Yearly ‘Independence Day’ Tribute

Every year on the Fourth of July, I rewatch ‘Independence Day,’ and every year I re-post this summary of why it’s among my personal favorites.  

x538            When Independence Day came out, it was a huge hit, but ever since then it’s kind of become the poster-child for the big, dumb, CGI-fueled blockbusters of the late 90s. And, yes, in a way it is, but…well, that’s kind of beside the point.

The Story: On July 2nd, a massive alien craft appears in orbit around the earth and sends out an armada of city-sized flying saucers that take up position above several of the world’s major cities, including Los Angeles, New York, and Washington D.C. We then see the unfolding war of the worlds through the eyes of four American men and their families: underachieving New York cable company technician David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum), Los Angeles-based Marine pilot Steven Hiller (Will Smith), drunken Californian crop duster pilot Russell Casse (Randy Quaid), and the youthful President Whitmore (Bill Pullman).

So, is this movie pretty stupid? Sure. This is light science-fiction pulp, of the kind you might find in Amazing Stories, or in a drive-in theater in the late 1950s, only given a massive budget and an all-star cast. Granted, a lot of those classic films were better than this one (The War of the Worlds in particular does many of the same things while being an overall superior film), but none achieved the same sense of scale and grandeur as this one.

As for me, I’m glad we have it.

This is the movie that Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, or Invasion of the Saucer Men, or those 1940s serials dreamed of being. It’s pulp sci-fi done as an epic: national and world-spanning in scope, drenched in apocalyptic dread and patriotic defiance, with implacably hostile collectivist aliens pitted against scrappy, courageous, freedom-loving humans. It tackles big ideas of freedom, heroism, faith, family, and patriotism in a simple, but solid fashion. This may or may not sound appealing to you, but to the film’s credit is unambiguously knows what it’s trying to be and doesn’t make any apologies for it.

There are a lot of things to like about this movie. In the first place, it’s huge. Four main characters, each one carrying a small cast of supporting characters, a world-spanning plot involving a large-scale alien invasion targeting the major cities of the globe, huge airborne battles…it’s just a grand, glorious spectacle. Yet, amazingly enough, the film still manages to keep the focus largely on the people involved: we see these events through their eyes, and the real story of the film is how it affects them. It’s not done brilliantly, but it works. We very rarely leave the perspective of one of our leads, and then only briefly to illustrate things that they are talking or thinkings about. For instance, late in the film we have a brief glimpse of various armies around the world receiving and responding to the President’s call for a united counter-attack, but we quickly cut back to where the President and his military aids are receiving the answers.

At the same time, though, the four interconnected storylines make the film seem anything but constrained. On the contrary, the multiple-perspective format gives the story an epic feel that few subsequent blockbusters (Armageddon, Transformers, etc.) have successfully imitated. This is in stark contrast with Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, which though in some ways a better film was rendered all-but unbearable by the fact that we spent the whole thing welded to three boring and unpleasant characters.

The leads here, by contrast, are all charismatic and likable (though some might find Jeff Goldblum’s stammering speaking style annoying), as are most of the supporting characters. They’re not especially original, but they all have personality and serve as pleasant enough company. I particularly like Robert Loggia as the President’s right-hand general and Judd Hirsch as Goldblum’s father. It helps that most of them are played by veteran supporting players and character actors (including a pre-Firefly Adam Baldwin as the commander of Area 51 and a very young, pre-Avatar: The Last Airbender Mae Whitman as the President’s daughter). Even the SETI boss who only shows up in the opening scene is invested with life and character, thanks in part to old-pro Eric Avari. This is really one of the most impressive ensemble casts I can remember seeing in a 90s blockbuster.

More than that, though, it’s just a really good story and well-done adventure. It’s grand and epic, but also keeps focused. Appropriate for a film about the Fourth of July, the theme is pitting freedom and the American way of life against the encroaching forces of collectivist aliens backed with all-powerful technology. When, after the opening salvos, we see the Statue of Liberty lying broken in New York harbor we understand what the battle is really about.

The film’s theme plays out in the lives of its characters, who all start off having forgotten what’s really important, which they rediscover throughout the film, even as they have to fight against the implacable hostility of the alien menace. Levinson and his wife have divorced due to their divergent career paths, with her working on the White House staff while he wastes his talents at a dead-end cable job. Whitmore’s caught up in politics and has lost his authority. Hiller dithers about marrying his girlfriend for fear of how it will affect his military career. And Casse is a drunken wreck who can barely take care of his family, while his adult son sees him as an embarrassment. All the characters are then forced to reexamine their lives and ‘re-center’ on what really matters: family, faith, and country.

The four leads provide an interesting cross-section of American society about the mid-nineties: blue collar, white collar, military, politics; Black, White, Jewish; married, single, widowed, divorced. The film is thus about as representative of the American way of life of the time as could be asked for. We see that the characters in the opening don’t appreciate what they have, being lost amid their petty concerns and self-destructive behavior. It’s only when their world is threatened that they begin to re-orientate their lives around the things they’ve neglected for so long, and it is this that gives them the power to strike back.

On the other hand, the aliens prove to be the reverse of American values; they’re a kind of hive-mind, with little or no individual personality, each subject to the collective. They have no home and no land of their own: they simply move from planet to planet taking whatever they need like locusts and moving on when they’re done. When asked if there’s any possibility of the two species co-existing, they bluntly respond that there isn’t: the trademark American skill at integrating different cultures is not going to work here.

In this context, it’s significant that the film explicitly describes the aliens as having bodies ‘just as frail as ours.’ All men, and aliens, are created equal; the aliens just have better technology that allows them to impose their will upon the earth. Once mankind figures out a way around that technology, the fight becomes more even.

The specifics of that method have justly been called out as ridiculous, but, again, that’s not really the point. All they needed was a semi-plausible excuse to bring down the alien shields, and a computer virus works as well as any other (the fact that the aliens were previously established to be using the Earth’s satellites to coordinate their attack lends it just enough pseudo-validity to work in context). The important thing was how the idea was given (amid a heart-to-heart between Levinson and his father about the need to have faith even in the face of disaster) and what it leads to (a last-ditch battle for freedom).

There are so many things that, looking back, the film does really well. The motives and backgrounds of the characters are established very quickly and concisely. For instance, we meet Levinson talking with his father over chess, who urges him to move on after his divorce. The scene establishes at once 1. their respective personalities and close relationship, 2. Levinson’s divorce, 3. his intelligence as he smoothly checkmates his father, 4. his environmentalist principles, 5. his reluctance to move on with his life, suggesting both his continuing attachment to his wife and his unambitious, lethargic personality. All that in one scene that lasts maybe two minutes (these key points are  reiterated and expanded on in equally efficient subsequent scenes). A quick moment of Hiller receiving a rejection letter from NASA establishes his dreams of flying in space, which he achieves at the end, as well as establishing the reasons for his inner conflict over marrying his girlfriend. Considering how many characters the film juggles, it’s remarkable that it manages to develop its leads as well as it does.

The film also does a good job of conveying the impact of the events; a minor, but established character dies in the destruction of each city, then more characters die in the subsequent counter attack. At least one character who survives the initial bombardments later dies of her injuries simply because she couldn’t get medical care soon enough. And we see things like the President agonizing over his failure to act more decisively, or Hiller making his way to Area 51 only to learn that he’s the only survivor of his entire Marine base. The film keeps moving, but it does allow the characters to react to the disaster.

I like the humor in the film a lot as well. Many of the jokes turn on the fact that, in the course of the disaster, normal social barriers have been eliminated, leading to unexpected situations, like when Hiller’s girlfriend sheepishly admits to the First Lady that, “I voted for the other guy.” Or when Levinson’s father unexpectedly finds himself about to meet the President…and discovers that his son once punched him in the face.

I’m also impressed at how well the effects have held up, probably because (like many of the best early CG-driven films) the movie actually uses a large amount of model work and practical effects and only supplemented with computers where necessary. The destruction of New York, Los Angeles, and Washington was mostly done with models and real fire effects filmed at low speed (so, the exact same techniques pioneered in the original Godzilla), the fiery clouds surrounding the ships as they enter the atmosphere were done with models in smoke-filled tanks, while the aliens themselves are glorious animatronic costumes. On that note, the sheer fact that the film manages to make flying saucers frightening and otherworldly again after so many decades of parody and over-exposure is impressive in itself. The featureless, almost motionless ships hovering ominously over the cities convey a distinctly alien atmosphere, especially contrasted with the more familiar planes and buildings of our own world.

I could go on about it, but suffice to say, I think it’s a really good movie. Yes, it’s kinda stupid, yes it’s cheesy and overblown, but at the end of the day it succeeds in being exactly what it sets out to be, which is a big-budget, large-scale version of a classic sci-fi b-movie. It has pleasant characters, great visuals, and tells a simple, but solid story. All in all, it’s one of my favorites.

Initial Thoughts on ‘Godzilla: King of the Monsters’

So, just got back from seeing Godzilla: King of the Monsters. I’ve you’ve followed my blog, you probably know that I am a massive, life-long Godzilla fan, so I was eagerly looking forward to this long-awaited sequel to 2014’s Godzilla (which I liked quite a bit).

So, how’s this film stack up? Well, my immediate reaction is that I really, really liked it! I have a few reservations (which we’ll get to), but for the most part it’s pretty much just what I would want from a modern, big-budget version of the Godzilla mythos. It’s much faster and more action-packed than it’s predecessor, but without sacrificing the sense of awe and grandeur that ought to go along with Godzilla. There are plenty of moments where the characters just stand and stare (some of Mothra’s scenes are particularly good in this regard, and they really do capture the sense of otherworldly beauty that she ought to have).

Of course, one of the big things I wanted to see was how they would handle King Ghidorah, who has been oddly ill-served by most previous films. Well, they give him his due here; he’s not quite as overwhelmingly powerful and evil as I would have liked (e.g. if I were writing the film, Godzilla would have gotten absolutely run into the ground in their first fight), but he’s able to match and even outmatch the Big G while credibly posing an existential threat to the planet, which is as it should be. Don’t really like him walking on his wing tips, but that’s really my only criticism about the design (and they do establish that he’s “not from around here”).

Mothra is also very well played; I like how they present her as having a symbiotic relationship with Godzilla (though one character seems to take their ‘relationship’ as something else), so that she never falls under Ghidorah’s sway, which would have been all kinds of wrong. I wish she had gotten more screen time and more chance to really show what she can do, but she was almost spot on, and hearing an orchestral version of the Mothra Song from theater speakers was fantastic.

Rodan I actually think got a bit of a short shrift, character wise. I always conceive of him as a fiercely independent creature, to the point of being more antagonistic and uncontrollable than Godzilla himself: he can be mind controlled, like most monsters, but I don’t really like the idea of him as a follower. In terms of his presentation, however, he is very impressive; they make good use of his sheer speed and agility in the air, as well as his raw strength.

As for the human plot, it was actually pretty good; the characters divide into three camps. There are the villains who are ecoterrorists intending to use the monsters to wipe out humanity so that the earth can be restored to a more ‘natural’ state, the people who want the monsters to all be destroyed lest they kill more people, and the ‘Monarch’ organization in between, which argues for balance and co-existence. I appreciate that, despite the film’s strong environmentalist message, it actually takes the approach that the Earth is more self-correcting than we give it credit for, and that those who would see humanity removed from the equation not only are monstrous in their ideology, but don’t actually understand the environment they think they’re saving and will only make things worse.

All this is very fitting material for a Godzilla film, which have always been about man’s interactions with nature and the unexpected consequences of violating the natural order. Likewise, things like the hollow Earth myth and ancient lost cities, as well and linking the monsters to the creatures of mythology fit perfectly. The filmmakers very clearly know the Godzilla franchise and love it; there are many, many little nods and allusions, as well as plot points taken directly from the earlier films, and even non-film sources like the Marc Ceresini books. Rodan being found in a volcano and Ghidorah being initially dubbed ‘Monster Zero’ are only a couple examples (some others I can’t go into without spoilers).

The film also continues the strong theme of family from the last film: the characters trying to rebuild the family unit that was destroyed, in this case, by Godzilla himself. Though in this case, it might be beyond saving. There was actually a bit of genuine wisdom in the film, where Dr. Serizawa tells one of the leads that we don’t always understand why something bad happens, and that if we accept that we can grow stronger from adversity, rather than being torn apart (I don’t recall the exact wording, but it struck me as very Job-like).

The matter-of-fact religiosity of the previous film, alas, is mostly gone, though there are one or two nice little moments, mostly amounting to presenting Ghidorah is a demonic light, such as when one of the bad guys, seeing King Ghidorah exclaims “Mother of God!” to which the answer comes “She had nothing to do with this.” There’s also a striking image of Ghidorah, amid the flames of a volcano, being set against a cross, as though he’s challenging Christ Himself. On the other hand, frequent allusions to the idea that the monsters were the ‘original gods’ of mankind are rather ridiculous (there is a qualitative difference between a simply dangerous or powerful creature, however massive, and a creature regarded with numinous awe). Likewise, the attempts to emphasize the animality of the monsters doesn’t really work for me; I prefer it when there is a strange ambivalence about just what they are in the hierarchy of creation.

On that note, one thing I miss in these latter films was the supernatural element in the earlier Godzilla films. The classic movies thought nothing of including fairies, magic, and mystic energy side-by-side with science-fiction concepts, which both gave them a very distinctive flavor and fit in with the underlying idea that humanity really doesn’t know very much about the world and violates ancient taboos at its peril. Also, the ‘alpha signal’ device, and the idea that Ghidorah can command creatures all around the planet is highly dubious, especially since so much of the film rests on it. I can go with it, but it’s questionable at best.

Then there’s the Oxygen Destroyer, which was, frankly, a disappointment. See, the Oxygen Destroyer is a huge deal in the original films; it appears precisely twice over the whole history of the franchise, and both times it’s a major, major issue; the one weapon that can certainly kill Godzilla, but which also threatens to be far worse than he is. The questions it raises, and the horrific nature of the weapon itself, are big parts of the story and philosophy of the films. Here, it is introduced and set off within the space of maybe two minutes and is never brought up again except in passing. That’s a big waste.

Finally, there’s a matter of Godzilla himself. Now, overall he’s portrayed very well; I completely buy that this is Godzilla, and his power and ferocity are on full display. But the thing is (and this applies to the first film as well), I think that by playing him so overtly heroic, they’ve lost something. One of the things that makes the original series so compelling to me is that Godzilla starts off as a villainous, or at least antagonistic figure. He hates humanity for what they’ve done and continue to do to him. Yet he is ultimately a noble creature, and his arc comes when that nobility leads him to protect the very people he so hates, in the process gradually softening and becoming more heroic as the two sides come to terms with each other. It’s a fairly unique storyline, which appears to have grown up more or less by accident, and I think it’s a fascinating drama. But that isn’t what we have with these new films. Here, Godzilla is characterized much more like Gamera, which isn’t unacceptable, but it is a little disappointing for me (it also means that bringing Gamera into this series would basically be redundant, as the contrast between their characters has been removed).

Those caveats really don’t take away from my sheer enjoyment of this film; they throw so much at us, and the action scenes are so big and so spectacular, and the monsters themselves so well-realized that I thoroughly enjoyed it from beginning to end, not to mention the sheer joy of hearing Akira Ifukube’s Godzilla Theme in all its glory accompanying the action. I’m definitely looking forward to what they’ll do in the next one. Long live the King indeed!

Marvel Cinematic Universe: Conclusion

My Ranking of the Films (Note: the position of ‘Endgame’ is tentative at this point, as I still need to examine it more fully):

  1. Captain America: Civil War
  2. Avengers: Infinity War
  3. The Avengers
  4. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
  5. Guardians of the Galaxy
  6. Iron Man
  7. Ant-Man
  8. Ant-Man and the Wasp
  9. Avengers: Endgame
  10. Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2
  11. Thor
  12. Doctor Strange
  13. Captain America: The First Avenger
  14. Avengers: Age of Ultron
  15. Thor: The Dark World
  16. The Incredible Hulk
  17. Thor: Ragnarok
  18. Spider-Man: Homecoming
  19. Iron Man 2
  20. Black Panther
  21. Iron Man 3
  22. Captain Marvel

So, we have reached the end of the journey at last. What are we left with?

First and most obvious is simply the achievement. Twenty-two films in eleven years, telling more or less a single, gigantic story. Though the quality of those films jumps all over the place from sublime to terrible (with, admittedly, much more good than bad), nevertheless the sheer scope of the accomplishment is something to be commended, particularly now that the story is complete and we can see how every piece fit (or doesn’t fit). They basically did a monster-sized serial or television show with multi-million dollar blockbuster movies. No one has ever done that before, and I honestly doubt anyone will do it again, at least not to this scale. Certainly the DCEU and the ‘Dark Universe’ attempts have shown just how badly this sort of thing can go wrong, and we’re still waiting on the ‘Monsterverse’ (which, I must say, looks very promising).

About the only other company I can conceivably see pulling off something like this in the future would be Nintendo, if they decided to break into the film business, given both their large stable of franchises and consistent devotion to quality (also their thus-far adamant refusal to be intimidated by social justice thugs).

Simply as an achievement in filmmaking, this franchise deserves to be studied and cherished.

However, there’s more to it than that.

We live in frightening times, one way or another, and not least of which is the way more and more classic franchises and iconic heroes are being stripped away, destroyed, and ‘deconstructed.’ It’s been a long time sine the last straight Superman film, for instance. Robin Hood hasn’t really had a solid, straight adaptation since Errol Flynn (or perhaps the Disney version). ‘Star Wars’ has been destroyed. Disney is grown corrupt. Meanwhile, more and more creators are turning on their audiences with stunning savagery; greeting criticisms with insults and accusations, and acting as though, when the audience rejects something it never asked for, it’s the audience who has the problem.

In this world, the MCU has been a fortress of solid storytelling and iconic heroism in mainstream entertainment. With a few exceptions, they have been tales of people striving to do the right thing despite the obstacles and despite their flaws, while the fantasy elements magnify and illuminate their characters. That is, they serve the same function as classical mythology, or fairy tales; passing on timeless truths via tales of wonder and excitement.

Once upon a time there were many films like this; westerns, Disney cartoons, Harryhausen adventures, the films of Frank Capra, John Ford, and Howard Hawks, and on and on. Now there are only a few, and getting fewer every day. The MCU was, more often than not, a shining beacon of hope amid an ever deteriorating fictional landscape, with the likes of Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, and Black Widow standing out as true icons and examples to follow, almost a call to arms. Ant-Man was about what a father will do for his child. The Avengers declared that old-school heroism is as real and important now as ever. Civil War urged us to stand up for what is right, whatever the cost.

Looking back, I recall so many great scenes that stand as images of goodness and the defiance of evil. Iron Man slamming terrorists about to defend poor villagers. Captain America piloting the plane into the ice. The Hulk cutting off Loki’s speech by slamming him into the ground. The Guardians of the Galaxy taking each others’ hands, bearing each other’s pain. The Avengers defending a church from Ultron. Ant-Man going subatomic and risking a fate worse than death to save his daughter. Black Widow turning on her own team to do what is right. Cap fighting to the end to stop one friend from killing another. Doctor Strange embracing death again and again to save the innocent. Iron Man throwing everything he has against Thanos. And Captain America, alone and wounded, standing up to face Thanos and his army, hopeless, but unbowed. And on and on.

These are moments that inspire, that remind us of what we are supposed to be, rendered colorfully and fantastically so as to make them easier to understand and to imitate. That, in the end, is what this twenty-film, ten-year journey has meant: genuine, mythic heroism at the movies once again. Despite the flaws, it was and is truly inspiring.

But it isn’t just the grandiose and the mythic scenes either: there are the small-scale, human scenes as well. Tony and Yinsen discussing life in a cave. Thor telling Jane about Yggdrasil. Black Widow comforting Hawkeye after his mind-control episode. Loki learning of his mother’s death. Quill showing Gamora how to dance. Cap sharing a moment of recognition with a young fan in the museum. Hawkeye giving Wanda a pep talk during the battle with Ultron. Scott going to see his daughter before the life-or-death heist. T’Challa recounting his culture’s view of the afterlife. Drax reminiscing over his wife and daughter with Mantis. Rocket taking the time to check on Thor. Scott reassuring Hope that her mother will never have forgotten her.  It was the moments like these, the warm, heartfelt, character-driven scenes that made these characters seem so human and made us want to follow them through so many adventures.

I am glad I got to see it. I am also glad that it’s over. The rot that infects so much of the entertainment world was beginning to set in towards the end, with ill-conceived entries like Homecoming, Ragnarok, Black Panther, and Captain Marvel, but the epic series reached its conclusion before it became fatally stricken, leaving us with a completed story to cherish and appreciate. For eleven years it has been the one great beacon of goodness and heroism in Hollywood. Now it’s time for that mantle to be passed and for someone else to pick up the shield and fight the good fight.


Brief Thoughts on ‘Avengers: Endgame’

Past entries:
Iron Man
The Incredible Hulk
Iron Man 2
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
Captain America: Civil War
Doctor Strange
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
Spider-Man: Homecoming
Thor: Ragnarok

Black Panther
Avengers: Infinity War

Ant-Man and the Wasp
Captain Marvel

This is not going to be a full review, as the others in the series, but only a brief and unfocused lay out of my thoughts on ‘Endgame’ after having just seen in. I’ll try to avoid any spoilers.

The short version is that I thought it was really, really good and an extremely satisfying finale to a twenty-two film franchise. The climactic battle is pretty much perfection itself, and the epilogue wraps up the main storylines in an almost exactly perfect manner. The strong writing from the earlier film carries over for the most part, though I’ll have to spend more time on it to work out the full picture (and Infinity War is definitely the better film of the two).

The main flaws of the film are primarily due to baggage from certain earlier films (though fortunately, Captain Boring isn’t in it very much and is mildly less obnoxious while she’s there), though there are a few moments that raise questions and sometimes big ones. The plot involves messing with time and reality, so questions are all-but inevitable. One major bit of character development takes place off-screen during a time-skip, and though I can understand if they didn’t have time, it’s still a little disappointing. Another character, alas, is horribly ill-served and, despite some nice moments, gets a very disappointing conclusion (though that is, again, partially the fault of earlier films, making me dislike a certain movie even more than I already did). I also think they way undersold just what the impact of Thanos’s snap would have been in terms of social and civil breakdown, though it could be argued they wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt and make the point that, whatever the consequences, it was a monstrous act that needs to be undone. Also, the Progressive ideologies that are increasingly taking over at Disney and Marvel have begun to seep in, though it mostly comes down to one or two scenes and doesn’t harm the overall story.

Revisiting past films and locations was a risky move, though for the most part it pays off, playing like a retrospective on the franchise. There are a lot of great scenes and call-backs, as well as old villains showing up again one way or another. We also get a wonderful moment giving closure to Tony’s complicated relationship with his father, among many, many other great scenes.

The best part is that it really *does* end up looking like the culmination of everything that’s gone before; every film and every storyline forms part of the conclusion. The ‘Ant-Man’ films in particular, which had been largely a side-show, here take center stage (and you know how much I love the Ant-Man films). Most of the major characters get respectful and appropriate sendoffs or conclusions (with the aforementioned one being the main exception), and they once more take the chance to develop meaty, but lesser-used characters like Hawkeye and Nebula (the latter of whom gets a surprisingly large and affecting role: she’s come a long way from being merely a supporting villain, and Karen Gillan really shows off her acting chops here). Equally appropriately, the writers keep thin or poorly-conceived characters (Danvers, Nakia, etc.) largely offscreen or unmentioned rather than wasting time trying to build them up from scratch.

Most importantly, our two protagonists, Cap and Iron Man, are center stage throughout, finally reconciling before being given satisfying and character-appropriate exits from the franchise, concluding the arcs begun back in each of their first films. Both of them also get some of their all-time best moments here, which I won’t dare spoil, except to say that that line, the one we’ve been waiting all this time to hear Cap say, is finally used, and if you’re only going to say it once, this was the best possible time to do it. And I think the final gambit, what ultimately ends the story, was just about perfect, bringing the whole long, complicated story of the MCU to exactly the right conclusion.

And with that, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is over.

Oh, there will be more films, we know, but as a single, coherent story, it’s done. I don’t plan on following it very closely from now on; I’ll probably see the third Guardians film (as there’s some story that needs wrapping up with them), and maybe the next Doctor Strange or Ant-Man, but the days of catching each film as it comes out, of each movie being a part of a larger whole, are done. Endgame signals this by not having any end-credits scenes. All that is over now. They brought it in and stuck the landing, imperfectly, and not without a stumble or two, but satisfactorily, creating a single, glorious tale told over the course of over twenty films. Whatever happens from now on, whatever future films may bring, we at least have this.

Thoughts on ‘Captain Marvel’

Past entries:
Iron Man
The Incredible Hulk
Iron Man 2
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
Captain America: Civil War
Doctor Strange
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
Spider-Man: Homecoming
Thor: Ragnarok

Black Panther
Avengers: Infinity War

Ant-Man and the Wasp

You know those scenes where a beloved character tosses out a confident quip in the middle of a battle and then gets shot or impaled or something, and there’s a dramatic slow motion scene of them falling down dead while everyone screams in horror?

Captain Marvel is basically an entire film version of that. It’s two hours of watching one of the strongest film franchises of modern cinema being gut-shot before our eyes.

On the home world of the Kree Empire, a human woman named ‘Veers’ wakes up from a dream and asks her commanding officer, Yon-Rorg, for a sparring match. She can’t beat him, so she loses her temper and hits him with an energy beam. We learn that she has amnesia, to the point that she remembers nothing of her past life, or even who the “person she most respects” is (the Supreme Intelligence – the ruling Kree Supercomputer – takes this form when it communicates with her). The Kree are at war with the Skrull, shape-shifting aliens that conquer planets by infiltrating and replacing the most important figures, they taking over the rest of the planet. But on an away mission, Veers is separated from her team and captured by the Skrulls, who use a machine to read her memory, zooming back and forth between her at the ages of eight and thirty until they lad on a particular woman whom they seem interested in. But before they can find out more, she escapes blows up their ship, and crash lands on Earth in the 1990s. Having had some of her memories triggered and knowing the answers both to her past and the Skrulls’ plans are on this planet, she sets out to try to find them while the remaining Skrulls pursue her and Yon-Rorg and her team make their way there. Meanwhile, she meets a young, two-eyed Nick Fury, who joins up with her to combat the coming alien invasion.

Okay, let’s…let’s see what we can do with this one.

So the first thing to note about this film is that it’s a prequel to the main MCU, taking place in the 1990s and featuring, among other things, a young Nick Fury. Also, it’s coming at the extreme tail end of the series, after twenty other films, meaning that the state of the world is fairly well established. So, over the course of this film, several advanced alien ships crash on Earth or explode in the atmosphere, the US government gets their hands on at least one alien corpse, and a shape-shifting one at that. So, according to this film, SHIELD has had their hands on extremely advanced alien technology since the 90s, as well as knowing full well that there are aliens out there.

Do you remember how, in Homecoming, the application of salvaged alien tech resulted in massive advancements in technology and was beginning to have a huge impact on society? Well, according to this film, the US government had their hands on huge amount of debris and (apparently) whole alien ships for at least a decade by the time of the first Iron Man. There was a massive alien ship that blew up in Earth’s atmosphere, several other crashed ships, and a number of alien escape pods.

This, as we know, had no apparent effect on human technology or society. Not to mention that Nick Fury somehow forgot about the existence of aliens between now and the first Thor, since they state in The Avengers that Thor’s arrival was their first contact with alien life, and Black Widow explicitly says that they were never trained to deal with aliens and alien tech. Nor has the discovery of the dead Skrull apparently had any kind of impact on human science.

I bring all that up here, right at the start, to point out the fact that this film makes absolutely no effort to fit into the continuity of the franchise as a whole. This is part of the general contempt, or at least disinterest the writers show to the MCU, as if they’re saying “this is our universe now, and we’ll change it to fit however we like.” It’s as if they are tacking on a Black Panther-style moronic backstory to the entire franchise at the extreme last second. But we’ll tackle more of that later. Oh, yes, we will.

For now, let’s just discuss some things about the story of this film itself. Veers, or Carol (though she’s never called Captain Marvel at any point) crash-lands on Earth after escaping the Skrull warship. Her wrist communicator is broken, so she proceeds to use parts from a Radio Shack to rig up a system where she can use a payphone to boost the signal and speak to her comrades in space light years away. No, I’m not kidding. Then a young, smiling Nick Fury finds her and she proceeds to sneer at him for asking questions like “who are you?” and “What are you doing here?” and expressing skepticism that she is an alien hunting other aliens. Those seem like pretty reasonable questions to me: did she not expect to run into such questions after crash landing on a strange planet? Actually, just landing anywhere that isn’t immediately connected to her?

This is part and parcel of her so-called personality, by the way, but we’ll save that for now.

This is followed by one of the Skrulls taking a shot at her, then her pursuing it to a train where it takes the form of a little old lady. So our heroine punches an old lady. The Skrull then flips out and they have a big fight with the old lady Skrull doing all kinds of acrobatics and feats of superhuman speed and strength before ducking into the divide between cares to adopt another form…which it helpfully stands up to do just so that Carol and every other person on the train car can see it.

The film proceeds to act as if no one saw this, despite the fact that they’re clearly looking right at the thing. Not to mention why would the Skrull do that in the first place? Why not keep out of sight instead of deliberately showing itself just to give a jump scare?

On another note, when it was disguised as the old lady, why didn’t it just…continue to act like an old lady and let the rest of the train dog-pile on Carol after she started punching it? Wouldn’t that have been much more interesting, not to mention be a learning experience for Carol that she can’t just brute-force her way through everything, as well as symbolically fitting with what we later learn about the Skrulls…oh, the heck with it. These shapeshifters, who use their power as a major part of their strategy, apparently have absolutely no skill at actually staying under cover.

(By the way, this fight was preceded by Stan Lee’s cameo. The film also opened with the usual Marvel Logo replaced by images of Stan and a title saying “thank you.” This is by far the best part of the film and a genuinely respectful tribute).

Then there’s a bit not long after where Carol tests whether Fury is a Skrull by asking him key details. Only the film seems to forget that she has no way of knowing whether he’s telling the truth or not, since not only does she not know him, she doesn’t even know if any of the places his is listing are even real, since she has no memories of Earth. This is literally a scenario that My Little Pony has used for a joke, except that Rainbow Dash had the sense to realize the flaw in her plan (also, My Little Pony is smart, funny, and features admirable heroines, none of which apply to this film).

Then Carol proves she’s not a Skrull by blasting a jukebox with her energy powers. Which she then explains Skrulls can’t do. She fails to mention that neither can the Kree, or that, as far as she knows at this point, that ability comes from the doo-dad in her neck. Not to mention that, again, she could easily be lying. Meaning that either or both of them might be Skrulls at this point, and Carol’s a complete idiot.

Now, in a smart film she might have tested his Skrullness by asking him to work some of the unfamiliar machinery around the bar: turn on the jukebox, work the cash register, or something of that kind: knowledge that the Skrulls legitimately would not possess and a human would. But this, as should be clear by now, is not a smart film. Plot holes and just general stupidity abound. Why are Fury and Carol detained upon going to the top secret base? If they weren’t going to let them in, why not stop them at the gate? Why leave them alone in the lobby? Fury gets past the thumb pad with a strip of tape: guess Scott Lang wasted a lot of time making a resin impression for the same scenario in Ant-Man. He then tries to unfold the tape to use it again; does super-spy Nick Fury not realize the mark would be smudged to heck by now? Maybe he wasn’t thinking clearly because the cute cat distracted him.

Yes, that’s right; sneaking around the top secret government facility, Nick Fury gets distracted petting a cute cat. Though the more important question is, why is this cat wandering around this top-secret government facility? Especially given that it’s actually not a cat, but a Lovecraftian alien monstrosity with the ability to swallow four or five men at once if it ever gets annoyed and with sufficient power to contain an Infinity Stone in its stomach. The cat then happens onboard the plane they use to escape later, and they proceed to bring it with them everywhere just so that Fury can coo over it non-stop, apparently.

Also, in this scene Fury calls for backup, only for one of them to be a Skrull. Both he and Carol act like this represents a lapse in judgment or even betrayal on his part, but it seems like a perfectly reasonable thing to do. I mean, how was he supposed to know that?

God, I hate this stupid movie.

Okay, enough listing individual plot holes: suffice to say, there are a lot. Let’s just tackle a few big issues.

Part way through the film, there is a ‘twist’ that the Skrull are actually the good guys; innocent, oppressed victims being pursued by the Kree because they resisted their rule and on the verge of extinction.

So…there are certain issues with this development.

From a franchise perspective, it’s kind of insulting to the Marvel universe to turn one of their chief villains into oppressed victims. It also kills multiply future storyline potentials, Ragnarok style (and for much less payoff); there goes Super Skrull. There goes the Secret Invasion arc. There goes…well, just any story you could think of involving hostile shapeshifting aliens.

From a mythological perspective, shapeshifters really don’t work as innocent victims. Shapeshifting connotes deception, infiltration, lies, and betrayal. You can arbitrarily declare them to be the good guys if you want, but thematically, it doesn’t go anywhere. Their abilities don’t blend with their position.

But you might not care about those points, and I don’t think I can call them objective issues as such. However, the next point is.

The idea is that that Skrulls are innocent victims of the Kree, and they need Carol’s memory in order to find the secret base where a Kree named Mar-Vel was keeping their women and children safe for them while working undercover in the Air Force and making them a lightspeed engine so they could escape the KRee. They’ve been looking for this base for years so that they could get the engine, gather their remaining people, and flee the Kree Empire to find a new home.

Setting aside the backstory (which makes the one in Black Panther look subtly brilliant) for now, let’s just consider how this fits with what we see in this film. The Skrulls lay ambushes for the Kree military, costing many of their lives. They capture Carol and study her memory, which fits, but they also don’t try to explain anything to her, despite the fact that they appear to know what the Kree have done to her, and the Skrulls need her on their side. When she breaks out and comes face-to-face with the Skrull leader, he doesn’t try to explain himself or ask her to calm down or tell her that they need her help; he just taunts her. Which results in their capital ship being blow to pieces, killing who knows how many Skrulls and leaving a force of four to search the Earth. With those four, they repeatedly try to kill Carol (shooting at her with a sniper-rifle, ordering SHIELD to take her dead or alive, shooting at her as takes off, etc.), then…then when they find her at the Rambeau’s house, then he asks to be able to explain and convinces her that they’re on the same side.

What we have here appears to be a Frozen situation: where the writers came up with a twist part-way through production and then failed to go back and work the twist into the scenes they had already written. Except that in Frozen, it’s a matter of one or two actions and a general attitude that don’t fit the later revelation. Here, it’s practically everything the Skrulls do up until the second they’re declared to be innocent victims who only need help, meaning that they just got a huge number of their highly-endangered species killed and tried several times to straight-up kill the person who is supposedly their one hope and whom they wasted another huge number of people just to get hold of because her memory is just that important, all while never once even attempting to explain the situation to her, even when she is restrained or cornered or actually speaking to them.

Nor do the Skrulls ever lament the fact that she just snuffed out a few hundred of their extremely limited population. Not to mention…well, now let’s talk about the backstory. Oh dear…

As the film reveals, Carol was working with Mar-Vel as one of her test pilots (which apparently is enough to make her ‘the person she most admires’ as that’s all we learn of their relationship), then one day they were pursued and shot down by a Kree ship, Mar-Vel was shot by Yong-Rog, and Carol destroyed the engine, absorbing the energy from the blast. She was knocked out in the process, so the Kree took her, put a power limited on her, altered her memories, and set her to working for them.

Why in God’s name would they do that? Why not just kill her when she’s unconscious? She’s no one special; just a human officer, whom they probably regard as a glorified monkey. If they want to get at her power, well, kill her and do an autopsy. Or keep her sedated and do an autopsy. Or keep her under restraints. But what could possibly possess them to put her in the military? They don’t need her; the Kree are ultra powerful already, and they don’t even let her use most of her powers. Basically, she saves them from having to manufacture another rifle and that’s it. Unless they ever lose control of her, or her memories ever come back, or she decides to take off the power limiter, which apparently she can do anytime she wants but just didn’t think of for six years.

Her presence in the Kree makes no sense. They have no reason to use her as a soldier and every reason to either kill her or keep her carefully sedated and restrained.

Another thing; she’s talking about her memories and how she dreams about the crash every night, but no one seems about worried about that. Nor has she been in any way conditioned or programmed or placed under control; she’s just treated like a normal soldier when they know that if they ever lose control of her she’d basically be unstoppable.

Which means that the technology already in use on Earth to control the Winter Soldier was superior to what this galaxy-spanning alien empire had access to, or thought worth using to control the most powerful person in the galaxy.

While we’re on the topic, did nobody on Earth notice the alien ship flying around and shooting at the experimental jet? Did Carol not call for help? Didn’t the government pick up anything on radar or satellite? And whether they did or not, why didn’t the Kree just invade or bombard the planet? They know the Skrulls are there and we know they have no compunction about destroying worlds in mass bombardments. In fact, they plan to do just that at the end of the film, so why didn’t they do so before?

Then there’s the Skrull situation. The revelation is that the Skrulls are refugees, and that Mar-Vel was trying to help them escape the Kree, find their scattered population, and settle down somewhere safe. As part of this, she put up some of the refugees in a space station above Earth. The Skrulls detected Carol’s energy signature, realized it was similar to what Mar-Vel used, and so decided she might be able to lead them to the secret base where their people reside. To do this, they staged an ambush (losing many soldiers), ran her through a memory machine, lost a major ship, killing hundreds more, and chased her around the country, shooting at her, until finally asking for her help, whereupon she found the base was in space, which hadn’t occurred to this advanced space-faring species.

This rather than just taking all those Skrulls – several hundred at least between the ship and the ambush – heading to Earth, infiltrating the government and intelligence organizations (as they in fact do during the course of the film while hunting Carol), finding the information they need, and then leaving. Or, failing that, not even getting involved with Mar-Vel and the lightspeed engine in the first place, but simply taking all their ‘refugees’ and traveling away from the Kree Empire using their (actually much more efficient) ‘jump-point’ tech, rather than hanging around in refugee colonies inside the Kree ‘border’ (that’s what they call it), ambushing anyone who comes their way while waiting to be bombed into oblivion by Ronan.

And on that subject, just how was Mar-Vel able to infiltrate SHIELD and the Air Force to the point where they let her work on the Tesseract? She has no background on Earth, and the film makes a point of claiming that women struggled to get decent jobs in the Air Force at the time, and this when she can’t take a blood test without blowing her cover (yet while she is working closely with a race of shapeshifters. Who wrote this thing?!).

By the way, Mar-Vel was a man in the comics, and Carol accidentally received his powers in some kind of energy blast. That would have made a lot more sense than what happens here – it would have established that her powers aren’t completely unique among the Kree, as well as providing a potential doomed romance to add a modicum of human emotion to the story – but apparently that didn’t fit the film’s agenda.

Absolutely nothing about this story works; both the Kree and the Skrulls act like complete idiots, doing things they have no reason whatsoever to do and ignoring much better options to get what they want, all for the sake of making Carol important somehow. Which means that the protagonist is only involved in the film’s plot because of a series of plot holes.

Which means that now is time to talk about our protagonist.

The first thing we see Carol do is wake up her commanding officer, challenge him to a sparring match, and then lose her temper and blast him with her energy beams when she can’t land a hit on him. Then comes their mission, where she argues with her CO, threatening to disobey orders if they don’t do things her way…which gets her captured (the Skrulls set up the whole thing to get to her, by the way, which means their whole plan depended on her being an idiot).

Carol is hostile, belligerent, painfully arrogant (again, look at the way she sneers at Fury for asking perfectly reasonable questions), and generally an idiot. At one point she steals a man’s motorcycle just because he asked her to smile, and she thinks nothing about destroying other people’s property just for fun. At the end of the film, after beating Yon-Rogg, she proceeds to humiliate him by dragging him through the dust, because our heroine has no concept of honor or dignity. Even when she still believes herself to be allied with the Kree, she never shows any concern for her teammates, or any comradery with them (instead mocking one of them for describing how terrifying it was to meet a Skrull disguised as himself).

Yet the film wants to play her as a smart, funny, emotional person who always does the right thing: an aspirational paragon. Her character arc is literally just learning that she’s actually a wonderful person and coming to believe in herself…which she already did in the beginning, only she does it more and so breaks out of her restraining bolt and becomes unstoppable.

Her great challenge throughout the film is that people keep telling her what she can’t do: ‘don’t go so fast.’ ‘Don’t play baseball.’ ‘Don’t be a pilot.’ ‘Don’t shoot your friend with energy blasts during a friendly sparring session that you asked for.’ Half the time she actually can’t or shouldn’t be doing that (she crashes her go-kart when she’s ten because she decided to speed up going around a curve just because someone told her not to. Again, she’s an idiot). The rest of the time I got the impression it was less a matter of misogyny than that people just hated her for the very good reason that she is a hateful person. But the thing is, the whole is that it never stopped her anyway, so she has no progression or development; at the end she is exactly the same person as she was in the beginning, only she’s figured out how her powers work.

All of this while be brought to life in what is by far the worst performance in the MCU. Throughout the film, Brie Larson wears this blank, half-asleep expression as though she could not care less about what was going on, periodically trending toward the arrogant side whenever she interacts with another character. But the script calls for her to be a joker, so she periodically just tosses off a quip, but the jokes are completely at odds with her character as a whole, so it just feels jarring.

In short, Carol is one of the worst protagonists I’ve ever seen in a superhero film. She’s so bad that she would singlehandedly have sunk the movie even without the plot holes. Yet the whole film is about artificially cheerleading her, as if the film is desperately trying to tell the audience ‘no, you need to like this person. You need to love her, admire her, want to be her.’

But it gets so much worse.

At the end, it’s revealed that the Avengers were named after Carol Danvers’ call-sign, and that the only reason they were formed was because she wasn’t available.

Let’s be clear: after twenty films, you do not get to just artificially declare that this brand new character is really the heart of it all. You wouldn’t get to do that even if she were a genuinely heroic, admirable figure. This is a terrible, terrible decision.

I mean, what an insult to the series; those character we’ve been fighting with, struggling with, and cheering for all those years? Well, if Captain Marvel were there, they wouldn’t even be necessary. All those adventures, all those moments of sacrifice, courage, and devotion, the were all really in the name of Fury not having to bother Carol, on whose legacy (not that of Captain America) they all truly rest and in whose shadow they stand.

Do you know what this is? This is the exact problem that the Justice League film had with Superman: that the team only exists because he’s not there, and once he shows up everyone else becomes extraneous. They’ve retroactively added on the problems of Justice League to the Avengers!

And let’s be clear; she didn’t earn this position at all. Her big life-changing moment was literally a moment; a split-second decision to do what her friend had just been trying to do, with no idea what it meant or what the consequences would be, and when it was arguably the only practical option. Everything else was just her doing things because she wanted to and because other people told her she couldn’t.

Contrast that with Steve Rogers standing up to bullies he can’t hope to defeat in order to get them to show respect to the men fighting overseas, then doggedly going through training despite his weak, asthmatic body without once complaining before volunteering for a procedure that he knows might kill him and which is extremely painful to undergo (and which, remember, he could have backed out of at any time). Steven earned his place as the leader of the Avengers; he earned his status as a hero. Carol didn’t; she got accidentally infused with insanely overwhelming power, and her story arc is realizing that she doesn’t have to control it.

And that’s the thing; her character arc is learning that she was right all along and that she doesn’t have to control her emotions or her powers.

The trouble with that is that, one, it’s not a very interesting character arc. It potentially could be, but not with this character. If you are going to tell a vindication story, the hero needs to be humbler, kinder, more selfless. It would be one thing if she were on the shy and awkward side, or if she were just a soldier looking to do her duty, not for her own glory but because it needed to be done. Instead, it’s all about her, and the moral of the story is that she learns to ignore other people trying to restrain her.

Not to mention that having the Avengers named simply in honor of her kills a lot of the nuance and meaning behind the name; ‘Avengers’ is a Biblical name (often rendered as ‘judges’), referring to vindication of the right. But no: it’s all about how special Carol Danvers is, just like everything else in this piece of crap!

Then there are the further insults done to the franchise. Remember how Spider-Man: Homecoming, Iron Man 3, and certain other films in the series ended up wasting potentially strong, dramatic scenarios for cheap jokes?

Well, Captain Marvel does that not only with some of its own plotlines, but with plotlines that were already touched on in better films. The Tesseract is on the space station (how the heck did that happen? How did SHIELD let it out of their sight?), and Carol just picks it up and starts playing with it, then its gets eaten by the cat. Nick Fury is on hand purely as comic relief and to make Carol look better (e.g. wheezing and gasping while they’re running, reacting with comical amazement to her powers, and so on). And we learn how he lost his eye; a cat scratched it out.

I hate this stupid movie so, so much.

So, is there anything positive about it? Well, Agent Coulson is on hand, and we do have a good moment where he helps Fury, showing why the two of them were so close later on. Uh, some of the moments with the little girl were charming: Carol reaches her closest approximation to basic likability when interacting with her. The Skrulls, despite everything, are mildly amusing just because Ben Mendelsohn is such a good actor. Samuel L. Jackson is likewise too good to not be entertaining, despite the insult done to his character.

But that’s it. The Kree home world is thoroughly generic and ugly. The story is boring as heck, the action is route and lazy, not to mention that for the final quarter hour or so we’re just watching Carol effortlessly smash her way through completely outclassed enemies, so there’s no stakes or tension in the least.

I never thought it would happen, but Captain Marvel beats Iron Man 3 by a country mile; it’s by far the worst film the MCU, not only because it’s terrible in itself, but because it proceeds to singlehandedly devastate the franchise continuity, re-contextualizing classic scenes to mean something completely different, and all in the name of artificially elevating a thoroughly repulsive character to a status she doesn’t deserve.

I hate this movie.

Thoughts on ‘Ant-Man and the Wasp’

Screen Shot 2019-04-28 at 10.19.38 PM.png

Past entries:
Iron Man
The Incredible Hulk
Iron Man 2
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
Captain America: Civil War
Doctor Strange
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
Spider-Man: Homecoming
Thor: Ragnarok

Black Panther
Avengers: Infinity War

After the intensity of Infinity War, a bit of a breather seemed called for; something to lighten the mood. Besides, we had to learn what Ant-Man and Pyms were getting up to.

Following the events of Civil War, Scott Lang cut a deal with the government to serve his sentence on house arrest so that he could at least be with his family. However, his actions exposed Hank Pym’s research to the world, and under the terms of the Sokovia Accords, that meant they had to turn it over to the UN, so they’ve been on the run ever since, furious at Scott for his blunder.

But, as Scott’s sentence nears its end, he has a vision of the Quantum Realm and of Hank’s long-lost wife, Janet, AKA the Wasp, prompting him to call Pym with a phone he’d stashed away for the purpose. As it turns out, Hank and Hope have been spending the past few years working on a ‘Quantum Tunnel’ in the hopes of venturing down to the bottom of reality to find Janet, and now they realize that Scott might be the key to actually finding her. Meanwhile, though, a young woman named Ava, AKA Ghost, the daughter of one of Pym’s old rivals, begins stalking them, hoping to use their technology to cure herself of a condition causing her to phase through objects and which threatens to soon kill her. At the same time, Hope’s black market contact turns on them, and the FBI lurks just waiting for a chance to bring in the Pym’s and catch Scott violating the terms of his sentence.

So, I loved Ant-Man, and I love Ant-Man and the Wasp just as much. If I could sum it up in one word, it’d be that it’s a very nice film: the characters are all very likable, there’s comparatively little in the way of violence (I don’t think a single person dies in it except in a flashback), nor is there any real evil-scheme or world-threatening danger for the heroes to overcome; it’s just several groups of people with conflicting goals, only one of which is truly evil, though he’s too outclassed to be much of a threat.

Surprisingly enough, this actually makes the film hugely interesting, as we watch the characters struggling to balance their conflicting responsibilities in a very extreme and strange set of circumstances. Scott wants to help Hank and Hope, whom he cares for and whose plight he feels responsible for, but he also doesn’t want to risk being separated from his daughter, and he has a responsibility to his friends and the security company they’re trying to get off the ground (as they’re all ex-cons it’s very difficult for them to find honest work). Meanwhile, Hank’s old colleague, Bill Foster, is trying to figure out a way to save Ghost, but without hurting anyone else, while Ghost herself is not really a bad person, but is desperate with fear and constant pain, leading her to hurt people in an effort to save herself. And all the while, Hank is working to save his wife and repair the family that was ripped apart so many years ago.

The thing is, we want all of these people to succeed at all their goals, so watching the film unfold and seeing them encountering and overcoming obstacle after obstacle is extremely engaging.

The only really bad guy is a sleazy black market dealer named Sonny Birch, who upon discovering that he’s been dealing with the Pym family, tries to strike a bargain to buy their quantum tech, and when they refuse tries to take it by force for his shady buyers (we never learn who they are, and we really don’t need to; it’s enough that he’s a bad guy). But though he’s obviously a dangerous man under normal circumstances, he and his men are little match for Ant-Man and the Wasp with their size-shifting tech. Even so, he is able to cause problems by threatening their friends or by catching them off guard. He’d be useless as a main villain in a standard superhero film, but he fits perfectly into the ensemble as one more complication.

There is also the FBI, headed by the genial Agent Woo, who is clearly itching to get his hands on the Pyms and is eager to catch Scott going over the line, but again, isn’t malicious or cruel; just doing his job (he apologizes to Scott for whooping at the news that the Pyms have been arrested). He does have a mole on his staff who is feeding Birch information, but the guy isn’t really a character and it’s not like Woo knew about that.

What results is a very atypical superhero flick; again, there’s no world-threatening crisis, no supervillain, just a complicated situation involving a lot of different people and livened by superpowers (it actually reminds me a little of Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster, another film that dropped the franchise formula and just applied its established elements to a complicated situation).

It works in large part because the characters are just so entertaining and likable. It’s much the same line up as the first film, but everyone has moved on a little, grown up a little. Scott’s daughter is now ten, and the film proper opens with an adorable sequence of them playing in an elaborate cardboard mock-up he built for her recreating his Ant-Man adventures. Once again, their relationship is delightful, all the more now that she’s a little older and able to participate in his adventures a bit more (such as covering for him when the FBI comes calling, or perking him up when he feels he’s ruined everything). I also really like his response when she suggests that she could be his new partner (“You would be the best partner, and I would be the worst father if I let you”).

Scott himself is much the same lovable everyman struggling to do the right thing and often blowing it due to not thinking the consequences through. The film makes it clear that going to help Captain America created huge problems, not only for himself, but for his friends, including potentially destroying his budding romance with Hope. Most of the film consists of him trying to repair that relationship, much as Hank is trying to repair his shattered family (and Ghost her shattered body).

Hope, meanwhile, has shed much of her tight, businesswoman persona (shown by her longer hair style: something joked about in the film itself) and is considerably more relaxed and affectionate this time around: character traits that were beginning to emerge in the first film. The two of them still have great chemistry as a pair of complimentary personalities which have apparently begun to rub off on each other, with Hope becoming more playful (I love the way she teases him when a malfunctioning suit leaves him the size of a three-year-old) and Scott more serious (he’s trying to start his own business).

And I have to say, I really like her as the Wasp. She’s athletic and shows off the power of her shrinking tech, as well as her blasters and wings (“I take it you didn’t have that tech for me,” Scott says upon learning about her arsenal. “No, I did,” Hank answers casually), and, well, she’s just cool. Like in the first film, they find the right balance between the suit’s powers and the skill of the wearer to make the fights interesting and cathartic without making her seem invulnerable.

But best of all, neither of them overshadows the other. Hope’s the more focused and action-oriented of the two, handling most of the big fight scenes, and she never ‘blows it’ like Scott does at one or two points, but Scott’s devotion and improvisational skills saves them more than once (including him rushing to her rescue when she gets ambushed by Ghost in the initial fight scene), culminating in them each saving the other’s life at the climax. It’s a very good balance between two very charming characters with very cool powers.

I like the way that she starts out dismissive and cold towards him, but the more time she spends in his company the more the same qualities that made her like him in the first place draw her affection again, such as his kindness, loyalty, and sense of humor. There’s a good scene where she expresses her fear that her mother might not even recognize her after all this time and Scott uses both his sense of humor and experience as a parent to reassure her. Another scene suggests that she would have gone with him to Germany if he had only thought to ask (“I if I had, you’d never have been caught”).

In short, the relationship between the two title characters is great, to the point that I would have liked one or two more scenes of just the two of them.

Likewise, I like Hope’s new loving relationship with Hank, as the two of them have been essentially on the run for the past few years and are now united in trying to save Janet, whose loss tore them apart in the first place (the circumstances of her disappearance are re-told in the prologue, complete with a glimpse of their loving family life before hand, and Hank saying “Telling you she wasn’t coming home was the hardest thing I ever had to do”).

Hank Pym is, once again, a great character; he’s charming enough to be likable, but you see at once why, as Scott says, he seems to have a lot of falling outs with people. He’s prickly, arrogant, and impatient with those less intelligent than himself – which is more or less everyone – and it’s implied that the only person who ever could successfully disagree with him was his wife. As before there’s a sense of weight to Pym: something about his lines, the way he speaks and the way he carries himself, he feels like a great scientist.

Then there’s Ghost, who I suppose you could call the villain, though again, she’s not truly a bad person, she’s just doing bad things because she’s scared and in pain. She has a checkered past, including implications that her father (Elias Starr, who was a villain named ‘Egghead’ in the comics: a nice touch) was a crook, but she remains sympathetic despite her misdeeds. Partly this is due to the influence of Foster, who is both a pleasant personality in himself and exercises restrain on Ghost. This includes a scene where she thinks of using Cassie to get to Lang, and Foster warns her that he will absolutely not tolerate anything of the kind. Then at the end, when she’s been saved, she actually admits that she’s done wrong and he ought to leave her, which he refuses to do.

Again, these are just very nice, very admirable characters. Even Scott’s three ex-con buddies are lovable and heroic in their own ways, showing loyalty to one another and trying to get their lives back on track by helping to protect people from criminals like themselves. I also like how, after Hope beats up Birch’s men and takes the part he was trying to cheat her over, she still pays him the agreed price (she’s not a thief).

The film continues the glorious creativity of the first movie, with even more creative applications for the size-changing tech. Here not only do they shrink themselves, but they ride around in cars that can grow or shrink at will, and Hank even has a whole building that he can shrink down to the size of a briefcase to carry around with him. Likewise with the ants, which are blown up in size to serve as manual labor and body guards (solving the question of how two people managed to build such an elaborate machine, and how they evaded the authorities for two years).

Then at the end we have another, more extensive trip to the Quantum Realm, which is beautifully surreal and oddly threatening. When Scott says that it ‘messes with your mind’ we can see exactly what he means. This culminates in a beautiful scene where Hank finally finds Janet, and they embrace each other on the floor of the world. Speaking of beauty, there’s a bit early in Hank’s ‘dive’ where the film pauses momentarily to just allow him (and us) to gaze about at the wonders of the microscopic world, including a group of water bears drifting past like whales (“You never said it was so beautiful, Scott,” Hank comments).

Once again it feels like the filmmakers were in love with their own premise and wanted to do every crazy thing with growing and shrinking that they could think of. Now we apply it to car chases, as the car alternates between normal and Hotwheels sizes (pretty handy down Lombard Street), or we send Giant-Man barreling down the street riding a truck like a skateboard. Or you can carry a small army of bodyguards around in an Altoids tin.

Not to mention the humor, of course, which is back in full force (the film is, if anything, funnier than the first). And again, much of the humor just comes from the characters’ personalities interacting and the absurdities inherent in their circumstances. Like a bit where Scott keeps trying to summon more flying ants, only for them to get picked off by seagulls. Or his struggles with a malfunctioning new suit that results in periodic shifts in size (Hope gets to show her sense of humor and her warmth in these scenes as she both teases him and gives him some quick maintenance). Young Cassie yet again gets some delightfully charming ‘kid’ moments, and amazingly enough actually comes across like a real kid most of the time, with her charmingly immature imagination and somewhat impractical ideas. One of my favorite jokes in the film has Giant Man riding down the street past a coffee-shop…and the jaded hipsters and too busy with their computers to notice.

And of course, Luis gets to narrate another one of his stories, this time under the influence of truth serum (preceded by an argument with the bad guys about whether there is actually such a thing), summarizing the first film and the characters’ relationships. The thing is, though, it’s not only hilarious, but when you stop to think about it, it’s also him showing his heroic side; unable to either stay silent or lie to protect his friend, he instead deliberately misinterprets the question and makes his answer as long and rambling as possible, including a digression about how his grandmother ran a place with a jukebox that only played Morrissey songs.

This is part of what something like Homecoming was missing in its comedy; the humor here comes from a place of warmth and good-will, playing off the personalities of those involved and developing, rather than cheapening them.

So, again; I really like Ant-Man and the Wasp. Like it’s predecessor, it’s just a very nice, very fun, feel-good adventure. The romance is sweet and not over-done, the characters are lovable, the action is thrilling and not too violent (the PG-13 rating is a mystery), and the visuals are spectacular and creative. These two films together probably represent just the most sheer fun of the whole MCU.

However, this does take place just before the events of Infinity War, which means that the happy ending we get is inevitably doomed, and mid-credits sequence shows us the sudden, cataclysmic decimation of all the joy and cheer that we had just been enjoying. Which means that this film, like Infinity War, won’t be truly complete until after Endgame.