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.

Thoughts on ‘Iron Man 2’

Past entries:
Iron Man
The Incredible Hulk

So far, the first Iron Man was an all-around excellent superhero film. The Incredible Hulk had a lot of issues, but was still a fairly strong entry. And Iron Man 2? It’s a huge flaming mess.

The film picks up about a year after the first Iron Man (cleverly filling in the details of what’s happened in the meantime through the villain’s wall of magazine covers detailing Iron Man’s career). The world is enjoying a period of protracted peace, since Iron Man has been able to act as a deterrent and stabilizing force against rogue nations. Tony Stark, meanwhile, has maintained his more altruistic life direction, but not without relapsing a bit into self-aggrandizement. This is nicely shown in his opening speech to the ‘Stark Expo’ in Flushing Meadows, New York (basically a world’s fair); he loudly boasts about his accomplishments, but then sincerely turns the subject to “legacy. It’s about what we choose to leave behind for future generations.” This followed by a first-person POV of him moving through a crowd of his fans, giving out autographs, including to a kid wearing a plastic Iron Man helmet, contrasting with his casually dismissive attitude in the first film. In short, Tony is improved, but he’s not a completely different person either.

This is followed by a Senate hearing where the slimy Senator Stern tries to get Tony to turn the Iron Man suit over to the US Government on the grounds that he is a danger without oversight and that it’s important for the military to get hold of the tech before any rogue nations recreate it. Throwing in on the government’s side are Tony’s obnoxious business rival, Justin Hammer, and, unexpectedly, his best friend Rhodey (Terrance Howard is gracefully replaced by Don Cheadle, who is a much better fit for the part and who introduces himself with the deliciously self-aware line, “It’s me, I’m here, deal with it”), though Rhodey qualifies his position as more of a compromise. Tony expertly works the crowd and outtalks the Senator, while throwing up footage to show that no one is close to replicating his suit. Or at least, so he thinks.

Meanwhile, it turns out that the arc-reactor in Tony’s chest is slowly poisoning him, meaning that unless he can find a suitable alternative soon, he’ll die. This leads him to act even more erratically than usual, from donating his modern art collection to the Boy Scouts to appointing Pepper as CEO of Stark Industries to commandeering and driving his sponsored race car in the Monte Carlo Grand Prix.

Tony’s reaction to dying is very believable for someone like him; he of course doesn’t confide to anyone but Jarvis and alternates between quietly trying to set things in order and engaging in reckless, self-destructive behavior. I also like how, when he appoints Pepper CEO, he acts as if it’s a spur of the moment decision, but then when she realizes he’s serious he admits that he’s actually been thinking it over for some time and checking legality of it, suggesting that his continued irresponsibility is at least partially a mask.

Then at the racetrack a hulking, taciturn Russian named Ivan Vanko takes a shot at Tony with his own arc-reactor-powered tech; in this case electrified whips. Iron Man defeats him, but Vanko shrieks, “You lose!” as he’s carried away and subsequently tells Tony that he’s exposed his vulnerability to the world and proven that the great Iron Man is not unique. Justin Hammer sees this and thinks Vanko might be useful to him.

(By the way, one of the things Vanko says is, “If you could make God bleed, then people would stop believing in Him.” Apparently, Vanko forgot the existence of Christianity. That’s not a criticism, just something I thought was amusing).

So, just from that summary you might get a sense of part of the problem: the film is all over the map, covering about four or five different plot threads with no clear through-line. Is the film about Tony facing mortality? Well, what does that have to do with Vanko or the government putting pressure on him or coming to peace with his father or the enigmatic ‘Natalie Rushman’ whose job seems to change from scene to scene? (I’m serious about that, one minute she’s supposed to be a notary, the next Tony hires her as his replacement assistant, then she seems to be working for Pepper as her assistant. And it’s not like a gag where she changes jobs every time we see her; it’s more like the script awkwardly shuffling her around so she can be in as many scenes as possible). Is it about the skeletons in the Stark Legacy? That perhaps they are a family of “thieves and butchers” as Vanko says? Well, no, because Vanko’s the only element related to that, and even then it turns out that he and his father were in fact criminals regardless of what the Starks did. Is it about Tony’s relationship with his late father? No, that only occupies about two or three scenes. Is it about Tony’s legacy? Perhaps, but there’s no payoff for that.

There is material here for about two or three different storylines, but they all jumble together in strange mishmash, so that not enough time is given to any one of them for it to be satisfying.

For instance, there’s the scene where Rhodey arrives at Tony’s house to find him drunk and screwing around in the Iron Man suit. He’s furious because he had just been sticking his neck out for Tony, and seeing things are getting out of hand he puts on one of the older suits, leading to a fight. Now, why is Tony so ready to knock Rhodey around, to the point where he gleefully asks for a soundtrack? It’s as if there were a few earlier scenes of their friendship fraying before this, but no; Tony just decides he wants to knock his best friend around and smash up his own house doing it. Even if he’s drunk, it’s a strange thing for him to do, especially as he doesn’t seem to be really angry with him.

Or there’s the Vanko-Hammer subplot: the first third of the film we see glimpses of Vanko building his tech, traveling to Monte Carlo, and then there’s a fight on the raceway, then the next hour or so of the film Vanko basically just preps for round two while Hammer gets more and more impatient. This leads to an admittedly cool climax with Vanko’s new drones, but then when Vanko himself shows up to the battle in his own new suit, the fight lasts about a minute. I’d say the main villain of this film is basically a sideshow, but I don’t think I could tell you what the main event was supposed to be.

Vanko’s an okay character; Mickey Rourke is intimidating as heck with his massive, tattooed muscles and inscrutable gaze, and he has a few humanizing touches like his love for his “burd,” though the efforts to give him a sympathetic backstory kind of fall flat when we learn that his father was a spy looking to get rich and that Vanko himself sold plutonium to Pakistan (I don’t mind that as a development, by the way, only that it doesn’t make him any more interesting of a character). And about the time he starts indiscriminately murdering people.

As for the other villain, Justin Hammer is amusing, especially when he’s trying to smooth talk Vanko like a bow-tie-bedecked salesman trying to get a commission off of the leader of a biker gang. But the trouble is that he’s much too much of a lightweight to be in any way a convincing threat, not to mention that he’s so grossly incompetent that it’s hard to see how he ever made it to his position in the first place, or why the government buys anything off of him.

Which, I suppose, brings us to the plot holes, and boy there are quite a few. I can buy Vanko knowing Tony would be at the Monte Carlo Grand Prix, since he sponsors a car in the race, but how would he be able to predict that he’d be in the race, since it was an impulse decision on Tony’s part? Wouldn’t Vanko be more likely to be targeting the high-rollers lounge? When Vanko is arrested after publicly showing off Iron Man-like tech, why is he taken to an ordinary jail cell? Shouldn’t the US or French governments be tripping over themselves to make a deal with him to give them his tech? Everyone focuses on how this discredits Tony, but no one seems to consider the question of where Vanko got the technology, except for Tony, and even he only gives the question a cursory nod. How come there are almost no repercussions, except for personal ones, to Tony losing it in the Iron Man suit? They discuss the possibility, but nothing happens (I’m going to guess that Nick Fury kept them off him for that one, but it’s weird nonetheless given how much the film emphasized that he was on thin ice up until now).

Later in the film, Fury puts Tony under guard so that he can go through his father’s notes and figure out the new element he needs to fix his arc reactor and cure himself. Our old friend Agent Coulson returns to watch him, assuring him that he won’t be allowed to leave. So a scene or two later, Tony is driving down the street in his open-top sport’s car to visit Pepper, then drives back with several table-sized pieces of his father’s scale model of the expo sticking out of the passenger seat, and Coulson doesn’t confront him about leaving until a few scenes after that! How the heck did he get in and out of the house? Then Coulson just leaves to deal with a problem in New Mexico (“Land of Enchantment,” Tony comments). Meaning that Coulson literally served no purpose in this film: the one role he has in the story is ignored the moment he is off-screen.

Also, why did Jarvis say synthesizing the new element was impossible, when Tony simply does it the next scene; no question of “it might be possible if this,” or “the odds are against that;” Tony just sets up a prism tube and makes the thing in his garage in the space of about two or three minutes after Jarvis said it was impossible.

Not to mention there are jarring tonal shifts, with jokey humor clashing hard with serious drama. Like when Tony’s blow-up at his birthday party, involving a drunken brawl with his best friend cuts to him chowing down on donuts while sitting inside the giant donut sign. Some of it can be excused as reflective of Tony’s own mood swings, but a lot of it just feels like the film was edited in a hurry.

So, I think you can see why I say this film is a mess. Is there anything else to be said?

As noted, I do like some of Tony’s reactions to his terminal illness; things like struggling to find a way to tell Pepper, or the way he swings from quietly desperate to reckless and overblown. This all does seem to fit with his personality. His attempts to advance his relationship with Pepper are well-done as well; again, he wants to tell her how he feels, but his psychological baggage keeps getting in the way, as does his irresponsibility, not only because of his bad behavior, but simply because he forgets things like the CEO of a major corporation can’t just drop everything and go on a vacation during a crisis.

There’s a good scene where he goes to her office to apologize for the fiasco at his party and brings her strawberries. Turns out, those are the one thing she’s allergic to.

“This is progress,” he says. “I knew there was a correlation there.”

It’s funny, but it’s also heartfelt as he tries to make his case, but is able to get the words out, while she is simply fuming at him for landing her in this mess (a nice touch is that when he walks in she’s trying to get the suit that Rhodey took back from the government, showing that, angry as she is with him, she’s still on his side).

The subplot involving his father was rushed, but the scenes it does comprise are very sweet, mostly centering around a promotional video that Howard Stark shot in the 1970s for the last Stark Expo, the outtakes of which turn out to contain a message for his son. The videos are openly reminiscent of Walt Disney’s films promoting EPCOT, with a similar sense of optimistic futurism. Howard’s final message to Tony, saying what he never said in life, is touching and lends a new layer to their complicated relationship, though it would have been better with more buildup.

There are a number of good character moments, like when Rhodey takes out the arc reactor of his suit before letting Hammer fiddle with it (still not willing to let Tony’s enemy study his greatest invention, even though they’ve had a falling out). Or when Tony and Rhodey make up and Rhodey clarifies, “It’s your fault, I just wanted to say I’m sorry” (as this indicates, the rapid-fire banter of the first film is back, if not quite of the same caliber).

Then of course there’s “Natalie Rushman,” AKA Natasha Romanov. Her introduction in this film is, unfortunately, only a shadow the great character she would become, with most of her dimensions yet locked away, but she is nevertheless a striking figure (and not just for the obvious reasons) as she coolly inserts herself into Tony’s circle, efficiently doing her ostensible job without turning a hair, only to let loose her formidable fighting skills when need calls for it. Her fight against a hoard of Hammer’s guards is probably the best action scene in the film, with some very smart choreography that has her using her agility and precision to take down her larger opponents with strikes to joints and soft targets rather than simply slugging it out (Stark’s driver, Happy Hogan, joins her and spends the entire sequence trying to take down a single guard, which is funny, but I also found it sweet how he refused to let her go in alone, even though she clearly knows what she’s doing).

Meanwhile, the film tacitly establishes why she was assigned to watch Tony with an early scene where he gets served with a subpoena because he was too distracted by the beautiful woman doing the serving. Women are Tony’s weakness; he doesn’t think clearly around them, so SHIELD naturally assigned Romanov, including working up a cover ID of an ex-model, knowing that Tony wouldn’t be able to resist adding her to his staff. It’s a smart bit of writing, following from a well-established part of Tony’s character.

I also like that when Tony shows up at Hammer’s demonstration at the end in his new Iron Man suit, Rhodey (part of the show as the newly built War Machine) accepts Tony’s story very quickly with only a little suspicious posturing; bad blood though there may be between them, they’re still old friends and he can tell when Tony’s being serious.

The final battle, involving a chase with Vanko’s drones and a back-to-back fight with Iron Man and War Machine taking them on, is very cool, even if it’s rushed, and the banter between the two of them flows very well, very much like old friends and equals (which is another advantage Don Cheadle brings to the table: Terrance Howard always seemed a little overwhelmed by Tony, but Cheadle is able to give and take on an equal footing with him, making their friendship more interesting).

I also like the film’s take on revisionist history, with Vanko sneering at Tony for trying to forget “the lives the Stark family has destroyed.” Only, as it turns out, Vanko and his father were in fact guilty and brought their own destruction upon themselves, meaning that the ‘official’ history was actually more correct than the alternate perspective. Not sure if the film meant for that, but it’s appreciated in any case. Likewise I appreciate the subplot of Tony trying to keep his own property in his own hands and resisting efforts to force him to nationalize it.

In summary, the best I can say of Iron Man 2 is that it’s mostly entertaining. It drags quite a bit in the middle, and seeing Tony be a drunken lout isn’t very fun, but the heart is there, especially in his scenes with Pepper, and when it does get going, it is fun to watch. But it is an extremely shaky entry, a good example of what happens when a plot is completely unfocused and a film tries to tackle too many things at once. A real disappointment considering how strong its predecessor was.

Thoughts on ‘Iron Man’

Well, with Avengers: Endgame on its way, it seems there will never be a better time to do a re-watch of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (actually, if anything, I’m getting a rather late start on this, considering I have over twenty films to get through!).

Just so that it’s clear where I’m coming from, I have seen all the MCU films at least once prior to this, but for the most part am only familiar with the original comics by what I know from other sources, such as other media, summaries, and the like.

Also, I’m putting out a general principle that this series will involve spoilers for each film, so be warned. I am writing assuming the reader has seen the movies. With that out of the way, let us begin.

It all seemed like just another superhero film; a second-string Marvel hero little known outside of comic book fandom, like so many other such characters that got their own films in the 2000s, when people were already starting to make noise about whether comic book movies were on their way out.

The story is that Tony Stark is a genius inventor playboy celebrity: a modern-day Howard Hughes without the psychiatric issues (well, for the most part). He revolutionizes military technology with his engineering genius, as well as lighting up the tabloids with his carefree jet-set lifestyle. That is, until one day he’s ambushed during a weapons demonstration in Afghanistan and finds himself the captive of a ruthless terrorist organization called the Ten Rings Group (a nice shout-out to the Mandarin, though…we will get to that). In captivity, he’s forced to come to terms with what his life has actually amounted to, while at the same time turning his technical know-how towards a plan of escape, which will ultimately lead to his being reborn as Iron Man.

So, what to say about Iron Man after all this time?

One thing that stood out to me this time was how well the film establishes Tony Stark’s character. When we first meet him, he’s chatting with some soldiers in the back of a Humvee: he’s cocksure and arrogant, but not unkind. Seeing that they’re intimidated by his celebrity status, he tries to put them at their ease by joking and inviting them to talk. I especially liked the touch that, surprised to learn the driver is a woman, he smoothly covers by humorously talking about her excellent bone structure, playing on his reputation with women (established in the same scene) to make them relax.

This is important because, after the ambush, the next few minutes are pretty much all about establishing what a jerk Tony is. If those scenes had taken place before the scene in the jeep, we the audience would most likely have been indifferent to his fate. Instead, the film cannily lets us see Stark in a comparatively good light before showing us his flaws. This is smoothly accomplished with an award ceremony, where Stark is set to be honored and thus a slideshow of his life and career is naturally presented. Only, Stark isn’t there; he’s blown off the ceremony to go gambling, showing both that he thinks nothing of embarrassing his friends in pursuit of his own amusement and that he thinks so much of himself (and has received so many accolades) that he’s completely indifferent to being honored by anyone (when he gets the award, he hands it off to a casino worker on his way out).

This is followed by a scene of him casually seducing an earnest reporter, who then wakes up alone in his Malibu mansion while Tony works in the basement until his assistant, Pepper Potts, can send the girl on her way. This whole sequence not only efficiently establishes Tony, but also his friends Col. James “Rhodey” Rhodes, business partner Obadiah Stane, and Pepper (as well as Tony’s house AI, Jarvis), and their relationships to him, in particular the complicated one between Tony and Pepper: he selfishly makes her deal with his ‘conquests’, but also is hinted to have genuine feelings for her. When she tells him that she has plans that evening, he says, “I don’t like it when you have plans.” But it’s clear that he doesn’t take his life seriously enough to really pursue her, while she knows exactly what he’s like and is too mature and self-possessed to allow them to be other than friends. Meanwhile, all this takes place while he’s letting Rhodey wait on a tarmac for three-hours, more or less just because he can (prompting Rhodey to comment that he is “constitutionally incapable of being responsible”).

All this lets us see that Tony is extremely selfish without making him seem malicious or completely unlikeable, as would be the case if they had simply had him, say, tossing out random insults at people. Even though he’s a jerk, you don’t wonder that anyone puts up with him, since he’s a very charming jerk, as well a very talented one.

It’s also appreciated that, even at his most callous, Tony at least has a theory that he’s doing good. He lays out several very good arguments why he doesn’t think his weapons dealing is immoral, and as shown in the scene with the soldiers, he does legitimately care about the people he thinks he’s protecting.

All this, of course, is a set up for his time of reckoning in the cave, where he discovers that the weapons he made to protect Americans are being used against them, and that his legacy, at this point, is nothing but a lot of very dangerous weapons in the hands of very dangerous people.

This point is nicely symbolized by the pile of shrapnel from one of his own bombs that ends up inside of Tony’s chest, eating its way to his heart: he is literally being killed by his own weapons trying to get at his heart. And to save himself, he essentially has to replace his ‘heart.’ Rather, his fellow prison, Yinsen (a doctor from a small Afghan town) installs an electromagnet to keep the shrapnel away, initially powered by a car battery (a wince-inducing concept) until Tony replaces it with a prototype ‘arc reactor.’ So, Tony almost literally has a ‘change of heart.’

This symbolic motif carries through the whole film, by the way, with the glowing arc reactor, like a burning heart, indicating his new resolve and more generous outlook. Pepper helps him to change his ‘heart’ at one point, then has the original made into a momento reading ‘Proof that Tony Stark has a Heart.’ Obadiah later rips Tony’s heart out while promising to turn his legacy back to one of blood and horror, while Tony is saved by the fact that he previously showed himself to have a heart. It’s all remarkably well-done; a fine example of using symbolic props to tell a story.

Of course, using his new arc reactor, Tony builds a prototype iron suit and escapes (Yinsen dies to give him the chance, begging him not to waste his second chance), then resolves to use an upgraded model to track down and destroy the weapons he built that have ended up in the hands of terrorists. A good deal of the middle act of the film is occupied just with him working on the suit, running tests, and perfecting the design. This includes a thrilling test flight where he puts the newly made suit through its paces and immediately tries to break the altitude record, with amusingly unfortunate results.

(Though one of the film’s more glaring mistakes shows up about here; did no one notice the giant hole through the roof that Tony makes? It’s never brought up, though he flies out of it later. I’m guessing that was a cut scene, but it still feels odd).

The acting in this film is uniformly excellent, especially Robert Downy Jr. I love the scene where he calls a press conference upon returning from captivity (only after getting a cheeseburger); it really feels like he’s adlibbing, just taking time to savor the moment and reflect even as he’s addressing the press. One of the first things he does is comment on how he never got to say good-bye to his father, wondering what he would have thought of what his company had become (Tony’s complicated relationship with his father will be with us for the rest of the series).

I also really like Jeff Bridges as Obadiah Stane, who is one of the few backstabbing friends I can recall who legitimately seems like a friend at first. He and Tony have an easy, familiar way with each other, trading quips back and forth and making casual references to shared memories, while Obadiah honestly seems delighted when Tony comes home (at the start of the aforementioned press conference, Tony pats him on the shoulder and says that it’s good to see him). Even going in knowing that he’s a bad guy (the trailers made no secret of it), it’s still something of a shock when his true colors are revealed.

Though again, the film does a very good job of setting the stage even from the opening scene, where we learn that Obadiah had run the company as a kind of regency before Tony came of age, implying potential friction between them. Obadiah’s betrayal is jarring, but it doesn’t come out of nowhere.

The one semi-weak-spot in the cast is Terrence Howard as Rhodey. He isn’t bad, but he doesn’t convey the impression of a tough Air Force Officer; he comes across as too gentle and too much of a lightweight. He has a lot of good moments, like the suppressed emotion when he rescues Tony in the desert, but the actor simply doesn’t fit the role.

On the other hand, Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts makes for an excellent love interest, all the more so because the film doesn’t end with her and Tony getting together. It’s smart enough to know that the situation is too complicated for things to go that fast. When Tony sweeps her into a romantic dance and an intimate moment on a balcony, Pepper is both thrilled…and keenly aware of how inappropriate the moment is. As she points out to him, he’s her boss, and everyone knows what he’s like with women, so him making a move on her, however sincerely, is highly embarrassing for her (this is foreshadowed in the opening scene where Tony’s one-night-stand takes a swipe at her relationship with him).

But, at the same time, the film shows, without putting it in so many words, that they are indeed in love with each other. After she helps him change out his reactor (in a hilarious gross-out moment), she insists that she will never do that again, to which he lets slip “I don’t have anyone else,” words that she repeats back to him when she discovers his plans with the Iron Man suit. More to the point, when she learns this, she refuses to have anything to do with it, not because she thinks he’s doing the wrong thing, but because she’s terrified he’s going to get himself killed. This dynamic, of Tony being torn between Pepper and ‘the mission,’ between what his heart wants and what it knows to be right, will be with us throughout (with the deliciously tragic irony that, had he been mature enough to pursue her earlier, they might already be together; implying that, though he’s been given a second chance, some things may simply be gone forever).

Meanwhile, there’s also Paul Bettany as JARVIS, Tony’s AI assistant, who runs his house and computer systems (and later his suit) while tossing off very proper quips at his master’s expense. Tony also has his two robotic arms, whom he gleefully criticizes and abuses throughout the film (and one of which gets an unexpectedly heartfelt payoff). This is an interesting touch in light of the rest of Tony’s character; it’s as if he’s more comfortable with his machines and with making his own ‘friends’ whom he can call up and shut down at will, whom he can always override, and who will never get fed up and leave him. Though Tony isn’t a Howard Hughes-like eccentric, he very clearly isn’t emotionally well-balanced even before his traumatic experience. Pepper is almost as much a nurse as she is an assistant (when he jokes about firing her, she comments that he couldn’t function for a week without her): keeping him focused, on task, and dealing with the responsibilities that he can’t or won’t handle.

Basically, Tony does not ‘play well with others;’ he thinks best in terms of machines, of things that work efficiently and predictably, that don’t ask anything of him, and that can be adjusted or put aside when they bother him (this is in contrast to Rhodey, who rejects the idea that any machine could equal a human pilot’s judgment). When it comes to people, he deliberately keeps them at a distance and expects them to act according to his whims, and though he improves upon returning, he still doesn’t quite get what is and is not appropriate behavior (as when he dances with Pepper or when he teases Rhodey in front of his trainees). He is heroic and determined to do the right thing now, but he hasn’t simply become a different person altogether, and his natural flaws and emotional baggage remain.

In sum, there’s a reason why Tony Stark has become such a beloved and respected character and has rocketed to the forefront of the Marvel lineup, and it’s mostly due to this film’s excellent writing and Downey’s inimitable performance.

Meanwhile, the film delivers plenty of audience-pleasing set-pieces, including Tony’s immensely satisfying escape from captivity, his thrilling test flight (which makes good on his preceding summation, “Yeah. I can fly”), and a fantastically cathartic scene where Tony sees a report of atrocities being committed by the Ten Rings group (against the same villain Yinsen came from), straps on his suit, and singlehandedly puts a stop to it. It’s a great moment in-universe, as it sees Tony taking revenge on the men who imprisoned and tortured him and honoring Yinsen’s memory by protecting his home. But, from an audience point of view, it appeals to the sense of frustration and helplessness that (I believe) many of us feel when we see this kind of story on the news: we want to be able to do something about it, but for most of us there’s really nothing we can do. Iron Man gives us an image of someone who can and does do something about it, by slamming down into the middle of the village and punting terrorists around like beach balls before leaving the leader for his would-be-victims to deal with. It’s a perfectly conceived moment of righteous satisfaction (though I do have to wonder at the logistics of Iron Man flying half-way around the world in his suit).

The village scene is followed by a sequence of Iron Man being pursued by two jets, and him risking his life to save one of the pilots when he accidentally crashes into him. The jet sequence, together with an earlier encounter with a tank, sets the important precedence that Iron Man, for all his power, is not invincible, and that sufficiently heavy weapons can damage his suit, so that when the climax happens, we’ll know that Tony is in legitimate danger.

Then of course there’s the final show-down with Obadiah or Iron Monger, and it must be said that third act is the film’s weakest part. The fight between the two ultra-powerful metal suits is extremely cool, and there are some great bits that seem to come straight out of a comic panel, but Iron Monger only even shows up for perhaps ten minutes, if that, and there’s also the question of just what Obadiah is trying to accomplish here; given that Pepper’s already given proof of his crimes to the government (discovered in a very nicely staged scene where she hacks his computer, Obadiah comes in, and it’s not clear how much he has and hasn’t seen), and that these are the same people coming to arrest him, it’s not like he’ll be able to keep running the company. I suppose he’s planning to take the suit for replication on the black market, but that could have been made a lot clearer. As it is, he’s kind of just going nuts for the sake of it. And there are some odd bits of continuity, as when Iron Monger bursts out of the pavement to attack Pepper, Iron Man intervenes and saves her, then after a several-minutes long battle, she’s still standing in the exact same spot: wouldn’t she have tried to get to shelter or called for help or something? And where did Agent Coulson go during all that? He was last seen fleeing Iron Monger with his men, then just disappears until he shows up for the post battle summation. Also, why didn’t the blast from the big reactor not kill Tony? We were told that it would, but then it just…doesn’t.

So, after an extremely solid first and second act, the film stumbles a little in its climax, which remains its most notable flaw. It doesn’t break the story, but it does feel like a bit of a let down.

On the other hand, we have our introduction to Agent Coulson of the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division: a great, non-obvious set-up in the form of a running gag (“That’s quite a mouthful.” “Yeah, we’re working on it”). Coulson and the now-famous post-credits sequence are the only hints that Iron Man was “part of a larger universe.” Of course, this was before shared universes became standard issue, which of course only happened due to this film and its successors. But, a large part of why this film succeeds so well is that it focuses on telling its own story, not in laying a foundation or getting people excited for the next one. It’s a very strong comic book film, stringing fantasy-fulfillment set-pieces on a core of excellent character writing.

All in all, Iron Man is a great opening act and a good indicator of things to come.

AMDG

Larry Correia Reviews “The Last Jedi”

Human grizzly bear and pulp author extraordinaire Larry Correia unloads upon The Last Jedi and Rian Johnson. That’s worth a share!

For those who don’t know, Mr. Correia is a very good writer. Granted, some of his earlier stuff is pretty clunky, but he improves with every book, and at this point he’s pretty much a master of the pulp craft (I especially recommend his Grimnoire Chronicles). The man excels at world building, character (he can make a red shirt gangster who exists only to die horribly into a believable human being with a personality suited to his own particular era and place in the world), and above all action. He’s written some of my all-time favorite characters (e.g. Faye) and he’s a major tentpole in my ‘authors to emulate’ file. So the man knows what he’s talking about when it comes to storytelling.

Content warning because it is Correia, and he doesn’t mince words, as you’ll see from this sample:

But f***ing up a new character is one thing… Ruining legends is a crime.

Luke was a travesty. That was just bull**** right there. If I’d had a look at the script beforehand I would have rolled it up tight and smacked Ryan over the head with it while shouting “what the f*** is wrong with you! You’ve been given custody of one of the most beloved characters in history and this is what you do with him?”

And the fact that nobody at Disney did that is the real travesty.

Listen, I’ve written in other people’s universes. And the first damned thing you do is your basic homework of what makes it tick, and what things are sacred. You don’t try to “subvert” what came before. You see why people loved it and then you build on it.

Like holy s*** man, I’ve written stories for Aliens, Predator, V Wars (coming soon to Netflix!), Warmachine, and I’m probably forgetting some other IPs I’ve worked in, that’s basic f***ing IP Writing 101. You do your homework. You respect what came before. AND YOU DON’T PISS OFF THE FANS.

So yeah, Luke, the hero of your childhood is now an asshole. Deal with it.

You’d think they’d learned from Han Solo in the last one. Hey, that beloved character, yeah, he’s basically a loser who lives in a van down by the river. But at least it felt like Harrison Ford was playing Han Solo. Mark was playing some useless grumpy old asshole.

Not that characters can’t change. They can. And they should. But when you as the writer change a character you’ve got to show that. You’ve got to make it organic. You can’t just slap them in the face and go EVERYTHING IS DIFFERENT I’M SO EDGY.

Go milk a f***ing walrus, you hack.

Read the rest here. Be sure to catch his dissection of the hyperspace kamikaze and all the reasons it’s a terrible piece of writing (the mere mental image he conjures of a “pissed off suicidal droid pilot” is more entertaining that the whole two-and-a-half hour film).

Picture of the Day

Hat-tip: Church Pop

John Wayne and his son, Patrick, venerate a statue of the Blessed Virgin in Cong, Ireland in 1950 during filming of The Quiet Man.

For those who don’t know, the great John Wayne, though far from perfect (especially regarding marital fidelity), was a devout believer his whole life, and throughout his life was surrounded by Catholic influences. These ranged from his wives (all three of his wives were Mexican, and at least the first and third were enthusiastic Catholics) to his main leading lady and close friend Maureen O’Hara (incidentally, though Wayne had many affairs, by all account he and Miss O’Hara were never more than close friends). This was back before the entertainment industry became the monoculture it is today (in those days you often had things like ultra-conservative John Wayne working side-by-side with super-liberal Henry Fonda) and when religion was still a matter of common experience in the film industry, so during his career Wayne made friends with people from all different backgrounds and faiths. In the end, he was received into the Catholic Church two days before his death. He is said to have expressed regret that he waited so long, blaming a “busy life” for his late conversion.

Thoughts on ‘Justice League’

So, the other day I decided to finally check out Justice League. And…yeah, it’s really bad. Don’t get me wrong; it’s nothing like as bad as Batman v Superman (which is one of the very few films I hate as much as The Last Jedi). That film was painful; this one is entertainingly bad, and it has some definite highlights.

Gal Gadot being one of the key high points. I’m just gonna sprinkle pictures of her throughout to give you something nice to look at.

With Superman dead, Batman and Wonder Woman soon discover that fear-fueled ‘parademons’ are spreading all over the Earth, heralding the return of Steppenwolf, an agent of Apokalypse, who plans to destroy the world with his three all-powerful ‘Mother Boxes’, which in ancient times were captured by the Amazons, Atlateans, and Humans, who each took and guarded one (hilariously, the humans are shown burying theirs…about two feet underground). So, Batman and Wonder Woman set about gathering three other powerful allies: Aquaman, Cyborg, and the Flash to try to stop him.

So…yeah, the story is pretty standard: villain wants to use ancient superweapon to conquer and/or destroy the world. Essentially it’s the same plot as The Avengers, which really emphasizes how badly done it is in this case.

In the first place, Steppenwolf is a terrible villain. He has no motivation other than a pure desire for power – great characterization there; never seen that before – no unique design, nothing entertaining or interesting to say, no perspective, no discernable personality, no backstory, nothing. He might be the single most generic bad guy I’ve seen in a major comic book film (well, the guy from Thor: The Dark World might have him beat).

Really, with all the fantastic villains in the DC Universe that haven’t shown up yet – Grodd, Sinestro, Brainiac, Mongul, Vandal Savage, and so on – who the heck decided to go with Steppenwolf? I’d never even heard of him, and I’ve got a decent working knowledge of the DCU. He’s one of Darkseid’s warriors, and…that’s about it. He’s not an interesting villain, but he’s related to one. It’s as if, instead of Loki, The Avengers featured Thanos’s cousin, Manos.

…okay, never mind; that would have been awesome.

It doesn’t help that Steppenwolf looks as though he stepped directly out of a God of War game, without getting a graphical upgrade.

Another huge problem is that the Justice League itself is…kind of a failure. You see, as conceived in this film, it only exists to fight Steppenwolf because Superman isn’t around. Then they reach the conclusion that they can’t stop him without Superman, so they revive him and…after that it’s pretty much just marking time until Superman fixes everything.

Now, I love Superman, and pretty much the whole reason I watched this movie was because I heard they actually tried to get him right this time, so I did enjoy seeing him basically take over the film every time he was on screen (the scene where he effortlessly beats the crap out of the entire rest of the League at once is easily my favorite). However, this is supposed to be a Justice League movie: a team up. But apart from maybe Cyborg, no one else even needed to be there for the climax. They went from the whole team at once barely being able to faze Steppenwolf to Superman punting him around the room like a volleyball.

See, this is another reason Steppenwolf doesn’t work as a villain: he’s just a straightforward physical threat, meaning that, to fight him, they just need the strongest fighter they can possibly get. Or to put it another way, there is absolutely nothing the likes of Batman can do against him, while in turn there’s absolutely nothing Steppenwolf can do to counter Superman.

Contrast this with The Avengers, where Loki is able to bring both physical power and deadly cunning as well as his own private army to bear against the heroes, meaning that he can fight each of them – and vice versa – in their own particular way or all of them at once. Likewise, every single one of the team had a crucial role to play in the climax, one that suited their character and abilities, with Captain America strategizing and rescuing civilians, Iron Man running the perimeter, Hawkeye calling out movements and sniping from a distance, Black Widow handling tech and infiltration duties, while Thor and Hulk tore up the battlefield. Everyone had a moment to shine; everyone had a reason to be there.

The problem is balance, and this film has none of it. The Justice League, arguably the single greatest superhero team in comics, is nothing but a holding pattern for Superman.

(For what it’s worth, I actually think a good choice for the villain would have been Brainiac: he has the physical power and resources to challenge the team, but without being simply indestructible, so the less-powerful team members would be able to contribute, and he has the intellect to counteract Superman’s overwhelming physical force and necessitate a coordinated effort to stop him, as well as being a planet-level threat.)

Then, of course, there’s the problem so many people have pointed out; that the whole franchise has so very clearly been rushed and that, going into this team up, we’ve only met Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman, and only the latter two have had their own films (and only Wonder Woman has had an actually good film). Also, Wonder Woman was introduced in Batman v. Superman and has already fought alongside those two, meaning that when it comes to the characters we actually know, there’s no novelty factor to seeing them team up as they were practically introduced as a team, and when it comes to the others there is no investment since we’re meeting them for the first time. The ‘team up’ aspect of this film is about as botched as it could possibly be.

(That isn’t even considering the fact that this version of Batman tried to straight-up murder the world’s greatest hero in a fit of paranoia the last time we saw him. You decided to do it, franchise; you’ve gotta live with it).

So the film is a conceptual nightmare, but the problems don’t stop there. The film is riddled with plot holes, moments that make no sense, and just bad writing in general. Things like a random street thug somehow guess the monster that attacked him was from space, or Cyborg hacking the Batcomputer by accident (though it doesn’t really matter since Bruce has no problem straight up telling Aquaman that he’s Batman in front about twenty civilians), or the fact that, as far as I recall, we never learn just how Cyborg’s father got hold of the Mother Box (spoilers, I guess, except it’s so poorly established that I’m not even sure if they meant it to be a twist). He just has it, yet Steppenwolf can’t find it, but knows that the people in the lab know where it is? Actually, where was it? Cyborg just flies off and grabs it from…I don’t know, wherever it was being kept.

(Speaking of the Mother Boxes, what a stupid name for the Macguffin. And hey, just think: if Steppenwolf had only called them Martha Boxes he could have gotten Batman on his side).

Don’t tell Captain Marvel she’s smiling!

Aquaman has apparently spent his whole life staying away from Atlantis, yet knows where they keep their ultimate secret that could doom the world and he can just swim in there whenever he wants (also, way to waste such a pivotal moment in his story: his return to Atlantis after growing up on land lasts about five minutes during which he visits the basement vault). Batman and Wonder Woman somehow don’t notice the hulking half-robot listening in on their conversation from about twenty feet away because he’s partly hidden behind a tree. Batman’s contingency plan in case the revived Superman has lost his mind is to show him Lois Lane: why not just have her there the whole time?

And so on and so forth; the film is just shy of incoherent in its writing and it struggles to maintain any kind of structure at all. Cyborg’s subplot with his father goes completely unresolved; Flash’s arc with his father involves two scenes and a lot of running puns. Aquaman has no arc at all to speak of; he’s just kind of along for the ride. And Batman is mostly tasked with trying very hard to make us forget how badly his character was betrayed last time around and not really succeeding.

Wonder Woman’s ‘arc’ is that she hides herself away from the world rather than being a beacon of hope like Superman, and then at the end she goes public. Apparently not one of the hostages or terrorists in her opening action sequence bothered to mention the superhuman Amazon that saved the day, nor did anyone notice the insanely beautiful woman in low-cut armor and a skirt standing on the rooftop or running around town. Seriously, if she regularly spends her time beating up terrorists in broad daylight, how, exactly, has she remained ‘in hiding’ for the past century?

(By the way, the rent-a-villains here identify themselves as ‘Reactionary Terrorists’, which kinda made me laugh: Hollywood is really desperate to avoid reality on that particular subject, isn’t it?)

Then there’s the Flash. My, my, my…

Hold onto those good feelings. Here we go…

See, I like the Flash. On the Justice League cartoon (which is about thousand times smarter and better written than this film, by the way) he was probably my favorite character. I love how they wrote him as an immature goofball on the surface and a truly humble, selfless hero underneath; the guy who doesn’t just save people, but remembers their names afterwards, and all the while he’s second only to Superman in terms of raw power. Flash was awesome, and since then I’ve always had a soft spot for the character.

Now, this Flash, on the other hand, is one of the most obnoxious characters I’ve seen in a superhero film. He’s this wimpy, chatty, smirking little douche who keeps making dumb, unfunny jokes at the worst possible times, when he isn’t tripping over his own feet or chatting nonstop like he thinks the mere sound of his voice is hilarious. If you took your average hipster college student and forced him to watch everything Joss Whedon ever wrote Clockwork Orange style for a few weeks on end, you might end up with something akin to this Flash’s personality. He is that insufferable.

There were only two moments with him that I actually liked; one was when he and Cyborg are digging up Superman’s grave (by the way, why those two? Wouldn’t Wonder Woman and Aquaman have been quicker?) and he comments that he could use superspeed to do the job in an instant, but can’t help feeling it would be disrespectful. That felt at least moderately like how a real human being might behave. The other was the great “Oh, crap!” moment during the fight with Superman when he realizes that Supes can move and react just as fast as he can.

On the subject of the Flash, let’s tackle this film’s attempts at humor. It goes about as well as its attempt at a villain. I think there was only one joke in the film that I actually laughed at (I laughed at quite a few other parts, however). For the record, it was when Batman is laying out their plan for the final battle and Aquaman just says, “I think we’re gonna be dead way before that.” I also kind of like it when one of Steppenwolf’s hostages pleas, “We have families!” he answers, “Why does everyone keep telling me that?” Because it is a good point; he literally just killed someone who made the exact same plea a second ago (it’s pretty much Steppenwolf’s only good moment in the film).

For the rest, we have truly cringe-inducing jokes. For instance, “I’m not the one who brought a pitchfork” (said after seeing said pitchfork turn back oncoming floodwater), “Woah, he is tall!” “I’m a snack-hole,” “what is brunch?” and so on. We also have the old (and God is it tired) Whedonesque gag of self-consciously describing what is happening on screen (“Oh, they just left. That’s rude”). Part of the trouble is that so many of the jokes come from the Flash, who, again, is incredibly obnoxious in his whole persona. Another problem is that they often come at the worst possible moments. There’s a bit where Steppenwolf murders an innocent woman just off screen after we hear her begging and crying for mercy, and then it’s immediately followed by the Flash ‘comically’ panicking. Or after the dramatic fight with Superman we cut to Batman – Batman – lying on the ground ‘comically’ griping about which bones are broken (was there a typo in the script? Who the heck gives that kind of gag to Batman?). Or there’s another moment where Aquaman gives an actually decent line about how he’s fine with dying for an honorable cause, approaching something like character…then it transitions into a joke about him sitting on Wonder Woman’s lasso and babbling the truth, which is not just tonally inappropriate, but completely subverts his assertion by having him admit that he isn’t fine with dying. Thanks movie: you have a good character moment and then immediately spoil it for a cheap gag.

Also, they’re really convinced the phrase ‘talk to fish’ is funny. Every time someone says it, there is this awkward-as-hell pause like they’re just waiting for the laughter to die down. I don’t know why they thought this was so funny; it’s a light chuckle line at best, but any humor is utterly ruined by the subsequent “you’re laughing now” performance.

So, this is a very bad film, let’s call it. Is there anything good about it?

Besides the obvious

Again, Superman is easily the best thing about this film. After two movies dedicated to tearing him down, they finally make an attempt to get him right. It’s terrible from a storytelling point of view, but Lord, it is satisfying to see him curb-stomping everyone in this film (Batman absolutely deserved to get pounded into the pavement after BvS). Likewise, when he shows up in the final battle, the first thing he does is note that there are still civilians in the area and head off to make sure they’re safe. That is something Superman would do (though it does point to the problem that the writers are clearly struggling to find a way to keep the battle going once Superman shows up so that we don’t notice that the story is basically over the moment he joins the fight). He gets a little time to be with Lois, to enjoy being home in Kansas, even to submit with good grace to an interview with a bunch of nervous kids for their podcast (this is the opening scene of the film, by the way, and it establishes his character better in two minutes than the previous films managed in over five collective hours…though this is where the infamous reshoots came in. My very first note on this film is “Holy crap! What’s up with his lip?!”)

(Speaking of civilians, at least this film makes a point to show innocent people in danger and being rescued by our heroes, putting the climactic battle into context. Which is more than some films – including one whose title may or may not rhyme with ‘slack anther’ – bother to do).

Gal Gadot is still the perfect Wonder Woman, and she struggles to maintain a level of class throughout the proceedings. I actually kind of like her interactions with Bruce Wayne, though otherwise she really doesn’t have much to do except draw the eye every time she’s onscreen and participate in the action scenes.

Aquaman is actually my favorite of the newcomers: he actually has something of a decent personality, being a laid-back, inwardly bitter badass who saves people with a bad grace then charges drinks to their tabs. His thrill in combat and macho persona were pretty enjoyable and made him stand out from the other characters. I’m actually thinking I might go see his film when if comes out, not because I think it’ll be good, but because I figure this guy is at least entertaining company.

I also did appreciate that Cyborg, despite his utterly bland personality, was allowed to give his catchphrase “boo-yah.” Though the delivery fell flat and only served to remind me of how much better his character was portrayed in the Teen Titans cartoon (again, the show aimed at children was much more human, thoughtful, and better written than this film ostensibly directed at adults).

I will say that parts of the film do work as dumb fun, and there is some undeniably cool imagery. The parademons looked good, and I admit I did like seeing one of the Green Lantern Corps show up in a flashback.

Oh, and the opening credits, done over scenes of the world mourning Superman, is very nice, even if not earned by past films. It’s a somber, respectful piece of work in the midst of all the chaos and nonsense.

Likewise, I liked the mid-credit scene of Superman and the Flash starting a race, even though Flash is still obnoxious as ever. The bit where Superman asks “which coast?” is pretty much perfect.

On the other hand, it’s followed by a post-credits scene featuring the return of Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor, just to remind us that John Wayne wasn’t that bad a choice to play Genghis Khan. God, I’d forgotten how annoying his voice is: I was chanting for Deathstroke to kill him.

Oh, yeah, Deathstrokes there in the post-credits scene too, and Luthor tries to set up a sequel. Like that’s gonna happen.

Justice League is the film The Avengers could have been had the filmmakers not put the time and effort into building the world and characters and managing the crossover with care. It isn’t anything like one of the worst films I’ve ever seen, but it is probably one of the messiest films I’ve seen, at least in terms of a major franchise. It’s falling apart at the seams, trying to do too much and ultimately achieving very little. Through a combination hubris, greed, pretentiousness, and impatience, Warner Brothers and Zack Snyder tripped over themselves to get to this point as soon as possible with a string of mostly-terrible films, with the result that the long awaited dream of a Justice League film, featuring some of the greatest superheroes of all time, thought impossible for decades, has come true at last and the best that can be said of it is “dumb fun.” What a sad indictment of the entertainment industry.

End on a high note

Thoughts on the Captain Marvel Trailer

Last week the trailer for Captain Marvel, the next entry in the venerable Marvel Cinematic Universe, arrived. For those who don’t know, Captain Marvel is a female superhero with tremendous energy manipulation powers, whose presence was teased in the last scene of Avengers: Infinity War (I will refrain from discussing any details for those who have managed to avoid spoilers thus far). She is being touted as the headliner for the next ‘phase’ of the MCU.

So far, reactions to the trailer have been…rather mixed. My own reaction is that, much as I love the MCU, I’m not getting a good vibe off of this.

In the first place, I really don’t get much of a sense of excitement from this trailer: there are only a handful of very brief scenes actually showing the heroine in action, none of which were especially impressive. Most of the trailer just showed footage of Carol Danvers (Captain Marvel’s real name)’s life; things like her as a girl falling over blended with her falling as an adult, or her in training in the military, or her just wandering about with a glazed expression.

On that subject, a lot of criticism has been leveled at Brie Larson’s performance as seen in this trailer and…yeah, I can’t say it isn’t warranted. She spends just about the whole thing with the most bored, disinterested expression on her face. I think they were trying to make her look serious and competent, but from what we’ve seen, she just looks half asleep most of the time.

Contrast Miss Larson’s expression with Miss Johanson’s in the trailer for The Avengers back in 2012:

 

 

See, Black Widow looks tough, determined, and ready for battle; her eyes are focused, but fully open, her brow is lowered, her jaw clenched. Meanwhile, Captain Marvel just looks vague: her eyes are unfocused, the eyelids appear to be drooping, and her brow and jawlines appear to be relaxed. She looks like she just got out of bed and hasn’t had her morning cup of Joe.

Dishearteningly, this even extends to her Entertainment Weekly cover, which you’d think would try to present the best possible face on the upcoming film.

download (2).jpeg

Just to drive the point home, some fans subsequently photoshopped still images from the trailer and promotional materials to give her a smile. It’s kind of startling the difference it makes: she immediately appears so much more likable and, well, human. She suddenly has a real sense of personality. For my part, I at once found myself thinking, “yeah, I’d like to go on an adventure with this character.”

7d103879cf656e573f7d8d0b2ed02396.jpg

Predictably, certain corners of the internet labeled this ‘sexist’, since apparently asking a woman to smile is sexist and demeaning. This neatly sidesteps the fact that the issue is less that she doesn’t smile than that she doesn’t emote. Also that no one felt the need to give similar treatment to, say, Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman or Evangeline Lilly’s Wasp. Or that fans have made similar complaints about male characters ranging from Superman to Freddy Krueger. Also, they apparently haven’t learned from Lucasfilm that insulting your audience for criticizing your product is not a good idea.

Perhaps this is all misleading, and her actual performance will be better. I hope it is, since I don’t like disliking Marvel films (well, Black Panther is kinda fun to take apart, but I’d much rather it had been a good movie), especially one that is, apparently, so vital to the conclusion of Infinity War.

There is also the rather cringe inducing tagline, “Discover what makes a hero,” with a very deliberate emphasis on the ‘her’ part. I don’t know if that was meant to be “what makes her a hero” or “what makes a her-o,” but it’s ill-judged either way. For one thing, could that tagline be any more generic? And for another, emphasizing the femaleness of your heroine is not going to work as a selling point: there is nothing novel about a female-led action movie, and normal audience members don’t care either way. All they want is a good story with likable characters; that’s why Wonder Woman was a smash hit and the Ghostbusters remake wasn’t.

That’s right, I said there was nothing novel about a female-led action film. Salt, Lucy, Ghost in the Shell, The Hunger Games films, Wonder Woman, Colombiana, the Tomb Raider films, the new Star Wars films, the Ghostbusters remake, and on and on, not to mention superhero films Elektra and Catwoman. You might be saying “But most of those films bombed and/or were really, really terrible!” Yes, but we’re not talking about quality, only novelty, and my claim is that there is no novelty in a female-led action film. For goodness sakes, Aliens was headed by Sigourney Weaver and that’s one of the most popular and influential sci-fi action films ever made.

The point is that you cannot use a female superhero as a selling point; it’s been done, and thanks to Wonder Woman it’s even been done very well. You need to give us something more, and thus far I’m not really seeing anything. Heck, I thought the Aquaman trailer had more of fun and novelty in it than this; it looks stupid as hell, but at least it was energetic and showed off major points of interest, like sea monsters, submarines being lifted out of the water, and so on. What we see here is all either extremely generic (firing lasers from her fists: haven’t seen that before) or just ordinary. The trailer doesn’t even establish the Skrulls, the shape-shifting aliens who serve as the film’s antagonists (meaning audience members who don’t know about the plot from other sources will simply have a shot of the supposed heroine punching an old woman with no context. There’s a selling point: wooden-faced heroine beats up old people).

Now, if I were doing this film, I’d make it an action-packed, high-concept space adventure; something akin to Aliens with a super powered Ripley. Maybe they’re doing that, but I just don’t get a sense of it from the trailer, or really of any kind of fun adventure. That would be the way to sell this film; courageous and good-looking astronaut girl fights evil alien monsters with her cosmic superpowers. Lots of people would be happy to pay to see that. Very few people are going to want to see a film marketed as, “It’s a Marvel film, but this time with a female lead! No, it’s not that character you all like. Or that one. Not that one either.”

But even apart from the shortcomings of the trailer itself, there’s another problem lurking in background; it’s the aforementioned fact that Marvel is already saying that Captain Marvel is going to replace Iron Man and Captain America as the new ‘face’ of the MCU. This is a big mistake.

You see, the Marvel films are by now a venerable, established series, headlined by characters who have become fixtures of the popular imagination. Millions of people have accompanied Iron Man and Cap through a decade’s worth of adventures, experiencing their hardships, struggles, joys, and triumphs. So, telling that audience that these characters are now going to be replaced or are going to take a back seat to this other character whom they haven’t had any kind of experience with yet (and, to be frank, one whom most in the audience haven’t even heard of) is not going to inspire much good will. If you told your son that you were going to take away his favorite toy and replace it with another toy, his reaction wouldn’t be excitement; it would be at best deep skepticism and a predisposition to hate the new toy. Not to mention that it sets the bar incredibly high for this new film: it not only has to be good, it has to be on par with the original Iron Man and Captain Marvel has to be as vivid and inspiring a character as Captain America. To put it bluntly, this is not going to happen. The film may be good, and we hope it is, but you are not going to make audiences care about Captain Marvel the same way they care about Captain frickin’ America. So please do not set that as the goal you are trying to achieve; you will only hurt you own film.

I’m fine with replacing the old characters (provided they’re given a respectful and fitting send off), but you need to do that organically; you can’t just present the audience with a completely new character and tell them that they are going to admire and be inspired by her now before the film is even released. That needs to happen organically, by building the new character into the universe and most of all by making her engaging and likable.

All things considered, so far this is the first MCU film that I’m looking forward to with more trepidation than excitement (I wasn’t super excited for Black Panther, but I was looking forward to it). But then again, I wasn’t looking forward to Wonder Woman either and they blew that one out of the water.

On the other hand, the DCEU was already a slow-motion disaster when Wonder Woman came along. There was nothing at stake if that movie had failed because it would only have been another entry in a series of missteps.

The MCU, however, has been a towering success and is coming off of its crowning achievement in Infinity War. Now they have essentially gambled the future of the series on this one film: a film that honestly does not look very promising at this point.

That’s why I’m uneasy about this movie; not just that I fear it will be bad in itself, but that I’m worried it will irretrievably break one of the few healthy film franchises we have left. Time alone will tell, but I’m not optimistic.