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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.

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Categories: Comics, Film, Reviews

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

December 17, 2018 Leave a 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

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