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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.

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Categories: Comics, Film, Reviews

Film Review: Wonder Woman

Wonder Woman (2017; Directed by Patty Jenkins)

An important recent theoretical framework in the academic world, of which I am no longer a part but which I remember with tempered fondness, is intersectionality. Rougly defined (at least by Wikipedia), the term refers to overlapping social identities and their related discourses and systems of oppression, domination, and/or discrimination. In considering intersecting identities rather than single, monolithic identity markers, a fuller, more nuanced, multidimensional picture of all facets of a subject’s identity is possible, and indeed preferable to considering such markers in isolation. Thus, considering someone as a queer-identifying lower-income African-American woman gives a fuller impression of the challenges of their identity and its related structures of marginalization than pinpointing any of those specific identities on their own to determine understanding.

Intersectionality feels germane to thinking about Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman. That is, at least a version of intersectionality adapted to the set of market and fan expectations, generic conventions, narrative and thematic assumptions, intertextual interaction with similar films within (and without) its wider comics superhero franchise universe, and politics of representation and projection, rather than personal identity elements. It’s only so instructive and useful to discuss Wonder Woman simply as a feminist film (though it certainly is one, intelligently and robustly so) because it features a female lead when literally every other superhero blockbuster (and practically every Hollywood action blockbuster period, although The Hunger Games and recent Star Wars movies have seriously cracked that resilient glass ceiling) has a male lead.

That’s true, yes, and it’s especially true in the DC Extended Universe. But the underlying politics of films centred on DC’s male heroes (and anti-heroes) have proceeded from masculinity’s representational hegemony in the genre to its logical, terrible ideological conclusions: toxic assumptions about the uses of fascistic authoritarian power, retrograde embraces of Nietzschean übermensch beliefs, and nihilistically cynical arguments for the perverse necessity of exercising zero-tolerance oppressive state authority. Add to this the decidedly mixed representations of women in DC films (and in superhero films in general) and the knee-jerk negative reactions of a despised but not-inconsiderable portion of MRA-leaning online fanboys to any geek-inclined blockbuster release in which a woman is allowed to be anything other than eye candy or emotional support to a male protagonist, and there is even more to consider (even without the controversy over women-only screenings in Texas and elsewhere). Even star Gal Gadot’s nationality has factored into the complicated politics of Wonder Woman‘s reception: she’s an Israeli citizen who performed mandatory service in the Israeli Defense Force, a fact which got the film banned in Lebanon.

It is mostly (if not completely) accurate to say that Wonder Woman strides confidently into this particular intersection and utterly undoes, overcomes, and redeems all of this messy, noisome baggage with refreshing moral clarity and a tendency for blazing, iconic imagery. Jenkins – an experienced and skilled veteran director who has worked on television since her last feature film, 2003’s Monster, won Charlize Theron an Academy Award for Best Actress – displays both of these laudable directorial qualities in spades, and Wonder Woman is a dynamite entertainment with surprising thematic and emotional heft. If praise must be tempered at all, it’s because the narrative runs through some familiar generic avenues, develops a predictable love interest angle, and arrives at a CG-heavy, massively destructive final battle of godly proportions set at night, like seemingly every DCEU movie must.

But vitally, Jenkins ends our heroine’s climactic dark night of doubt, struggle, and deep loss with a sunrise suffused with hope and goodness. And Wonder Woman, despite its sops to genre convention and big-budget compromise, not only succeeds but thrives and delights because it holds that sunrise in its heart. There’s an earnest joy and desire to protect goodness and improve situations of injustice at this movie’s core that sets it irrevocably apart from its incoherent, ugly, and smug DCEU predecessors, especially the movie that introduced us to this version of Diana Prince, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. Those films doubted that goodness was even possible, let alone worth protecting. Wonder Woman has ideals, and it thunderously upholds them.

Gadot’s Diana begins her transformative journey out of her edenic Amazons-only island home of Themyscira as a starry-eyed idealist with a head full of pure notions of justice, but her disillusionment only deepens her empathy for humanity with experience, and stiffens her commitment to protecting the better angels of their natures. This earned, worldly empathy is redolent of a woman’s perspective; it’s vital to this character, and it’s what DC Films and Warner Bros. got when they hired Patty Jenkins to direct. The odd, moving power of this point of view in Wonder Woman is a welcome and redemptive addition to a superhero genre (and a comics-derived cinematic Extended Universe) greatly in need of it.

Gal Gadot’s performance, also infused with an odd power, deserves to share credit for summoning up this resurgent verve with Jenkins’ direction and Allan Heinberg’s screenplay (based on a story by Heinberg, Jason Fuchs, and DCEU overseer Zack Snyder). Her ability to effectively emote and communicate frames of mind during furious, epically-scaled action sequences was established in her cameo appearance in Batman v. Superman, where she practically stole the movie out from under the noses of the hyper-masculine Oedipal titular superheroes with a single-beat grin. But more than that, Gadot’s Diana recognizes – and helps us recognize, as if for the first time – a fundamental thematic message of the superhero genre that has been casually discarded by DC Films’ self-satisfied, morally-ambiguous realpolitik understanding of good and evil (and even the cannier Marvel films, to an extent, although their source material was always built on more sociopolitically complex foundations). She does good not because it makes her feel good or because it is just marginally better than doing bad, but because doing good is how a better world is built.

Diana believes in the overarching mission of the Amazons – to defend mankind from the threat of the all-corrupting god of war Ares (manifested in this comic-ized Hellenic myth as a species of concealed Satan) and one day utilize their “godkiller” weapon to destroy him entirely, a backstory gorgeously exposited by a sequence of no-fooling slow-motion-animated Classicist paintings – enough to defy her mother and queen, Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), and convince top Amazon General Antiope (Robin Wright) to train her in the ways of her people’s combat. Both those combat skills and that belief in the ideals of justice will be needed when a stray biplane flown by U.S. Army Captain Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashes into the crystal-blue waters off her home island. She saves him from drowning, he saves her from the pursuing German soldiers who attack Themyscira, and he informs her and the Amazons of the conditions outside their bubble of concealment. It’s 1918, the War to End All Wars has left 25 million dead, and his mission as a spy for British intelligence is to stop the production and deployment of a devastating and potentially conflict-extending toxic gas developed in Ottoman Turkey by Dr. Isabel Maru (Elena Anaya) for the implacable German military commander General Erich Ludendorff (Danny Huston).

Firm in her belief in the Amazons’ mission of protection and justice and furthermore convinced that not only the lethal gas but the entirety of the Great War is the secret work of her sworn enemy Ares, Diana accompanies Trevor back to London and the British War Cabinet, where he is to show his superiors (including a peace supporter named Sir Patrick Morgan, played by David Thewlis) Dr. Maru’s encoded notebook and convince them to fund a mission to destroy the super-gas factory behind enemy lines, as well as to delay the planned armistice long enough to allow it to be completed.

Diana and Trevor’s travels to and around London and eventually to the front lines in Belgium are marked by multiple instances of productive tension and exposure of unfair hypocrisy in the status, treatment, and expectations of women in that time and place. Trevor is the first man Diana has ever met, and she thinks nothing of asking him if his penis is of representative size (“Above average,” he wrily claims) or bluntly telling him that although men are needed for procreation, they are “unnecessary” for female sexual pleasure. In conservative, patriarchal England, she tries on period clothes (her metallic bustier is judged insufficient in the coverage department for the staid city streets) and wonders how women can fight in voluminous skirts, is introduced surreptitiously as Trevor’s secretary (his actual secretary, Etta Candy, is a good comic-relief part for BBC’s The Office alum Lucy Davis), and pushes through the condescending disregard of arrogant statesmen to demonstrate her mastery of over 60 languages and witheringly condemn their cowardly decision-making with regards to the lives of thousands of soldiers and civilians. These jabs at sexism and patriarchy never really feel like soapbox-ascending moments predominantly because, from Diana’s perspective, discrimination against women is not only absurd but unnecessary (even the villainous but talented Dr. Maru receives appreciation for her abilities from Trevor and a moment of solidarity from Diana). There is nothing of importance men can do that she cannot, and they certainly cannot tell her what to do.

Diana struggles with a sense of nagging dissatisfaction with the inequity of these imposed limitations on her, and with Trevor’s repeated insistences that she not intervene in the flood of small refugee tragedies witnessed as they approach the Front with his diverse strike squad (Sameer, a chatty failed-actor-turned-secret-agent played by Saïd Taghmaoui; Charlie, a shell-shocked Scottish marksman played by Ewen Bremner; Chief, a nationless Native American smuggler played by Eugene Brave Rock). All of this catalyzes Wonder Woman‘s greatest scene, and one of the most iconic moments in the (admittedly brief and patchy) history of superhero movies: Diana defies Trevor’s constant goalpost-moving pragmatism and strides over the top of the trenches into No Man’s Land (but she is no man!), fully unveiling herself as the titular heroine for the first time under a hail of a volley from German rifles, shells, and machine guns. It’s an image for all time, the Wonder Woman mythos (and, indirectly, the long struggle for women’s rights) distilled into pure, lightning-written form as she stands against the awful, grinding inhumanity of a destructive and misbegotten war and leads weary troops on to a great victory. The action direction in No Man’s Land and in a shell-shocked Belgian village afterwards is superb and exciting (and clearly influenced by Snyder’s style), but Wonder Woman’s emergence from the trenches (revealed though it was by the film’s trailers) is utterly glorious cinema.

There’s a very deliberate sense to this moment, and to Diana’s later choice to fight on for justice and righteousness despite both personal anguish and the deconstruction of the simplistic, Hellenic-myth-derived terms of her idealism, that Wonder Woman stands not only against a proximal foe with deadly arms, but against all oppression and discrimination, everywhere, against everyone. Moreover, the choice to set this origin film for the character during World War I (reminiscent of the World War II era of Captain America: The First Avenger but even more successful, I would argue) recontextualizes a war generally characterized as either wholly pointless, tragically absurd, or carelessly imperial in character, or at the very least sparked by interlocking-alliance over-reactions to a curious and above all local assassination on the margins of Europe’s power centres.

Heinberg’s script runs a bit of a bait and switch with Diana’s assumption that Ares is the puppetmaster behind the Great War, as well as with her reading that Ludendorff is Ares in disguise (added kudos for pulling Ludendorff from the history books to serve as a skulking villain; he’s one of the 20th Century’s underappreciated reactionary bastards and a genuine John the Baptist figure to the exponentially more monstrous Adolf Hitler). But just as Diana realizes that messy, complicated, morally compromised humanity is tragically in charge of its own ever-threatened future, we are nudged by this unwaveringly earnest superhero film towards understanding this war, and all such mass suffering events callously engineered by powerful men to extend or preserve their ever-tenuous power, as the offspring of intersectional forces of oppression, domination, and discrimination.

The corsetting of women in literal and figurative terms that Diana witnesses in London is of a same piece with the massacre that she witnesses at the Front, a harsh contrast to the twinkling, snow-flecked, beer-tinged revelry she witnesses after the liberation of the Belgian town. It’s a corsetting of the marginalized that takes in Sameer’s exclusion from stage acting due to the colour of his skin, Charlie’s debilitating PTSD, and the historical dispossession of Chief’s people by Steve Trevor’s people. The violence of power, ever a blunt tool of control, lies behind all such subjugations just as it lies behind the four-year global human meat-grinder of the Great War (or the even more destructive six-year war that it presaged). Wonder Woman seeks to throw down this god of war not through the use of its own genocidal weapons, as her counterparts in previous recent DCEU films have done. She wields a shield, gauntlets, the innate power of protective love, and her own just and empathetic will (also a badass sword and a goofy golden lasso, but I digress from my point).

In our troubled, uncertain, and hate-tinged times, Patty Jenkins has iconically elevated a heroine who is proud to derive her power from a varied intersection of love and mutual respect rather than from single-minded fear and hate. Diana’s post-battle glimpse of dawn, expanded into a splash-page pose in the film’s final shot, ought to be ours as well. It’s this inner glow, this bright beam of innate justice, that casts Wonder Woman in a better light than so many other superhero movies that it superficially resembles in structural terms. A wonder, indeed.

Categories: Comics, Film, Reviews

Film Review: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017; Directed by James Gunn)

Moviegoers have been led to expect irreverence and even mild transgression from Marvel Studios’ Guardians of the Galaxy, and writer-director James Gunn teasingly provides it over the opening credits of his second film featuring the ragtag band of intergalactic misfits. The Guardians defend a platform depository of valuable and powerful batteries on behalf of a haughty, golden-skinned race known as the Sovereigns. As they blast and slash at a bulbous, tumbling, razor-toothed inter-dimensional beastie, Gunn leaves these action-hero exertions in the out-of-focus background. He homes in instead on adorable, tiny humanoid tree Baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) dancing merrily to ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky”. Gunn eventually gives the battle his full attention (and many other battles besides), but it’s precisely this kind of insouciant touch, in combination with dynamite AM radio hits on the soundtrack and a healthy helping of heartfelt vulnerability, that endeared Gunn’s prior Guardians of the Galaxy to audiences and critics alike in 2014.

Guardians of the Galaxy was a film that reveled in contradictions and was all the more enjoyable for it. But there was a very definite irony to its success as well. Certainly, it was a film that thumbed its nose at many of the genre conventions and in-world assumptions of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and elevated lesser-known, rogue-ish comics characters to Avengers-level blockbuster prominence. But Guardians‘ knock-out triumph was also the clearest declaration of Marvel Studios’ ascension to Hollywood hegemony. If Marvel could craft the adventures of these ragged space punks into a global smash, what couldn’t it do?

Volume 1 of Guardians of the Galaxy came as close to being a feel-good surprise as a $200-million-dollar summer tentpole release possibly could, and Vol. 2 can’t reasonably be expected to pull the same trick. It doesn’t, and doesn’t manage to be quite as sharp or cheeky, nor quite as fun (though one can’t say it isn’t still a nearly-complete ball). Its emotional core, such a vaunted feature of the first installment, trespasses into maudlin manipulation even as it deepens the personal backstories and psychological profiles of its damaged quasi-family of pained anti-heroes. One wonders (and one might not originally have been me) if these slight dips are all down to heightened expectations and sequel malaise, or if Gunn’s solo credit on the screenplay minus the first Guardians‘ co-writer, Nicole Perlman, narrowed his perspective or bottled the film’s quality.

As mentioned, Vol. 2 goes in further in regards to Guardians of the Galaxy‘s incongruous exploration of how broken pasts complicate the formation of surrogate family bonds. After triumphing over the battery-hungry monster and accepting the stiff plaudits of the Sovereigns’ leader, High Priestess Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki), the Guardians are thrust into fresh adventures when that irrepressible jerk of a gun-toting talking raccoon Rocket (voiced by a particularly onerous-sounding Bradley Cooper) snatches a few of the very super-batteries they were hired to protect. Barely escaping the wrathful Sovereigns’ swarming, remote-controlled battle fleet (the gold-clad pilots, safe from harm on their planet, amusingly treat the attack as a species of arcade game, pushing aside control-sticks in disgust and rooting each other on), the Guardians crash-land on a forest planet.

They are accompanied by their prisoner Nebula (Karen Gillan), the semi-cyborg sister of green-skinned Gamora (Zoe Saldana), who was their reward from the Sovereigns. Pitted against Gamora in quotidian combat by their cruel space-lord father Thanos (who looms still as a coming megavillain in the in-production Avengers: Infinity Wars films), Nebula always lost to her sister (whom she has now vowed to track down and kill), and endured the replacement of body parts by her father to “improve” her enough to earn victory. Needless to say, there’s a bit of dysfunction in this family dynamic. These issues are set against the longing of Peter Quill a.k.a. Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), who lost his mother to cancer in the opening scene of the first Guardians film and obsessively listens to her favourite 1970s-vintage pop and rock music to remember her. He’s also curious about who his father is, although he spent his childhood claiming that it was David Hasselhoff, whom he would see when the wasn’t filming Night Rider (and who has a cleverly-timed cameo as well as sings a late-credits “theme” song).

Peter is soon confronted with the revelation that dear ol’ dad is actually a powerful, life-creating Celestial known as Ego (there’s a dime-store Freudian psychoanalysis nod that even an undergraduate could pick out). Ego is really a core of glowing force at the centre of a planet, but for ease of interaction he manifests as a middle-aged, bearded man (played by 1980s icon Kurt Russell, another track in Gunn’s retro mixtape). This veritable god brings Peter, Gamora, and shirtless, ironyless, hilarious Drax (Dave Bautista) to his magnificent planet and offers his son the same unlimited powers of creation (and destruction) that he wields. He also offers Peter a hard choice between this patrilinear heritage of nigh-omnipotence and the messier, harder-won joys of life with his surrogate family, the Guardians.

There’s another angle to this family question, namely the role of Peter’s tough-love surrogate father Yondu (Michael Rooker). Tasked by Ego to bring his son to him after the death of the boy’s mother, Yondu reared the boy himself, and retains a fondness and protective instinct for Peter (and an incisive understanding of the psychology of rodent asshole Rocket as well) that has earned the blue-skinned veteran rogue a painful exile from his proud if scattered order of space pirates called Ravagers, represented by fellow high-up captain Stakar (played by another 1970s-80s action-movie icon, Sylvester Stallone). Still, Yondu and his crew pursue the Guardians at the behest of the Sovereigns, and with Nebula free and after her sister and Ego’s empathic servant Mantis (Pom Klementieff) foreboding darker designs on the part of the Celestial, the Guardians will be tasked to the fullest to save the galaxy this time.

Given all of this plot and thematic character work and the usual high-wire thrills and spills of the blockbuster form, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 has a little less time for the iconoclastic fun that characterized its first installment, and is generally a more conventional and predictable MCU popcorn flick as a result. It’s still plenty entertaining, so the difference is really only incremental, but it’s also a net negative. With Bautista, Rooker, and Baby Groot still stealing scenes, Saldana’s Gamora essentially a foil, and Rocket still an irritant, this reduction in goofy appeal is largely down to Pratt, whose goofball bro act is largely subsumed by his father-figure dilemma and his unrequited feelings for Gamora, the duller trappings of the standard leading man that Pratt has become at the expense of his sillier comic actor side. That side bursts forth on occasion, as when Ego promises to teach him how to make objects with his powers and Quill states his intention to “build some weird shit” (this line is later paid off with one of the truly great visual gags in the film), but such irruptions are all too brief.

What Gunn does pour more dedicated focus into is the visual side of the work, building from the brief interlude of swelling-strings beauty in the first Guardians film, when then-full-sized Groot released sparkling golden spores that lingered almost poetically around the team on the way to the final confrontation. Gunn amps up the striking imagery: the shades-of-gold opulence of the Sovereigns; the bodies of mutinous Ravagers falling in slow-motion around Yondu’s red-tracered whistle-arrow rampage; a multichromatic space fireworks display; and Ego’s planet, a melding of green foliage and grand structures highlighted by his sprawling, cathedralesque palace, a spectacular Neo-Gothic/Mudejar/Art Nouveau/Steampunk glory of virtuosic grandeur and dense ornamentation that makes Gaudi look like an ascetic minimalist in comparison. Marvel films have always been visually impressive, but rarely has the design of their visuals drawn favourable attention to itself like it does here.

Such wonders aside, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 suffers from a “more of the same” vibe. That “same” was endearing and entertaining in 2014 and it would take a truly self-serious clod to maintain the claim that it does not remain so in 2017. But the aesthetic, thematic, and intertextual contradictions that animated Guardians of the Galaxy begin to shed their dialectical heft in Vol. 2. Aside from Baby Groot’s dance party over the opening credits and a defusing of the iconic 360-degree panning hero shot of the team during the closing battle, however, there is little balloon-puncturing by James Gunn this time around. Guardians of the Galaxy is still the most freewheeling and delightful corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But Vol. 2 proves that it will not meaningfully transcend or transgress the canonical assumptions of that Universe, as its predecessor hinted it might. It’s just happy to dance for us, and coax us to join in.

Categories: Comics, Film

Film Review: Suicide Squad

February 13, 2017 Leave a comment

Suicide Squad (2016; Directed by David Ayer)

Suicide Squad is bad, and I don’t mean “bad” as in “good”, as the kids like to say these days. Murky, violent, and disavowing any lingering sense of morality or discernment or empathy, David Ayer’s comic-book-villains-act-the-hero action pornography has the visual aesthetic of a dime-store faux-punk-rock poser spewing obscenities and vomit while sinking inexorably into a tar pit. But this movie is ugly on levels deeper than its leprous skin. Beneath the visible cankered tumour on the surface is a diseased biomass of retrograde sexual and gender politics, authoritarian assumptions, and (comparatively benign) lazy, shallow, and incoherent characterization and storytelling. Suicide Squad is to superhero blockbusters as Donald Trump is to public life: so manifestly incompetent, demonstrably dishonest, patently disgusting, and robustly objectionable in so many different ways that it’s difficult to even apprehend them all, let alone detail them in any comprehensive manner.

The latest entry in the hastily-erected DC Extended Universe, Suicide Squad makes one long for the proportionally mild transgressions of Zack Snyder’s gracelessly ponderous Superman films. At least those juvenile fascistic power fantasies are generally pretty to look at. This one is a gurgling, miasmatic bog of hideous misbegotten design, unsightly cinematography (its colour palette varies from baldly necrotic to the hue of regurgitated bubblegum), and terrible, nasty ideas cannibalizing each other and then clubbing the desperate surviving concepts to death with cudgels of stripped bone. I may exhaust my supply of metaphors of decay and repugnance before even wading into a synopsis of its plot, such as it is, but no amount of descriptive bile can change the fact that, despite (because of?) its nauseating nature, Suicide Squad was a firm box office success. Were it not for the disheartening election of its splenetic, syphilitic tangerine of a spiritual confrère to the White House in the same year, the American public’s decision to anoint Suicide Squad as a hit movie may have been the most lamentable national mistake of 2016.

The concept of the titular team of psychopathic criminals, cold-blooded killers, and anti-social freaks dispatched as expendable special forces on nigh-on impossible and likely lethal missions (based on the DC Comics titles) is introduced surprisingly quickly and with unsurprisingly little practical justification. The Squad is the brainchild of U.S. deep state hardass Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), who’s so tough and no-nonsense she makes Stalin look like a triggered snowflake in comparison. Waller argues that deploying a team of incredibly dangerous wild cards to safeguard American power interests is defensible because the ineffably powerful and inherent uncontrollable Superman is out there in the world (although, as of the end of Batman v. Superman, he’s also dead, but she may know what we all assumed: he isn’t really) and therefore other such powerful beings might be too. No one else effectively pushes back against this Cheneyite paranoid nonsense, “art” (those air quotes are so necessary) thus reflecting life. Not only does Suicide Squad take the total triumph of the One Percent Doctrine and War on Terror zero-sum-ery in the U.S.  intelligence and military community (or at least this cartoon version of it) for granted, it considers itself serious and even wise for embracing the use of the blackest of black-ops skullduggery in the supposed defence of beknighted liberty.

And so, at the snap of Waller’s fingers, waves of armed and armoured foot soldiers swoop down on the grimy ultra-maximum-security facilities holding these dangerous and reluctant commandos to set them loose on the enemies of the republic. The key pair of Suicide Squaddies that we’re evidently supposed to find somehow sympathetic are skilled sharpshooting assassin Deadshot (Will Smith) and mascara-smeared, screw-loose manic nympho-clown Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie). Deadshot, being a Will Smith character, has a beloved daughter whose innocent disapproval of his contract-killing ways gives him soulful pangs of guilt. Harley, being a Margot Robbie character, is hyper-sexualized and objectified to an obscene extent, all while pining with twisted Stockholm-Syndrome-ized longing for her Insane Clown Sugar Daddy guru, the Joker (Jared Leto).

Deadshot and Harley Quinn are joined by a rogue’s gallery of antihero blackguards: Jai Courtney as a dirtbag Aussie thief and lethal boomerang-hurler, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje as the super-strong reptilian Killer Croc, Jay Hernandez as a fire-summoning Latino gangbanger, and Adam Beach and Karen Fukuhara as even more minor tag-alongs. Entrusted to the supervision of Special Forces Colonel Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) and compelled to obey orders by Waller’s threats of immediate termination if they don’t, the Squad is dispatched to the evacuated Midway City (actually urban Toronto, where the film was shot) to neutralize the Enchantress (Cara Delevingne), an ancient evil magical spirit that has possessed the body of Flag’s archaeologist love interest and is causing some large-scale supernatural havoc.

This adventure involves lots of shooting and punching and kicking, mostly half-glimpsed in the nocturnal setting, as well as the requisite explosions. For all of the frantic, overwrought activity and quick-cut pseudo-subversive insanity that Ayer deploys on his cinematic canvas, Suicide Squad is stunningly boring. Things simply happen, not because of believable character choices or the logical progression of events but because things happening is purportedly cool. Smith and Robbie, enervated and charming star-level performers as they are, find themselves repeatedly let down by the dialogue: they seem game for transgressive fun (especially the peppy Robbie) and positively beg for dagger-thrusting one-liners after particular acts of violent grace, but the punchlines are uniformly flat and recycled (Ayer wrote the script too, so he can’t even shift the blame). Hernandez is the only supporting Squaddie allowed to make any sort of impression, his El Diablo holding back his fiery powers after they caused an unfathomable personal tragedy, but his features lose expressiveness under a mask of tattoos (so much ink in this damn movie) and casual assumed racism diminishes him as well. It’s sad, as well, to remember Akinnuoye-Agbaje on Lost, when his Mr. Eko portended the actor as the next Idris Elba, and see him hidden beneath prosthetics and growls here.

There’s layers of failure to Suicide Squad. We now know about its disappointing incompetence, but beneath that is its active, deplorable offensiveness. Much of this deplorability seems to swirl around and even emanate from Leto’s tackily gangsta-fied Joker. Despite the actor and character’s high billing, Leto is only in the movie for an extended-cameo fraction of its running time, and plays a very minimal role in the narrative. But his Joker is a flame for the misshapen moths of the movie’s ugliness to swarm to, dark shadows and the foul stench of burning wings abounding.

Greasy, spiky, leering, and utterly non-frightening, Leto plays DC’s iconic supervillain as a sadistic but preening kooky prick who seems like he could be toppled by a mildly-determined parole officer, or even a stern stepmother. The press coverage of Leto’s performance was an unintentional comedy goldmine for details of his irritating, amateurish Method approach. He never broke character during production (Smith drily claimed never to have met him, though perhaps he meant to say that he wished he hadn’t), annoyed his fellow cast members with grating practical jokes, hung out with mental patients, watched Alejandro Jodorowsky movies, read about shamanism, and listened exclusively to 1920s gospel music (Leto hilariously explained this last nonsensical indulgence by sharing his impression that the Joker “may be much older than people think”). Despite immersion in such eccentric material, Leto’s Joker is almost perversely derivative, recombining the vocal deliveries of the iconic Joker actors (Jack Nicholson, Mark Hamill, and of course Heath Ledger) into something thoroughly unshocking and unsurprising.

But Leto’s Joker is in the film just long enough to fatally infect it, especially as regards Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn. The character’s presentation as a coquettish corporate-punk-rock jailbait sex object, her body subject to the invasive male gaze of Ayer’s camera as of the eyes of every man in the movie, just wasn’t enough, it seems. Her addictive devotion to the Joker, her sole balancing motivation, is shown to have been compelled by harsh and manipulative psychological and physical torture. Suicide Squad attempts to emphasize the fun in their dysfunction, but the relationship between Harley and the Joker is simply too disturbing, flaunting its trauma-triggering queasiness with too much irresponsible petulance, to qualify as entertainment.

This is how bad Suicide Squad is. It is not content to simply pollute movie screens with repellent visual excrement, disfigure escapist superhero fun with needlessly mean politics and nihilistic violent abandon, or ruthlessly objectify every person in its orbit. No, it must also recklessly exploit the power politics of physical, psychological, and sexual abuse for a nasty vicarious thrill, paining victims and flippantly diminishing that pain as a subversive lark. Suicide Squad is an ordeal for the senses, the mind, the soul. Many people paid to see it, many of them loved it. That’s not good, it’s bad. And, contrary to what this movie believes, bad does not mean good.

Categories: Comics, Film, Reviews

Film Review: Doctor Strange

November 13, 2016 Leave a comment

Doctor Strange (2016; Directed by Scott Derrickson)

You will see things while watching Doctor Strange that you have not seen on a movie screen before, but that isn’t to say that the film will surprise you in any way. Its narrative beats, themes, characters, and representational problems are all factory-issue Marvel Studios blockbuster archetypes, even while it features several sequences that profoundly boggle and astound the mind’s eye, leaving it pleasantly disoriented. If only such inventive disorientation could be applied to the plot and thematic elements as well.

The titular character is an arrogant, ambitious neurosurgeon who becomes a slightly less arrogant but no less ambitious transdimensional mystical sorcerer tasked with the protection of Earth from dark threats from the multiverse. If this doesn’t describe a Benedict Cumberbatch character to the letter, I don’t know how much closer an alternate description could get, and the genuine article obliges by bringing characteristic dedication and attention to detail to the role, fluff though it may be. Cumberbatch also adds a general tone of bemusement and ironic lightness to Dr. Stephen Strange (also a fairly characteristic mode for him). As an actor, Cumberbatch is well above such pulpy multiplex material as Doctor Strange, and he manages nimbly to signal that he knows it while never once slighting or undermining the film which he is tasked to carry.

Stephen Strange makes his unusual career change not precisely out of choice. So masterful at neurosurgery as to consider it practically a lark, Strange can no longer take his mastery for granted after a brutal car crash severely damages his skilled hands (and pretty much nothing else, which is a little unbelievable given the furious, dramatic depiction of the crash). After bankrupting himself looking for a medical fix and still finding himself no closer to being able to return to operating, the implacably rational Strange follows a desperate lead to Kathmandu, Nepal and to the mystical temple of Kamar-Taj. There, his scientific scepticism is challenged and finally overthrown by the mind-blowing magical spellcasting powers of the Ancient One (a wondrously dry Tilda Swinton). Before you can say “orientalism”, Strange is learning the secrets of the astral plane, mystical projection, martial arts, and ancient relics of power, his arrogant self-possession pushing him further and deeper into the mysteries of the multiverses and beyond the limits and warnings of the Ancient One, temple librarian Wong (Benedict Wong), and fellow master Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor).

Before he’s anything approaching a master of these magical arts, Dr. Strange (like any self-respecting physician, he ever insists upon the spoken title, even when being invested as a friggin’ astral wizard) must contend with the rogue zealot master Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen). The villain of the piece is first seen in the memorable opening sequence of the film, stealing pages from a prized tome of knowledge in Kamar-Taj’s library and escaping the Ancient One despite a battle on the streets and buildings of London as they fold, rotate, and rise, plane-over-plane, like a memorable scene in Inception. Kaecilius is in league with a malevolent being of the Dark Dimension known as Dormammu and seeks to overthrow the Ancient One’s order (marked by a stylized symbol highly reminiscent of a basketball team logo) and unleash his dark lord’s unspeakable all-consuming power on Earth. Which, you know, is probably not good, but like the Trump Presidency, maybe we can give it a chance and hope for the best (spoiler: not a good plan, in either case).

Like most Marvel Studios efforts, Doctor Strange strikes a fine balance between respecting and imparting the core of its source material and poking fun at its pulpy pomposity. The fanciful names of the relics (eg. the Eye of Agamotto, which turns time back like the Time-Turner of Harry Potter or the magic dagger of Prince of Persia and has considerable plot implications, as might be expected) come in for a bit of ridicule by Strange, who never quite loses his rational disdain for mysticism and superstition even as he becomes a seasoned practitioner of its force. Strange’s own key relic, the crimson Cloak of Levitation, is mostly played for laughs, indeed constituting a comic relief character of its own. The mostly-thankless supporting love interest role of Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) also allows for some moments of levity, drawing on the established Marvel movie tradition of ordinary people being alarmed, frightened, and amazed by displays of superhero powers.

At this point in the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s continuous sequence of films, practically all of this can be assumed and go generally undiscussed, mind you. There isn’t a big plot or thematic or character beat that cannot be seen coming miles away, and the Marvel and Disney focus-grouped unwillingness to vary the formula is becoming mildly alienating. This undercurrent of predictability is unfortunate, because when director Scott Derrickson really lets loose with trippy kaleidoscopic magnificence in his action sequences, Doctor Strange looks and feels like a laboratory of the unpredictable, a petri-dish of CGI possibility. If the opening scene in London, with its white brick facades unfurling like time-lapsed flowers in bloom, wasn’t enough, Derrickson shows the Ancient One blasting through Strange’s smug Cartesian empiricism with a stunning whirlwind tour of the astral spheres that is like 2001 on amphetamines. Even this is a mere warm-up for Kaecilius and his minions chasing Strange, Mordo, and eventually the Ancient One through a mirror-universe Manhattan that folds, loops, and ripples into confusing forms like an enhanced M.C. Escher print in full bewildering motion.

Doctor Strange offers such wonders alongside its quotidian filmmaking formulas and they are appreciated. There’s even a limited Mobius Strip element to Strange’s plan to neutralize the unfathomable power of Dormammu that hints at the perception-shifting nature of the visual construction bleeding into the screenplay as well. But what could very easily have been Marvel’s first big-screen mindfuck movie keeps the psychedelic weirdness parceled out in manageable portions, serving them carefully between more safely-proven material. This tendency, in combination with the film’s softening and avoiding but not overturning of the original comics’ orientalist stereotypes, leads Doctor Strange to a place of uninspiring competence rather than challenging mind-opening.

Categories: Comics, Film, Reviews

Film Review: Guardians of the Galaxy

December 20, 2014 4 comments

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014; Directed by James Gunn)

James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy doesn’t begin quite like any other comic-book space opera (though it’s not like there are very many of those kicking around, anyway). A young boy waits in a hospital, listening to a mix tape on Walkman headphones. He’s called into a room where his stricken mother, weakened by chemotherapy, tries to take his hand in her dying moments. He shrinks from her touch, evades the sharp sting of loss and pain. She fades away, and the boy runs screaming out of the building, where a spaceship waits to abduct him and whisk him away to the stars above.

Years pass in the space of a pop song verse, and the boy has grown into a loose, cocksure galactic rogue, lip-syncing along to that same mixtape in the ruins of an alien world. Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) introduces himself presumptuously as Star-Lord when he’s caught red-handed snatching a mysterious, sought-after orb in those ruins. The sequence visually references the opening of Raiders of the Lost Ark and the character clutches at the brass ring of late ’70s/early ’80s-vintage Harrison Ford, John Milton’s Satan for the film genre geek generation. Indeed, Guardians of the Galaxy, despite its many contemporary concessions, longs for the aesthetic milieu of 1970s American popular culture, that fracturing landscape of AM radio, long-haired rock and matured Motown, disillusioned hippies and distrust of institutions, and the revolutionary shifts in cinema under the blazing stewardship of a new generation of uncompromising young ambitious firebrands.

James Gunn is probably a bit too bright and self-aware to seriously conceive of himself as an heir to Spielberg, Lucas, Coppola, or any of their aesthetic iconoclast contemporaries. He did write not one but two Scooby Doo movies, after all; a surefire safety pin to any inflated balloon of self-regard, that. But Guardians of the Galaxy, an adaptation of a quite recent Marvel Comics property (itself a relaunch of a galactic superhero squad whose adventures were mostly published in the 1970s), wrily and repeatedly lets the air out of its own balloon to keep it from becoming too inflated at any point.

Back to that orb, the MacGuffin of this particular cosmic venture. Quill is confronted about his snatching of the object as soon as it’s in his hands by the henchmen of a genocidal zealot named Ronan (Lee Pace). Unrecognizable behind blackened facial paint and a metallic cowl/cape, Pace intones ponderously and carries a large hammer like an exiled Asgardian. Among his subordinates are two sisters, the daughters of a much greater space warlord named Thanos (played by an uncredited Josh Brolin and likely to play a larger role in the inevitable sequels). Green-skinned Gamora (Zoe Saldana) is sent after the desired orb, which hides a very powerful secret behind its unpresupposing exterior.

Gamora catches up with Quill on Xandar, capital planet of the Nova Empire, where he’s been incapable of selling the orb to a prospective dealer put off by Ronan’s interest in the item. With his space pirate abductor and mentor Yondu (an excellent Michael Rooker) on his trail for a perceived (and probably actual) betrayal, Quill also must contend with a pair of bounty hunters after the orb: a big-mouthed, heavily-armed talking raccoon named Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and his living tree companion, Groot (Vin Diesel voices his only, repeated, memefied line: “I am Groot”). A four-way dust-up over the orb between Quill, Gamora, Rocket, and Groot lands them all in a penal colony (the Nova Corps guards who arrest them are played by John C. Reilly and Peter Serafinowicz, just a couple of the small roles in the film filled by very fine comic character actors). There they make the acquaintance of a muscular, tattooed/scarred individual named Drax (Dave Bautista), who nurses a grudge against Ronan for killing his family and possesses both a large vocabulary and absolutely no sense of humour (which, assuredly, is pretty hilarious in combination).

This crew of misfits bands together to escape the prison and sell the orb for shared profit, though revenge against Ronan motivates Gamora and Drax in particular. Guardians of the Galaxy is oddly a narrative of moral education, as Quill and Rocket in particular learn to subordinate their pursuit of personal enrichment to the greater good of the universe and the people in it. Furthermore, all five of these “losers” (ie. beings that have lost much and are fundamentally damaged) find a sense of unlikely unity and belonging in each other’s company and collaborative efforts to right wrongs across the vast expanse of space.

If this all sounds like a bit of a generic comics superhero story, you can rest assured that Guardians of the Galaxy only intermittently presents that way and Gunn’s screenplay (written with Nicole Perlman) is lightning-quick to wittily undercut it when it does. The slow-motion hero shot of the team walking awesomely towards the camera, Tombstone-style, includes a crotch-grab from the crude Rocket (a character whose balance of appealing and annoying characteristics doesn’t ultimately fall on the right side of the line). Drax’s sincere pre-climactic battle expression of affection for his compatriots includes an innocent reference to Gamora as a “green whore”. And Pratt’s Quill is always quick with his endearing dude-bro sparkle: when the seemingly unstoppable Ronan approaches him with deadly intent for the final blow, Quill’s response is to dance and sing and call him a “turd-blossom”.

This iconoclastic impulse, displayed in the midst of a big-budget summer release from the currently indefatigable blockbuster spectacle factory of Marvel Studios, may not be as strong as that which animates, say, the dizzying sugar-high satires of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. But like its crackerjack 1970s-heavy soundtrack (ostensibly the mixtape from Quill’s mother that gives his universe some emotional coherence), this nose-thumbing habit on the part of Gunn and his movie aligns it with the essential questioning of institutional authority and the fundamental nature of the American Dream that characterized the wildly diverse film output of the 1970s. Guardians of the Galaxy also suggests a fine pop song with its aesthetic appeal, throwaway wit, and brief but penetrating stabs of emotion. It breezes by in a burst of slick, violent, energetic delight. It’s what Marvel Studios films, in their generally successful but often joyless quest for a balance between storytelling coherence, character integrity, and sociopolitical resonance, often forget to be: tremendously, often transgressively, fun. In that way, Guardians of the Galaxy is not quite like any other comic-book movie, and we should be glad for that.

Categories: Comics, Film, Reviews

Film Review – Captain America: The Winter Soldier

August 13, 2014 4 comments

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014; Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo)

After being unfrozen half a century following his last conscious moment (tough break) and helping to save the world from transdimensional alien invasion (ho hum, just another day), the erstwhile Captain America, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), is adjusting to life in 21st Century America. He doesn’t mind the food (“we used to boil everything” in the 1940s) or the Internet and he’s got a list going of the things that he needs to catch up on from the last few decades (he’s crossed off Star Wars, but still needs to get to Star Trek). He’s got a nice pad in a brownstone in Washington, D.C. and works as an operative for the national mega-security agency S.H.I.E.L.D under the command of Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and alongside Natasha Romanoff, a.k.a. Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson).

We see the Captain and his S.H.I.E.L.D team in action early on, boarding a highjacked agency ship in the Indian Ocean to free hostages. As the super soldier stealthily and gymnastically neutralizes pirates with fists, feet, and vibranium shield before tangling with their leader Georges Batroc (Georges St-Pierre), Romanoff pulls some encyrpted data off of the ship’s computers on secret orders from Fury. Cap is irked to have been lied to about the full import of the mission, but he’s about to find out that the agency is a veritable hothouse for deception, conspiracies, infiltration, counter-infiltration, and surprise birthday parties that he wasn’t invited to and has now ruined for everyone else (I may have made up one of those, guess which one and win nothing whatsoever).

Fury seems stung enough by Rogers’ Greatest Generation disapproval of his underhandedness to show a bit of his hand. Beneath S.H.I.E.L.D HQ on the banks of the Potomac are three huge Helicarriers of the sort that featured in The Avengers. Linked to spy sattelites and intelligence databases, Project Insight (as the hyper-weaponized aerial platforms are called) is a sophisticated system of preemptive identification and instant elimination of threats to national security, however we choose to define that term (though “we” never get to define it, which is the exact problem). Cap’s hesitance at the implications of the use of these ultra-drones must sting Fury as well, because he delays implementation of the program, to the dismay of the senior Secretary of S.H.I.E.L.D, Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford).

Before you can so much as google “NSA”, however, Fury is ambushed and evidently killed on the streets of D.C. Fury finds Rogers first, handing him the flash drive that Romanoff recovered from the ship and telling him to trust no one. Rogers tries to chase down Fury’s assassin, a masked man with a bionic arm, but loses him (it won’t be their last meeting, and it wasn’t their first either, not by a long shot). Back at S.H.I.E.L.D, Pierce can’t convince the Captain to share what he knows, so he has him targetted for elimination as a seditious fugitive. With Romanoff and a former Air Force pararescueman (Anthony Mackie) as his sole allies, Captain America’s conviction in the value of liberty will be challenged as he unravels what is being done by the nation’s defence establishment to secure that liberty.

Full of sneak attacks, ruses, digital data swaps, and contemporary distrust of institutions, The Winter Soldier stands as a purposeful contrast to The First Avenger, Joe Johnston’s exciting-enough but distinctly square-jawed exercise in WWII era nostalgia. The director’s chair is shared by brothers Anthony and Joe Russo, best-known as directors of television comedy, including most of the best episodes of Community (one cast member of that eternally-resurrected classic makes a cameo appearance which I wouldn’t dream of spoiling). They have a mastery of the sequences of ridiculous comics action, including Cap flattening an elevator’s worth of foes and a running battle with the titular badass (played by Sebastian Stan) on a D.C. freeway and streets, that was evidently worked out in Community‘s paintball episodes. They also load down their fleet action picture with push-button current affairs political issues from the national security surveillance state dossier. Romanoff even becomes an Edward Snowden figure near the end, only with better hips, one would imagine.

But if The Winter Soldier desires to embed some trenchant political commentary on the ethics of American power in its silly (but, this being Marvel, impeccably executed) superhero yarn, then the big, game-changing twist on the nature of S.H.I.E.L.D (which must be spoiled below to make the necessary point) is a gigantic cop-out. Rogers and Romanoff (Evans and Johansson have an easy but never sexualized chemistry, which is hard for two pretty people to pull of convincingly) discover an early S.H.I.E.L.D base in the ruins of an army compound. There, the computer-locked consciousness of Arnim Zola (Toby Jones) reveals to them that Hydra, the secret Nazi splinter group of misanthropic scientific fanatics with global genocidal aims that the Captain thought he had defeated in the war, is still alive. Not only alive, but subsisting as a malevolent worm inside the body of S.H.I.E.L.D and soon to take control of the mass extermination potential of Project Insight.

In the midst of Zola’s expositional screed (Jones’ German-accented smarm is a real highlight), there’s an apparent reference to most of the dirty-handed secret ops attributed to American government agencies (coups, assassinations, empowering of dangerous extremists) being the work of Hydra. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a highly fictional narrative, granted, and this reference is a throwaway one. But how convenient that all of that underhanded covert activity that Americans feel ashamed to know that the CIA was behind was not actually the work of home-grown government agents but of secret Nazi madmen.

It’s a stroke redolent of the particular ideological context of Captain America, where American power can only ever, at its core, be morally upright and freedom-preserving, a force for positive outcomes worldwide. No True American would do evil, and you’d better believe that Captain America is a True American. War and propaganda got similar whitewashings in The First Avenger via this particular brush, but The Winter Soldier evokes a whole volatile set of civil liberties trespasses and then forgives the real-world perpetrators of those trespasses within the boundaries of its own comics-derived discursive text. The Russos want to invest their movie with the weight and import of vital political issues but also want ultimate immunity from the conclusions that those issues might ultimately lead audiences to draw about the abuses of power of the national security state. In other words, The Winter Soldier wants to have its freedom cake and eat it, too. But this critic, for what little it might be worth, is sending this movie to bed without dessert.

Categories: Comics, Film, Politics, Reviews