About DBreitenbeck

David Breitenbeck is a professional freelance writer currently living in Southeast Michigan.

Thoughts on ‘Ant-Man’

Past entries:
Iron Man
The Incredible Hulk
Iron Man 2
Thor
Captain America: The First Avenger

The Avengers
Iron Man 3
Thor: The Dark World
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Guardians of the Galaxy
Avengers: Age of Ultron

Ever since before the start of the MCU, there was talk of a possible Ant-Man film. The character is actually a major figure in the comics, but between the name and the shrinking-powers, the idea seemed to ridiculous to be accepted in a live-action film. Nevertheless, the idea bandied about for years and years until finally, amid the success of the MCU, it became a reality.

We open in 1989, with the Triskelion building (SHIELD headquarters from The Winter Soldier) still under construction. The brilliant, but prickly Dr. Hank Pym storms into a meeting room with Peggy Carter, Howard Stark, and new character named Mitchell Carson to express his unmitigated fury that Stark dared try to copy his work; the mysterious ‘Pym Particle.’ Disgusted, he declares that he is done with SHIELD, and though Carson (smarting from a broken nose received for making a crack about Pym’s late wife) wants to stop him, Stark and Peggy wisely suggest that Pym is both trustworthy and far too dangerous an adversary to tackle unless they have to.

In present day San Francisco, a high-tech burglar named Scott Lang finishes his term in jail and sets out trying to rebuild his life and particularly to do right by his adoring five-year-old daughter, Cassie. However, with his criminal record he finds jobs hard to come by, so in desperation he decides to take one more burglary job with his former cellmate Luis. Meanwhile, Dr. Pym has discovered that his former protégé, Darren Cross (who now runs Pym’s company) is close to replicating his shrinking technology and means to sell it as a weapon. As it turns out, the heist was secretly set up by Pym to recruit Scott into helping Pym and his estranged daughter Hope into taking Cross down…assuming Scott can become the new Ant-Man in time.

Let’s get this out of the way right from the start: I love Ant-Man. It’s a much smaller, more contained story than most of its predecessors, and if the world is at stake, it’s only because of the particular choices being made by these particular people, not because of cataclysmic events or world-shaking conspiracies.

A major part of why it works is that the hero, Scott Lang, is just so darn likable. He’s neither a reformed bad-boy (despite being an ex-con) like Tony Stark, Thor, or Peter Quill, nor an iconic hero like Cap, but just an ordinary man trying to be a good father. Having lost five years in prison, he wants to turn his life around and be there for his daughter (“Be the person she already thinks [he is],” as his ex-wife says). Throughout the film, she’s his top priority, and even when he’s making mistakes, such as turning back to crime, it’s in the hopes of being able to be with her, or at the very least leaving something behind for her. As Hank tells him, one father to another, “It’s not about saving our world. It’s about saving theirs.”

Meanwhile, he’s just an all-around nice guy: friendly, humble, and trying to be responsible. For instance, there’s a good scene where Hope has just had a blow-up at her father (subconsciously expressing her frustrations by swarming the room with ants), and, though she’s been nothing but antagonistic and dismissive of him, Scott goes out to the car to talk to her, drawing on his own knowledge as a father to assure her that his presence proves how much Hank cares about her. His good-nature, and that of his fellow crooks, is established right away when what seems to be a prison beat-down turns out to be a good-bye ritual, whereupon he’s met by his hilariously loquacious ex-cellmate Luis, whom he assures that he intends to go straight. Later, when he first starts using the Ant-Man suit, his compassion relative to Hank is established when he asks why the flying ant he’s riding on doesn’t have a name (he later christens it ‘Ant-ony’).

The film does establish, however, that he is a very competent and clever man as well. We’re told from the start he has a maters in electrical engineering, and when he burgles the Pym house he quickly improvises several very clever solutions to unexpected obstacles on the fly. In fact, right when we first meet him in the prison ‘brawl’ we see him using his cunning to get a blow in on a larger opponent. This improvisational quality fits perfectly with the Ant-Man powers and is continually giving him the edge over the course of the film.

Scott makes for a good contrast with the villain, Darren Cross AKA Yellowjacket. Cross is a former protégé of Hank’s, except that he resented Hank for not sharing the secret of the Pym Particle with him, and is shown to be bursting with a sense of inferiority and frustrated ego, to the point where it seems his desire to sell his work to Hydra is less a matter of getting rich and powerful than it is a chance to rub Hank’s face in it. I’m actually quite impressed with the writing and acting on Cross: he’s a consistent and quite frightening character, in that he’s the kind of guy who takes even the slightest insult or check to his ego as a declaration of war, but who can maintain a calm and friendly façade up until the moment he horribly murders someone, so that once you cross him in any way, you’re basically marked…rather like a hornet, come to think of it (which makes his climactic attack on Cassie, when he could easily have made a break for it, entirely in character: he needs to punish Scott for the ‘insult’ done to him). Yet he’s not completely inhuman either, as he seems to have some genuine feelings for Hope, at least to a degree, as he admits at one point that he held off killing Hank while she was in the house because, “I wasn’t ready to kill you yet.” It’s a warped connection, but a connection nonetheless. I also like his contained emotion when he asks Hank why he shut him out, followed by him calling Hope to vent about it like a frustrated teenager (which also serves to alert her and us that he’s beefing up security: character development and moves the plot along).

Of course, the parallels and contrast between him and Scott are great; both protégés of Hank’s, only one is proud, the other humble. And, naturally, the humility of the one enrages the pride of the other. “Your very existence insults me!” Cross rants at Scott during their final battle. Earlier he brought up Scott’s file commenting “and who did Hank Pym trust more than me?” He’s infuriated at the idea that this miserable little nobody ex-con rates higher in his mentor’s esteem than he does. This also, by the way, fits their respective animal motifs: Cross the proud, easily enraged hornet, Scott the humble, hard-working ant.

This also, by the way, means that Cross actually figured out (almost) Pym’s whole plan, including the identity of the new Ant-Man, purely from clues and intelligent suppositions. The parts that ultimately undermine his trap are things that he naturally wouldn’t have anticipated, such as Scott’s new shrinking-growing discs.

Upon reflection, I think I would rate Yellowjacket as one of the better MCU villains thus far. He’s a common type – the evil businessman and resentful protégé – but they invest him with enough nuance and attention to make him surprisingly interesting.

Hank himself is a cool character as well, in that he’s quite frankly a bit of a jerk. He has no trouble belittling Scott, or laying down the law, he’s controlling, stern, and arrogant. Rather like a more mature and emotionally stable Tony Stark (whom we learn he thoroughly dislikes). But underneath he is a genuinely good man, and his prickliness is largely in defense of the things he cares about – his work and his family. There’s a smooth introduction to how respected he is when he shows up at his own company HQ after a long absence, is asked for his ID, and points to his portrait on the wall.

As for the love-interest, Hope gets a fine story arc of her own in reconnecting with her father, whom she resents for seemingly shutting her out after her mother died, when she needed him the most (it should be said this is a much better reason for estrangement than we usually get in these kinds of stories, and I like the touch that Hope comments at one point that she was sincerely hoping the crisis would bring them back together). This parallels her relationship with Scott, whom she barely tolerates at first until he wins her over with his kindness and simple courage. Their relationship is understated (it might have benefited from one or two more scenes), but it works. They each bring something the other needs: he shows her sympathy and levity, while she teaches him focus and drive. It’s a good balance and the two of them work well together.

I started off talking about the characters, because that’s something this film does so well; it’s basically just a nice, human story of two fathers who want to do right by their daughters and an aged genius with two possible heirs, only leavened by two basic, but very cool sci-fi conceits: changing size and controlling ants.

On that subject, the film goes whole-hog on these two main ideas. There is so much creativity at work here, from the simple idea of riding around on a record player to jumping through keyholes to infiltrating a building through the water main. Ant-Man shrinks and grows and shrinks again in rapid succession to dodge bullets and fists, gain extra momentum for flips, and disappear from view to strike from an unexpected direction. During the climax, we have a zero-G fight inside a falling briefcase, then a train-top battle…on a ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’ set (culminating in a hilarious anti-climax where Thomas tries to run over Yellowjacket).

The film amply demonstrates that, though the shrinking idea may sound ridiculous, it makes the user incredibly dangerous. Who could shoot an insect out of the air, or stand up to a punch with the entire weight of a full-grown man packed into a half-inch space? How could you stop someone like that going wherever he wanted, or, since he can also shrink other objects, taking whatever he likes wherever he likes (e.g. a set of plastic explosives into a computer server)? As noted, the prologue establishes that even SHIELD was leery of tackling Ant-Man, while in a hilarious and very cool scene the film pits Scott in battle against Falcon to show that, even in the hands of a rookie, Ant-Man is an Avenger-level combatant (not only that, but the film then establishes that Cross was able to double his price after Hydra learned of the incident, thereby both tying the different threads together and letting us know that the Avengers themselves are on the line here).

It does something similar with the ants. Controlling ants might not sound like much, but again they can go anywhere, hide anywhere, and are incredibly versatile. At one point Scott rides a raft of fire ants down a storm drain. When Pym needs to disable a security camera, he simply has a bunch of ants swarm over it. The two abilities combined mean that the heroes can basically go anywhere with their own personal miniature army.

(On the subject of ants, one minor bit where the film falls short is in the ridiculously under-blown reactions some of the characters have to being stung by bullet ants. They let us know that they have one of the most painful stings in the world, but the people being stung react as though they were little more than wasp stings. If you want to know what it really looks like, here’s a video showing it (warning: very intense!). For those who don’t want to watch it, let’s just say that if Cross were actually stung by one of these things, there wouldn’t be a climactic battle because he’d be paralyzed with pain and nerve spasms for the next hour or so).

Basically, it feels like the writers really loved their own premise and were legitimately excited to come up with all kinds of crazy and creative things to do with the idea of shrinking and growing things and controlling ants.

Besides all that, it’s just a really, really funny film; up there with Guardians of the Galaxy, but in a gentler, more family-friendly style. We have Scott’s awkwardly endearing charm contrasted with Hank and Hope’s more serious manner, his three quirky thieving buddies (including Luis, who is hands-down one of the best narrators in film history), the many, many mishaps and absurdities inherent in being tiny (e.g. at one point Scott hits Yellowjacket with a ping pong paddle, or Scott running across a scale model as its torn apart by bullets in a parody of the standard bombastic scenes of super-powered destruction), Scott greeting Falcon with a cheerful, “Hi, I’m Scott!” (“Did he just say ‘hi, I’m Scott’?”), and so on. There are a lot of very simple, not even jokes, just funny moments, like when five-year-old Cassie asks her detective step-father if he’s trying to find her daddy, then says, “I hope you don’t catch him,” with the sternest look she can manage. Or moments funny for their sheer logic, as when Scott, upon learning of the situation with Cross, suggests, “I think our first move should be calling the Avengers” (thus the film astutely avoids the problem that plagued Iron Man 3 by tackling the issue head-on: Hank won’t call the Avengers because he doesn’t trust Stark and means to keep his tech out of his hand: something entirely logical and in-character).

As indicated, also like Guardians, everyone here has a lot of personality; Luis is a small-time crook, but he apparently also frequents wine-tastings and art galleries (“you know me, I’m more a neo-cubist kinda guy…”). Cross casually mentions “my morning meditation” at one point, while Hank periodically adopts a hilariously long-suffering expression when he has to deal with the antics of Scott and his compatriots. Even minor characters like Scott’s ex-wife’s boyfriend, or his manager during his brief stint at Baskin-Robbins feel like real people with their own distinct personalities.

Yet again like Guardians, there are real heroics and genuine human decency on display, even from the criminals. Near the end, while racing to escape a building set to blow, Luis suddenly remembers a security guard he’d punched out and hurries to get him out. Earlier, when it looks like their heist has been a bust, Luis’s first comment is condole with Scott, since he really needed the score. We see flashbacks to Hope’s mother sacrificing herself to save the innocent, which she only had to do because Hank wasn’t able to do it himself. Even Paxton tries to stand up to Yellowjacket to protect Cassie during the climax. And during the climactic heist, just about everyone goes to bat and risks everything for everyone else at some point.

And in the midst of all this craziness and humor, there are some lovely, emotional little scenes, like how, the night before the big heist, Scott takes the suit so he can go see his daughter for possibly the last time: just to see her. Or we have Hank and Hope finally reconciling, and the aforementioned scene where Hope and Scott begin to connect.

The visuals likewise are fantastic. We have, of course, the perspective of being tiny in the midst of ordinary things like keys, bathtubs, grass, and so on, which are all very interesting to look at, but we also get things like the hive-like dome where the Yellowjacket suit is stored, and, most excitingly, a journey into the realm of the subatomic, getting smaller and smaller, passing beyond anything even remotely recognizable into a surreal void. Again, there is so much creativity and enthusiasm evident in this film.

In a word, Ant-Man is really, really good. It’s easily one of my favorites of the series. There are obviously some flaws; the way the suit is said to work doesn’t fit with the idea that they can potentially go sub-atomic and shrink forever into nothing (since, if they reduce the space between molecules, you obviously can’t go smaller than those molecules). If I’m not mistaken, the character of Carson doesn’t get any kind of pay-off; he just kind of disappears in the middle of the climax (I suspect a deleted scene is involved). And, as noted, the relationship between Scott and Hope could have stood one or two more scenes to more fully develop it.

There are objectively better films in the MCU than Ant-Man, but for simple, largely-self contained entertainment, featuring a good story, great characters, hilarious comedy, and a lot of crazy creative action, you really can’t do much better.

Thoughts on ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’

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Past entries:
Iron Man
The Incredible Hulk
Iron Man 2
Thor
Captain America: The First Avenger

The Avengers
Iron Man 3
Thor: The Dark World
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Guardians of the Galaxy

Following on three more solo films and an almost unrelated side story, the Avengers return in Age of Ultron.

The film wastes no time in its opening sequence, with the Avengers already assembled and assaulting a Hydra fortress in the Eastern European nation of Sokovia, seeking to recover Loki’s staff from Baron Strucker, a high-ranking Hydra agent who has been using it to experiment with human enhancements. His only two successes are the Maximoff twins, Pietro and Wanda, who are, respectively, super-fast and possessed of powerful psychic abilities almost amounting to witchcraft. The assault is, unsurprisingly, a success, though not before Wanda is able to give him a vision of the Avengers being defeated by Thanos’s forces because of his own failures. This prompts him to use the staff to jumpstart his ‘Ultron’ project: a super-sophisticated AI program that can automate his suits and thus keep the planet permanently protected without the need for the Avengers.

Unfortunately, something goes wrong and Ultron emerges as an unstable, murderous lunatic who immediately sets out to destroy the Avengers and take over / destroy the world (enlisting the help of the twins) while the team tries to find a way to bring him down.

So, Age of Ultron is kind of a difficult film to discuss, since there is so much going on in it. The original Avengers was a very straightforward film: Loki wants to conquer the world, Avengers assemble to stop him. Age of Ultron leaps all over the place, quite literally; from Sokovia to New York to Africa to Korea to Oslo to the Midwest and back, all the while introducing and dropping character after character, moving from crisis to subplot to crisis. It’s all (or most of it) strung together by the Avengers trying to stop Ultron, though Ultron’s plan seems to change every other scene as well. Does he want to control mankind for its own good, like the robots at the end of Asimov’s I, Robot? Or does he just want to wipe out and replace mankind?

This is partly explained by the fact that Ultron is clearly insane, which is itself an interesting touch as far as it goes; unlike the standard emotionless, ultra-logical killer robot, Ultron is instead an erratic, highly emotional being, more like an arrogant teenager than a super-genius, and clearly taking a lot from his ‘father’ Tony Stark. This leads to some very amusing moments with him, as when he cuts off Klaue’s arm in a fit of rage, only to try to walk it back with an uncertain “I’m sure that’s gonna be okay,” as well as some rather striking emotional bits, as when he almost shyly tells a captive Black Widow that, “I don’t have anyone else [to talk to].” It also leads to him ranting about God and quoting the Bible at some points, which seems standard for a lot of bad guys these days, but in Ultron’s case seems to hint at a blasphemous belief that he can take the place of God (certainly at times he seems to be using ‘God’ to refer to himself). He even sets up his headquarters in an abandoned medieval church.

There is a lot that could be made of this: Ultron as a devil figure, rebelling against his creator and trying to set himself up as a deity; Ultron as the image of what attempts to perfect or systematize the world always lead to; Ultron as unfettered fear of mortality; Ultron as the embodiment of pacifism’s tendency to backfire horribly. You can get any of those out of the film, but I’m not sure any of them are really carried through into a coherent whole. It feels rather as though the writers had all of these ideas and ran with them without stopping to focus on any of them.

And a lot of the film is like that; too many underdeveloped ideas thrown together to end up with a satisfactory payoff for most of them. The Maximoff twins’ hatred of Stark is never given a satisfactory payoff, for instance; they never come to grips with the fact that they were blaming the wrong person for their pain (Tony didn’t fire the shell into their building, he only made it), or recognize that Stark is a better person now. Strucker’s experiments in enhancing humans only serve to give us the twins and are dropped once he’s out of the picture. The threat of Ultron taking over nuclear weapons and the existence of the ‘internet nexus’ in Oslo are only briefly touched on, as is the possibility of Banner being arrested for the Hulk’s Scarlet Witch-induced rampage in an African city.

The biggest out-of-nowhere bit, however, is the sudden onset romance between Banner and Natasha. There was nothing at all to hint at this in either the first Avengers or Winter Soldier (both those films, if anything, seemed to hint at the possibility of something between her and Cap), and here we open with them strongly in love and wrestling with it, to the point where Barton’s wife can tell what’s going on in five minutes. It isn’t that the romance doesn’t make sense (as the film points out, they’re both broken, hurt people who spend a lot of time hiding their true emotions, and Natasha is understandably drawn to Banner’s integrity and reluctance to fight “because he knows he’ll win”), it’s that they don’t have time to give it any real set up, so that we’re left more being told that they’re in love than actually seeing it happen. Though, on the other hand, it does build on the ‘beauty and the beast’ motif of the Hulk, which is further reinforced by having Natasha being the one who calms the Hulk down at the end of each mission (that they would develop a reliable means of shutting the Hulk down is a very smart touch).

So, the film is kind of all over the map and frankly tries to do way too much for its own good. A more streamlined story, one that gave Ultron a more clearly defined goal with fewer details and twists, would have benefited it immensely.

But most importantly, there needed to be a better origin for Vision. What they might have done was to have Vision be created as a weapon against the Avengers, and then develop a conscience and rebel against Ultron. It might have been tricky to fit into a single film, but it would have certainly been better than having Tony solve the problem he inadvertently created by, essentially, doing the exact same thing and getting a different result.

In summary, plot wise the film is kind of a mess. It jumps all over the place, throws out too many threads to wrap up, and fumbles some of the ones it tries.

All that said, I still really like it. The story is all over the map, but what goes on in it is entertaining as heck, with great action sequences like the Avengers versus Hydra in the opening (which starts with a spectacular ‘oner’ showing all the individual Avengers doing their thing) or Iron Man versus an out-of-control Hulk using the ‘Hulkbuster’ armor (called ‘Veronica’) or Cap’s one-on-one running battle with Ultron, which he knows he can’t possibly win but he gives a heck of a fight anyway, all culminating in the Avenger’s all-out battle with Ultron and his drones in Sokovia while the whole city is levitated into the air to be used as a planet-killing meteor, which is just a gloriously comic-book-style conceit.

This final battle climaxes in a glorious scene where the Avengers all assemble to defend the ruined church against Ultron’s armies, creating a striking image of superheroes defending sacred ground and seeking to purge it of the evil corrupting it (I don’t think the symbolism quite goes far enough – since they’re ultimately trying to keep Ultron away from his own weapon rather than defending the church as such, but it’s certainly a possible interpretation and a glorious image nonetheless).

And, of course, it’s all featuring the same great characters we’ve been getting to know for over ten film now, and they’re just as entertaining and interesting as ever. One of the best scenes of the film has them just sitting around a room chatting, which turns into a party game where they each try to life Thor’s hammer (Steve is the only one who budges it. I really think he ought, by all rights, to be able to lift it, but as a friend pointed out, it’s possible he’s faking so as not to embarrass Thor). As I said before, they really could do a whole film of just the Avengers hanging out together and it would still be hugely enjoyable.

We also get some more character development, particularly for the ones who haven’t had their own film in between. Banner’s dislike of using the Hulk and his tragic inability to ever have a normal life are re-emphasized, as is his sense of being hunted. When, in the end, the Hulk makes a particular choice, we understand why he’s doing it and feel the tragic logic of it.

Likewise we get to learn some more of Black Widow’s backstory, including glimpses of her nightmarish training (which included ballet lessons along with cold-blooded executions, perfectly highlighting her distinctive blend of femininity and violence). We also learn that she, like the other members of the program, was sterilized upon ‘graduation,’ ensuring she could never have a family or anything in her life more important than her mission. In other words, it was her handlers’ attempt to surgically strip her of her capacity for love and nurturing. It’s a disturbing touch; cool as Black Widow is, we’re made to see that she has literally been made to sacrifice part of her humanity to become what she now is, and though she is now on the side of the angels and has recovered her power to trust and love others, she can never truly have a ‘normal’ life (significantly, she’s the only one on the team who doesn’t even try to lift the hammer: she already knows the answer). She even calls herself a “monster” at one point, emphasizing how acutely aware she is of what’s been taken from her.

Naturally, given the world we live in, this development caused controversy in certain regions by people who found the idea of a sterilized woman calling herself a ‘monster’ to be offensive. But of course, the sterilization as such isn’t so much the point; it’s the logic behind it. She didn’t lose her power to conceive through illness or accident, but deliberately in an effort to make her a more efficient killer and to ensure she would never put anyone or anything before her mission. It is that, the stripping of her power to love and care for other people, symbolically embodied in her sterilization, that makes her a ‘monster’ in her own eyes. It’s all the more tragic as we are able to see from her behavior in this and the other films that she actually has the warmth and love to make a very good mother, and that it’s implied in her flashbacks that she tried to deliberately fail to avoid the procedure, but she was too talented for her trainers to allow that.

This is a striking and haunting detail, showing us just what a tragedy Natasha’s life really is, along with Bruce’s, and continuing her trend of being one of the most flat-out interesting characters in the franchise.

But this tragedy is balanced by the long-overdue development of Hawkeye, who, we discover, actually has a wife and two kids (with a third on the way), whom he keeps carefully off of everyone’s radar, but who give his life and mission a degree of purpose that the rest of the team generally lacks (while embodying what Tony wanted to be able to give them by creating Ultron). I absolutely love the scenes at chez Barton, whether it’s his wife’s awkwardly homely welcome (“I…know all your names”) or their warm spousal conversations where she expresses both her pride and her concern about his ‘Avenging.’ There’s a great detail where Hawkeye gets wounded in the opening battle, then has it patched by Dr. Cho’s new artificial skin technology, which she assures him “even your girlfriend won’t be able to tell the difference” (“I don’t have a girlfriend,” he answers, to which she comments “Well, I can’t fix that”). But when he talks about it to his wife, she tells him that she can indeed feel the difference.

This is a great bit not only because it demonstrates her love and concern for him, but also as a way of subtly showing the limits of technology; Dr. Cho’s process is technically perfect, but she can’t account for love. Rather like how Ultron himself can’t fully account for humanity (this would have been even more striking if the latter theme had been better followed through, but oh well).

They also poke fun at the popular idea of Hawkeye being comparatively useless. When he’s recovering from his wound, Natasha jokes, “pretending to need this guy really ties the team together.” Hawkeye himself later comments on how fighting an army of robots in a flying city with a bow and arrow makes no sense. But his wife points out that, with the rest of the team emotional powder kegs, they really do need the stable, responsible family man, the ordinary guy to keep them in check. Hawkeye also gets some awesome moments in his own right, such as being the only team member to avoid Wanda’s mind manipulation (commenting that he’s already done the mind-control thing). Generally speaking, he finally gets to have a substantial role, and it’s very cool to see.

Stark gets a bit more development as well, showcasing how terrified he is at the thought of the earth being destroyed and his friends dying because he didn’t do enough (“That’s my legacy” he laments at one point, following the character thread started way back in the first Iron Man). Which, of course, leads to his ill-judged attempt at a final solution for “peace in our time.” This makes perfect sense, given Tony’s character. He’s an engineer and inventor, and to his mind there must always be a final solution, a way to automate, to remove the possibility of human error. Except that, as with so many previous attempts at automating humanity, it simply doesn’t work that way.

Cap understands things better. “Every time someone tries to stop a war before it starts, people die,” he tells Stark. When he tries to talk Ultron down by saying “no one needs to break anything,” both Ultron and Tony come back with a variation on the “can’t make an omelet” line. In other words, Cap is of the view that it’s better to lose the right way than try to win at all costs, and that you can’t guarantee a good outcome, you can only try your best. Tony puts his faith in structure and systems, Cap on human virtue and trust.

These two perspectives, touched on in The Avengers and latent throughout the series, will continue to be with us and to inform the choices of our two protagonists all the way to the end.

Thor probably has the least to do of the returning Avengers, to the point where the film either disables him or sends him off on a side quest for a good part of the second act (which quest ultimately doesn’t amount to anything except inspiring him to go along with creating Vision, which wouldn’t have been necessary had that event been worked into the story better). The film also seems to forget that he’s more or less banished from Asgard and can’t just go back whenever he wants.

But then, it also pretty much just ignores the fact that Tony trashed all his suits and retired (not that the latter was really worth remembering, but it still feels jarring). It is as if the only film the writer thought worth keeping was Winter Soldier, as dealing with the fall-out of SHIELD’s collapse kickstarts this film’s plot (Falcon, unfortunately, only has a few short cameos, which is explained by him running down leads on the Winter Soldier, though I don’t see why he couldn’t have shown up with War Machine in the final battle). One touch I particularly liked was that the same brave technician who stood up to Rumlow in that film reappears working on the bridge of the Helicarrier. That’s the kind of thing that almost no one in the audience will really notice except for long time fans, but shows a great deal of commitment on the part of the filmmakers.

On the other hand, just where Fury had the Helicarrier stashed and how he’s able to get it out when he’s supposed to be ‘dead’ and SHIELD doesn’t exist anymore is never addressed, nor will it ever be in subsequent films. It’s implied he’s kept up a form of SHIELD in the background, but it’s never explained.

As for the new characters, Wanda and Pietro don’t get too much development: they have very good chemistry, and Wanda has a good moment where she breaks down in a panic during the final battle, realizing what her actions have brought (though Barton’s the one who shines here as the veteran soldier reassuring the young rookie, including giving her a way out if she wants it), but again they’re never quite allowed to come to terms with how misguided their actions were (in particular, Wanda never seriously shows regret or gets called to account for unleashing the Hulk on a city full of innocents). Pietro has a lot of fun as a cock-sure, immature speedster, while Wanda gets to be the more mature and level-headed one (even though, as he says, “I’m twelve minutes older than you!”). Their relationship with Ultron is kind of interesting, as he genuinely seems to care for them in his own way.

There’s also Vision, who benefits immensely from being partially constructed from Jarvis, a character we already know and like. His simple goodness and heroics are quite appealing, serving as the angelic counterpart to the diabolic Ultron, though he doesn’t get too much time to develop. His philosophical musings range from good (“A thing isn’t beautiful because it lasts”) to banal (“they think order and chaos are somehow opposites”), but I suppose we can’t expect too much better. He does at least get an iconic heroic moment where he rescues Wanda from the exploding city, Superman-style.

Meanwhile, we also get Andy Serkis in a scene-stealing cameo as Ulysses Klaue, the fearsome and eccentric African arms dealer, who is the one man who’s managed to steal Vibranium from Wakanda. He creates a strong first impression by putting the Maximoff twins in their place with sheer force of personality (“I’m afraid that I’m not that afraid”), then doing a deal with Ultron. We…will come back to him in a later entry.

The great snappy Avengers humor is back, for the most part, with things like the running “language!” gag (which also deftly re-establishes Tony and Steve’s characters), Tony’s disbelief at Barton’s family, Barton’s continual snark, Tony and Steve questioning the rules of Mjolnir (“if you put the hammer in an elevator..”), and Ultron’s…oddities (like when he reacts to the twins fleeing in horror from his scheme by shouting “Come on, guys!” like a petulant kid whose friends took a joke too seriously). On the other hand, the film sometimes sprinkles in humor at the wrong times, as when we get Ultron reacting to the Hulk with comical frustration right in the middle of mourning a character’s death. Doesn’t happen too often (not nearly as bad as Iron Man 3, for instance), but much more so than in the first film.

There’s also just a lot of really good lines: “How long before you trust me?” “It’s not you I don’t trust.” “I was asleep…or was I a dream?” “Make it right or the next missile I send you will come very much faster.” “Human life; not a growth market.” “I’m just an old man who cares very much about you.” “Keep your friends rich and your enemies rich and wait to see which is which,” and so on. We also get what is probably Stan Lee’s best cameo of the series to date, as an Omaha Beach veteran who dares to try Thor’s thousand-year-old Asgardian mead.

Most importantly, the unabashed heroism of the first film is still there in full force, from Cap mobilizing the twins into saving civilians from a runaway train to Tony taking such logical steps as temporarily immobilizing the Hulk while he gets his armor on and trying to fly him out of town, the film makes sure the Avengers are always trying to put the innocent first. At the end, when it looks like the only option is to blow up the flying city to save the world, Cap objects “I’m not leaving this rock as long as there’s a single civilian on it,” to which Black Widow answers, “I didn’t suggest we leave.” The waters are muddied a bit by the fact that, again, the situation is ultimately Tony’s fault, and to a lesser extent Bruce, Wanda, and Pietro’s, but even then the former two at least were trying to protect the world and prevent things like this from happening and spend the film trying to correct their mistake.

In summary, Age of Ultron is a big step down from its predecessor; it tries to tackle too much, fails to settle on what it wants to be about, and makes a number of key mistakes along the way. But that still leaves a lot of room for an extremely entertaining and thrilling superhero adventure full of iconic moments. The characters are still great, the dialogue and humor are mostly solid, and the action scenes are spectacular. It’s a potent blend of flaws and virtues that nevertheless ends up being well worth watching.

 

Thoughts on ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’

Past entries:
Iron Man
The Incredible Hulk
Iron Man 2
Thor
Captain America: The First Avenger

The Avengers
Iron Man 3
Thor: The Dark World
Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Now here is a film that no one expected. After their long string of unbroken financial success, Marvel took all their money and audience good will and put it into a quirky, creative, comedic space opera with a pop-70s soundtrack. It’s one of those lightning-in-a-bottle films that comes along every now and again that sets a completely different tone, so that it doesn’t feel quite like any other film: something like The Princess Bride or Ghostbusters, and while Guardians isn’t as good as either of those films, it strikes a similar (which is to say, totally dissimilar) note.

The film opens with an unexpectedly somber tone, with young Peter Quill standing by his mother’s deathbed. She asks him to take her hand, but he’s unwilling to do so until it’s too late. Distraught, he runs out of the hospital, where he’s abducted by a spaceship. Twenty years later, we meet the same Quill, still with his Walkman and his mother’s favorite mix tape, raiding a deserted city on an alien planet for a mysterious orb that, as it turns out, is also coveted by an imposing galactic terrorist named Ronan. While trying to sell the orb, Quill ends up crossing paths with a motley group of fellow misfits, all of whom have their own motive for wanting to get involved. There’s Gamora, an ally of Ronan’s who is actually looking to stop both him and her adoptive father, Thanos (briefly glimpsed at the end of The Avengers and here serving as Ronan’s backer) from committing any more massacres like the one she survived; Rocket and Groot, a pair of ne’er-do-well bounty hunters who are, respectively, a cybernetically-modified raccoon with a massive chip on his shoulder and a living tree with incredible strength and regenerative powers, but a highly limited vocabulary; and finally Drax the Destroyer, a hulking, single-minded maniac looking to avenge his wife and daughter by killing Ronan, and who has trouble understanding the concept of ‘metaphor.’ Together, they end up forming an unlikely team to try to keep the orb out of Ronan’s hands.

So, this is a very quirky, strange cast (I haven’t even mentioned Gamora’s cyborg-sister, Nebula, or Quill’s space-pirate foster father, Yondu) set in a very creative universe, and the film runs with its own creativity. There is just so much personality to these people, from Rocket’s compulsive tinkering and odd obsession with body parts to Yondu’s fondness for cute little figurines. Even minor characters like the broker or Nova Prime, despite having minimal screen time, nevertheless make an impression as real, individual people.

But on top of their personality, the cast are all noticeably human characters; characters who, as we learn, are all suffering and broken one way or another (the one exception is Groot, whose backstory we never learn and who seems the most cheerful and well-adjusted of the team). Even the talking raccoon has scenes where he legitimately tugs at the heartstrings and makes the audience feel his pain.

In a way, it’s a little like what made something like Muppet Christmas Carol work so well; that despite all the craziness going on, the characters are played more or less straight. When Rocket berates Drax for thoughtlessly endangering the team at one point, it ought to be ridiculous; you have a talking raccoon yelling at a tattooed lunatic while a living tree recoils in shock. But it’s honestly affecting because the characters are so well established and sell the scene as making a serious point.

This actually helps to make the humor all the more effective, since so much of it simply comes from the characters being themselves and bouncing off one another. But because they’re not always ‘on,’ because the humor is blended with the drama based on their very real pain, it’s able to remain unexpected and hilarious without clashing with the more serious moments. There’s a bit where Drax sincerely thanks the others for being his friends…during which he casually refers to Gamora as “this green whore,” turning the moment to comedy. But since we’ve been sold on the fact that this is how Drax is, it doesn’t feel forced or jarring; it’s just what you would expect from him. Which, in a way, reinforces rather than detracts from the drama by reminding us of how strange and broken these characters are.

On that note, the film does a very good job of selling their pain, and showing them propping each other up into a kind of surrogate family unit. What’s more, it shows how having this team not only eases their pain, but makes them better people. Quill makes a self-sacrificing gesture to rescue Gamora. Drax expresses regret for endangering his friends. Rocket starts to show actual concern for others.

The opening of the main plot sets the tone perfectly; we see Quill, in his red-eyed helmet, exploring a deserted world of ruins, passing through ghostly holograms of the past inhabitants (a little girl playing with her dog hints at lost innocence). Then he enters a particular ruin, takes off his mask, puts on his Walkman, and begins dancing through the ruin to the song ‘Come and Get Your Love.’ This not only sets the tone of the film and its soundtrack, but also establishes Quill’s off-beat competence; he’s goofy enough to be listening to a pop-song while exploring a monster-infested ruin, but skilled and agile enough to get away with it.

This ties into something else the film does very well with its oddball cast: that each of them has a very distinct fighting style to go along with their personality. Gamora is no-nonsense, precise, almost balletic. Rocket relies on gadgets and firearms. Groot is pure physical power, while Drax is an unfettered berserker. And Quill balances all of them with an unpredictable, improvisational style heavily reliant on quick-thinking and gadgets to catch his enemies off guard.

In short, the development on the five lead characters is excellent, leavened by a brightly colorful supporting cast. The one exception is the main villain, Ronan, who, like many MCU villains before him is intimidating, but pretty bland. That said, he’s not nearly as bad as, say, Maleketh, as he is given a clearer motivation and stronger characterization as basically an outer space Bin Laden. Besides which, he is certainly an imposing figure, not just from his demonstrated power but from the pall he casts over the rest of the film. Again and again, the characters talk about how terrifying and hateful Ronan is; Nova Prime is introduced begging the Kree ambassador to at least condemn his attacks, saying, “he is slaughtering children!” (the Kree shrug off the demand as “that’s your problem”). When the characters are thrown in prison, the whole cell-block begins snarling at Gamora since, as Rocket explains, most of the people in there had lost family members to Ronan and she’s a known associate of his (thus clearly establishing the massive gulf between Ronan and the ordinary low-lives of the galaxy). Even someone as jaded as Rocket is both disgusted by and flat-out terrified of Ronan, calling him a ‘genocidal maniac’ and figuring his best chance is to flee to the other side of the galaxy in the hopes that he’ll be dead before Ronan gets there.

Of course, one could argue that having a very flat and serious bad guy is a good choice for a film with such colorful and comedic heroes. Certainly he’s someone who is convincingly evil enough that a bunch of crooks and low-lives feel compelled to stand up to him to protect the innocent. And his grim, no-nonsense person leads to a great pay-off where he and Quill finally come face-to-face, with the fate of the galaxy hanging in the balance…and Quill challenges him to a dance off. It’s probably the first time anyone has dared to not take Ronan seriously, and he’s clearly (and believably) at a total loss of what to make of it.

This follows on the fact that, as noted, the Guardians are all very human characters; they’re not the most moral people in the world, but they do know right from wrong and aren’t out to really hurt anyone, so that when faced with a monster planning to wipe out billions of innocent lives, they know full well what side they’re on.

In the same vein, I like how, once they discover that the orb actually contains an Infinity Stone – Violet this time – the Guardians are practically in a panic to realize just what they’ve been carrying around; like petty crooks discovering that they’ve been transporting a nuclear weapon. For some of them, their first instinct is just to drop the thing and run.

Perhaps most importantly, though the heroes are low-life crooks, at the end of the day they’re in it to try to save genuinely good people, who are grateful in turn for the assistance. This leads to a great climactic sky-battle with the Guardians, pirates, and the authorities all teaming up to stop Ronan. The battle includes some great conceits, such as Rocket and the pirates trying to shoot down Ronan’s suicide bombers and the military craft linking together to physically try to push Ronan’s ship back (on that note, I like how, though the crooks are the protagonists, the forces of law and order aren’t artificially made out to be the bad guys as they are in, say, the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels).

As you can see, like Iron Man and Winter Soldier, the film actually touches on some real-life issues – again, Ronan is very much reminiscent of a real terrorist – but does so both with a relatively light touch and in a way hardly any sane person could dispute: terrorism is bad and evil, and people who stand up to it are heroic.

But as noted, it’s also about how this team of misfits end up coming to care for one another, and in so doing not only discovering how to be (in Quill’s self-descriptive words) “Incredibly heroic”, but also finding a salve for their own pain just in the fact that now they have someone to share it with. This is best shown at the climax, where, in the midst of a terrible destructive force, they each take one another’s hand and so share the pain and anguish enough to make it bearable. Afterwards, in the denouement, we’re shown how Quill is able to finally come to terms with his mother’s death, literally setting the tone for his new life and new family.

In short, the film pretty much nails its dramatic beats, from the understated possible-romance between Quill and Gamora, to Rocket’s hair-trigger defensive temper, to the implacable hostility of Ronan. But it does this amid some truly hilarious comedy: Drax’s literal-mindedness and general insanity (“Do not ever call me a thesaurus!”), the endless variations of “I am Groot,” Rocket’s love for dangerous ordinance (“That’s for if you want to blow up moons”), Quill’s frustrated attempts to get people to call him by his ‘outlaw name’ of Star Lord, and on and on. It’s probably the funniest film thus far in the series, and it’s funny in a style that (for the moment at least) is all its own: a madcap blend of space-opera, ‘70s pop music, genuine drama, and sheer eccentricity.

On top of all that, the film does a great job of creating this wonder-filled, crazy universe. For instance, there are almost no blank space fields in film, where it’s only stars. Instead the starscapes are full of brightly-colored clouds and nebulae. One of the worlds they visit is actually the enormous severed skull of an ancient celestial being, which is just a delightfully insane sci-fi concept. Granted, most of the aliens amount to little more than multi-colored people, but there’s nothing wrong with that, and they’re supplemented by sufficiently weird figures, like the little vicious kangaroo-rats, to keep things interesting. Visually, the film is great.

If I were going to cite flaws, the main one would be, again, that Ronan is a fairly dull villain, though not too bad, and that I’d say there’s probably more sex humor than was really necessary. A film like this really cries out to be seen by kids, and the frequent jokes about Quill’s ‘experience’ are really the only thing standing in the way of that. They’re not bad jokes, it just seems to me that they weren’t needed and the film would have been better without them.

As far as the series as a whole goes, Guardians is easily the most independent story to date, with only the Infinity Stones (and the Collector’s cameo at the end of Thor: The Dark World) linking it with the rest of the MCU. This is a good thing, I think; it side-steps the potential problem – already beginning to grow – that the films are incomplete as stand-alone stories, and keeps things fresh, adding new dimensions and new storylines to the franchise.

In short, Guardians is one of the best films in the series thus far; a thoroughly satisfying stand-alone space-opera-comedy with a unique personality and tone. More than anything, it shows that the MCU was still willing to be creative, take risks, and deliver on pure entertainment.

Equality at the Everyman

At the Everyman today, I discuss why holding ‘equality’ up as an ideal is a terrible, terrible idea:

Which raises a more fundamental issue. Before you can say any two things are equal, you first have to have a common and objective standard of measurement between them. I can say that two people are of equal height because ‘height’ is an empirical measurement. But honesty, virtue, intelligence, wisdom, kindness, talent, beauty, and all the other factors by which we judge men are not empirically measurable (an IQ score is not an objective measure of intelligence, so that a man with an IQ of 100 is exactly twenty points smarter than a man with 80. It only serves, at best, to give a general idea of relative intelligence).

Thus, ‘equality’ cannot really apply to human beings in any meaningful sense. You cannot measure, say, wisdom and create a scale by which one man can be compared to another. We can identify these things to a greater or lesser degree, but we cannot empirically measure them. Moreover, these qualities are incommensurable: they cannot be compared one to another (how does talent measure up against wisdom? how many ‘units’ of beauty are equal to a single unit of virtue?). Moreover, even if we could, anyone can see that we would not, in fact, find ‘equality’ even between any two given individuals, let alone across the entire human race.

What this all amounts to is that ‘equality’ is simply meaningless when applied to human beings. Law is ‘equal’ in the sense of applying indiscriminately among the population (‘indiscriminate’ would probably would be a better term in the first place), but to say that all men are ‘equal’ in any other sense is simply a misuse of language, like saying that painting is on a level with music. The point is that there is no ‘level’ by which the two can be compared.

Read the rest here.

Thrilling Adventure Stories Presents: The Four Sleuths in The Trap Closes

 

Sarah Rockford returned to consciousness by slow degrees, resisting the process at every step, for the more aware she became, the more her head pounded and her muscles ached. She dimly hoped that she was dreaming, and that when she did finally become fully awake it would be to discover that she was in her own bed in her own little apartment, with these cramps nothing more than the result of a weird sleeping position. Or even better, maybe she’d wake up to find she wasn’t alone in her bed, and…

Sarah didn’t usually have dreams like that, and the realization of what she was thinking about jerked her fully awake. She wasn’t alone, but neither was she in bed. The pounding in her skull re-doubled, and her cramped muscles seemed to scream at her. She was sitting on a cold floor with her back against what felt like a slender steel girder. Her legs were stretched out in front of her and her arms held high over her head. An exploratory tug told her that here wrists were shackled in place. A strip of tape covered her mouth, while more of the same stuff affixed her waist to what felt like a steel girder.

She shook her golden head to clear it and looked around. The place where she had found herself was very dim, but not quite dark. She was able to see that she was bound to one of the support beams of a huge shelf that stretched from one end of the space to another and almost up to the ceiling overhead. It was clearly one of many in the building, and her legs stretched out into an aisleway between the shelves. She couldn’t quite make out what was on them; thick cylinders and crates by the looks of things.

Sarah turned her gaze along her own shelf and saw that there were other figures bound in the same way all down it; her friends. The one to her left was looking back, his eyes glittering slightly in the gloom. It was Andre. On her right, she saw Karen, who was either still unconscious or else slumped over in despair, while on Karen’s other side she could see the dim outline of Nick, who seemed to be sitting quite still.

Between her and Karen was the only clear spot of color in view: a red, luminous digital counter. Sarah squinted to try to make it out. It read four-minutes, forty-one seconds. Forty seconds. Thirty-nine…

With a sudden, sick jolt, Sarah remembered everything; their disastrous mission to Deaney’s house, Mr. Cummings’s ambush and revelation of his plans. This must be the chemical supply warehouse owned by Centron Farms, and that was the bomb that would unleash the cloud of poison gas over the city.

Say rather the bombs. As her sight adjusted to the gloom, Sarah perceived that the one with the digital read out was only the trigger; there were wires running from it all along the shelves, glinting a little in the dim light. She could feel one with her fingers as she flexed and pulled on the handcuffs. The whole shelf was lined to blow, and to take them with it!

Sarah screamed aloud for help, momentarily forgetting her gag. It did no good, of course. Karen turned to her, and Sarah saw blank despair in the other woman’s glittering dark eyes. Of course, Karen knew how hard it was to get out of these handcuffs better than any of them, and the cuffs were cruelly tight. Meanwhile, the counter continued its unwavering march towards zero: three-minutes fifty-five seconds. Fifty-four. Fifty-three…

Sarah was quite right in her assessment of Karen’s thoughts. She had woken up a little before Sarah and identified their position. A quick assessment told her that there was no chance at all for them to escape in time; the handcuffs were too tight. They were separated one from the other by about five feet, so there was no chance of collaborating. They couldn’t even try to work out a plan together, since their mouths were taped shut. A quick exploration with her fingertips revealed nothing within reach that might be able to pick the lock, and the odds of their being rescued were about zero. And the bomb was counting down rapidly.

Karen wasn’t the kind of girl who gave up easily, but she also had a very logical mindset, and pure, cold logic told her that they had no chance of escaping.

She struggled hard to think of something, anything to avoid that conclusion, but it was no good. Death, which she had cheated one way or another so many times over the past few days, had at last caught up with her, and with her friends as well. The terrible thoughts of ‘what would have happened,’ which had broken her formidable self-control when she was out of sight of the others, were now being realized. There was no hope; they were really going to die. And she was more afraid than she ever would have admitted as she watched the clock counting down; three-minutes eight seconds. Seven. Six…

Meanwhile, Andre Fireson’s fear was almost completely swallowed in anger. It wasn’t right that they should go out like this after all they’d been through. He looked down the row at Sarah, her bright gold hair shining even in the darkness. Had he saved her life more than once just to have her die here? And Karen and Nick too. That wasn’t right. He wouldn’t allow that.

And it wasn’t right that Cummings should get away with it after all. Dammit, they had a responsibility to the people of the city! All the innocents who would die in this ‘accident,’ and he didn’t meant to shirk that duty; not as long as he could still breathe. He thrust back the creeping despair that threatened to envelope his heart and twisted his cuffs, thinking that maybe he could break them off against the metal of the shelf.

Two-minutes, thirty-two seconds. Thirty-one. Thirty.

Nick Windworth sat very still, weighing their options. It wasn’t looking good; not good at all. Of course, there were things one could do to get out of handcuffs…or try to at least. Why had he gotten involved in this whole mess in the first place? He could have been well out of town by now, if he’d been smart. Safe and gone, leaving the problem to others. He’d done his bit and more long ago, hadn’t he? And hadn’t he decided to wash his hands of this sort of thing once he realized he wasn’t the same stupid, idealistic kid anymore? So what madness had possessed him to get involved this time?

He looked to his left and saw Karen Stillwater slumped against her bonds, her black hair hanging limp over her face like a shroud, but the richness of her figure outlined in the gloom.

Ah, who’re you kidding? He thought. You’re still a dumb kid, especially if you’re feeling that. And at your age!

The thought took him back to the things he’d learned when was still young; the things he’d had to do, and which he’d hoped he’d never have to do again. But the sight of Karen, slumped in fear and despair, gave him the resolve to at least try.

A sudden clang echoed through the warehouse as Nick slammed his hand as hard as he could against the support beam he was shackled against. A groan of pain escaped his gagged lips as the metacarpal of his left thumb snapped and dislocated.

So far so good, he thought grimly. The others were all looking at him now. He could see Karen’s glittering dark brown eyes, and there was puzzlement as well as fear in there now. Nick forced himself to look at her while he tried to work his hand – now misshapen from the blow – out of the tight cuffs.

One minute, twenty seconds. Nineteen. Eighteen.

The broken bone ground against the steel edge of the cuff, and Nick’s nerves screamed at him. He groaned back, biting down hard on the wad of cloth in his mouth. But it was coming through. One more thought of Karen, and with a final burst of pain he yanked his hand free.

Forty-seven seconds. Forty-six. Forty-five.

Nick didn’t waste time on the gag, but set to work at once on the tape holding him to the base of the beam. He flipped the now-empty cuff through the lock so that the pointed tip swung free and, holding it in his one functional hand, used the point to tear through the tape.

Thirty seconds. Twenty-nine. Twenty-eight.

Nick pulled free, stumbled as the torn line of tape snagged at him, ripped it off and threw it aside as he hurried to the digital counter.

Sixteen. Fifteen. Fourteen.

Nick drew a deep, calming breath, trying to think through the pain in his hand. He couldn’t see the controls well, so he picked up the bomb, carefully, and pulled it back a little into the comparative light.

Ten. Nine. Eight.

There were three buttons on the side, and no time to work out which of them did which. No time to play ‘eeny-meeny-miney-moe’ either. He pressed the first one.

Five. Four. Three.

Nothing at all happened, so he pressed the second. The timer stopped a two seconds left.

Nick let loose a sigh of relief, gingerly set the bomb back, and ripped the gag from his mouth, spitting out the blood-soaked bits of cloth.

“Piece of cake,” he said.

It took a few minutes for Nick to find a crowbar with which to break the handcuffs and free the others, and when he had they gathered around in a huddle, where of course the first thing they wanted to know was how Nick had escaped.

“You broke your own thumb?” Andre exclaimed.

“Well, yeah,” said Nick with a shrug. “If it’s a choice between a thumb and life, it’s not really that hard of a call to make.”

Karen stared at him, but he couldn’t make out her expression in the gloom. His hand was swelling up badly.

“That was good thinking,” said Sarah. “Thanks!”

Everyone echoed her sentiments, and Nick felt rather pleased with himself.

“So…now what?” she asked. “Go to the police?”

“No,” said Karen. “Things the way they are, they probably wouldn’t believe us and we’d just end up in jail.”

“I’m sure Cummings will have anticipated we might break out,” said Andre. “He’s probably got a back up plan. As a matter of fact, he’s probably putting it in place as we speak; they obviously know something’s gone wrong by now.”

“If I were Cummings,” said Nick thoughtfully. “And the bomb didn’t go off when planned, I would assume that we had gotten free and stopped it somehow, as in fact we have. What’s the next step?”

“The obvious thing to do would be either to go to the police or to try to get out of town,” said Karen.

“And his next move would be to simply start the bomb again,” said Nick. “He does that fast enough, the gas might kill us before we can get out, and even if he doesn’t, his plan’s gone off, so to speak.”

“That means he’s probably sending men over to do so right…” Andre began, but then froze. They had all heard it; the door to the warehouse opening.

Nick gestured to the others, and they all hurried down the row in search of a place to hide, but not before Andre grabbed the wires leading from the trigger and yanked them out. They could see several flashlights shining from the far end of the row, casting irregular shadows as they streamed in and out among the shelves. The four of them reached the far end of the aisle and pressed themselves against the end of the shelves on either side: Nick and Karen on one, Andre and Sarah on the other.

The men came without caution, talking aloud. Andre glanced down the rows and counted three; all with flashlights and it looked as though they all carried pistols as well.

“Any sign of them?”

“Nope; here’s where they were.”

“How the hell’d they get out?”

“Beats me.”

“Gallano’s gonna be furious about this.”

“Doesn’t matter; they can’t have gotten far and once the bomb goes off they’ll be dead anyway. Now hurry up and get it going again.”

Suddenly, Andre had an idea. It came to him all at once: complete and perfect.

“Sarah,” he whispered. “Listen very carefully…”

###

The three men examined the bombs and one of them (who looked more like a banker than a thug) sighed.

“Took out the triggering wires,” he said. “Probably figured the whole thing couldn’t be detonated that way. Too bad for them I always come prepared!”

“Yeah, yeah; just get on with it. We don’t need to caught here when the cops show up.”

“Who says they’re going to?” said the bomb expert. “Way I understand it, Gallano and Deaney’ve got them well in hand. If those four losers go to the cops, they’ll just stall ‘em until it goes off.”

As he spoke he drew out a line of wire from his pocket and started to attach them to the trigger.

“Hold it!”

The three men whipped around. Detective Karen Stillwater was striding up the aisle, cool as could be, aiming what looked to be a pistol at them.

“Drop your weapons and put your hands on your heads,” she ordered.

Her voice had such confidence that two of the men began to do as she said.

“Hold it,” said the bomb expert, frowning at her.

The other two froze.

“I said drop them, now!” she snapped.

“Where’s you light, detective?” asked the expert.

“You’ve got until three to drop your weapons and put your hands on your head,” she ordered, ignoring him. “One…”

“Shoot her!” shouted the expert, as he ducked.

Karen swore as the other two rose and aimed their guns at her. With no better options, she ducked and threw the pair of pliers that she’d been trying to pass off as a gun straight at the nearest thug’s head. She had a good arm, and the man was forced to dodge, throwing off his aim. Even so, it would have been bad for her had she been alone.

As the second thug took aim at her, he was suddenly tackled from behind. The whole time Karen had been bluffing the three men, Andre Fireson had slipped as quietly as he could down another aisle and come up behind them while they were focused on her. He drove his man to the ground, and the gun went spinning out of his hand and under one of the shelves. Andre didn’t wait to finish him off, but sprang up and went for the other one, who was turning to fire on him. Andre knocked the gun to one side, and the warehouse echoed as it went off. In the confusion of the flash and the sound, Andre’s fist caught the thug on the side of his jaw, then a blow to the stomach, then another to the face, backing the man against the shelves, the contents of which rattled with the impact.

The expert, meanwhile, was backing away from the fight, reaching for his own pistol. But even as he drew it, Karen came flying like a gazelle and caught the weapon as it came out of his holster, then drove her knee up into his crotch before twisting his elbow hard, forcing the weapon from his limp fingers. She took the gun, elbowed him on the back of the neck to drop him. She gasped in pain as the blow caused the knife wound in her chest to open again, but for the moment adrenaline kept her going as she turned back to the fight.

But the thug Andre had tackled to the floor had risen and was on her even as she turned. He caught her wrist, which was slender in his beefy hand, and twisted hard. She yelled and the gun dropped to the floor. The man dove for it, and Karen kicked it away, sending it spinning under the shelves.

Enraged, he hit her hard across the face. Her head swam and she tasted blood, but long training and practice kept her aware as he seized her dark hair with one big hand and pulled her head back thinking, no doubt, that he would hold her up while he beat her. Instead, as he yanked her head back, her hand came up and raked her nails across his eye. This wasn’t enough to make him let go, but he did pause in his assault to yell and clutch at the injury, and while he was so distracted Karen lifted her foot and stomped hard onto the side of his knee. She weighed probably half of what he did, if that, but caught unawares and from a weak angle the man went down hard onto the concrete floor. Unfortunately, he didn’t let go of her hair until she’d been pulled off balance as well. She caught herself and as he looked up she kicked him hard in the face.

While all this was going on, Andre was trading blows with his man, seeking to put him down. His opponent was tough; he had about a foot on Andre, and the muscle and weight to back it up. Even so, Andre’s hard, well-trained body was up to the challenge, and he dodged and weaved, pounding the man’s core while the other tried to land a knockout blow.

The thug threw a big swing, Andre leaned back out of the way, then countered with a jab to the nose, then an uppercut to the gut and a cross to the jaw. The thug reeled, and Andre pressed his advantage with another, harder blow to the jaw, then finally a powerful blow to the temple. The thug dropped.

Andre whipped around in time to see Karen kicking her man hard in the face. He growled and blood flew, but he still rose, aiming an uppercut at her as he did so. She stepped back out of the way just in time. Andre charged in from behind and drove his fist up into the man’s kidney. The man howled in pain and tried to turn to face him. That gave Karen the chance to run up behind him, leap up, and bring her right elbow down on the back of his neck, knocking him out.

“Not bad,” said Andre, breathing hard as he surveyed the three unconscious or feebly stirring men. “You okay?”

Karen could feel her face swelling up, and she was gripping her searing chest wound but nodded. “You?”

He rubbed his jaw and grinned. “Never better.”

“You might want to reconsider that, Mr. Fireson.”

They turned and saw a tall, slender figure coming down the aisle, flanked by two more men, but with pistols drawn.

“Mr. Gallano,” said Andre as he and Karen slowly raised their hands in surrender. “Didn’t expect to see you here. Deaney and Cummings have you running errands now, huh?”

“I am not afraid of getting my hands dirty, Mr. Fireson,” the drug lord answered. “It was I who tied you all in place. I frankly enjoyed the experience and hoped it would be the end of our relationship.”

“Still, it’s a little risky, all things considered,” said Andre. “A man of your stature doing wet work like this? Especially when your enemies are on the watch.”

Gallano hesitated, and Andre could tell he’d touched a sore spot.

“Your concerns are precisely why I was chosen for this…duty,” he said. “Mr. Cummings considered that I was the least likely person to put myself into such a position and hence would make discrediting any potential witnesses that much easier.”

“And of course you do whatever Cummings tells you,” said Andre.

“Enough!” said Gallano. “You’ve wasted too much of my time as it is. You two,” he gestured to his men. “Bind them again and re-set the bomb.”

Then he paused, shining his light on the floor, the up and down the aisle.

“Where are the others?” he demanded

“Running an errand,” said Andre. “In fact…”

The overhead lights suddenly blossomed to life. Gallano whipped around and found himself covered by six uniformed police officers, plus two men in ragged old suits, one of whom snapped a picture just as he turned. Behind the line of cops, was a round-shouldered, nondescript man, and beside him, hardly to be seen, just the top of a head of shiny gold hair.

Gallano and his men froze in utter astonishment, so stunned by their sudden change in fortunes that they couldn’t take it in. Then a hand, slender but strong, took hold of Gallano’s wrist and twisted his arm behind his back.

“Eugenio Gallano, you are under arrest for conspiracy to commit murder,” said Detective Karen Stillwater.

###

“I still don’t get it,” said Earnest Marlin of United World News to Sarah while Karen and Andre directed the officers in handling the bomb and the disposal of the suspects. Sarah had already given him a summary of the conspiracy and the bomb plot. “How’d you bring us here just in time like this?”

“Once Nick and I slipped out the back, we just went to the nearest payphone,” she said. “I called you, and you very sweetly decided to trust me,” she beamed a radiant smile on him. “Nick called the police and told them there was a robbery in progress next door, just in case one of the bad guys were listening and would have gotten suspicious if he’d mentioned Centron Farms. Then when they showed up, he just directed them over here. But we didn’t really expect to catch Gallano himself, did we?”

“You’re not supposed to say that,” Nick admonished her. “When a con goes off better than you expected, you say you planned it that way from the beginning.”

“Well, as a matter of fact, the way we figured it, Gallano’d send those three to re-set the bomb. Andre and Karen stayed here to ambush them, then we’d hand them over to the cops and they would roll on the conspiracy, see? It was kind of a gamble, since who knew whether they would talk, but at least it would draw attention to the plot and they couldn’t cover that up. Plus it would certainly stop the bombing.”

“And you say Walter Deaney’s involved in this?”

“He’s one of the ringleaders,” said Sarah, nodding. “But not the leader: that’s James Arthur Cummings.”

“Never heard of him.”

“You will,” said Nick. “From the looks of it, Gallano can’t wait to tell all he knows. After all, if he keeps quiet, odds are one of his former employees down at the precinct will see to it he has an ‘accident’ in his cell. Oh, that reminds me; I called someone else too.”

DA Chen had just arrived, looking breathless and staring as he saw Gallano sitting handcuffed in a police car. Nick went up and offered his uninjured hand.

“District Attorney,” he said. “We’ve never formally met, but I had the pleasure of meeting your daughter while she was in the hospital. A lovely girl. Did you know Mr. Gallano here tried to have her murdered to get you off his back? Detective Crane can give you all the details.”

By the time the four of them left the warehouse in the company of the police and district attorney, the conspiracy that Mr. Cummings had been so proud of the night before was in the process of unraveling. Captain McLaglen and detectives Tyzack and Aldrige disappeared from the precinct, but Detective Crane and Marco Benton – who had been run down at last about a mile after dropping the two women off – were released from jail on the recognizance of the District Attorney. No one knew where Cummings was yet, but as Gallano disappeared into an interrogation room with Crane and Chen, it seemed only a matter of time.

As she sat in the precinct lobby with Andre, Karen, Nick, and Benton, Sarah Rockford felt safe for the first time since she’d learned of Deaney’s existence a few days before.

Nick was looking over Karen’s bruised and discolored cheek.

“You sure it doesn’t hurt too much?”

“I’ve been hit in the face many times before,” she said. “It’s a small price to pay.”

“I still say it should’ve been me,” he grumbled.

“You were in no position to fight with that hand,” she pointed out.

“I’ve fought with a broken thumb before,” he said.

“Oh? Where was that?”

“Country club.”

She cast him a suspicious look, then sighed.

“Well,” she said. “At least we’ve all come through it safe.”

“My thoughts exactly,” said Sarah. “And that reminds me; I’ve gotta go write this down! I promised the Spinner a piece for the evening edition.”

“Do you have to go right now?” asked Andre.

“Won’t be long,” she said. “Just a quick write up.”

“Very well, but after that, I am inviting you all to dinner at my house to celebrate,” said Andre. “That is, if you are feeling up to cooking, Marco.”

“Boss, this ain’t the first time I’ve been in stir,” said the hulking valet. “Of course I’m gonna cook! I’ll cook you all a meal that’ll make you sing!”

“None for me, thanks, I don’t sing,” said Nick.

“Oh, so we’ve found something you can’t do,” said Karen.

“There are lots of things I can’t do,” he said. “Hold down an honest comes to mind.”

Sarah laughed, but Karen didn’t.

“I’ll be just across the street,” Sarah said. “Be back in a little bit.”

“Hold on,” said Karen. “You shouldn’t go anywhere alone just yet.”

“Come on, it’s over,” said Sarah. “Besides, who’s gonna do anything right in front of a police station now that they don’t have any cops on the inside?”

“Just to be safe,” Karen answered, standing up. “Anyway, I can help you fill in the details.”

Sarah looked at her and saw there was more to it than that. So she shrugged and the two women waved to the men and left together.

Across the street in the little café they ordered coffee and Sarah took out the pen and notepad she’d borrowed from the precinct, but didn’t start writing. Karen obviously had something on her mind, and Sarah composed herself to be the perfect listener, as she often did when taking interviews.

“So? What’s on your mind?”

Karen thoughtfully ran one finger around the rim of her mug for a minute.

“Have you begun to think of what will happen next?” she asked.

Sarah shrugged.

“Not really. I mean, apart from writing it out and so on.”

“I mean where we all go from here.”

“Well, I hope we stay friends,” she said. “I mean, we’ve been hostages together! Twice! You can’t buy that kind of bond.”

Karen laughed.

“I’m sure we will; if only because I’d hate to miss sentiments like that. What I meant was…I suppose it’s early to think about it.”

“About what?”

“I am a detective, Sarah; I notice things. I’ve seen the way you and Andre look at each other.”

Sarah, who had been taking a sip of her coffee, choked.

“I…” she coughed. “You…I don’t…”

“We don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to,” Karen added hastily.

Sarah used a coughing fit to gain time to collect herself.

“Well, I…wait, did you say he looks at me, like…”

Karen smiled.

“Sarah, of course he does; you’re beautiful!”

Sarah knew that of course, but for the first time felt rather shy of the fact.

“So are you,” she said.

Karen gave a shrug and a rueful smile and said, “No, I’m not.”

“Of course you are! Look, if I took a shot of you right now, even with your face all busted up and your chest bandaged, and I sent it to a dozen magazines, I guarantee you’d have twice that many photographers knocking on your door by lunch time tomorrow.”

That made Karen laugh.

“I don’t believe you, but you make me feel better,” she said. “What I really wanted to talk to you about was whether…whether you think one of us would stay around if…if I asked him.”

Sarah knew what she meant at once. Quite apart from the obvious clues, such as the exchange she’d witnessed only a few minutes before, there was only one of their number who might be expected to disappear.

“I’m sure he would,” she said. “I don’t really know what goes on with him, but I get the idea he’s just…just waiting for a reason to stick around somewhere and go straight. And you’re a pretty good reason!”

“Let’s not go too fast,” said Karen. “I only want to…to have a little time.”

“Well,” said a male voice. “In that case, I suggest you keep very still, detective.”

The two women froze. The voice had come from the patron sitting behind Karen, whom Sarah had barely noticed. His head turned slightly, and she saw the profile of Captain McLaglen behind sunglasses and a baseball cap. Then another voice came from behind Sarah.

“Believe me, ladies, there is almost nothing I would like better than to kill you both, so don’t tempt me.”

It was the voice of Walter Deaney.

“We’re going to walk out of here,” he said. “Together. Easy and friendly. There’s a car waiting just around the corner. We’re going to get into it.”

“And then?” Karen asked in a low, tense voice.

Deaney smiled.

“That’ll depend on your boyfriends, won’t it?”