmet, glowing battle-ax, and swarms of airborne, fear-sniffing, zombie-bug Parademons to do his evil bidding, Steppenwolf (I kept hoping that Snyder, well-known for his extremely direct pop music soundtrack choices, would just give up the ghost and let rip with “Magic Carpet Ride”; I hoped in vain) is in search of a trio of potent McGuffins, the Mother Boxes, which when brought together in “the Unity” grant him the power to reduce whole worlds to volcanic hellscapes. Encouraged by the uncertainty and weakness of Earth in the wake of the death of Superman (Henry Cavill) at the conclusion of B v. S, this deep-intoning baddie seeks the Boxes hidden on our planet: one guarded by Amazons on the hidden island of Themyscira, another underwater by Atlanteans, and another in the midst of a research lab erected on the site of the Kryptonian ship which figured in that last film.

In the (obviously temporary) absence of Supes, Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck, beefed up and silver-haired but still faintly ashamed at this whole enterprise) pulls the trigger on the assembly of the planned super-squad hinted at in B v. S to counter Steppenwolf’s apocalyptic intentions. Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), still undercover in the Louvre’s antiquities department and nursing the wound of the death of her human lover Steve Trevor (which, although it only happened in the most recent DCEU movie, was a century ago, after all), understands the gravity of the situation when Themyscira is hit and the Box stolen, and helps Batman with the rest of his recruits. There’s Barry Allen/The Flash (Ezra Miller), the young, brilliant, but socially awkward son of an incarcerated falsely-convicted murderer (Billy Crudup) who can also move at the speed of lightning; Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Momoa), the gruff but charismatic heir-in-exile to Atlantis’ throne, whose underwater mastery is mostly employed saving imperiled fisherman in a remote Nordic coastal village; and Victor Stone/Cyborg (Ray Fisher), a deceased football-star son of a scientist (Joe Morton) who uses advanced technology to reanimate his offspring, most of whose body is consumed by alien metals and digital doo-dads. And, in what is probably technically a spoiler but has been so poorly concealed as to become common knowledge by now, they will also attempt to revive Clark Kent to aid the defence of his adopted world.

There’s certainly some good about Justice League, as intimated. Even without executive-level interference from Warner Bros. after B v. S‘s unfriendly reception to contend with (two films were reduced to one, among other reported and rumoured mid-stream alterations) and Snyder’s departure from the late stages of the production due to a family tragedy, it is clear that Snyder has clearly degenerated as a filmmaker from the painterly male-power-fantasy iconography of 300 or his flawed but still beautiful and fascinating Watchmen or the pulpy, problematic, but well-meaning wrestling with female agency and rape culture in Sucker Punch (and those films all contained hefty kernels of degeneration in their core ideas, however great they looked).

But Snyder can still craft grandly gorgeous aesthetics and superficially meaningful images: Wonder Woman standing astride a statue of Lady Justice, Aquaman walking into a crashing tumult of waves in slow motion to the sound of the White Stripes’ “Icky Thump”, Clark Kent standing in a Kansas cornfield at sunset, Parademons swarming like bees out of the cooling tower of an abandoned nuclear plant in Russia that Steppenwolf claims as a home base. His action sequences, too, are electrifying marvels, masterfully segueing from furiously fast clarity of movement to composed hero poses to elegant slo-mo; his action style is strong and defined but has somehow never slipped into self-parody. Battles with Steppenwolf and his flying undead legions on Themyscira, in tunnels underneath Gotham harbor, and in the environs of the Russian nuclear plant are, it has to be said, pretty hugely entertaining affairs, as is a briefer sequence of Diana Prince thwarting some hostage-taking terrorists In London.

The dialogue and inter-character work has improved from the stultifying utterances of B v. S as well, no doubt thanks to the contributions of Joss Whedon (credited as screenwriter along with Chris Terrio, Whedon wrote reshoot scenes and basically finished directing the film in post-production after Snyder’s departure), a man well-versed in superheroes (especially super-teams of them) on page and screen and generally noted for his skill with witty banter. It’s a little jarring at first to hear snatches of snappy Whedonspeak issuing from the mouths of screen figures more recently characterized by lead-balloon Nietzschean proclamations and stilted action-movie one-liners. Those latter lines haven’t gone away, mind you, but they’re certainly less stilted, and, when issuing in a bro-ish timbre from the swaggering Momoa, occasional rather delightful. Miller is the comic relief focal point, with Allen firmly Spectrum-ized and his nerd-ish social gracelessness played for laughs. A budding bromance with Fisher’s moody, Byronic Cyborg, his fellow outcast in the League, sprouts from the dirt they shovel together while exhuming Superman’s body, the kind of witty, humane, gallows-humour exchange that MCU films are full of but that earlier Snyder DCEU entries (or the execrable Suicide Squad, for that matter) could never have managed.

But there’s bad (or at least less-good) about Justice League, too. Whedon’s scrub-job on the dialogue does not transfer to the film’s invocation of social and political circumstances. In the wake of Superman’s demise (one too-cute gag flashes a tabloid headline in the Watchmen-esque opening credits sequence – soundtracked by Norwegian singer Sigrid’s cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows” – that crassly analogizes his death to those of David Bowie and Prince, asking if they’ve all returned to their home planets), the world is consumed by hopelessness, anxiety, and anger, with nostalgic glances back to a better time when the Kryptonian hero was still around. This tone, I think, intends to be contemporary and relevant, but comes across as a sub-Alan-Moore, what-a-crazy-world-it-is-these-days slice of lazy reaction analysis, like a crabby old man getting angry watching cable news (which is basically what the President of the United States is now, so maybe it’s more relevant than I give it credit for).

But some of the bad rubs off on the iconic DC Comics superheroes. The consistent low-simmer feminism and female-centric perspective that made Wonder Woman so refreshing and heartening throws the persistent male gaze of Snyder’s (and Whedon’s too, it must be said) camera in Justice League into sharper relief. Not only is Gadot’s Diana defined fundamentally by her relations to men in this film (Steve Trevor, Bruce Wayne, even Clark Kent), her visual objectification is greatly increased: her non-hero wardrobe is all push-up bras, plunging, cleavage-revealing necklines, and skin-tight pants, Snyder’s eye lingering ickily on every feature.

Affleck’s Batman, besides feeling bad about his role in Superman’s death and getting older, is barely held together by any prevailing principles. Certainly not his completely canonical antipathy towards guns, one of which killed his parents and made him what he is, psychologically, vocationally, and otherwise: in Justice League, Batman fires each and every gun he can get his hands on, without qualms (it doesn’t help either that his Alfred, played by Jeremy Irons, is such a black hole, devoid of the character’s usual loyal, humanizing, world-weary decency). Superman even goes out-of-control violent and hostile after his resurrection, requiring all the powers of the assembled League (and the love of his life, Amy Adams’ Lois Lane, another self-reliant woman defined here entirely by her relationship to a man) to keep him from going rogue and destroying the world completely before Steppenwolf can reduce it to a charred wasteland.

During that group effort, the nascent League laughably leaves the sole remaining Mother Box not in their world-threatening enemy’s possession sitting unguarded on the hood of a car, where it is easily snatched by Steppenwolf. Justice League, when parsed, is full of those kind of crippling oversights and under-developments. It’s a movie of half-realized, half-executed half-measures. If the result of its constraints and failures is not nearly as disastrously bad as it could have been, considering its creative pedigree and production history, then it isn’t nearly enough either. This movie needed to be a knockout to begin to span the wide gap between the DCEU and the MCU, to make up for lost time and lost ground. Justice League is no knockout; in both its mixed reviews and its catastrophically disappointing box office, it’s far from even a modest success. Indeed, the element of the film that is likely to be the most cultural penetrative and memorable is the extremely hilarious controversy over Cavill’s digitally-removed mustache, an effect that is distractingly non-seamless in at least a couple of scenes. The most interesting thing about Justice League is something that isn’t even present in the film, and it couldn’t even get that thing right. Not-quite-invisible mustache as defining metaphor: in the intermittently-engaging mess that is Justice League, that seems to basically sum it up.

Categories: Comics, Film, Reviews

Film Review – Thor: Ragnarok

November 14, 2017 Leave a comment

Thor: Ragnarok (2017; Directed by Taika Waititi)

Seventeen films into the sprawling, movie-marketplace-dominating Marvel Cinematic Universe comes a movie that finally, belatedly gets superhero comics. Thor: Ragnarok is not the best film to come out of the MCU, though despite the phalanxes of clickbait ranking lists rattling around online media, updated with each new installment’s release, there isn’t really a meaningful consensus on that question anyhow (most would say Iron Man or The Avengers, though I would stump for either of the last two Captain America movies). It is, however, the one most in tune with the silly grandeur, the chromatic crackle and pop, the cartoon punch-up violence, and the broad-to-specific-to-broad thematic see-saw that defines superhero comic books in general and Marvel Comics in particular. Thor: Ragnarok is fun and spectacular and overstuffed and expensive-looking and full of funny jokes and and busy action sequences and world-class thespians having the time of their damn lives or, because they’re world-class thespians, convincing you that they are, at the very least (Ms. Blanchett, I’m looking in your direction).

Directed by Taika Waititi with a deft professional hand but precious few hints of the brand of loopy semi-deadpan New Zealand comedy of the mundane that defined his past films like Eagle vs. Shark, What We Do in the Shadows, and Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Thor: Ragnarok feels about as loose and semi-improvised as an impeccably planned and focus-grouped $180-million Hollywood superhero blockbuster can reasonably feel. As a simultaneously sequel to at least three previous MCU films (Thor: The Dark World, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Doctor Strange, with the star of the latter, Benedict Cumberbatch, popping up to help the titular hero on his way) and setup to probably just as many future installments, Ragnarok is hassled with as much short- and long-term expository heavy lifting as any MCU episode. Still, the weight doesn’t sit deep on its shoulders. Waititi’s comedy background doesn’t just elevate the jokes here, it relieves some measure of the pressure inherent to any MCU movie (which is also quite detectable despite their usual light, jocular tone).

The effect of this release valve shows most clearly on the film’s star, Chris Hemsworth, as the titular Asgardian god of thunder and wielder of an indestructible flying hammer. Cast as the bluff, square-headed action hero not just in the role of Thor but practically everywhere he turns, Hemsworth has a nascent goofball comedian side, a keen willingness to upend his handsome hunkery with self-deprecation (as he did in last year’s Ghostbusters reboot). The first Thor movie accomplished that to some extent by pulling him out of his familiar space Viking milieu and stripping him of much of his prodigious power, and it’s a method that Ragnarok resurrects. After confidently escaping imprisonment at the hands of an apocalyptic fire demon known as Surtur (Clancy Brown) with apocalyptic designs on Asgard, Thor returns home to find his aged, increasingly unreliable father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) absent and being impersonated by the adopted brother he believed to be dead, the trickster god Loki (Tom Hiddleston). Fortunately, the sometimes-evil Loki has done nothing more malevolent than build a statue of himself and stage hagiographic theatricals to his self-sacrificing glory (I wouldn’t dream of spoiling the star cameos of the actors in this play-within-a-movie, each one an in-joke on some level). Still, Odin must be found to assure Asgard’s stability, and when he is located (with an assist from Doctor Strange) and disintegrates into the sea air off the Norwegian coast, his expiration leaves Asgard vulnerable to the return of a dire existential threat.

This would be Hela (Cate Blanchett in full, gleeful villainous vamp), the goddess of death and Thor’s long-exiled sister. The right-hand enforcer of Odin’s long-ago conquests of the Nine Realms, Hela desires to extend Asgard’s dominion and, drawing her dark power from their home realm itself, flicks aside her thunder-god brother and Loki as well. As Hela destroys Asgard’s defenders and takes the fill-in Bifrost transportation portal minder Skurge (Karl Urban) as her main lackey (usual Bifrost sentry Heimdall, played again by an underutilized Idris Elba, is in hiding leading a resistance movement), Thor and Loki are stranded on the junkyard planet Sakaar with other sentient detritus of the universe. Captured by a boozehound bounty hunter and former Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson, summoning a tremendous, appealing swagger that you just want to see more of), Thor is compelled by Sakaar’s capricious pleasure-hound dictator Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum, hedonistically louche as all get-out) to battle for his life in his galactic gladiator stadium against the grand champion.

The revelation of this champion opponent would be a fantastically fun surprise had it not been spoiled in trailers and other ads. It is, of course, the Incredible Hulk, in whose form Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) has been stuck for two long years since departing Earth after the Sokovia incident at the end of Age of Ultron. A thunderous (literally) dust-up between the two of them followed by a bit of buddy comedy, then a few getting-the-team-together scenes and a breakneck spaceship escape, and Thor, Hulk, Loki, Valkyrie, and some others besides are banding together to stop Hela leaping off from snatching up Asgard to malevolent galactic domination.

Thor: Ragnarok‘s plot is far more complicated than this, but Waititi is keen enough to recognize that it’s all so much nonsense between bursts of moving-comic-book delight. Ragnarok is full of such delight, and becomes a full-motion annal of absurd pleasures which can be effectively recorded in point form.

  • Thor’s opening fight with Surtur’s fiery legions is set giddily to Led Zeppelin’s Viking-invasions-themed “Immigrant Song”, a soundtracking choice repeated during the climactic battle with Hela’s army of the dead in Asgard which commences with a splash-page frame that is among the most memorable single comics-adapting images anywhere in the MCU (aurally otherwise, Mark Mothersbaugh’s score is a left-field marvel of big orchestral themes and pulsating stellar electronica).
  • The aforementioned spaceship chase, besides being a spectacular coming-out party for Thompson’s chip-on-her-shoulder badass Valkyrie, also features the loopy idea of our heroes’ escape craft being the Grandmaster’s orgy-party space-yacht (complete with orgasmic pyrotechnics), as well as frequent Waititi collaborator Rachel House as the Grandmaster’s bodyguard Topaz, pursuing them with silent determination. At one point, Waititi cuts to House in the cockpit of her spaceship, her steely gaze focused straight ahead, and she points a single, possessive finger at her quarry. It’s maybe the funniest moment in an often very funny movie.
  • Speaking of funny, Waititi himself plays a revolution-obsessed rock-being gladiator acquaintance of Thor’s named Korg, and gives him a mild, polite, and wildly, incongruously hilarious rural New Zealand accent.
  • Where Asgard was not always highly detailed in previous appearances, it’s given added dimension and design here. The digitally-extended sets are grand and semi-medieval (the production designer is Lord of the Rings alum Dan Hennah), and a ceiling fresco with echoes of medieval Christian art both Roman Catholic and Orthodox figures prominently in Hela’s account of Odin’s whitewashing of his brutal conquests. A burnished neoclassical history-painting look also pervades Valkyrie’s reminiscence of her last battle with Hela.

Taken in full, Thor: Ragnarok is most notable in both the MCU and in superhero movies in general for not only these delights but for how, contrary to most products of the medium-dominating genre, it leans into its comic-book silliness instead of disavowing it, embraces its pulpy material instead of rendering it in terms analagous to reality. All of this, the characters and the costumes and the settings and the fights and the narratives and the themes, is utter nonsense, ultimately. Taika Waititi recognizes this and draws out the inherent weird awkwardness of the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe enterprise, making it fodder for cathartic comedy and celebratory abandon. This is what superhero comics fundamentally are, and despite the artistic ambitions of many writers and artists who seek to make them more than that, it’s still the form’s purest terms of expression and criteria for enjoyment, and it’s the purest appeal of Thor: Ragnarok as well.

Categories: Comics, Film, Reviews