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Film Review: The Perfection

The Perfection (2019; Directed by Richard Shepard)

Charlotte Willmore (Allison Williams) is haunted; by death, by missed opportunities, by traumas of the past. Once a talented wunderkind cellist at Bachoff, a prestigious but mysterious music conservatory in Boston run by the refined, strings-pulling mentoring mastermind Anton (Steven Weber), Charlotte dropped out of Bachoff and let her cello collect dust to care for her dying mother. Her mother now gone, Charlotte appears weary, hollowed-out, keeping the lid on frustrated rage (one shot cuts from her sitting silently, staring at her mother’s wide-eyed corpse, to a split-second rending scream).

The interpretation of her mindset, given the information provided in this opening scene of Richard Shepard’s The Perfection, is regret and self-loathing at the waste of her talent mingling with disavowed grief. No wonder, then, that we next see Charlotte rehearsing (out of nervousness, or to strike the correct performative tone?) and then finally leaving a message for Anton and his partner Paloma (Alaina Huffman) seeking to reconnect with them and their exclusive musical world. She meets them in Shanghai, where they are auditioning promising Chinese girls in competition for a coveted spot at Bachoff. There she also meets Lizzie (Logan Browning), a world-famous virtuoso cellist and Bachoff graduate. They express admiration for each other’s playing, flirt, gossip, perform a duet, flirt some more, drink, dance, and sleep together. Lizzie then impulsively invites Charlotte to join her on an off-the-beaten-path tour of the Chinese interior, and they leave together the next day.

It doesn’t take long for their journey to become distressing. Feeling unwell and made paranoid by whispers of an airborne contagion infecting an attendee of the competition the night before, Lizzie’s physical condition and mental state deteriorates quickly on a spartan bus taking them into the sparsely-populated Chinese hinterlands. Despite Charlotte’s assurances that everything will be fine, Lizzie’s ailment creates a scene on the bus, but takes on horror-movie dimensions and becomes catastrophic and life-changing once they are kicked off the vehicle by an irate driver.

But director Shepard (he’s also the co-writer, with Eric Charmelo and Nicole Snyder) has his editor David Dean quite literally rewind events, and not for the last time, to show what is really going on. Although this first of multiple, meaty twists in The Perfection isn’t what it may immediately seem either, as becomes clear once the film shifts to Bachoff for its troubling climax. Shepard immerses his audience so viscerally in the tensions that enmesh Charlotte and Lizzie first in China and then in Boston that the pivots, which may have been discernible in advance, arrive with full disorienting impact. That impact, too, sheds thematic and metaphorical light on the psychological costs of intense mentorship with an uncompromising drive for success, and of sexual abuse by men in positions of authority. Charlotte and Lizzie’s partnership/rivalry (the film always keeps you guessing which one will win out at any moment) takes on subtly complex facets of feminine solidarity in the age of #MeToo.

Williams is best-known for her bait-and-switch role in Get Out, and with that in mind her casting as Charlotte is quite nearly a spoiler for The Perfection‘s twists. But her range here is much greater and much more unsettling. Browning gives Lizzie an electric charge of passion that renders the character’s direction unpredictable, and Weber (most recognizable as a soft and avuncular sitcom player) plays marvelously against type as a villain of cultivated veneer and fanatical monstrousness.

The Perfection is nearer to great than a low-budget independent cerebral horror with whiplashing plot tendencies released by Netflix has any reasonable right to be. Sharp-witted and eagerly misdirecting even at its economical running time, this is an entertaining and surprising watch with intellectual and emotional substance, not to mention its fair share of queasy and unsettling moments. It’s a compact but dramatic cello solo with a compelling crescendo, and worth the seeking out.

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Categories: Film, Music, Reviews

Film Review – Godzilla: King of the Monsters

Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019; Directed by Michael Dougherty)

The big, dumb sequel to Legendary Entertainment’s successful MonsterVerse-launching Godzilla film, Godzilla: King of the Monsters is very nearly pure spectacle. Where Gareth Edwards’ 2014 Hollywood franchise reboot of Japanese film studio Toho’s iconic gigantic lizard was a frequently stunning and often practically zen slowburn of an epic movie, King of the Monsters reduces the kaiju monster-battle genre to its most primal and elemental parts. If Edwards’ Godzilla was a surprisingly poised and nimble acrobatic act, Michael Dougherty’s follow-up is a rote performance of blunt, gawking, predictable adrenaline thrills, like a human being fired out of a cannon. To run the circus analogies well into the ground, there’s some considerable and frankly overstuffed predatory animal taming wrangling at work here too, as Gojira shares the screen with other city-smashing charismatic megafauna known as Titans who have awoken after long subterranean slumber to contend with the Big G for pack alpha dominion over our puny, groveling planet.

Like the movie it acts as a sequel to, Godzilla: King of the Monsters weaves a blandly conventional human family dramatic plot around and through the various conceits it deploys in order to put its Titans on mutual collision course. Unlike the previous Godzilla, which at least had an emotionally raw, honestly performed tragic parting of mature, believably human lovers (Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche) in its early scenes, King of the Monsters‘ human angle is mired in cliches and writing choices so insensible as to confound even the capable actors entrusted to bring it to life.

Doctors Emma and Mark Russell (Vera Farmiga and Kyle Chandler, respectively) were both scientists in the employ of Monarch, the global research and paramilitary conglomerate that concerns itself with finding, studying, and in some cases confining the Titans. They co-invented a device called the ORCA which reads and replicates the sonar-like bioacoustics of the Titans, enabling Monarch to communicate with the massive beasts but also potentially control and/or direct them. Mark (the animal behaviourist), however, has quit the organization and separated from Emma (the paleobiologist) and their teenaged daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown). The Russells lost their son Andrew in Godzilla’s rampage through San Francisco at the climax of the last movie, which led Mark to retreat from civilization and from Monarch’s work and led Emma to redouble her efforts on the ORCA while secretly forming a more dangerous and apocalyptic plan.

Emma and Madison are kidnapped (or are they?) along with the ORCA by ecoterrorist Alan Jonah (Charles Dance). Jonah’s aims and motivations are highly ill-defined for a main villain, but you know he’s bad because Charles Dance plays him. Similar casting-over-character-development strokes characterize the Monarch team pursuing Jonah and Emma and the awakening Titans. Chandler summons his standard-issue sweaty, desperately concerned dad figure. Ken Watanabe is back as Dr. Serizawa, Godzilla’s firmest believer and defender, whose laissez-faire respect for the Titans’ role in the natural balance is summed up in the “Let Them Fight” meme drawn from the previous film. Sally Hawkins is back as his colleague, and she delivers some lines, one supposes. Zhang Ziyi plays mythological specialist Dr. Chen, and despite my really, genuinely having seen the film, I had absolutely no idea that Dr. Chen was actually a pair of twin sisters until reading the Wiki. Aisha Hinds stalks around the bridge of Monarch’s massive stealth bomber-shaped air flagship, wearing fatigues and barking orders. Bradley Whitford stares at screens and provides status updates on Godzilla’s vitals, the proximity of weapons of mass destruction, and whatever other expositional factoids the movie happens to require; he also tells numerous bad jokes, including one about radiation-related birth defects (seeing this movie immediately after HBO’s Chernobyl miniseries leaves this viewer very troubled by these characters’ prosaic attitudes around radiation; “You’ll all be dead of cancer within five years!”, I wanted to shout at the screen time and again).

Much of what the humans in this movie do makes no sense logically or especially emotionally. Emma’s grand plan to counteract the planet-poisoning plague of human civilization by unleashing city-leveling monsters is an absurd cartoon exagerration of radical environmentalism that the screenplay (by Dougherty and Zack Shields) couches in her grief over the loss of her son. But the ludicrousness of this latter emotional conceit is laid bare when Madison confronts her about it, asking if she thinks total Titan-ic armageddon would have been what Andrew would have wanted; of course it wouldn’t be, he was a kid, he would have probably wanted an ice cream sundae! Heroism, rescue missions, noble sacrifices, and so forth; all of this happens in King of the Monsters, none of it feels much like anything.

But the human stories of the 2014 Godzilla were also pretty weak, at least once Binoche and Cranston shuffled off the stage. This shit right here is about giant monsters beating the everloving crud out of each other while skyscrapers topple in their wake, and King of the Monsters throws around a whole lot of that. Godzilla’s key rival for alpha status (and yes, alpha wolf theory is outdated and badly misleading in the case of wild populations, but let’s not fight that battle right now) over the planet and the other Titans is the three-headed hydra/dragon Ghidorah, freed from Antarctic ice to do repeated battle with Godzilla across the globe, always at night or in storms or under dense sunlight-erasing cloud cover (it really would not kill this movie to show us its CG monsters in the light of day). There’s also the huge pterosaur Rodan, who emerges from an erupting Mexican volcano, and Mothra, a gorgeous, glowing Lepidoptera who is kinda, sorta Godzilla’s wife (?) (also:) (!) and also has magical healing powers.

But more is not always better. There are some devastatingly epic monster fights and some big, bold, brassy shots in Godzilla: King of the Monsters, prime among the latter being the spectacularly blunt visual metaphor to the right of Ghidorah perching on a fiery volcano with a stoically contrasting cross in the foreground. Mothra’s hatching in a waterfall is tremendously lovely, her bioluminescent wings spreading out wide under the glowing waters, but all the beauty and wonder around this moth Titan is lessened by having her fill a Virgin Sacrifice role to spur Big Chonk Lizard on to final victory. But generally speaking, both the moments of poetic awe and the showstopping epic moments of Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla are aped in King of the Monsters as pale imitations. Here, what held mystery and strange romance is reduced to noisy, CG-heavy blockbuster fodder.

The fundamentally basic quality of Godzilla: King of the Monsters is a favouring of the spectacle, the action setpiece writ large. It has plenty of time for its rote plot of the fractured family in the midst of the spectacle, but little enough for the pregnant political and social allegories lurking in the shadows of the original 1954 Toho film, let alone the more amorphous echoes of contemporary politics and conservation issues in the 2014 film, or its connected release in Legendary’s MonsterVerse, Kong: Skull Island, with its critical view of American imperial power (it’s also difficult to imagine the great ape standing any chance at all against this mountain-scaled, nuclear-weaponized Godzilla in their coming dust-up in 2020’s Godzilla vs. Kong).

Emma’s monologue about wasteful human populations denuding the fragile earth tries to shoehorn environmentalism and climate change into the thematic picture, but Dougherty’s movie neither prefaces that moment nor continues building on it with any conviction. Godzilla: King of the Monsters can only pretend to care about the world’s problems. It seeks only to reduce them, and the world with them, into smouldering rubble for our fleeting amusement and, perhaps, fantasy wish-fulfillment (the climax of urban destruction takes place in Boston, and anyone familiar with that city’s sports fan culture over the past couple of decades can’t help but take some pleasure in its annihilation). The 2014 Godzilla was a big, silly entertainment, but there was a patience and vision to its destructive artistry that could almost be called existential in scope. Godzilla: King of the Monsters just destroys to entertain, and as a result is less successful at doing so.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Blood Diamond

Blood Diamond (2006; Directed by Edward Zwick)

To pinpoint exactly what is wrong with Edward Zwick’s action epic about African civil war and resource exploitation, it makes most sense to begin at the end. With apologies to any readers concerned with my spoiling the closing moments of a 13-year-old film that’s been available on Netflix for years, Blood Diamond‘s final scene is intended to be inspiring. Humble fisherman Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou) survived Sierra Leone’s bloody civil war, escaped to the West with his family, and made a fortune from a diamond he found, retrieved and sold at great personal risk, which was also used to expose the sale of conflict diamonds by the van de Kaap diamond cartel (based on De Beers, the real-world diamond trade kingpins who, until very recently, held a virtual monopoly on the global diamond market).

Solomon is called as a guest speaker at a South African conference at which an agreement was reached to limit the sale of “blood diamonds” (an agreement now frequently criticized as an ineffective measure against illegal diamond extraction, smuggling, and trade in Africa). The august white man introducing him notes with a rhetorical flourish that Third-World Africa has a voice on this issue as well, and Solomon Vandy’s story represents that voice. Vandy enters to standing applause, basking in it as he takes to the podium… and the movie fades to black before he can say a word.

The film that we’ve just seen, of course, is his story, and we hardly require it repeated in dialogue at the conclusion. But then, Blood Diamond is told more from the perspective of Danny Archer (Leonardo DiCaprio), the canny, slippery Rhodesian (a.k.a. Zimbabwean) smuggler, gunrunner, and soldier of fortune who starts off using Solomon to get to his diamond but winds up laying down his life to help Solomon and his son Dia (Kagiso Kuypers) to escape with the precious stone in a classically patronizing white saviour redemption arc. Given this fact, the seemingly minor contradiction that Zwick ends his film on – it’s voices like Solomon’s that matter, but we don’t need to hear them – gains added problematic dimension.

Blood Diamond features graphic depictions of African war atrocities alongside a repeated weary refrain, mostly uttered by intrepid but frustrated reporter Maddy Bowen (Jennifer Connelly), that no amount of atrocity will gain the fickle attention of the wealthy West, let alone spur so-called First World nations to decisive action against violent conflicts or endemic resource exploitation in Africa. Zwick’s film, written by Charles Leavitt, expresses this sentiment to no small extent to elevate itself above media that gives lip service to these problems but doesn’t care deeply enough about them to make a difference, to say nothing of the blithe American consumers so dazzled by the sparkle of an engagement ring that they can’t be troubled to do enough bare minimum research to ensure that hundreds or thousands of lives were not taken to bring it to their finger. Even Bowen’s personal-interest tearjerker article draft about Solomon’s fleeting reunion with his family at a refugee camp in Guinea is discussed in terms of its exploitative, heart-string-tugging nature, rather than as crusading, world-altering journalism.

Blood Diamond, then, is a film that is at pains to make it crystal-clear that its creators are acutely aware of white Western narratives that exploit African traumas for entertainment and edification. Which makes it all the worse when it proceeds to exploit African traumas for entertainment and edification. The aforementioned sequences of mass slaughter of civilians or executions and mutilations of captives or indoctrination and employment of child soldiers are just abominably harrowing, given Zwick’s non-stylized straight-ahead realist style. But they are also pulse-quickening action set-pieces, with Archer and Vandy and sometimes Bowen as well in great peril as they navigate African urban streets or jungle terrain under a torrent of bullets. Zwick, a seasoned hand at war epics with problematic racial politics (more on that in a moment), can’t help but render exciting what ought to be horrifying, and James Newton Howard’s pulsating action score in these sequences pushes them on to spectacle. In a film that, by its own implicit admission, is determined not to exploit its subject, Zwick expertly portrays these shootouts as exhilarating when he needed to favour a “war is hell” approach.

Running with DiCaprio’s Archer as its true protagonist is another of Blood Diamond‘s faults. It’s not that he gives a bad performance (got a Best Actor Oscar nom for it, didn’t he?), though his Rhodesian accent almost certainly slips now and again. Leavitt’s script probably spends too much time teasing a soft-romance connection between Archer and Maddy Bowen, as well, before realizing it has to make up for lost time and build up a respect and fondness between Archer and Solomon in the last 40 minutes if the climax is to work at all. No, the indulgence of an old-fashioned white saviour trope in the middle of a movie otherwise (superficially) intent on recognizing the weaknesses of media discourse concerning Africa and its continuing tragedies is fatally retrograde.

Archer is willing to exploit on a wider scale for his own selfish gain, until he is confronted in a sustained fashion with the personal costs of what he and others like him are doing, and sacrifices himself for the greater good. Blood Diamond also engages in some authenticity politics on behalf of Africa’s white colonial population, as Archer and his former commanding officer Colonel Coetzee (Arnold Vosloo) discuss how they both belong to the red earth of Africa, a moment which has a callback in Archer’s final scene but which also carries some associations with romantic white nationalist nostalgia for colonial rule and apartheid (which is nonetheless disavowed, of course).

Edward Zwick was the director of Glory and The Last Samurai, two Hollywood war epics that treated the tragic traumas of non-white warriors (African-Americans during the Civil War, Japanese samurai in the industrialized late 1800s) as elegiac and proud passings-away, shepherded by messianic white saviour figures. It’s a classic liberal-Hollywood formulation in many ways, and Zwick is a veteran captain at the ship’s helm, steering it into entirely the wrong troubled waters in the case of Blood Diamond. Africa has been a board where the best and (more frequently) the worst intentions of white colonial and post-colonial powers have been played out. The power of a mere movie to overcome that, of course, is highly questionable, or more likely not questionable at all: it cannot. But Blood Diamond includes gestures and even stronger elements that suggest its best intentions might have been smart and conscientious ones too. Instead, through its dominant thematic perspective and final heart-lifting paean to an ineffectual pact to end the bloody exploitations of the African conflict diamond trade, this film cannot help but seem like more of the same. And from simple Hollywood movies on up to the complexities of international aid, politics, and trade, Africa needs far more than more of the same.

Categories: Film, Politics, Reviews

Film Review: The Favourite

The Favourite (2018; Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos)

The Hollywood awards-season breakthrough from idiosyncratic Greek arthouse auteur Yorgos Lanthimos is a mordant dark comedy of society, manners, love, and politics. The Favourite features a central triangle of defining, superb performances from three very different actresses (and a fourth fine turn from a rising male actor) and displays technical virtuosity that doesn’t merely impress but deepens and defamiliarizes genre material that might have slipped to the predictable. Lanthimos and his team painstakingly re-create the royal court of early 18th-century Britain, but The Favourite possesses and transforms the period costume drama like a parasitic wasp, devouring it from the inside out and turning it into a work with a skewed and troublingly absurd view of privilege, power, and human nature.

In 1708, Great Britain’s final Stuart monarch Queen Anne (Olivia Colman, who won a Best Actress Oscar for her performance) is constantly unwell and adrift in her own court. Her country battles longtime enemy France in the War of Spanish Succession, and her friend, confidant, court favourite, sometimes lesbian lover, and defacto regent Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz) argues for its continuation, with property taxes across the realm to be raised to fund the effort. Sarah’s motivation to keep the war going is threefold, though largely implied: it increases the prestige of her husband the 1st Duke of Marlborough (Mark Gatiss), who commands British forces, allows the Churchills to skim money from the war purse to fund their extravagant lifestyle and building projects (including Blenheim Palace, the opulent near-royal-level palatial home in Oxfordshire begun in Sarah’s lifetime, later the birthplace of their descendant and historical biographer Winston Churchill), and sends her husband away from court so that she may tryst with and influence the Queen unimpeded by his presence.

She is opposed by parliamentarian (and later Earl of Oxford and Earl Mortimer) Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult, in that fourth and often overlooked excellent performance), who wants to end the war and avoid tax rises. At this time, Sarah’s penniless cousin Abigail Hill (Emma Stone) arrives at court and takes work as a scullery maid, but her intelligence and cunning sees her rise to a lady of the bedchamber to Queen Anne, which sees her enter into direct conflict with Sarah over closeness to and influence over the moody and ill queen. Their increasingly hostile rivalry over the queen’s affections is used by Harley to leverage his power in the government over the 1st Earl of Godolphin (James Smith), who sides with the Duchess while opposition leader Harley is fed information by Abigail, who also hooks a future husband in military officer Samuel Masham (Joe Alwyn).

Working from a script by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, Lanthimos, who usually writes his own films with inimitable deadpan absurdism, emblazons his peculiar brand on The Favourite visually, tonally, and thematically. The production values re-creating the upper-crust world of the early 1700s are exquisite, although Lanthimos and his cinematographer Robbie Ryan rarely linger on sumptuous details of the set or costume design. Lighting is pale and natural, coming in the day from sunlight through windows and at night from flickering candlelight, like Stanley Kubrick’s period epic Barry Lyndon. The camera moves with disarming fluidity in the historic spaces that provide the film’s setting (Hatfield House and Hampton Court Palace, primarily) that is the result of neither Steadicam nor track dolly work. These tracking shots, panoramic pivots, and Lanthimos’ use of wide and fisheye lenses turn these elegant spaces into inhospitable and claustrophobic gilded cells, with metaphorical bars of ambition, jealousy, loneliness, and regret.

Lanthimos also pushed his actors to detach from the meaning of their lines, putting them through absurd, experimental-theatre rehearsals of bizarre physical contortion exercises to render their performing reactions ever more instinctual. The result is more strange, primal defamiliarization, encouraging random deadpan absurdities to burst through the rich psychological and interpersonal atmosphere being crafted. Weisz, who worked with Lanthimos on The Lobster, stays focused laser-like on the Duchess’ manipulative steeliness, while Stone and Colman, comic actresses at their core, employ the atonal liberty to explore unpredictable respective corners of Abigail’s faux-naive ingratiating instincts and Queen Anne’s fickle and emotionally needy grasping nature. Hoult leans into both Harley’s clever, ruthless string-pulling and his sartorial clowniness; he can give the appearance of being connivingly ahead of the game and humiliatingly baffled at the same time. The numerous pages and footmen are slow-witted, awkward, and terrified of the changeable queen. Most bizarrely, Alwyn and Weisz share a dance at a ball which departs wholly from historical accuracy and becomes a weird and hilarious semi-modern, semi-improvised vogue that drives a jealous and self-conscious Queen Anne to call an end to the whole affair.

Lanthimos also continues his career fixation on animals. One scene features ducks racing in slow motion in a drawing room to the delight of ludicrous aristocrats (Godolphin owns the duck racing champion and ridiculously walks it on a leash). The shifting power dynamic between Sarah and Abigail is imparted through a series conversations during live-bird shooting sessions, with the increasingly assured and Machiavellian Abigail moving from a place of sympathy for the creatures to efficiently blasting them from the sky, once so vindictively close to Sarah as to splashback bird blood on her face. Most charged with symbolism are Queen Anne’s 17 pet rabbits, one for each child she had borne and lost. Sarah considers them morbid and tells the queen so, but Abigail feigns affection for them to get into Anne’s good graces before becoming so confident in those graces as to casually threaten injury or death to one of them.

The rabbits also feature in Lanthimos’ arty closing superimposition shot, contrasting Colman’s Queen Anne grimly determined to assert her power over a prostrate Abigail while hopping bunnies fill the background. Lanthimos cultivates ambiguity in this moment, but it’s fairly unambiguous, honestly. The rabbits are Anne’s isolation and tragic regret, her diminishing health and mental acuity made manifest, hopping unrestrained through her prison-like palace rooms. Abigail lets them loose as she lets the Queen loose, leading her to assert greater control over official affairs such as the war and taxes than under the stewardship of Sarah Churchill. But the animals, like the queen, go out of Abigail’s control, and the final shot is a re-assertion of royal authority over the wheedling influence of court favourites. Power is still power, The Favourite reinforces, even if it lies in the unreliable hands of the capricious, the self-interested, and the barely-competent. As if, today, we needed this point to be made clear to us.

Categories: Film, History, Reviews

Film Review: The Incredible Hulk

The Incredible Hulk (2008; Directed by Louis Leterrier)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories: Comics, Film, Reviews

Film Review: Widows

Widows (2018; Directed by Steve McQueen)

Widows is a stylish and contemporarily resonant elevation of a genre film potboiler. Built up from the bones of a 1980s British television heist crime drama with the same name and concept, Widows is crafted by Steve McQueen (not the iconic – and quite dead – American actor but the Oscar-winning British director of 12 Years a Slave and Turner Award-winning film artist) and his co-screenwriter Gillian Flynn (author and scripter of Gone Girl) into an absorbing and exciting entertainment with searing undertones of gender, sexual, and racial politics.

Like its British TV model, Widows focuses on the wives, girlfriends, and significant others of a robbery crew (Coburn Goss, Jon Bernthal, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, and Liam Neeson) whose last job goes disastrously, fatally wrong. Left to pick up the pieces, these shocked, grieving and increasingly desperate women do what they need to survive without their breadwinning men. While Amanda (Carrie Coon) cares for her infant and seems (suspiciously) stable, Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) sees the clothing shop she runs (but which had her husband’s name on the ownership documents) threatened with repossession and sale, and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) supports herself with a transactional relationship with a wealthy real estate developer (Lukas Haas). Veronica (Viola Davis), however, faces a much more difficult and dangerous path: threatened by underworld elements from whom her presumed-dead husband criminal mastermind Harry Rawlings (Neeson) stole $2 million, Veronica plans to follow the blueprint plan for a lucrative cash heist left behind in Harry’s notebook.

Veronica enlists the aid of fellow widows Linda and Alice, as well as Linda’s steely, fit, and capable babysitter Belle (Cynthia Erivo) as a driver. Their planned theft draws the widows into the orbit of a bitterly contested South Side Chicago aldermanic election between dynastic scion Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) and his African-American challenger Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), who also happens to be the crime boss ripped off by Harry in the first place and whose brother and enforcer Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya) is a frighteningly violent and uncompromising figure to contend with.

Widows is finely interwoven, with a twisting plot full of superb performances (Robert Duvall also shows up as the hard-as-nails Mulligan patriarch) whose overarching themes and highlight moments are deployed with painterly deliberation and artistry by McQueen. A productive tension between the material’s genre-film pedigree and McQueen’s arthouse sensibilities is maintained throughout. He’ll shoot a scene like an in-car dialogue exchange between a frustrated Jack and his young aide (Molly Kunz) in a single shot completely from outside the car with neither character visible, all to visually and geographically introduce the Mulligan headquarters and home which is the climactic robbery location. The scenes of Jatemme’s violence are artful and stylish but no less brutal for it; McQueen and Kaluuya seem keenly aware that such hitmen have a tendency to be glorified and their violence romanticized and rendered into celebrated badassery by insensitive audiences, and are careful to make Jatemme a nasty enough piece of work to head off such impressions.

McQueen peppers Widows with social and political subtexts as well, deepening an erstwhile diverting genre trifle. The Mulligan vs. Manning election subplot encompasses political and economic corruption in post-capitalist urban America, as well as maintaining nuanced sketches of race and authority: a charismatic but pragmatic preacher in the black church played by Jon Michael Hill demurs over whether to withdraw his longstanding support for the white Mulligans in favour of the black Manning, shared skin colour acting as no guarantor of allegiance. Jatemme’s no-quarter viciousness is tinged with political radicalism: as he tracks his quarry in one scene, he listens to a tape of a speech by Huey Newton, the revolutionary black activist and Black Panther Party co-founder.

Linda and Belle, the latter working as an aesthetician and babysitting on the side for extra income, demonstrate the slimmer economic margins for women of colour, while Alice sells herself in semi-respectable sex work to keep up her flashy lifestyle, a privilege of white womanhood that nonetheless extracts a toll in psychology and self-worth. Veronica mourns her biracial son with Harry, killed in a shocking, torn-from-the-headlines police shooting in his parents’ luxury car. Like a more masculinized film like Hell or High Water, Widows couches its cash heists in the social context of contemporary American decline and injustice, thus rendering them as subversive acts of edge-skirting justice in a corrupt and degenerated milieu in which such illegal thefts are miniscule drops in the bucket compared to the organized, legal mass plunder carried out by corporations and governments.

More than anything, Widows is an involving heist movie that explores and contextualizes in extremis the problematic nature of 21st-century feminism. The widows are forced into carrying out a high-risk robbery by dint of circumstances, not to stick it to the patriarchy, and McQueen and Flynn are surefooted in demonstrating the difficulty of their mission and the skin of the teeth by which they hope to pull it off. But the effort and trauma of the heist grants each widow, and especially the tremendous Davis as Veronica, a measure of independent self-determination that they could not have claimed as fundamentally kept women before the death of their male partners. It also erects a certain sense of feminine solidarity by carving out a sphere in control (or at least of acquisition) in the male sphere of the violent crime underworld. Artful, entertaining, and even affecting, Widows is about stealing not only money but also dignity in the process.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review – Avengers: Endgame

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories: Comics, Film, Reviews