My Ranking of the Films (Note: the position of ‘Endgame’ is tentative at this point, as I still need to examine it more fully):
- Captain America: Civil War
- Avengers: Infinity War
- The Avengers
- Captain America: The Winter Soldier
- Guardians of the Galaxy
- Iron Man
- Ant-Man and the Wasp
- Avengers: Endgame
- Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2
- Doctor Strange
- Captain America: The First Avenger
- Avengers: Age of Ultron
- Thor: The Dark World
- The Incredible Hulk
- Thor: Ragnarok
- Spider-Man: Homecoming
- Iron Man 2
- Black Panther
- Iron Man 3
- 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.
–The Incredible Hulk
–Iron Man 2
–Captain America: The First Avenger
–Iron Man 3
–Thor: The Dark World
–Captain America: The Winter Soldier
–Guardians of the Galaxy
–Avengers: Age of Ultron
–Captain America: Civil War
–Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
–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.
–The Incredible Hulk
–Iron Man 2
–Captain America: The First Avenger
–Iron Man 3
–Thor: The Dark World
–Captain America: The Winter Soldier
–Guardians of the Galaxy
–Avengers: Age of Ultron
–Captain America: Civil War
–Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
–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.
–The Incredible Hulk
–Iron Man 2
–Captain America: The First Avenger
–Iron Man 3
–Thor: The Dark World
–Captain America: The Winter Soldier
–Guardians of the Galaxy
–Avengers: Age of Ultron
–Captain America: Civil War
–Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
It’s all been building to this. The Infinity Stones have been moving in and out of the series, and we’ve had glimpses of Thanos working behind the scenes. Now we enter into the climactic conclusion of nearly twenty interconnected stories.
Following the events of Thor: Ragnarok, the Asgardian refugee ship has been assaulted by Thanos’s forces and blasted in half. Valkyrie is nowhere to be found, but Thor and Heimdall have been subdued (one of the gladiators from Ragnarok is visible among the dead, which is a great detail) and Loki is being interrogated by members of the ‘Black Order.’ Thanos himself gives a speech about the inevitability of destiny, then defeats the Incredible Hulk in single combat before forcing Loki into giving up the Tesseract by torturing Thor, confirming once and for all that Loki does care about his brother. Loki then makes a desperate effort to kill Thanos and is strangled to death in retaliation, leaving Thor cradling his brother’s body as the ship blows up around him while Thanos sends the Black Order to retrieve the two stones on Earth.
On Earth, Banner (teleported to safety by Heimdall as his final act) arrives in Doctor Strange’s mansion, where soon he and Tony and in a discussion with Strange and Wong about the nature of the Infinity Stones and how they can keep them out of Thanos’s hands. Tony is prepared to make the call to Steve Rogers for help, but before he can go through with it the Black Order arrives for the Time Stone in Strange’s keeping. The Hulk refuses to make an appearance, so Doctor Strange, Iron Man, Wong, and Spider-Man (swinging in from a field-trip) battle the two aliens. Strange is captured, but Stark and Peter manage to hitch a ride on the ship (Peter now in the new ‘Iron Spider’ suit that was teased at the end of Homecoming). From there we cut to the Guardians of the Galaxy, who are responding to the Asgardians’ distress call and find Thor alive. Upon hearing of Thanos’s plot, Gamora recounts her history with him and the teams splits up; Thor, Rocket, and Groot head for the ancient dwarven forge where Mjolnir was made in the hopes of getting a weapon that can match Thanos, while Quill, Gamora, Drax, and Mantis head for Knowhere to get the Aether from the Collector before Thanos can.
Meanwhile on Earth, Vision and Wanda – whose relationship has progressed to romance and even to the point where he wants to stay with her despite their conflicting responsibilities – are assaulted by more members of the Black Order, but are rescued when Captain America, Falcon, and Black Widow intervene. They head for Avenges HQ to team up with Rhodey and Banner (the former of whom pointedly ignores Ross’s orders to arrest the fugitives), and they determine that the only way to save Vision and stop Thanos would be to remove the Mind Stone from his head, and the only place with the technology to do so is Wakanda. The stage is thus set for a galaxy-spanning battle against Thanos with the fate of the universe hanging in the balance.
This film is incredible. They are juggling so many different elements, so many different characters, continuing on from so many different storylines that merely to be watchable would have been an achievement. But it’s more than that; it’s indisputably one of the best superhero films ever made.
Just consider the sheer size of the cast: we have the Avengers, the Guardians, Doctor Strange, Black Panther, and Spider-Man and a sizable portion of all their supporting casts – Pepper, Ross, Loki, Heimdall, M’Baku, Shuri, Wong, Ned, the Collector, Red Skull, and Nebula – not to mention introducing what is effectively a brand new villain (since Thanos received little more than cameos and allusions in the previous films) and one or two new characters – such as Eitri the Dwarf. Yet not only do they have all these characters, but just about every single one of them has a character-appropriate moment to shine, or a bit of development, or generally contributes to the film. Even the Cloak of Levitation gets its share of memorable moments. The way every scene, every line of dialogue, almost every action contributes to the story, the level of respect given to these characters and this world, is nothing short of staggering. The only major figures missing in action are Ant-Man and Hawkeye, and the film takes the time to account for them by saying that they struck a deal in order to care for their families and are under house arrest (this also prompts Banner to ask, “There’s an Ant-Man and a Spider-Man?”).
But not only that, but while juggling this huge cast and epic scope the film still takes time for thoughtful, quiet scenes where the characters just breathe and interact with one another. Like the conversation between Rocket and Thor on their way to the forge, where Rocket (following on a joke in an earlier scene) decides to “be the captain” and check whether Thor is all right, given all he’s been through. Or the scene between Thanos and Gamora in his throne room. Or when Tony and Strange debate the best strategy for tackling Thanos. Even just having Cap and Bucky take a moment to greet one another as Wakanda prepares for war, or introducing Tony discussing the prospect of having a son with Pepper. The film shows genuine respect for its massive cast; it isn’t just throwing characters at the screen in order to pack theaters, everyone has a reason to be here and everyone is treated like an actual person. It is truly amazing how well all these vastly different characters are captured. Just think of the different styles necessary for Doctor Strange, Drax the Destroyer, Spider-Man, and Captain America, but they absolutely nail everyone. With about six or seven major players, any of whom could be called the protagonist, every one of them gets more humanity and development than most characters with a whole film to themselves.
Then there is the villain, and my goodness, what an incredible character Thanos is! He makes a strong impression right from the start, standing amid the wreckage and bodies of the Asgardian ship he just massacred (the opening distress call emphasizes “This is not a war craft!”), dragging a beaten and bloodied Thor around while making a grandiose speech about destiny. He then proceeds to beat the Incredible Hulk unconscious in single combat before strangling Loki to death after taking command of two Infinity Stones (which, as one of his servants says, is an unprecedented situation). The scope of his evil – slaughtering hundreds of civilians – is established, as well as his sense of destiny and sophisticated dialogue (when Loki says he has experience on Earth, Thanos answers, “If you consider failure experience”) and his modus operandi of forcing people into impossible choices where they either help him or watch those they love die in agony. It also shows that, whatever logic Thanos will bring to bear in defense of his vision, he is ultimately monstrous and insane, as we know the Asgardians are on the verge of extinction, yet he still subjects them to his ‘culling’ by slaughtering defenseless women and children.
From there, we spend a good deal of the film getting to know Thanos, to understand his perspective and to feel his drive and sense of destiny. His plan, though appalling, has a cruel logic to it; believing the universe’s resources to be finite and overpopulation the source of hunger, suffering, and conflict, Thanos means to wipe out half of all living things, believing that would prevent a total extinction – such as happened to his own planet – and create a better life for the survivors. The film takes the time to let him actually debate the question both with Gamora and Doctor Strange, the latter of whom asks what happens if he wins. “I finally rest,” Thanos answers. “And watch the sun rise on a grateful universe.”
Most importantly, though, Thanos, evil as he is, is not inhuman. He shows respect to his enemies, he honestly cares for Gamora, and though, when presented with the choice between an Infinity Stone the person he loves the most, he (unlike everyone else in the film) chooses the stone, we can see that the choice nearly kills him (contrast Killmonger, who murders his girlfriend the moment it becomes the easiest way to enact his plan and doesn’t even react). He’s a monster, yet like with Zemo before him we find ourselves actually sympathizing with him, as when Mantis announces that he is in anguish after killing Gamora. Moreover, Thanos goes through a lot in pursuit of his goal; we watch him fighting, suffering, struggling to achieve his vision, and though that vision is horrifically evil, his twisted devotion in pursuing it is nevertheless affecting to watch.
However, though Thanos claims his motivations are purely altruistic and based on necessity, the cult-like nature of his organization, with his reverent servants speaking in evangelical terms of him, as well as the way he tells Gamora that everything great about her comes from him, suggests that he is in truth more motivated by diabolical pride than by misguided generosity. This is particularly intriguing in light of Loki – so perceptive about everyone but himself – telling him with his dying breath “You will never be a god.” It also raises serious questions about just how honest he is being about both the reason for Titan’s fall and the current state of Gamora’s homeworld (he assures her it’s a paradise, while she tells him that they were happy there before he came and slaughtered half the population).
There’s a common canard that a good villain thinks he’s the hero. That’s not really true, of course (does anyone suppose that, say, Count Dracula or Blofeld or the Joker think they’re heroes?), but it is one way to make a good villain, and Thanos is one of the best embodiments of that idea. He’s an all-around fantastic character who sticks with you long after the film is over and is easily one of if not the best villain in the whole MCU; the absolute ideal figure to serve as the antagonist to all our heroes at once.
Which brings us to the film’s central theme, contrasting those who will sacrifice lives for their ideology and those who will not; those who love their friends and family more than their goals, and those who will sacrifice anything and anyone for what they think has to be done. Again and again, the heroes have the option to keep the stones out of Thanos’s hands at the cost of someone they love, and again and again they can’t do it. Even Loki can’t stand to actually watch Thor die. But the brilliant part is that this is precisely what makes the difference between them and Thanos. He is able to progress along his plan precisely because he is a monster and they aren’t: because he’s willing to sacrifice literally anything to achieve his end and they are not. As Captain America says, “we don’t trade lives.” Whatever the consequences, our heroes will not abandon the ones they care about, because that is the kind of people they are. The very thing that separates them from Thanos is precisely the thing that ends up giving him his opportunity and why he wins in the end. Yet the way the film is staged makes it clear that, even so, the heroes are right because the steps Thanos takes – torturing Nebula, murdering Gamora, and his final ‘snap’ – are so horrific.
In other words, this film is a thorough deconstruction of consequentialism, even as it shows the pitfalls of adhering to a strict code of right and wrong that prioritizes people over ends. It makes us feel the devastating cruelty of the one and the nobility of the other, and it does so while having the wrong side emerge the victor.
The entire perspective is summed up perfectly in a devastating exchange at a crucial moment. Thanos has been temporarily subdued and Tony and Spider-Man are trying to get the gauntlet off him. Quill takes advantage of Thanos’s immobility to demand to know where Gamora is. Nebula soon realizes that he must have killed her, and Quill orders Thanos to tell him it isn’t true. Thanos’s answer is an agonized, “I had to.”
To which Quill, in a hollow voice, gives the unanswerable response, “No, you didn’t.”
Quill then utterly loses control, ruining their best chance at victory. Again, the fact that the heroes love real people more than any goal or ideology costs them dearly.
During this exchange, Tony quickly realizes what’s happening and begs Quill to stop, to think, to stay calm. This harkens back to Tony’s own loss of control in Civil War: he knows exactly what Quill is about to experience and what the consequences might be. But while Cap stopped Tony from going too far, Tony fails to stop Quill in time.
This brings us back to the care that went into this script and the deep respect paid to the rest of the franchise. I want to say that every past film is mentioned, alluded to, or has consequences at work in the film. Sometimes Infinity War actually does a better job of dealing with the consequences than the earlier films did. For instance, when T’Challa is gathering his forces for the coming battle, he asks if the Border Tribe – which sided with Killmonger in Black Panther – and Okoye sadly answers, “those who are left,” showing more grief over the loss of her lover / husband and the divide in her country with one line than she ever showed in the earlier film. Meanwhile, the fallout from Civil War is still being dealt with (Ross orders Cap’s arrest even after the attack on New York, further validating Cap’s fears over the Accords), Rhody is still paralyzed, even Doctor Strange’s surgery scars are still visible. There is a tremendous amount of detail in this film, all meant to bring the weight of those eighteen earlier films to bear on what happens.
We finally get to see Quill and Gamora acting on their ‘unspoken thing,’ confirming their romance just in time to have it ripped apart (their connection is smoothly established in their introductory scene, where they’re both singing along to ‘Rubber Band Man’). Rocket’s development from Vol. 2 also carries over, as he expresses his compassion and empathy in the aforementioned scene with Thor (basically assuming the role Yondu took with him), though he has to take a moment to sort of psych himself up to the effort.
Thor, for his part, strikes a balance between his jokey, comedic person in Ragnarok (“So cool,”) and his more traditional, grandiose character (“Destiny will deliver Thanos to me”) to very good effect, in the process allowing the writers to gracefully correct the mistakes of past films without simply negating them. They showed a talent for this back in Civil War by actually making something out of Iron Man 3, and here they exercise it by, among other things, ignoring the gadgets on Spider-Man’s suit (and making him generally a much more competent fighter than he was in Homecoming) and emphasizing the fact that Wakandan spears double as energy weapons (correcting the moronic scene in Black Panther where Okoye has to climb out onto the roof of a car during a shoot-out in order to throw her spear).
Speaking of development, we get a lot of it for Wanda and Vision, who step into the role almost of supporting protagonists. Their doomed romance is beautifully conceived and painfully tragic as it becomes increasingly clear that Vision will have to be sacrificed if they want to save the universe, and the only person who can do that is the woman he loves: a woman who has already lost the only person she loved once before and now is faced with the prospect of not only going through that same heart ache again, but of having to be the one to pull the trigger. At the same time, though, Scarlet Witch has continued to grow in power over the years and is now one of the most fearsome of all the Avengers, able to almost single-handedly turn the tide of whole battles (prompting the hilariously on-point question, “Why was she up there all this time?”).
Then, of course, there are our two protagonists, Cap and Iron Man. The two of them still haven’t reconciled, but the details of their relationship are excellent: Tony carries the phone Steve gave him around at all times, suggesting that he longs to be able to talk to his friend but can’t bring himself to do so. When Steve learns that Tony is missing he says, “Earth’s lost her greatest defender.” The remnants of their shattered friendship are still there, as is the pain of their falling out. Yet, appropriately, the film suggests that their conflict is ultimately why they can’t beat Thanos. Tony’s hesitation to call Steve prevents the two halves of the Avengers from uniting until Thanos’s people have already made their move. this means that he and Strange have no idea what is being planned back on Earth when reaching their decision about facing Thanos. Had it been otherwise, they might have returned to join in the battle of Wakanda and things might have turned out different. Thus Tony’s fears are brought to pass by the fact that he failed to heed Cap’s advice in Age of Ultron; that whatever happens, they should face it together.
Captain America’s re-introduction – emerging from the shadows to rescue Vision and Wanda – is note-perfect, as is his new, somber-colored uniform and beard, showing the passage of time (I’m less pleased with Natasha platinum dye-job: I think black would have been more fitting). Likewise the fact that he doesn’t get his shield back yet – that has to wait until he reconciles with Tony (the question of why T’Challa doesn’t outfit all the Avengers with some of the extra vibranium suits we know he has lying around is entirely the fault of Black Panther, so I won’t cite it as a real flaw here). One of the few issues I have with this film is that I wish Cap had more screen time, but what he does have is excellent, especially his final clash with Thanos. It’s the only time the two characters meet, and they don’t exchange a single line of dialogue, but you can see on Thanos’s face that Cap has made an impression.
Tony Stark, appropriately enough, takes center stage here. As the film reminds us, he’s been fearing and planning for this exact scenario for years. It was why he made Ultron, why he’s been unable to permanently hang up his suit despite his desire to be with Pepper; because he knows something terrible is coming, and he’s the one with the knowledge, the power, and the will to do something about it. Again, he’s an engineer, and faced with a problem his instinct is to somehow work out a solution. The potential end of the world at Thanos’s hands has been the problem eating away at him since the attack on New York, and he simply cannot accept the idea that it might not admit of a solution, or at least, not one he can count on.
When he first faces the Black Order, he’s evidently confident that he can take them on. However, as the film progresses, he grows more and more desperate as it begins to dawn on him that he can’t, in fact, win this fight. In their duel, he throws absolutely everything he has at Thanos, and all he can manage is a scratch.
The film explicitly points out that Tony and Thanos have a similar basic personality: they both think of themselves as specially appointed geniuses, who alone have the knowledge, the power, and the will to do what needs to be done for the greater good. Tony has been struggling with this question, of what his life will ultimately mean, of what he’ll leave behind him, of what good he can do with his gifts, ever since he came out of that cave in Afghanistan, and here he meets his ultimate test…and fails.
Part of the reason he fails is, again, because he makes the gamble to take on Thanos on Titan, not Earth, since he fears the potential collateral damage that might result. Sokovia and Ultron evidently still haunt him, and he is still unable to take Cap’s view that you cannot save everyone, you can only try to save as many as you can.
In summary, the character work in this film is incredible, and I’m really only scratching the surface. Like Civil War, if I tried to list everything this film does right, to describe every great scene and every detail of development and plot, it would easily out weigh the original script. The ideas alone – of morality, of division, of fanaticism and ideology, the evil doctrine of overpopulation, Thanos’ parallels with real-life monsters, and so on – could devour whole essays.
But layered on top of this fantastic writing is some of the most jaw-dropping spectacle in the franchise. There’s the opening battle in New York, a hilarious exhibition match between the Guardians and the Avengers, the sometimes-surreal effects of Thanos’s gauntlet, and the two parallel climactic battles; a full scale battle of Wakanda and the Avengers against a hoard of savage monsters that look like multi-armed xenomorphs from the ‘Alien’ franchise and the fight of Iron Man’s team against Thanos. During all of this we have some glorious visuals that look like classic comic-book covers brought to life: Spider-Man standing on the rim of one of Thanos’ space ships. The eerie, almost silent world that holds the Soul Stone. An enraged Thanos tearing a whole moon apart to throw it at Iron Man. The cold forge where Thor tries to build a new hammer. Doctor Strange unleashing the full might of his magic against Thanos and actually matching him for a brief time. That isn’t even considering the amazing CG work used to bring Thanos to life, which is so good that you soon stop noticing it’s there at all. In fact, it’s a little jarring to look back afterwards and remember that he is computer generated (I also can’t say enough about Josh Brolin’s performance, though the acting in this film is excellent across the board).
On top of all that, the film continues the tradition of great dialogue and great jokes, even amid all the drama and tragedy. We have things like Ned’s ‘distraction’ (“We’re all gonna die!”), “You’re embarrassing me in front of the wizards,” Rocket vowing to get Bucky’s mechanical arm, Drax training himself to be invisible, Peter trying to introduce himself to Doctor Strange (“Oh, we’re using our made up names? Then I’m Spider-Man”), and Tony’s thousand-yard stare after trying to talk with the Guardians. Watch the Cloak of Levitation while Peter and Tony are arguing about the former’s decision to hitch a ride on the spaceship.
After the horrifying opening sequence, we get some badly-needed comedy as Strange and Wong discuss buying lunch (“I’ll see if they can make you a metaphysical ham-and-rye”), followed by Strange porting over to Central Park to collect Tony, pausing to congratulate him and Pepper on their engagement. One of my favorite lines has Tony sternly telling Peter, “I do not want to hear another pop-culture reference out of you for the rest of the trip,” which is both hilarious in itself and extremely satisfying given how often such references are used in place of actual comedy in lesser films.
Added on to that are just great bits of dialogue, such as Thanos telling Tony, “You’re not the only one cursed with knowledge,” or when the Collector asks why he would lie, Thanos dryly responds, “I imagine it’s like breathing for you.” Or we have Loki’s last words to Thor: “The sun will shine on us again.” Or Cap’s dismissal of Ross: “I’m not looking for forgiveness, and I’m way past asking for permission.” Or Okoye and M’Baku’s comment right before the battle: “This will be the end of Wakanda.” “Then it shall be the noblest end in history.”
I really can’t say enough about how good this film is. The expert juggling of so many different characters, tones, and plotlines; the powerful characterization; the spectacle; the humor; the tragedy, all of it adds up to one of the greatest film epics in decades. The closest comparison would be with The Return of the King back in 2003, which was itself something of a throwback to the likes of Ben-Hur, The Ten Commandments, and The Longest Day. I don’t think I would say Infinity War is on par with the likes of those films, of course, but it at least feels like part of that same tradition. Yes, there are flaws; individual moments that don’t work as well as they might, questions about how exactly Thanos’s gauntlet works (its precise nature seems to have been left ambiguous to maintain drama, since if the stones do what they’re implied to, there’s no way the heroes could have even gotten as far as they do), questions about particular strategies they might have tried or applications of established powers that weren’t used, and so on. There’s also simply the fact that the film more or less requires the viewer to be familiar with eighteen previous films to receive the full impact and that its final status will depend, to an extent, on the quality of its conclusion.
But at the end of the day, Infinity War will stand as the culmination of a glorious and unprecedented achievement in filmmaking; nineteen films over ten years, all of them financially successful and very few of them genuinely bad in terms of quality, all culminating in this single, suitably epic tragedy. Whatever happens next, it is one of the best superhero films ever made.
–The Incredible Hulk
–Iron Man 2
–Captain America: The First Avenger
–Iron Man 3
–Thor: The Dark World
–Captain America: The Winter Soldier
–Guardians of the Galaxy
–Avengers: Age of Ultron
–Captain America: Civil War
–Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
Okay, so, if you’ve followed my blog for a while, you have an idea of my opinion of Best Picture Nominee Black Panther. And today we’re gonna go into it in full.
We open with a voice over in which T’Challa as a child asks his father for a story, which is a very sweet way of providing an opening exposition dump. The resulting narration is written as though T’Chaka were reading the Wikipedia article, down to literally listing the powers that the heart shaped herb gave to the Black Panther. They came up with one of the most charming methods for providing exposition, and the execution is one of the flattest, laziest ones I’ve ever heard, albeit illustrated with some rather cool visuals of dust figures.
That pretty much sums up the film right there. But let’s get back on track.
In 1992, in Oakland, California, a couple of men are planning a crime when King T’Chaka of Wakanda walks in, identifies one of the men as his brothers, assigned as a spy in Oakland, and whom he accuses of helping Ulysses Klaue to steal Vibranium. It turns out the other man was also a Wakandan spy sent to keep tabs on the prince, and T’Chaka orders him to return to Wakanda for justice. Cut to present day and T’Chaka’s son, T’Challa is now the Black Panther and about to be crowned king following the events of Civil War. First, though, he needs to swing by Nigeria to pick up his ex-girlfriend, Nakia, from her espionage mission spying on what appear to be human traffickers. Back in Wakanda, he has his coronation, which includes ritual trial by combat with the hulking M’Baku of the renegade gorilla tribe. After winning the battle, T’Challa sets to work tracking down Klaue, who has managed to evade Wakandan justice for thirty years, and who is now working with an ex-Black Ops officer name Eric Killmonger, who turns out to have a massive grudge against Wakanda.
Oh, boy, where to start with Black Panther?
I suppose I should say up front that I really like the idea of Wakanda; the secret technological wonderland hidden deep in the African jungle, jealously guarding their treasure and mistrusting all outsiders. And, as I said in the Civil War review, I really like Black Panther as a character.
I suppose we should start there, with the whole setting and premise of Wakanda, as portrayed in this film.
There are so many holes in the entire concept that it’s hard to list them all; according to the opening narration, Wakanda was formed back in the Stone Age, or at least very early on in human history. Did they really have the borders established that early? Why those specific borders? If the Wakandans were advancing far faster than any other people, how is it possible that they wouldn’t expand and swallow up the surrounding peoples (and how did a Stone Age tribe figure out vibranium in the first place)? Actually, forget that; how is it possible the surrounding peoples could have one, been ignorant of them, and two, not try to join in with them?
How the heck has Wakanda remained a secret for all this time, even granting they got their holographic dome up early on in their history? The idea is that the rest of the world believes Wakanda to be an impoverished nation of shepherds and farmers, a misconception that the Wakandans deliberately encourage by having some of the population live in primitive conditions farming…we’ll get to that. Anyway, the point is, Wakanda presents itself as a backwards, primitive nation. Okay, feigning weakness and poverty is actually a really bad way to keep invaders out: what would happen if Sudan, Kenya, Uganda, or one of the other surrounding nations decided to start taking Wakandan land? Heck, what happened during the colonial days?
The problem, you see, is that the moment anyone tries to invade, the secret is out, because that’s when the Wakandans break out the ultra-high tech weaponry to defend themselves, revealing that they, in fact, have that kind of tech. So, this secret can only last as long as no one thinks to actually go there. Are we supposed to believe that Wakanda has survived all this time without a single war with the outside world? Or not even that: no aid workers ever tried to get in? No traders? No foreign ambassadors? We know the Wakandan king has diplomatic relations with the rest of the world, and that they’re in fact a member nation of the UN: how is it possible that no one has ever figure out their secret yet? That’s not even considering the question of whether any Wakandans have ever left their country and told anyone about them…actually, we know that’s a live possibility, since they have spies all over the world (in places like the Oakland ghetto. On that subject, what could possibly be happening there that would have any effect on a country in East Africa?).
You might think I’m making too big a deal out of this, but the trouble is that this is a fairly big part of the plot; the secret nature of Wakanda’s technology and vibranium deposits is a major point of contention in the film, with the danger being that if anyone outside knew about them, they could lose their way of life, while Everett Ross, the CIA Agent from Civil War, is convinced that Wakanda is a primitive nation of farmers and shepherds…even after he’s seen their king running around in ultra-advanced body armor. But it’s all-but inconceivable that a secret like that could have remained hidden under these circumstances. All the more so since the fact that vibranium – the most valuable substance on Earth – comes out of Wakanda is more or less public knowledge. They try to get around this by saying that T’Chaka told the world that Klaue stole all their vibranium, but are we supposed to believe that whole world just bought that, or even took it for granted that an impoverished, backward nation would have the resources to be able to say that for sure? No one even came looking for more, even though it made Captain America’s shield and they’ve been led to believe this country is effectively helpless?
So, the very premise of the film falls completely apart the moment you apply any thought to it. They would have been better off saying that the state of Wakanda’s technology was known to the world, but they kept an extremely tight watch on their borders and absolutely no one was allowed in, so that no one knew exactly what the nature of their technology was and the question wasn’t so much one of secrecy, but enforcement (and if they’d made the country smaller and more inaccessible than it seems to be).
Then there’s the issue of how the film conceives Black Panther’s powers and his suit. His powers come from the heart shaped herb, which is a plant blended with vibranium (vibranium is basically magic in this film) that gives BP his superpowers, while his panther suit renders him effectively immune to damage. Now, as conceived in this film, they have a whole garden of these herbs, and the suit is apparently so easy to make that T’Challa’s sister, Shuri, whips up two versions of her new prototype just so that he can have style options (the new version can spawn on the body at will and absorbs and fires kinetic energy, and I don’t have time to complain about that).
So why on Earth are these things only given to T’Challa? Why would they not give the powers to all their agents, or all their soldiers, or at least to the king’s body guards? Why wouldn’t they make vibranium suits for everyone in the army?
Basically, this means there is absolutely nothing special about Black Panther’s powers; nothing about them that actually links them to T’Challa beyond the fact that they’re apparently only for the king or the designated Black Panther. But the fact that they are apparently so readily available (the powers can even be easily removed with another dose of plant juice, so they could just give the powers to their agents before a mission and then take them away once the mission was over) means that quite literally anyone or everyone in the country could be the Black Panther: T’Challa could be fielding a whole unit or a whole army of Black Panthers, and we’re never given the slightest reason why he doesn’t. It’s as if Asgard could churn out Mjolnirs on an assembly line, but Thor was still the only one who got one.
At one point, Shuri reveals that she smuggled the one Black Panther necklace-suit out of the lab. Why didn’t she grab the other one, which is roughly the same size and was sitting right next to it (and which the villain takes later)? When they suit up for the final battle, why doesn’t anyone put on the old Black Panther suit that T’Challa wore in Civil War, and which apparently is just sitting is storage for all we know?
You can’t have the source of the hero’s powers being this plentiful and this easily available. And, again, it would have been so simple a problem to solve; just have it so that the heart-shaped herb only grows somewhere inaccessible, which the king has to find as part of his coronation ritual. Likewise, just have it so that the Black Panther suit is an heirloom where they can’t make more of it.
The filmmakers don’t appear to have given any thought to this premise; it’s as if they were just dumping elements of the Black Panther comics and backstory into the script as it occurred to them without bothering to ask how any of this worked.
And all of that is just dealing with the set-up. We haven’t even gotten to the story yet (and I haven’t even covered everything either. This script is really, really bad).
Actually, as long as we’re talking about Black Panther’s powers, there’s another problem. Between his superpowers and his vibranium, energy-absorbing suit, Black Panther is effectively unstoppable. But whenever T’Challa doesn’t have these advantages, he’s…kind of useless. He barely wins his fight with M’Baku, then loses to Killmonger later on (which we’ll get to). Nor is T’Challa shown to have any of the scientific knowledge, inventive genius, and raw cunning, or even the charisma and leadership qualities that he’s supposed to have, and which were shown in Civil War. Which means that our hero effectively has two settings: ‘god’ and ‘pathetic.’ He’s either completely unstoppable, or struggles to accomplish anything at all and has to be bailed out by his friends.
Compounding this, when he pursues Klaue and his men in South Korea, he does so backed up by his high tech gadgets and Amazonian agents riding in a vibranium car (even the glass is vibranium, which I guess is an option), while Klaue and his men just have rifles and a single sonic energy weapon. Black Panther so clearly outclasses his foes here that the film visibly struggles to try to create any kind of tension at all, to the point of having T’Challa inexplicably choose not to spawn his suit right away just so that Klaue can actually get out of the casino and they can have their car chase. Bullets have been flying for a good minute or so, and if Klaue hadn’t run out of ammo at the exact right moment, T’Challa would have been dead right then and there, but for some reason he doesn’t turn his suit on until he gets outside. Once he has it on, he becomes completely invincible and Klaue’s capture is only a matter of time, which means this chase has absolutely zero tension or stakes to it.
Again, why not just establish that Klaue’s arm can disrupt his suit, so that Black Panther can at least be in danger and have to show courage and cunning to bring him down? They later establish that sonic emitters can mess with vibranium, so it would have fit even with what they already have, but no; Black Panther eats a point-blank shot from it and barely flinches.
Klaue in general is an utter waste; the intimidation and force of personality he had in Age of Ultron – the guy who could render two powerful meta-humans speechless just by talking and who had the guts to demand payment from an eight-foot killer robot – is completely gone, leaving him basically just a giggling lunatic and causing us to wonder how this guy managed to evade the most advanced nation on Earth for thirty years, especially since they apparently pick him up the moment he commits a minor museum heist. Not to mention that he ultimately plays no purpose whatsoever in the story except to eat up the first hour or so. But we’ll get to that.
(Speaking of that museum heist, why is no one around except the few guards when they called in an medical emergency over the PA system? Shouldn’t the room be crowded with gawkers, museum personnel, and anyone with a medical degree? Also why are there no alarms on the display cases?)
Before we get to some of big plot holes – and they’re doozies – let’s tackle a few smaller points. The opening action sequence features Black Panther ambushing a convoy of what appear to be human traffickers in Nigeria. Not because he cares about the captured women, however, but because he wants to invite his ex-girlfriend to his coronation and she’s on an undercover mission as one of the captives. So, he ruins her mission just because he wants her at his coronation? Not exactly inspiring leadership there (they also just leave the women to make their way home on foot, I guess. Hopefully it’s not too far and they won’t encounter any other hostile groups along the way). The action sequence is extremely hard to see, however, as the night setting, BP’s black suit, and the muzzle flashes (not to mention the dubious CG work) make for a confusing blend.
I suppose I should tackle the supporting cast here, which is probably the dullest ensemble in the entire MCU. We have Zuri, the old priest/sage, who was one of the guys in the opening sequence and…that’s about it. There’s the queen mother, whose personality is that she’s the queen mother. Then there’s W’Kabi, T’Challa’s friend from the border tribe who lost his parents to Kluae and is dating / married to Okoye, T’Challa’s bodyguard / general, who is bald and a badass warrior woman. And finally there’s Nakia, T’Challa’s ex-girlfriend, who is a badass warrior woman and is not bald. That is her entire character. Oh, and she’s ‘stubborn’ and wants to help people outside Wakanda. It would be an exaggeration to say that these traits are established by having a single scene of her saying, “I want to help the people outside Wakanda and I am stubborn,” but not nearly as much as you’d think.
Nakia is easily the worst love-interest in the franchise (which, again, is a shame because I like her actress). Not only does she barely have a personality, but what personality she does have is almost identical to Okoye, with whom she shares most of her screen time. Also, the fact that she is T’Challa’s ‘ex’ (because that sounds like a common social concept in an isolated, highly-traditional African nation) has zero impact on the story. What their history is, why they broke up, and indeed whether they even have broken up is a complete mystery. As far as they interact at all, they just act as if they still were a couple…which isn’t saying much since, again, she has no personality to speak of. The single mildly entertaining or charming moment between them comes at the very end, when T’Challa kisses her and shrugs, “can’t blame me; I almost died.” Though since there’s no chemistry and less development to their relationship, it doesn’t amount to much beyond being charming line.
Then there’s M’Baku, who does sort of have a bit of personality. Or rather, he has two; being a scowling, imposing jerk in the first half, and a boisterous, good-hearted grouch in the second. The latter is at least somewhat entertaining, though his motivations for refusing the throne when they offer it to him are…mysterious to say the least (he’s already paid whatever debt he might have to T’Challa by saving him and giving him medical attention. Besides, at this point he probably would make a better king than T’Challa).
Everett Ross as the token white guy is at least a step up from most of the rest of the cast (which is kind of ironic if you want to go there). He actually gets to be heroic at several points, which is more than I can say for our hero (but we’ll get to that), and though he doesn’t show nearly as much interest in Wakanda and its secrets as he probably ought to, he is at least good company, thanks largely to the ever charming Martin Freeman.
Last of all is Shuri, T’Challa’s sister, who is by far the best character in the film. She’s thoroughly charming, gushing over her tech and toys, teasing her brother, and generally acting like she’s the one person on screen who is really invested in the story. I love the bit where she remote-drives a car during the Korea chase and has some genuinely hilarious reactions (Though, that said, I do have to wonder: why is a teenage girl apparently in charge of all technological development in Wakanda? How does that make any sense? Shouldn’t she be an apprentice or something at this age, and there be an older, mentor character overseeing the lab?).
Okay, enough positivity; let’s talk about the villain.
There’s been a lot of praise for Killmonger, and I will say that Michael B. Jordan does give a very strong performance in the role, as far as it goes. However, as a character, there’s really not much there. At the end of the day, he’s just an angry psychopath. Take any gangbanger from Oakland or Watts or Harlem, actually give him the skills he already thinks he has, and you pretty much have Killmonger.
There’s nothing complex or sympathetic about him apart from the fact that he lost his father at a young age, and except for his vision quest where he meets his father (a good scene, by the way), he is always hostile, swaggering, and belligerent, and that’s the sum total of his character. He complains that the world “took everything I love,” yet earlier in the film he shot his own girlfriend in cold-blood without turning a hair. Never once does he do anything positive, or charming, or decent or conflicted in the whole film (unless you count crying and asking to see the sunset after he loses). He has no honor like Vulture, he has no complex motivations like Zemo, he has no grandiose personality like Ego, and he has no subtlety like Yellowjacket. He’s essentially just Ronan with a slightly more fleshed-out backstory. He’s intimidating and scary, but only in the sense that he’s the kind of guy you’d profile the heck out of if you saw him walking down the street, not in the sense that you’re wondering what he might do next or are disturbed to find yourself sympathizing with him.
That’s not to mention the absurdities of his evil scheme. His plan is just to distribute high-tech weapons to Black people all over the world and let them rise up against their oppressors, explicitly calling for killing children, which shows both his one-note psychotic nature and extremely limited understanding (even granting the film’s socio-political point-of-view, how many of those two billion people who “look like me” does he expect to just turn on their neighbors and start shooting once they get their hands on high-tech weaponry? Also, how many of them are in Africa and under the rule of…other people who “look like me”? But we’ll come back to that point). Is handing out sonic spears to gangbangers really going to pose an existential threat to the Avengers, for instance? His plan is laughably simplistic and impractical, which I suppose fits with his character, but doesn’t exactly place him among the greats of the MCU.
Though his evil plan first requires him to ascend to the throne of Wakanda, which…good lord, this has to be one of the stupidest set-ups in the whole MCU. Which means it’s time to talk about the plot some more.
So, Killmonger’s foolproof plan is to first get involved with Klaue, then kill him to curry favor in Wakanda, then announce his identity as son of T’Chaka’s brother (we’ll talk about the backstory later. Remember, Best Picture nominee here), challenge T’Challa, and so take the throne.
If he gets turned away at the border, his plan fails. If T’Challa refuses his challenge, the plan fails. If T’Challa ever bothers to mention the fact that he saw Killmonger rescuing Klaue from his clutches, the plan fails. If T’Challa beats him in combat, well, he dies. And if the Wakanda council, army, and citizenry prove more loyal to their millennia-old traditions, principles, and way of life (or, you know, ordinary human decency) than to the obvious psychopath who has been in the country for a matter of hours, then his whole brilliant plan fails.
You know, I get the impression that Killmonger isn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer, so I can buy that this sounded like a good idea to him, but the fact that all that actually works is idiotic.
By the way, you read that right; T’Challa could have ended Killmonger’s entire plot at any time if he had just bothered to mention that he had Klaue in captivity until Killmonger blew out the wall and grabbed him. But he doesn’t, even when Killmonger has already revealed his identity and is demanding the throne. He has no reason in the world not to, but apparently it doesn’t occur to him. Also, it means that springing Klaue was actually a liability for Killmonger, especially since given that he had the ring, the tattoo, and so on, he probably didn’t need Klaue’s body to get an audience. But assuming he did, why would he wait so long before killing him? Why go through the whole rigamarole with the museum heist (when I first saw the film I thought the vibranium they were stealing would turn out to be important. It doesn’t)? Why not just shoot him in the ambulance when he has his back turned? If, for some reason, he had to wait until after breaking him out of the CIA office, why did he bother to untie him and go to the airfield?
In short, almost the entire first half of this film is pure filler that you could cut without affecting the course of the story at all.
But it gets worse; just how does Killmonger get the support of the council, military, etc. when, again, he just showed up this morning to this isolated, xenophobic nation, especially when his first act as king is to destroy the monarchy? No really; his first move it to order all the heart shaped herbs to be burned, and he threatens to murder the defenseless old lady if she doesn’t. How is it even possible that this wouldn’t instantly lose him all support, assuming he had any to begin with? (By the way, the justification for this is that disrupting continuity is what the black ops are trained to do to destabilized a country. Why does he want to destabilize the country he just took over and intends to lead in world conquest?) Why is seemingly everyone in Wakanda so willing to follow this guy who arrived in the country for the first time, took the crown, and ordered them to break all their traditions to start a world-wide conflict – again, explicitly vowing to kill children – all in the space of, at most, a day? Is it really all because he won the fight and therefore no one thinks to question him?
That would mean that Wakanda – the most civilized and advanced nation in the world – has a more primitive form of government than an actual tribal monarchy.
Also, how does Killmonger beat T’Challa in the ritual combat? T’Challa has presumably been training with these weapons his whole life, while Killmonger has probably never used them before. You can’t just pick up a new weapon for the first time and beat someone whose trained with it his whole life, I don’t care how many CIA kills you have. And why does T’Challa actually hold back while fighting him? He knows this man is extremely dangerous, a certified psychopath, and has a blood feud against his family. Killmonger just gave a big speech about how killing him is his life’s ambition, yet T’Challa pauses mid-fight to give him a chance to yield.
That’s the weird thing; the film acts as if Killmonger’s been established as a sympathetic, complex, tragic figure with a deep connection with our hero. Once they meet, T’Challa treats him like some kind of life-long friend whose well-being he’s thoroughly invested in, not as a dangerously unstable monster who entered his life a day ago.
(By the way, all of this was done much better and more intelligently in the film Aquaman, where the evil king had to spend most of the film building up enough political support to start his war on the surface, including staging false-flag attacks, where winning a duel was not enough to establish you as an unquestionable king because they remembered you also need the support of the people, and where the seasoned veteran in his own element handily defeats the scrappy, inexperienced outsider in ritual combat. Yes, Aquaman is a much smarter film than Black Panther: what does that tell you?)
Which brings us, at long last, to our hero.
So, we talked about the problem with Black Panther’s powers being way beyond almost all the threats he faces (and when he goes up again Killmonger in his own Panther suit, they can’t actually hurt each other so they end up just kind of…bumping one another back and forth until their god-modes get turned off), and that T’Challa himself is basically useless without his powers and suit. In fact, when he loses them following the fight with Killmonger, he ends up in a coma until his friends just give him the power back. He doesn’t have to learn or do anything to get it back; it’s just given to him by his friends. Again, we’re never shown his science smarts or inventive skills, he never does anything particularly clever or tactically brilliant in battle, and the film’s main plot basically comes about because he makes a series of utterly terrible decisions for no apparent reason.
But perhaps worst of all is the fact that his personality has changed. The hyper-focused, sophisticated badass on display in Civil War has been replaced by a cheery, soulful, thoroughly generic hero who freezes when he sees his ex-girlfriend and can’t respond when teased about it, gets trolled by his sister, and lets his friend talk trash about him to his face without even attempting to defend himself. Where’s the dignity? Where’s the nobility and regal bearing that he had in the last film? I would think he ought to be intimidating as heck even to his own people, a guy you do not mess around with unless you have an extremely close relationship. Instead, he’s just blandly sunny and good-natured.
There are a few exceptions and flashes of the more interesting character he ought to be coming to the surface, as in his first vision quest meeting his father (which is a really good scene, by the way: the imagery is gorgeous and their exchange is perfect), and possibly in some of his scenes negotiating with Ross. And I do like that he lets Killmonger see the sunset before he dies (though dragging him all the way down the train tracks and up the elevator with a spear in his heart is incredibly stupid, and if they wanted the moment they should have staged the battle differently).
Basically, Black Panther has been thoroughly neutered in his own film; a riveting, awesome character has been turned into a rather pathetic and boring figure. What a waste! It’s worse than the disappointment with Spider-Man: Homecoming because there are at least other classic Spider-Man adaptations out there. But this was Black Panther’s big chance to show himself as a classic character, an all time great, and they completely blew it by stripping him of almost all his personality and everything that made him so impressive in the first place.
Oh, boy, I still haven’t covered everything. Killmonger’s backstory is as idiotic as his evil scheme: his father was radicalized by the horrors he saw in Oakland and so helped Klaue steal vibranium so he could give weapons to Black people so they could rise up. T’Chaka discovered this with a young Zuri’s help and demanded he return to stand trial. The prince drew a gun on Zuri, so T’Chaka killed him and they left his body and child behind to cover up the incident.
Why would the prince try to shoot Zuri in that situation? Why would he do it when the Black Panther is in the room? Why would T’Chaka kill him when he could easily have disarmed him? Most importantly, why would they cover it up? He betrayed their nation and was stealing technology to sell to criminals. That’s a good reason to execute someone. He tried to murder an innocent man and the king killed him to stop him. That’s also a perfectly justified reason for killing him. My guess would be that they were ashamed it was the king’s brother that betrayed Wakanda, but they never play it that way; they talk about it as though the killing of the brother were the crime. Not to mention that if, as the story went, the brother just ‘disappeared,’ wouldn’t that raise many, many more questions and cause people to want to go looking for him, especially given the level of Wakandan technology? Finally, why would they leave the child behind? Just bring him back, say his father was killed on a mission, and raise him in Wakanda. He wouldn’t know how his father died; he was outside at the time. Not only would that have made more sense, but it would have made for a much stronger story if T’Challa and Killmonger had grown up together and actually had some kind of relationship, and it would have corrected about a dozen plot holes right there.
What else? W’Kabi farms rhinos. Do I have to explain how stupid farming rhinos is? I like that the film features an actual African language (Xhosa), but why do the characters randomly switch back and forth between Xhosa and English? Shouldn’t they be either speaking the one or the other? When Ross gets shot and they take him to Wakanda for treatment it’s a big argument about letting him in on the secret: why not just keep him sedated until he’s healed and then drop him off somewhere? Or even just throw a blindfold on him? (By the way, his spinal injury is healed with, you guessed it, vibranium. Because like friendship before it, vibranium is magic).
And though many of the visuals are very nice, the Wakandan city is kind of ugly; the skyscrapers have thatched roofs (who thought that one up?), the marketplace is crowded and dusty, and the palace looks like an industrial plant. The arena where the ritual combat takes place is a ledge in a waterfall, which is both completely impractical (how do the spectators get up on those ledges?) and kind of inappropriate for the site of a ritual. Shouldn’t it be before the palace or on some kind of sacred ground or something? Speaking of which, we get absolutely no information on the Wakandan religion beyond a five-second reference to ‘the panther goddess, Basthe’ in the opening voice over and M’Baku shouting “where is your god now?” during their fight. Considering how richly designed the costumes are, they pretty much put no effort into describing or exploring Wakandan culture (and what we do get is pretty inconsistent).
Oh, and I really don’t like that the story basically turns on T’Challa rejecting his deceased father and deciding that he wasn’t the great man he thought he was and that it’s up to him to correct his mistakes. Their relationship was so affecting in Civil War, and even in the early parts of this film that trying to rip the rug out from under it just feels wrong, even apart from the fact that the whole concept of T’Chaka’s ‘crime’ makes no sense at all. Thanks film; we had an actually positive father-son relationship in a mainstream film, and you threw it away for the sake of your moronic plot.
And there’s something else as well. As it happens, one of my issues with this film is what you might call a political one, so feel free to skip this section if you’re only interested in the storytelling aspect, though the issue might not be the one you think.
It’s this: according to Civil War, Wakanda is situated between Uganda and Kenya. As noted, a goodly amount of the film is dedicated to talking about issues Black people face in western nations. So, when they’re discussing “people who look like me” suffering in the US, there are “people who look like them” being enslaved and murdered right across their border who barely rate an allusion. The opening takes place in 1992: if the same guy driven to tears by ‘over policing’ on the other side of the globe were to take a two-hour flight from his front door, he’d find children being butchered with machetes in Rwanda.
Do you see the issue? It isn’t that they’re talking about the issues Black people face in the US, it’s that this is probably the worst possible setting in which to do so. It would be rather like making a film discussing the evils of the Japanese interment program and setting it in 1940s Shanghai. In the ‘uplifting’ final scene where T’Challa goes to open an outreach headquarters in Oakland, he literally had to fly over some of the poorest and most desperate nations on the planet to get there (I have an image of the assembled African leaders listening to T’Challa’s press conference and greeting the news that he’s starting his aid program in California with a collective, “Are you kidding me!?”).
This is really my main ‘political’ issue with the film: that despite the bulk of it being set in Africa, the story essentially ignores Africa as a real place altogether. There is a lot of vague talk about ‘people suffering,’ and the one context-free scene in Nigeria, but other than that, the entire continent of Africa outside of Wakanda might as well not even exist.
By the way, on the subject of Black issues, we don’t actually see any in this film. They mention them, but we never once see a Black character being mistreated or abused (apart from the women in Nigeria…who were captured by other Africans). The worst social conditions we’re actually shown is some kids using an old crate for a basketball hoop. Compare this with Bright, another racially-conscience fantasy film, which actually took the time to show orcs being beaten up, profiled, and discriminated against. All Black Panther does is rattle off a few talking points. I don’t want them to get bogged down in social issues, but…well, the film brings it up and makes kind of a big deal about it, so you’d think they’d at least take the time to do more than just talk about it (for instance, why stage the big car chase in South Korea rather than, say, New York? Or even Brazil? You know, somewhere they could conceivably show some of the issues they talk so much about?).
Okay, I’m cutting myself off there. I spent so much time tearing this film apart because it’s probably one of the most overrated films out there. I mean, quantifiably overrated in that it’s held up as a work of quality (again, first superhero film nominated for Best Picture), but it’s a mass of major and minor writing flaws and should never be taken as an example of quality storytelling.
I will admit, I actually enjoyed it more watching it over again for this series; the visuals are often very nice (when they’re showing great African landscapes), the costumes are often quite colorful, and the ultra-traditional milieu is cool enough to make me wish they had thought it through and made it more consistent. The sheer stupidity of the script was sometimes extreme enough to be entertaining, and the moments where the strong underlying concepts of the characters and world forced their way to the surface were appreciated (for instance, I really like the reverence the characters show to T’Chaka in the opening scene, which struck the exact right note for just one moment).
In summary, the word I would use to sum up Black Panther is ‘lazy.’ For whatever reason, the filmmakers appear to have put almost no effort into the actual story and characters of this movie. They didn’t think anything through or ask even basic questions about their own plot. The characters are almost all flat, boring, and generic, and that includes the title character. The script is rotting with plot holes, half the story is pure filler, and the entire premise of the film falls apart almost the moment you start thinking about it. It’s an utter mess of a film, one of the worst of the MCU, and a complete waste of a fantastic character.
–The Incredible Hulk
–Iron Man 2
–Captain America: The First Avenger
–Iron Man 3
–Thor: The Dark World
–Captain America: The Winter Soldier
–Guardians of the Galaxy
–Avengers: Age of Ultron
–Captain America: Civil War
–Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
During the events of Captain America: Civil War, with most of the Avengers battling each other, there were two major names missing. Ross actually uses the fact as evidence of the Avengers’ irresponsibility: “Do you know where Thor and Banner are now?”
Ragnarok is more or less about the answer to that question.
We find Thor in the fiery realm of Muspelheim, imprisoned by Surtur the fire demon, who boasts that Ragnarok is at hand. Thor escapes and slays Surtur by summoning his hammer and returns to Asgard for the first time in years, where he quickly unmasks Loki (who has replaced Odin) and forces him to show him where Odin is. They find him with a little help from Doctor Strange, but only just in time to see him die. Odin’s death releases his eldest daughter, Hela, the goddess of death, who quickly defeats both Thor and Loki, destroying Mjolnir, and leaving them both on Sikar, the garbage planet where lost things accumulate under the control of the eccentrically evil Grand Master. Thor is forced to participate in the gladiatorial arena, where he finds the Hulk has been reigning for two years as champion.
Meanwhile, on Asgard, Hela quickly kills the entire Asgardian army and takes the throne, planning to conquer the whole universe with her army of zombies, only first she needs the Bifrost Sword, which Heimdall has stolen. Now Thor has to find a way both to return to Asgard and to destroy the seemingly invincible Hela.
The best way to describe Ragnarok is that it’s a Thor film from and for people who didn’t like the other Thor films.
Well, I liked the other Thor films, so…
It’s kind of tricky to review this one. I have many, many problems with it, but they’re mostly conceptual, relating to “why was this choice made in the first place?” rather than “this is inconsistent or stupid or illogical.” Taken simply on its own merits, the film more or less holds together fine as a quirky sci-fi-fantasy adventure. But taken in context of the franchise as a whole, it’s kind of infuriating.
Simply put, I don’t like the whole premise. I don’t like the conception of Hela. I don’t like Mjolnir being destroyed. I don’t like Asgard being destroyed. I don’t like killing off Odin, especially in such a lazy fashion. I don’t like unceremoniously killing off the Warriors Three (Sif is nowhere to be seen, which is probably a blessing). I don’t like them dealing with Loki’s conquest of Asgard in two minutes. I don’t like them casually mentioning that Jane dumped Thor. I don’t particularly like Valkyrie very much. I don’t like the change in aesthetic and tone.
I just don’t like this film.
I’m fully aware that all of that is more or less subjective, so I’ll try to back it up, but if at the end of the day you don’t agree with me I’ll have no cause to complain. This is going to be a rather different kind of review from the others, where I tried to focus on storytelling mechanics, writing, and so on, sprinkled through with subjective impressions. This one’s mostly going to be complaining about the fundamental ideas of the story.
Let’s start with just the overall tone at play here. In place of the fantasy landscapes of the previous two Thor adventures – icy Jotunheim, lush Vanaheim, the ash-strewn dark world, and so on – here it’s mostly set on the garbage planet Sakaar, which is crazy, dirty technology seemingly inspired more by dystopian or even post-apocalyptic fiction (reminds me a lot of Mad Max or some other ‘80s sci-fi flicks, and especially of the trash planet in the original Transformers: the Movie). The grandiose, would-be Shakespearean dialogue is replaced with slang and quips. Thor and Loki wield guns and get involved in spaceship battles. Thor’s comedic side has been dialed way up and he suffers any number of pratfalls, slapstick humiliations, and the like while tossing out lines like “You’re just the worst.”
In short, they’ve essentially turned Thor into an offshoot of Guardians of the Galaxy, complete with a pop-music soundtrack. And I really don’t like that decision. Whatever the flaws with the earlier Thor films, they at least had their own particular aesthetic and tone, which made them feel fresh and different from the rest of the MCU. Now that’s basically been stripped away, or is stripped away over the course of the film, and it becomes just another wacky space adventure.
I find this disappointing both because it changes something unique in the franchise to something common and because it shuts off so many potential storylines so abruptly. Essentially everything to do with Asgard, the Nine Realms, and Norse Mythology is more or less off the table. No siege of Asgard, no Baldur, no Enchantress, no Jormungandr, all the high-fantasy elements of the franchise are now gone, leaving us only with another comedic space-opera. For the sake of this one film they’ve effectively closed off an entire section of the Marvel universe; it’s a little like how Iron Man 3 abruptly decided it would end the Iron Man story entirely, only this time it’s done in a far more complete and irreversible manner (though thankfully this film is nowhere near as bad as that one).
On that subject, there’s the whole character of Hela. She’s not a bad villainess; she has personality and gets quite a few laughs (again, they’re trying to be like Guardians, so the film is very much a comedy), but her concept is all wrong. This isn’t what a death goddess should be like, these aren’t the goals she ought to have. She’s just an evil queen who wants to rule everything and is effectively invincible: how dull! A death goddess shouldn’t want to conquer the universe, because every living thing already belongs to her, or will soon enough. She ought to be the shadowy ruler of the realm of the dead (as she is in the myths and, I believe, the comics), not a blade-tossing one-woman-army. Again, it’s more or less fine as it stands, but the fundamental concept seems so tired and superficial compared to what might have been done.
Moreover, if they had kept Hela in line with being a queen of the dead, then we might have had Enchantress as the villainess, which, I think, would have been much preferable (not to mention fit better with having Skurge as a supporting villain). She could have beaten Loki at his own game and brought magic to bear against both Thor and Loki, forcing them to work together while being a more manipulative, conniving bad guy instead of just a boringly invulnerable powerhouse. Hela could have been involved as someone they had to deal with as part of the plot, but now I’m just describing a completely different story, one that actually would fit with the mythological aesthetic, and that’s not what we got.
Again, having Thor figure out Loki’s deception the moment he arrives on Asgard is painfully disappointing, and kind of stupid; is Loki really not clever or cunning enough to at least act like Odin? He did a pretty good job at the end of Dark World. Did nobody else ever question why Odin has suddenly changed his personality completely and begun building giant statues to his treasonous adopted son? Again it’s the Iron Man 3, Spider-Man: Homecoming problem of sacrificing a potentially dramatic and interesting storyline for the sake of a couple cheap jokes.
Doctor Strange’s cameo is one of the better parts of the film, though he proves so capable and charismatic as to almost completely overwhelm the main cast, making me think that had he been more involved the film would have been over almost at once (which, come to think of it, is another issue: I really shouldn’t have the impression that the goddess of death would have been no match for a human sorcerer if only anyone had thought to bring him along).
Odin’s death, again, is very abrupt and ill-set up: we’re never given any real reason for it other than “it’s my time.” That said, I do like how his final words are “I love you, my sons,” and how the scene takes something of the form of a funeral, with the bickering siblings meeting after the passing of their father.
Then there’s the destruction of Mjolnir, which kind of sums up the whole film; it doesn’t contradict anything, and you can’t really call it an objective problem…but one, it does seem lazy and unimaginative to just arbitrarily say that Hela can do that, and two, you shouldn’t do that. You should not just destroy Thor’s hammer at the end of the first act with a sudden burst of power from your new villainess. If you’re going to take such a drastic step as to destroy the hammer, you really need to set it up and make it worth something.
It’s not bad, exactly, but it’s wrong. It’s not how this sort of story ought to go. It doesn’t add anything, it only (quite literally) takes it away. Moreover, it wasn’t necessary; you could easily have separated Thor from his hammer some other way (just off the top of my head, we see that Hela once wielded it herself, so what if she just took it and used it against him? Wouldn’t that have been much more interesting?). Now a major element of this hero is just gone because you, the writer, wanted this particular story.
So, in a way this film kind of reminds me of the Star Wars sequels, but with a crucial difference. Upon reading the opening crawl for The Force Awakens and discovering the premise, there is immediately a sense that “it really doesn’t matter what happens in this story, because this premise is all wrong.” Now, the Star Wars sequels are terrible films on top of being ill-conceived. Ragnarok, on the other hand, is more like a competent film built on a terribly conceived premise. I really don’t like the foundational ideas of this film at all, and I think they were a huge mistake. But I will say, the edifice erected upon these ideas can be very entertaining.
I laugh at a lot of the jokes, especially the scenes involving Jeff Goldblum as the Grand Master, who is a riot (“Why are you handing me the melt stick? He interrupted me; that’s not a capital offense!”). Again, Doctor Strange’s cameo is great, especially his direct method of subduing Loki (“I have been falling for thirty minutes!”) and the way he keeps teleporting Thor around his mansion, at one point accidentally bringing a bookshelf with them. Both Thor and Loki’s reactions upon meeting the Hulk again are great, and director Taika Waititi as a genial rock-monster gladiator named Korg gets quite a few laughs. Again, the film is basically a comedy, and while I don’t like the decision to make it one, it is at least a decent comedy (which is to say, the jokes land much more reliably than they do in Homecoming, for instance).
There’s the new character of Valkyrie, a drunken survivor of the Valkyries, an elite squadron of all-female warriors who were massacred by Hela in agest past (we’ll address the questions this raises later). She’s okay; gets a few laughs and some cool action scenes, her belligerence sometimes gets irritating, and she kind of feels like an unnecessary replacement for Sif, but there’s nothing really wrong with her. Her friendship with the Hulk and subsequently wondering where she’s met Banner before are charming enough (and continue the ‘beauty and the beast’ motif).
Now for the Hulk himself, he’s been given a character change almost as much as Thor, though to better effect; he’s considerably more chatty this time around, even having a full-on heart-to-heart with Thor at one point. It makes sense, in context, as we learn that the Hulk’s been in charge for two whole years now, so that he’d naturally become more articulate. Turns out he rather likes being a gladiatorial champion, thinking that everyone hates him on Earth, and Thor has to try to convince him to help him take on Hela. This doesn’t really get much of a pay-off, as the film is too busy playing the material for comedy to give the situation the development it ought to have. The same for Banner’s subsequent horror upon realizing that he’s been the Hulk for two years and that this might mean that the Hulk is taking over permanently. It’s an interesting and potentially horrifying idea, but, again, it’s mostly just played for laughs and there’s not much weight to Banner’s late-game decision to trigger the Hulk anyway.
Their big fight, however, is extremely satisfying, especially since one of my few complaints about the original Avengers was that the Thor vs. Hulk fight in that one was much too short. Here they’re both given full scope to their power, and it’s a ton of fun to watch them slugging each other around the arena. The action scenes in general are about as good as you’d expect at this point; we get Hulk fighting the giant wolf, Fenrir, Thor and Valkyrie tearing apart pursuing spaceships with their bare hands, the climactic battle against Hela’s zombie hoards, and so on. Nothing apart from the Hulk fight really stood out to me as a great MCU battle, however.
Among the other positives is the development with Thor and Loki’s relationship, neatly symbolized by Loki’s habit of projecting an illusion of himself to speak with Thor, and Thor throwing things at him. There’s a very good scene in an elevator where Thor tells Loki that he sincerely thinks it’s best if, once this is over, they never see each other again, and Loki looks actually surprised and uncomfortable at the idea, as though the notion of finally having his resentment actually satisfied makes him realize how empty it is. Loki doesn’t exactly redeem himself here, but he does at least make some progress in that direction, resulting in a great image where he shows up out of the fog in his trademark helmet, but for once as a sign of hope rather than impending danger. I also like how, when Loki yet again tries to act the wounded victim, Thor starts listing off some of his crimes, then finishes with, “Is that enough, or would you like me to go back further than the last two days?” Their final scene together is almost perfect, ending in the surprisingly sweet line, “I’m here.”
But moving on to some genuine plot holes; what is the history of the Valkyries and how does that fit in with the rest of the storyline? It’s said they were massacred when Hela tried to escape her imprisonment; so, how was Hela re-captured then? And if Thor knows about the Valkyries, to the point of fanboying over them (which is completely out of character for him, but why bother at this point), how is it that he doesn’t know about Hela? I won’t even point out that the first Thor suggested that Asgard didn’t have female warriors as a matter of course, because, again, why bother? What, really, is the point of Skurge’s character here? He’s the incompetent new keeper of the Bifrost, then ends up working for Hela out of fear, then sacrifices himself for the people at the end, but…okay, what’s the point? What does that add (and where was he keeping his twin machine guns at the climax)? The rest of the cast is barely aware of him, and if it wasn’t for the one complication near the end (which easily could have been cut), he would be pretty much completely extraneous (much as I like Karl Urban as an actor).
When Hela arrives at Asgard, she gives a tiredly standard revisionist history of the place, revealing that Odin conquered the Nine Realms (here taken as dominions of Asgard rather than regions of the universe, which…they do know that the Nine Realms includes Earth right?) in bloody and militaristic conquest before having a change of heart and banishing her, complete with covering the dark and violent ceiling paintings with a literal false façade. Again, that doesn’t fit with what we learned of Asgard in the previous two films, and it’s once again a fairly tired and dull development. We’ve seen that sort of ‘revelation’ a thousand times before (including done much better in Winter Soldier).
And I know I’m in the minority here, but frankly I’d much rather have the old ‘Thor’ supporting cast back. I’d much rather have Jane and Darcy and Selvig, and Lady Sif and the Warriors Three than Valkyrie and Skurge and the rest.
That pretty much sums up my view of Ragnarok: I can’t call it a bad film, and it’s entertaining enough going down, but I don’t like it. The whole premise and conception of the film seems all wrong to me, sacrificing tons of potential storylines and characters for the sake of a mish-mash of a fairly standard story. It’s like they took a bunch of elements from the comics, but rather than shaping them into a meaningful whole they just dumped them onto the screen and did whatever came to mind. The execution is generally pretty strong, if uneven, but it’s the execution of a failed premise, so it can never be particularly satisfying.
–The Incredible Hulk
–Iron Man 2
–Captain America: The First Avenger
–Iron Man 3
–Thor: The Dark World
–Captain America: The Winter Soldier
–Guardians of the Galaxy
–Avengers: Age of Ultron
–Captain America: Civil War
–Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
After his scene-stealing introduction in Captain America: Civil War, the next step would be to give Spider-Man, Marvel’s premier superhero, his own solo adventure. With an ideal casting choice in Tom Holland, and a strong ground work done by the Russo Brothers and writers Marcus and McFeely, the stage seemed set to give the webslinger his ultimate big-screen adventure.
We open shortly after the events of The Avengers, with blue-collar contractor Adrian Toomes and his crew hard at work cleaning up the destruction from the Chitauri invasion. But just as they’re getting started, they receive word that the government, funded by Tony Stark, is taking over all clean-up operations with its new Department of Damage Control. Since Toomes has just invested considerable capital in the venture, this threatens to ruin him and his men, so they decide that, rather than turning over the stuff they’ve already gathered, they’ll use it for a new venture; making high-tech weapons and gadgets for the black market.
Eight years later, we find Peter Parker returning from his adventure in Berlin with with his high-tech new suit from Tony Stark and eager for his next mission. But, as the months go by, he receives no word, even though he’s cleared his schedule and quit every extra-curricular activity just in case. Meanwhile, he spends his days after school patrolling for crime in his extremely peaceful Queens neighborhood, more often than not losing his clothes and backpack in the process. Then one night he encounters some bank robbers operating one of Toomes’s weapons and starts trying to track down where they came from, thinking this might be his chance to really impress Tony Stark and finally get to move up to some real action.
I think Spider-Man: Homecoming is probably the most severely mixed bag of the entire MCU: when it is good, it’s really good. And when it is bad, it’s really very bad. It has absolutely perfect casting on both Spider-Man and Vulture, the latter of whom is one of the best villains thus far, but with the exception of Aunt May it completely fails when it comes to Peter’s supporting cast, life, and even botches much of his superheroics.
Part of the issue is that Spider-Man is in a different position from the rest of the MCU. For the other characters, they’ve mostly been on their first or least first major adaptation. They may have had cartoons or low-budget, half-hearted feature films before, but for the most part the MCU was their introduction to the film going public. The one exception was the Hulk, whose film went out of its way to include the influence of the TV show.
This touches on the whole issue of adaptations. Stories accumulate ‘influences’ as they continue in the public mind to the extent that the affect the audience and are affected by them. For instance, if you’re adapting a little-seen stage play called “Everybody Goes to Rick’s,” you can more or less adjust the story as you like, and when the result is Casablanca, this then transforms the play and any future performances of it have to take the film into account, or else they risk alienating the audience. On the other hand, if you’re adapting “Macbeth,” you are much more limited in how much you can alter it, not only because any alterations are almost certain to be defects, but because everyone going in knows more or less what to expect and has an idea of the story. Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, the Weird Sisters, Duncan, and so on are ‘fixed’ as it were, and you can’t alter them severely without people saying “that isn’t Macbeth!”
To take a nearer example, the early adaptations of Superman had some leeway in his powers; they gave him flight because it looked better in animation than merely jumping would. But now that Superman’s ability to fly has become fixed in the public mind, you couldn’t do an adaptation based on the early comics where he couldn’t fly because it would be a jarring experience for the audience, not to mention being a bit of an insult to the character by not taking his history and development into account (that development being part of the character).
Now, Spider-Man has been adapted a lot; five previous live-action films, multiple animated TV shows, many video games, and he’s one of the most famous and recognizable superheroes in modern culture. His story, character, and supporting cast are fairly well known. So, making a new adaptation of Spider-Man is not like making, say, a Captain America adaptation; the general audience goes in knowing a good deal about him and his world.
This means that if you are going to make drastic, fundamental changes to his story and supporting cast, they had better be improvements, because even those who don’t know the comics have something to compare this to and they’ll start to ask why? Why is Peter’s best friend a fat idiot named ‘Ned Leeds’ rather than Harry Osborne, or failing that, someone like Robbie Robinson or even Eddie Brock (that is, someone actually from his school supporting cast rather than from the Daily Bugle)? Why is Flash Thompson a pathetic nerd? And what in God’s name have you done to Mary Jane?
Now, making Ned Leeds Peter’s best friend isn’t itself a huge deal: it’s kind of odd, especially since they don’t even make an allusion to his original character (this despite giving Betty Brant a cameo as a student reporter: just have Ned be her fellow reporter who tries to ask her out on air. It wouldn’t have been difficult and it would have provided him a bit of independent development), but assuming they didn’t want to bring the Osborne family in, it’s…fine, though again they might have taken any other random name from Peter’s supporting cast.
The real problem is that Ned is a pretty one-note character; he’s just the loser comic-relief best friend, who is kind of an idiot and…that’s it. He cautions Peter on some of his more impulsive decisions – despite himself impulsively making terrible choices relative to Peter’s superheroics at several points – and he gets a laugh now and then, but otherwise he’s just your standard loser best friend.
Contrast this with, for instance, Morgan from the show Chuck, who played basically the same character type, except that Chuck took the time to establish why Chuck and Morgan are best friends and to show that Chuck cherishes their relationship even as his secret identity puts increasing strain on it. Moreover, Morgan was made out to be an actual character, with his own goals and interests, who got frustrated, angry, and hurt by Chuck’s behavior, and who grows and develops over the course of the series. Now, Chuck obviously was a show, so they had more time to work with, but there were ways to bring something like that into the film, and…they don’t. Ned discovers Peter’s secret identity in the first act, so that kills that potential avenue of development, and he remains a largely flat character throughout, which is a problem because he has kind of a lot of screen time.
Meanwhile, the film’s revisionist versions of Flash and especially ‘MJ’ are both huge mistakes. For one thing, I can’t really figure out why Flash has the clout to bully Peter at all; he’s shown to be pretty incompetent himself, and he’s no longer an athlete, so why do people follow his lead in laughing at Peter instead of laughing at him in turn? Especially since Peter’s skill with wordplay ought to give him an edge here (which is one reason Flash has to be an athlete and a physical bully, by the way; it means that Peter can’t push back without revealing his secret identity and / or becoming a bully himself by picking on someone who doesn’t stand a chance against him. Having it be a battle of words and wit means that Peter has no reason to hold back and ought to be able to mop the floor with Flash).
Worse, Flash’s fundamental decency and heroism under his loudmouth, bullying persona are explicitly removed (e.g. during the crisis on the Washington Monument, he shoves Liz out of the way to get out first).
The issue here is less that this is different from the original character than that it’s considerably less interesting, rendering a complex character simplistic largely for the sake of a few cheap jokes. Having a swaggering bully who torments our hero while being himself heroic in a crisis and holding to a strict, though imperfect code of honor is interesting. Having a swaggering bully who cracks at the first sign of pressure, never one-ups the hero, and has no visible redeeming qualities is not.
But worst of all is the film’s take on ‘MJ,’ which amounts to taking one of the most famous and well-establish superhero love interests in all of comics and…basically changing everything about her except her nickname (she’s called ‘Michelle’ here. Why?). Gone is her chipper, outgoing, party-girl personality masking emotional trauma, gone is her confidence and charisma, gone even is her basic likability (and gone too is her trademark red hair. Again, why?). She’s continually sullen, belligerent, self-righteous, and scowling. The way she follows Peter around while denying it’s what she’s doing is a good idea, or would be if she were a more sympathetic character and if they actually had any kind of payoff to it. But they don’t, apart from the mere reveal that she is meant to be ‘MJ.’ Her presence doesn’t affect the story or the characters at all; you could cut her out and the film would function almost exactly the same.
Now what they could have done is have a scene where she actually pitches in to help Peter somehow. Like, she could use her knowledge of him to perk him up when he’s at his lowest point, reaching out to him and, for once, actually being sincere and offering some kind of support or comfort. It would be something like the scene in Naruto, where the title character is feeling doubtful about an upcoming fight and Hinata perks him up by revealing how much he inspires her (this being the first time they’ve really spoken to each other and hinting at a deeper connection than with his other friends), or like the scene in the fifth Harry Potter book where Ginny is the one to snap Harry out of his black depression by reminding him that she’s been through the same thing he’s worrying about. That would have given us some reason to want to see these two get together, establish some kind of positive side to her character, given them just some kind of relationship. But, no; she just glowers, snarks, and makes ‘woke’ comments throughout the film, meaning that their relationship is basically non-existence, and the only reason we have for even caring about her is that they slapped the nickname of a beloved character onto her at the last second to let us know this is supposed to be that character, so we should be invested in her.
All this is compounded by the fact that the film takes Peter’s inexperience at crime-fighting way too far, in my view. Yes, it’s funny to see him awkwardly fail to intimidate a thug, and the underlying theme that he really isn’t used to dealing with people who legitimately want to kill him is interesting. But they seem to forget that Spider-Man, even lacking experience, is an extremely dangerous foe. Civil War showed him tackling seasoned Avengers with relative ease and casually overpowering the Winter Soldier while quipping up a storm. Here, Shocker is basically able to knock him around with impunity simply because he lost his web-shooters. Earlier he struggles to keep up with and stop and ordinary van, even with his high-tech suit, and in the climax he ultimately fails to overpower or defeat Vulture in single combat. Granted they wanted to keep the drama level high, this is still too much and, again, too one-note. Spidey gets his heroic and impressive moments – the Washington Monument, the ferry battle, etc. – but he’s never allowed to be as powerful as even a rookie Spider-Man ought to be. In particular, the film seems to forget about his spider-sense and his incredible agility quite a lot. When he’s forced to run across an open golf-course, for instance, he just runs as fast as a normal, athletic kid. He ought to be able to cover the distance in a few moments. It would have been a good chance to remind us that he can move very fast even without web-slinging, but, again, they have to go for the joke.
Contrast this with, say, the show Spectacular Spider-Man, which also showed us a rookie Spidey as a sometimes-thoughtless teenager. But there, Peter’s lack of experience showed in making believable mistakes, jumping the gun and making the situation worse, and that sort of thing; not simply being unable to use his powers effectively.
Which brings us to another problem; the high-tech suit. I really have a problem with this, because giving Spider-Man a computer-powered, gadget-laden suit, complete with targeting systems and an on-board AI seems to me to be missing the point. Spider-Man is supposed to be the kind of hero with a relatively limited and fixed set of abilities; wall-crawling, agility, leaping, strength, spider-sense, etc. the challenge being to use his ingenuity and cunning to come up with creative applications to solve whatever problem he faces. Here he can just tell the suit what kind of webbing he wants to use (which half the time is the wrong type) rather than coming up with the idea himself, while the targeting system seems to render the whole spider-sense redundant. During the ferry disaster, the computer calculates where he ought to put his web to save the ship for him; how much more interesting would it have been if Peter had had to work it out himself using his own intelligence, super-senses, and knowledge?
Granted, part of the theme of the film is that Peter needs to learn to do without the suit, but the trouble is that, again, he really doesn’t do very well without it, and anyway the whole concept of it seems unnecessary and, well, not very Spider-Man (though I do like the AI, Karen, and Peter’s ‘relationship’ with her, which is perfectly in character for him).
But on the positive side, Peter’s relationship with Tony is excellent. It’s interesting to see Tony trying to be a mentor to an up-and-coming young super hero, and his stern, but affectionate treatment (which, continuing Tony’s own character arc, he comments reminds him of his own father) is perfect. The scene after the ferry disaster is excellent, as Tony lays into Peter for his mistake while letting him know that he actually was listening to him, and that things would have worked out if Peter hadn’t jumped the gun and gone behind his back. That’s the kind of mistake Peter ought to be making, and Tony’s rebuke is right on the money.
(I also really like Tony’s earlier comment: “Trust me; if Cap had wanted to lay you out, he would have,” not only neatly showing the difference between fighting other heroes who don’t want to hurt you and criminals who do, but also allowing Tony to show respect to his now-estranged friend).
This version of Aunt May is also pretty much perfect, despite the decision to cast her as much younger than usual (which, to be honest, makes a good deal of sense; if Peter’s this young, his aunt ought to be of an age with his parents and hence about forty or fifty). Though she doesn’t have as much screen time as I would have liked, their extremely close, loving, and trustful relationship is captured very well, and she gets to show all the stern, loving concern that she ought to in these circumstances. There are also good bits where she helps him prepare for the homecoming dance, and where they just go out to eat together. I also like that Peter doesn’t tell her about being Spider-Man because “she’s been through enough lately,” making another oblique reference to Uncle Ben.
I will also say that this version of Liz Allen is at least likable. She doesn’t have much personality, and Peter’s pursuit of her kind of just fizzles out, but she’s pleasant and good-natured enough (much more so than just about anyone else at the school), and Spidey actually gets to rescue her, so that’s good.
We also do get some good scenes of Spider-Man in action, including a recreation of the famous panel where Spidey finds the strength to lift a huge pile of debris off of himself. The final assault and battle on the plane is also extremely cool, while serving as a nice showcase of the difference between Peter and Toomes (one is trying to prevent as many deaths as possible, the other is only concerned about not leaving empty handed).
But the best part of the film, by far, is Vulture. This is an example of changing an established character and making him better. The Vulture of the comics and earlier adaptations was always something of a B or C list villain; not bad, but conceptually not very interesting. This one is not only a much more imposing threat, but they take the ‘vulture’ motif in a different direction, with him stealing the ‘scraps’ from the Avengers’ various missions, making them into weapons (Phineas Mason, AKA the Tinkerer is another supporting villain), and selling them for profit. Which, as Toomes tells Peter in a late-game speech, is what they, the working class, have to do any way; the rich and powerful run everything, and the little guys pick up the scraps.
Toomes is a really interesting character, played perfectly by the great Michael Keaton; a blue-collar, but hypocritical and ever-resentful bad guy who turns to crime out of a combination of desperation and resentment, grabbing at the rich lifestyle he nevertheless sneers at (listen to the way he says “that school,” describing the upscale high school Peter goes to). He’s sympathetic in that he really was treated unfairly, and he has his own particular code of honor, giving Peter a chance to walk away out of gratitude for saving his daughter’s life (the end credits scene reveals that this carries on past his defeat). That and he isn’t really looking to hurt anyone; he just doesn’t care whether anyone does get hurt by his actions. He and Schultz (Shocker) even have a brief exchange where they lament having to work with a man named Gargan (the future Scorpion), who is a legitimate psychopath. And all the while he has this strong, working-class, good-natured personality that would be likable under any other circumstances.
I also really like the design on his costume; the huge, imposing wings, green-eyed helmet, and even the feathered ruff of his bomber jacket, referencing the original design while updating it.
Really, Vulture is such a good villain and so well-conceived that he makes the film worth seeing just for his sake.
We also get two versions of the Shocker, another C-list Spider-Man villain, one of whom is a slacker on Toomes’s team whom he eventually kills for threatening to rat on them, the other is Schultz (Shocker’s original name), who doesn’t get much personality, but is able to more or less match the aesthetic of Shocker, including the padded yellow suit, and at least gives Spidey a hard time (The fact that at one point we have Shocker making his escape by riding Vulture had me momentarily in a state of pure comic-book bliss).
The humor in general is, again, a mixed bag. I laughed a fair amount; Peter’s quips are generally good, some of his mistakes are genuinely funny (I like his reaction when ‘Karen’ turns on the ‘instant kill’ mode), and Tony Stark gets some good jokes in. Again, I like Peter’s interactions with ‘Karen,’ and some of the awkward moments do work pretty well – such as when Happy Hogan summons Peter to a secret meeting in the men’s room, only to discover partway through than one of the stalls was occupied. But then again a lot the low-brow humor falls flat; such as the pathetic teacher saying he couldn’t lose a student on a school trip…again, and most of the antics of Ned and the rest of the high schoolers. Spidey’s pratfalls also get old very quickly.
I looked up the director and main writers of this film, and found that they had previously mostly worked on mid-level comedies. That’s kind of the problem with the film as a whole; it is too broad, too one note, and too crude. Far too much of the film’s potential is sacrificed in the name of making a cheap joke. The high schoolers apart from Peter and Liz Allen, his crush, are pretty unpleasant for the most part, the teachers are ‘comically’ pathetic, there’s a deal of crude humor sprinkled throughout (though thankfully not too much), and of course Spidey’s many, many pratfalls and mishaps. We passed on from a group of expert storytellers in Civil War, to…well, frankly, a bunch of hacks. What they produce is more or less serviceable, and again has some very strong elements, but is noticeably clumsier, cruder, and over all lesser than their predecessors (and I can’t resist: no, you idiots, the Washington Monument wasn’t built by slaves. How hard would that have been to look up?).
Speaking of which, I like Peter’s ‘home-video’ of the trip, but the continuity really doesn’t match up with Civil War. When does Tony take Peter back to New York? Either it’s right after the airport battle, or after coming back from Siberia, and he is way too chipper and cheerful for either of those. Not to mention both Peter and Tony are missing their bruises from the battle. We get a bit of a sense of what the public have been told about Cap going vigilante (a bored gym teacher comments “I think this guy’s supposed to be a war criminal now or something”), but not much. On the other hand, having the bank robbers wearing ‘Avengers’ masks was a great touch, and some of the ‘series continuity,’ such as Toomes explicitly stating that they’ve spent all this time trying to keep off the Avengers’ radar and that they’re done the moment that changes, or reference to the fact that they’re still cleaning up the ‘Triskelion mess’ from Winter Soldier, are very clever. And at the very end, Pepper Potts herself makes a triumphant return to the franchise, ending the film on a high note.
So, in summary, I really can’t say I like Spider-Man: Homecoming that much. The highs are great – Vulture, Tom Holland’s performance, Aunt May, Peter’s relationship with Tony Stark – but the lows are painful – Spider-Man’s incompetence, the desecration of the supporting cast, and the general clumsiness of the characterization and storytelling. It’s frustrating; they have probably the best live action Spider-Man yet, but they dropped the ball on building his story and his world. It’s still worth seeing, especially for Vulture, but for a series that has been doing such great work with almost every other Marvel hero, it’s a real disappointment to see them fumbling the Big One so badly.
–The Incredible Hulk
–Iron Man 2
–Captain America: The First Avenger
–Iron Man 3
–Thor: The Dark World
–Captain America: The Winter Soldier
–Guardians of the Galaxy
–Avengers: Age of Ultron
–Captain America: Civil War
With the unexpected runaway success of the original Guardians of the Galaxy, coupled with the hints it dropped of a larger storyline, a sequel was inevitable. So, how does it compare with the original?
We open with a brief prologue on in 1980’s Missouri, where Peter Quill’s mother is being romanced by a mysterious, charming stranger who shows her the small, plant-like object he’s placed in the forest. Cut to thirty-four years later at ‘The Sovereign,’ where the adult Peter Quill leading the Guardians of the Galaxy in a battle against a giant, other-dimensional space squid. Despite their continued bickering and eccentricities, the Guardians handily defeat the monster and collect their bounty from the golden, eugenically-created, ultra-arrogant Sovereign. This includes Gamora’s belligerent adopted sister, Nebula, whom they intend to collect the bounty on.
Unfortunately, thanks to Rocket’s self-destructive bad attitude and kleptomania, they quickly offend the Sovereign, who mark them for death, leading to a massive space battle made worse by Quill and Rocket’s jockeying for position. They’re saved at the last moment by a mysterious ship that blows up the entire pursuing fleet in a single blast. After a crash landing, they meet the ship’s pilot, Ego and his assistant / pet, Mantis. Ego identifies himself as Quill’s father, and invites him back to his own world to receive answers about his past. The team splits up, with Rocket and baby Groot (the offspring of Groot, who sacrificed himself for the team at the end of the first film) staying behind to repair the ship and guard Nebula, while Quill, Gamora, and Drax accompany Ego. Meanwhile, the Sovereign continue hunting the Guardians, while Yondu, Quill’s pirate foster father, starts having his mistakes catch up with him.
So, I called the first Guardians a ‘lightning in a bottle’ film: one of those rare films that comes along every now and strikes a completely original tone. But what I didn’t mention was that there was a slight problem with that. Namely that such films tend not to be very sequel-friendly. Often the unique achieved in the first film can’t survive a second pass, and the results come across as forced, unbalanced, or faintly desperate, as if the filmmakers themselves weren’t sure just what the had done and were attempt to reverse-engineer a happy accident. For examples of what I mean, just take a look at, say, Ghostbusters 2, or the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels.
Guardians 2, alas, doesn’t escape this problem. It fails to quite capture that strange balance of comedy, drama, and eccentric charm that the first one had, and the tone is at times wildly off. But, on the positive side, and unlike the other examples mentioned, it is nevertheless a very good film in its own right.
The story, obviously, is a bit more convoluted this time around, though it’s easy enough to follow; we have three or four different factions, each with their own goals, though they all play into the storyline in a way that it makes sense they would be involved: the Sovereign want to kill the Guardians for insulting them, which is the catalyst for the conflict within the team, said conflict mirroring the conflict Yondu has with his crew and his fellow ‘Ravagers.’
It’s all strung together with the theme of family; fathers and sons, sisters, and whether the characters will put themselves or their ‘families’ first. This theme is remarkably consistent across the film; Rocket stealing the batteries without caring about how it might affect the team, Rocket and Quill risking everyone’s safety by bickering during the space chase, them splitting up (symbolizing their distance), the Ravagers mutinying over Yondu’s decisions, which seem to be motivated more by his own wishes than the good the crew, and so on and so forth. Even the Sovereign, with their hilarious self-centered perspective (pursuing the Guardians to the death for what was more or less an insult), fit into this pattern.
Of course, the biggest example is Ego himself, who, as his name implies, is absolutely self-centered, but we’ll get to him later.
The opening of the movie is excellent; quickly re-establishing the personalities of the whole team, the way they work together, and setting up a few new developments, such as Baby Groot and the fact that Drax has at last somewhat mastered the art of metaphor without its making him any less odd. The fact that the majority of the fight is shown in the background while the camera focuses on Baby Groot dancing to more ‘70s pop hits immediately recaptures the off-beat, light-hearted tone of the first film, while showing off the team (and the song, ‘Mr. Blue Sky,’ perfectly foreshadows some of the themes and events of the film).
Unfortunately, they can’t quite maintain it. The tone alternates between being goofier than the first film – e.g. the scene where they fly through 700 ‘jump points’ in a row resulting in cartoony distortions, or Baby Groot’s increasingly absurd efforts to steal a select object from the Ravager cabin – and being much harsher and more adult – e.g. a bit where the Ravagers visit a brothel, or seeing dozens of men being shot out into space while screaming and crying for help. Not to mention the disturbing situation with Ego (who, we learn, has killed hundreds of his own children), which culminates in Quill having to kill his own father, which is interspersed with the same absurdist jokes as before. Basically, the film feels a good deal more uncomfortable and unbalanced than the first one, and the tone doesn’t hit the right note as often. More of the humor falls flat – the ‘not ripe’ gag, for instance – and more of the crudity feels simply unpleasant.
But, beyond that, there are still a lot of strengths to be had. We get more development for the characters, particularly Rocket and Yondu (the latter’s backstory we learn a bit about), as well as more both of genuine heart and humor from Drax, along with setting up a great new character in Mantis. Mantis is able to sense and, to a degree, alter the emotions of those she touches, and there’s a good scene where she touches Drax while he’s thinking of his family and is overwhelmed by his grief.
Mantis’s empathic abilities are generally put to very good use in developing both her and the rest of the cast, like when she touches Quill and announces for everyone to hear that he’s in love with Gamora (Gamora’s reaction, which is startled, but not really displeased, is perfect). This is quickly followed by her trying to touch Gamora, who forcibly prevents her, which is at least as revealing as anything that might have been said.
Most important of all is the progression on Quill’s character as he process not only meeting his father, but learning that his father is a god (“Small ‘g’,” Ego clarifies. “At least on days when I’m feeling as humble as Drax”). His back-and-forth feels from fear, excitement, anger, and pride are very well conceived and realized. Not only that, but over the course of the film he’s also forced to come to terms with just what he was looking for in the first place in seeking his father, whether he ever wanted to know who his father was, and what he really values in the first place, all of which builds on his progression in the first film. This is worked into his relationships with the other characters, particularly Gamora. The film establishes early on that he’s in love with her, but the question is whether there could ever be anything between them, given their ostensibly very different characters, and (more subtly) whether Quill is in fact mature enough to even have that kind of relationship with anyone. Which, of course, raises the question of whether he can really lead the Guardians in the first place.
Gamora, meanwhile, gets her own story arc relative to her villainous sister, Nebula, both of whom spend most of the film snarling and threatening to kill each other, until a late-game revelation puts their relationship into a startlingly new context. What had seemed like a ruthless, psychotic monster is abruptly revealed as a tormented young girl starving for the least bit of love or comfort in a hellish existence. Recalling their time under Thanos’s tutelage, she screams at Gamora, “You’re the one who wanted to win, and I just wanted a sister!”
The pay off for this reconciliation is a warm, yet tragic moment where Nebula is preparing to go off on a desperate and almost certainly futile effort to kill Thanos, and Gamora pulls her into a hug. Nebula initially reacts defensively…then slowly hugs her back.
Again, family is the recurring theme of the film: family and betrayal and trying to do right by those you are connected to. Which brings us to Ego, who is a simply fantastic villain. He’s charming and relaxed, but even from the start there are hints that something’s not quite right about him. There’s a definite sense of self-centeredness and disinterest in the other characters as people (as when Quill successfully manipulates molecules and Ego’s reaction is less that of a proud father than an inventor who has suddenly made a breakthrough). Then when his evil plan is revealed it’s, well, perfectly fitting for someone named ‘Ego:’ consume the whole galaxy until he is all that is. Everything, to Ego, is, or ought to be, an extension of himself, fitting perfectly in his position as a deadbeat father who abandoned his wife and son to pursue his own interests, as well as fitting with his status as a living planet.
I also like how Ego lies. When he recounts his backstory, for instance, he doesn’t say anything actually false; he only leaves out some vital details. Likewise, when Quill confronts him about not being around and leaving his mother to die on Earth, Ego first tries to make it about himself (“you don’t know what it was like…”), then when Quill shuts him down (“I know exactly what it was like; I had to watch her die!”), he smoothly changes the subject. I also love how Ego describes his utter selfishness in grandiose, tragic terms, as though he were a great romantic hero suffering for a noble cause, as though he were the real victim in all of this.
Fittingly, this self-centeredness is what proves the flaw in Ego’s plan; he evidently doesn’t expect Quill to react to strongly to the news that he put the cancer in his mother’s brain (“Who…in the hell do you think you are?!”). Later he’s stunned when Quill is able to use his love for his friends to master molecular control in order to fight Ego on equal terms (during the battle Ego makes a giant statue of himself, while Quill counters with a giant Pac-Man, visualizing the difference between the self-centered nature of one and the playful nature of the other).
So, Ego is a great villain; one of the best so far, and the mirroring between him and Yondu and Quill’s too father figures is great. One biologically created Quill, but the other acted as a father to him by teaching him to be a man. The film hints that Quill’s talents, the skills that make him such a deceptively dangerous and confident fighter, all come from Yondu. Paraphrasing C.S. Lewis, one gave of his body to beget him; the other gave of his spirit to raise him. As Yondu himself neatly sums up, “He might have been your father, boy; but he weren’t your daddy.”
Though the film does make clear that Yondu himself wasn’t a particularly good father figure either; he beat Quill, threatened to eat him (“That was just being funny!”), introduced him to a criminal lifestyle, and so on. Yondu himself admits that he “didn’t do any of it right.” But at the end of the day, he’s shown to genuinely love Quill, and to care for him more than for himself, which is ultimately the most important point.
Now, all this is fine and good as far as it goes, emphasizing how a father and a family should behave (Nebula scoffs at the idea of the Guardians being friends, since “all you do is yell at each other!” To which Drax answers, “No, we’re family; no one gets left behind”). Any other time and place, I’d have no objections to the movie’s themes. However, in today’s day and age, with ‘family’ being increasingly re-defined into something chosen rather than given, and the plain facts of blood relation and natural responsibility being more and more denied, a film where a man ends up killing his biological father and vindicating his ‘chosen’ family instead cannot but be uncomfortable. Like many other contemporary films, it’s fine in itself, but in the present context it comes across as rather unpleasant.
On a more positive note, I like the limits placed on Ego’s power. For all his boasts of being a god, the film explicitly states that he can’t create life, or even permanently maintain his own avatar. Nor does he know where he himself came from, or possess any more knowledge (and less wisdom) than any other being of his age and experience.
Though exactly what he can and can’t do relative to his planet is not really made clear; when, at the end, he’s trying to stop the bomb that might kill him, I couldn’t help wondering why he couldn’t just make up new energy tendrils to grab it or something. It’s a minor point that I’m sure could be explained, but there it is.
But on that point, I have to praise the action scenes once again, which are even more energized and creative than in the first film. Early on there’s a great chase through space, including a trip through a ‘quantum asteroid field,’ which seems to be trying to one-up The Empire Strikes Back, with teleporting asteroids. The sequence is full of hilarious details, like how the Sovereign ships are flown by remote control, meaning that the pilots are basically running an arcade (complete with one bit where a group gathers around a particularly skilled ‘player’ to cheer him on…then immediately turn on him when he fails), or how Drax grabs a space suit from a rack saying they’re “only for emergencies,” with the words “or fun” scribbled underneath.
Later there’s a scene where Rocket takes on the whole Ravager crew single-handedly using his gadgets and agility (and in the process getting to act like a real raccoon). The finale, with the crew taking on a planet, plus the Sovereign fleet once more, is also great.
Though in between is a scene where Rocket and Yondu take out the mutineering Ravagers, which is another one of those bits where the film becomes more uncomfortable; seeing them gleefully slaughter dozens upon dozens of men while a jaunty pop tune plays (even if the men are horrible) feels tonally jarring, and not in a fun way.
Visually, the film is a step up on its predecessor, particularly with Ego’s planet, which looks like a cover of Amazing Stories brought to vivid and colorful life, with its fantastical plants and architecture, though, somewhat ominously, no animal life (I also like that the film includes the image that Ego’s planet has an ominous face on it). We also have the golden Sovereign, and the funeral sequence at the very end, with its fireworks and the dust becoming an arrow.
And, though the humor doesn’t all work as well as in the first film, we still have a lot of great jokes: Baby Groot (or, as Drax calls him, “dumber, smaller Groot”), Mantis’s innocent attempts to learn human interactions, which are not helped by Drax’s unfiltered advice (“I am learning that I am a pet, and that I am ugly”), Drax himself just being Drax (“This gross bug lady is my new friend”), and, of course, the whole team constantly bickering or getting side-tracked by irrelevant conversations, such as when Rocket translates Groot’s digression on why he doesn’t like hats, or when, during the final battle, Quill tries and fails to get a strip of tape for Rocket. I also really like Yondu’s second-in-command, Kraglin, and his terrified reaction to Nebula’s backstory and plans for revenge (“Yeah, I was thinking something more like a pretty necklace. Or maybe a nice hat…”).
And again, there is a good deal of the warmth and sweetness of the first film as well. There’s everyone’s care for Baby Groot, the would-be romance between Quill and Gamora, and the development with Rocket’s character and the way Yondu is able to see right through him “‘Cause you’re me!” (I am continually amazed at this franchise’s ability to get genuine character-based drama out of a talking raccoon).
So, in summary, Guardians 2 is kind of an odd film; it reaches further than its predecessor, and in some ways outdoes it, but it also fails more. So, overall I’d rank it below the first film, but some parts of this one are stronger than anything in the first one. It’s still a very good movie in its own right, with a good story, a great villain, some excellent visuals and action, and interesting, if not always positive themes, all wrapped up in the quirky, creative world of the Guardians.
–The Incredible Hulk
–Iron Man 2
–Captain America: The First Avenger
–Iron Man 3
–Thor: The Dark World
–Captain America: The Winter Soldier
–Guardians of the Galaxy
–Avengers: Age of Ultron
–Captain America: Civil War
Following the game-changing gut-shot of Civil War, we refreshingly take a break for another origin story, and this one marks another sharp stylistic change, bringing magic and wizardry into the MCU.
We open with a group of magic-using zealots stealing a set of pages from a mysterious library, only to be pursued by the Ancient One, who kills several of them with mind-bending magical powers. From there we cut to the brilliant, arrogant Doctor Stephen Strange casually trading music trivia with his fellow doctors while performing brain surgery, then rushing into action to save a dying man with a bullet in his brain alongside his compassionate ex-girlfriend, Dr. Christine Palmer. This quickly establishes that Strange is extremely smart, has a vast store of knowledge, and is so skilled at precision techniques that he can dig a bullet out of a brain free-handed. It also establishes that his arrogant, self-centered, and more concerned with his own reputation than with saving lives: he brutally cuts down a fellow doctor for making a bad call on a complicated case and is reluctant to engage with the family of the man whose life he has just saved. Later, while reviewing possible cases (including a references to “a soldier whose spine was broken in some kind of experimental armor,” hinting that the prologue takes place about the time of Iron Man 2), he rejects the ones that are either not interesting or that he doesn’t think he’ll succeed at (“You want to ruin my perfect record?”).
Then, distracted by reviewing these cases, he loses control of his car and crashes, ruining the hands that are so crucial to his work. Desperate to get his old life back (and blaming everyone but himself), he spends his whole fortune on experimental medical techniques to no avail. In the process, however, he uncovers the story of a man who somehow healed a severed spinal cord. Tracking the man down, he learns of a place in Nepal called ‘Khamar Taj,’ where there are “deep secrets.” Strange spends his last dime to travel there, where he is introduced to the secrets of magic and spiritual power by the Ancient One and the steadfast Mordo, forcing him to open his mind to possibilities he had never imagined…while placing him at the heart of a magical war for the survival of the planet.
So, my first point will be a criticism; the prologue showing the villainous Kaecilius stealing the pages and evading the Ancient One should have been left out. It’s not needed, the violence sets a brutal tone that doesn’t fit with the rest of the film, and I think the story would have been stronger if we had discovered magic and seen its amazing effects along with Strange, rather than being shown it right off the bat (it also raises questions of just when all this took place; Strange’s recovery efforts and training obviously take several years at least, so were Kaecilius and his allies just working on those pages the whole time?). An unfortunate lapse right out of the gate.
On the other hand (and hands are a motif in this film), Strange’s introduction is just about perfect; we’re shown his brilliance, his love of knowledge – even useless trivia – and his arrogance in swift succession. His relationship with Palmer is expertly sketched, in that they were together once, but are so no more due to his self-centeredness (their dates mostly consisted of his speaking engagements). Both clearly still have feelings for each other, but she’s unwilling to be only another ornament to his greatness.
Strange immediately calls to mind Tony Stark as another arrogant genius needing to be taken down a notch, though Strange is much more emotionally stable; where Tony is erratic and ignores the needs of others, Strange is focused to the point that he blasts straight through other people, regarding them with contempt for not being as smart as he is. The film is about him learning to take his mind off of himself and use his gifts compassionately, rather than for his own glory. This theme is well-sketched throughout the film, especially in relation to Palmer, who is defined by her compassion, which Strange dismisses with contempt while informing her, in no uncertain terms, that he loves his work much more than he’ll ever love her. It’s probably his worst moment, coming at the low point of his desperation, and he is shown to deeply regret it, but it shows us what kind of man he really was; someone completely reliant on his material success, his pride, and his career for his identity, so that when those are stripped away what is left is a bitter, angry, even cruel man at the core.
The rest of the film is about that man leaving the world behind and discovering a reality beyond the material, and in the process becoming a better, more compassionate man; someone who actually cares more about others than himself.
I especially appreciate that Strange’s journey involves the explicit rejection of his materialism. “We are made of matter and nothing else,” he informs the Ancient One, calling humanity “Tiny, momentary specks in an indifferent universe.” She in turn calls him “a man looking at the world through a keyhole,” before forcibly opening his eyes to the nature of reality.
It’s also appropriate that his journey in the mystic arts sees Strange being humiliated again and again, from being forced to sit on Kamar Taj’s doorstep and beg to be taught for hours on end to being dumped on top of Mt. Everest and challenged to magic himself back before he dies. He even gets a check to his notions of his own charm when he runs up against Wong, the hilariously stoical librarian, who, when Strange laments that people used to find him funny, cynically asks whether those people worked for him. After the opening, most of the film is about breaking Strange down, humiliating him, and forcing him to come to grips with his true place in the universe – or multiverse, rather. He constantly gets humiliated, beaten up, embarrassed, and corrected, but he is learning all the while. The ultimate lesson being, as the Ancient One says in one of the film’s best scenes, “It’s not about you.”
Of course, this doesn’t mean that Strange is just pathetic and useless either. He progresses quickly, aided by both a photographic memory and a creative, exploratory approach to his subjects (both established early on with his vast store of useless trivia on top of his medical knowledge and his unorthodox approach during surgery). When he goes into battle, he generally starts by being overwhelmed by his more skilled opponents before analyzing the situation and improvising a strategy to his own advantage. Though, believably, his inexperience means that this sometimes backfires horribly, or else results in effects he didn’t anticipate (as when he accidentally kills a man because he doesn’t understand the implications of the battle).
Speaking of the fight scenes, this is one of the first films I’ve seen that truly takes full advantage of the idea that these are wizards fighting. They don’t just shoot beams or kinetic energy back and forth (as in, say, the Harry Potter films): they literally alter reality around themselves in mind-bending ways. There’s a bit where Strange is running from Kaecilius, who uses a spell to bend the ground beneath him so that he’s running in place, and then shifts gravity back and forth to throw him around. Strange has a fight with another man when they’re both in astral form, meaning that they can’t be seen by the rest of the world and have minimal, ghostly effects on their surroundings (e.g. when one of them goes flying through a lamp, it flickers slightly). The climax involves a battle between two groups of wizards while time is running backwards around them, so that instead of the usual super-powered destruction, everything is being put back together, with walls bricking themselves up, glass windows reforming, and dead civilians coming back to life.
Visually, Doctor Strange is one of the strongest and most creative films in the MCU, with space, time, and reality all bending around our characters. At one point, New York is turned into a four-dimensional labyrinth, before a surreal arena of flowering masonry is formed in the midst of infinite space. Strange’s introduction to the mystical world takes the form of a surreal trip across reality (including a glimpse at the Microverse from Ant-Man), full of bizarre and terrifying – and beautiful – imagery. Not to mention that the magical effects themselves, with glowing geometric shapes accompanied by intricate hand gestures, are just really cool to watch.
On that subject, there is a strong atmosphere of knowledge and learning in this film. Wizards are, of course, conceived as men with unique, arcane knowledge of the world, and that idea pervades this film; the thump and crackle of large, ancient books, the intricate geometric shapes and precise hand-gestures, the set design of eastern temples and old brownstone mansions (and a Medieval church in one scene), the ancient relics the heroes use in battle, the film is filled with the sense of learning, study, ancient knowledge, and complex concepts that can be grasped by a sufficiently strong mind. Strange literally has his mind opened to receive knowledge he had never imagined, which then uses to save the world.
This forms one of the three main motifs of the film: secrets and knowledge, hands (and with them skill and accomplishment), and time (and with it the fear of death), all of which play out again and again in an almost seamless whole, and all of which, of course, fit perfectly with the idea of Doctor Strange; the man of knowledge and magic.
I also like how Strange, arrogant and selfish though he has been, is shown to take his Hippocratic Oath seriously; when he inadvertently kills one of Kaecilius’s men, it’s a huge shock for him, even though the guy had been in the process of trying to murder him. He also takes steps, from then on, to defeat the bad guys without killing them as much as possible.
As noted, one of the best scenes features Strange and the Ancient One having a final heart to heart at the very moment of her death, which she is magically stretching out so that she can watch the snow fall one last time. It’s a quiet, somber, immensely human moment as they discuss death and the meaning of life. I’m not sure I care for her claim that “death gives life meaning,” though it can be taken in a good way. I do like her comment that “no one ever is [ready]. We don’t get to choose our time,” whether to die or to face up to a crisis. The way she simply vanishes off screen after letting go of Strange’s hand (hands again) is very tastefully and thoughtfully done.
The Ancient One herself is a great character (though the behind-the-scenes reasoning for the decision to make her a bald Celtic woman rather than an old Tibetan man – to appease the Chinese government – is frankly disgusting); as Mordo says, she is “steadfast, but unyielding; merciless, yet kind.” It’s a tricky balance, but she truly does fit the description. She has a great, half-amused, serenely self-confident attitude throughout, as though she is so assured of her own power and knowledge that she seems to regard Strange’s bluster and arrogance rather as though he were a precocious fifth-grader…which he probably seems like to her (I also like that the film manages to have Kaecilius kill her without putting undue stress on our credulity by resorting to the unexpectedly simple and ruthless technique of stabbing through one of his own men).
Mordo is cool too; a rigid, upright, steadfast hero who is more skilled than Strange, but less flexible whether in strategy or personality. His friendship and clashing views with Strange are pretty well realized, with both of them allowed to have their own consistent views and personalities, and his presence – especially his final scene – hint at things to come in future films. I also like that, though he is the rigid one, he’s not humorless or stiff; he makes jokes and chuckles at Strange’s mistakes. We get a bit of hint at his backstory, as he describes how he wanted “the power to defeat my enemies. You gave me the power to defeat my demons.” Though, as the Ancient One warns him, “we never conquer our demons: we only rise above them.” (which is actually a pretty good bit of moral advice; never assume you’ve conquered your sins, because they can always come back if you let your guard down.)
I also really like Palmer, the would-be love interest. She’s extremely likable as an all around good person showing compassion on a man who really doesn’t deserve it, but who walks out on him once he crosses the line. She gets a lot of very funny reactions once Strange comes back into her life after being made a sorcerer (“So, you joined a cult?” “No…well, not exactly”), as well as getting to play an important role during the action by keeping him alive. I also appreciate that, though Strange is contrite for his past behavior, the film recognizes that they can’t be together. There’s been too much damage done, and their respective vocations call them apart (nicely demonstrated in their final scene).
On that note, the film does maintain a delightfully self-aware tone of how crazy and absurd the events are, such as Strange commenting on how it doesn’t make much sense to put warnings of potential soul and mind-rending consequences *after* the spells, or Palmer’s terrified reactions to seeing some of Strange’s magic in action (By the way, that scene with the mop? That was apparently a happy accident and an unfeigned reaction by Miss McAdams). Just having Strange summarize the plot at one point makes for a pretty good joke: “Well, a powerful sorcerer who gave himself over to an ancient entity, can bend the very laws of physics, tried very hard to kill me. But I left him chained up in Greenwich Village, and the quickest way back there is through a dimensional gateway that I opened up in the mop closet,” to which Palmer answers, “Fine, don’t tell me.” It’s funny, not because the plot is stupid, but because it’s…well, strange and something no normal person would believe.
(The film also accounts for the Avengers – and their lack of presence here – by having Wong explain that the sorcerers operate on a different level, defending the Earth from more mystical attacks while the Avengers deal with physical threats. And, given the staging the battles, while whole action scenes take place between instants of time, or in hidden parallel dimensions, it’s clear that the Avengers wouldn’t be much help in this case anyway).
Then there’s the Cloak of Levitation, which is a character in itself. Rather like the magic carpet from Aladdin, it’s both a tool and an ally, with a little ‘personality’ of its own expressed solely through movement. Half the time it’s a more competent fighter than Strange himself, which leads to a lot of very funny moments (especially since Kaecilius is evidently as confused by the turn of events as Strange is).
Which, I suppose brings us to the villain. Alas, despite Mads Mikkleson’s best efforts, Kaecilius is yet another bad guy of the Maleketh / Ronan school, in that he’s really not that interesting. Just generally menacing and dangerous, with a plot to destroy the world. They do at least take the time to invest him with an actual philosophy, which he explains to Strange and which reflects Strange’s own previous views. We’re told that he lost everyone he cared about, but we don’t get to actually see it (or even have it described, as in Civil War). This probably would have been a better choice for a prologue than the one we have; they could have shown Kaecilius mourning, then him meeting the Ancient One, then we cut to Strange. The stage would have been set and the villain given some meat without revealing magic too soon or confusing us with just what was going on. They do give him a bit of personality, though, as in his reaction to the confusion over Strange’s name (“Mr. Doctor.” “It’s Strange.” “Maybe. Who am I to judge?”). For the most part, though, he’s just another bad guy.
What Kaecilius desires is “eternal life as part of the One,” the one being Dormammu, the evil god from the dark dimension. There are some interesting ideas that could be got out of that relative to real religion. It reminds me most of the pantheistic notion of being ‘reabsorbed’ into the deity, as a drop of water into the ocean. But, as C.S. Lewis pointed out, that’s the end of the drop. I also like that the magic of the heroic wizards is basically a “program,” as the Ancient One says; working with the ‘code’ of reality, while the bad guys are communing with an evil spirit, striking a bargain in exchange for power (though this is muddied somewhat by the revelation that the Ancient One has been doing something similar).
Speaking of which, the final confrontation with Dormammu is probably the best part of the film. It’s so cool that I’m not going to describe it, but it’s one of the most creative and clever ways of beating the bad guy I’ve seen in a superhero film; perfectly set up, logical, and unexpected at the same time, while showing that Strange has taken his lesson about humility and compassion to heart.
So, overall, Doctor Strange is a very strong film. The prologue is a problem, the villain is kind of dull, and there are a few other gaps (e.g. why didn’t Kaecillius just take the whole book? And what are the odds Strange would go straight for that book when visiting the restricted section of the library?), but it’s extremely creative, very entertaining, and anchored by a great lead character with a strong, consistent arc, and all leavened with some of the best visuals we’ve seen yet. A solid introduction to a new phase of the MCU.