Thoughts on ‘Spider-Man: Homecoming’

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

The Avengers
Iron Man 3
Thor: The Dark World
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Guardians of the Galaxy
Avengers: Age of Ultron
Ant-Man
Captain America: Civil War
Doctor Strange
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 more 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.

Thoughts on ‘Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2’

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

The Avengers
Iron Man 3
Thor: The Dark World
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Guardians of the Galaxy
Avengers: Age of Ultron
Ant-Man
Captain America: Civil War
Doctor Strange

          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.

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Thoughts on ‘Doctor Strange’

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

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

 

Captain Marvel gets MauLered

I’ve been waiting for this ever since the film came out. My favorite YouTube critic, MauLer, takes his trademark logical approach to the diseased tumor of a film known as ‘Captain Marvel.’ I’m glad to see that he shares most of my objections (which we’ll get to in turn), while reminding me of many that I’d forgotten or didn’t notice and going into full detail of just how awfully constructed this plot really is.

Sample: “…Meaning that this is a power limiter that only limits the subject’s power if they believe their power is limited. Who. Wrote. This?”

His evisceration of Fury losing his eye to the cat is particularly good, as are his compare and contrasts with the other MCU characters.

Oh, and he swears a good deal, so language warning.

 

Thoughts on ‘Captain America: Civil War’

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

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

It has been eight years worth of the MCU at this point. Amid the ups and downs, the good and the bad, what has stood out more than anything else are the characters, and chief among them Tony Stark and Steve Rogers; the two leaders of both the team and the franchise: Rogers the aspirational, noble hero who always tries to do the right thing, however difficult, and Stark the troubled, haunted hero trying to make up for past mistakes and balance his unstable character. There’s been friction between them from the start due to their opposing personalities and world-views, but also steadfast respect and friendship.

Meanwhile, it has been said of this franchise that nothing can ever seriously change, that the characters have to remain in status quo from film to film. This isn’t really true, for the most part, especially given the events of The Winter Soldier, but it could be argued.

But what happens if Steve Rogers is faced with a choice between doing what he sees as the right thing and remaining an Avenger? What happens if Tony’s always-tenuous self-control shatters? And, all the while, what if the consequences of their past adventures caught up to them?

Civil War opens with a prologue showing the Winter Soldier carrying out an assassination mission in the early nineties to recover several vials of blue liquid. From there we cut to the Avengers on a mission in Lagos, chasing down Rumlow AKA Crossbones: one of the Hydra agents in Winter Soldier who ended the film having a building dropped on him. They succeed in taking Rumlow down, but a final mistake on the part of Cap and Scarlet Witch leads to considerable collateral damage. This, along with the events in New York, Washington, and Sokovia prompts the UN to move for the Avengers to be put under their authority via the ‘Sokovia Accords.’

The team disputes the wisdom of this course, with Cap arguing that they shouldn’t put themselves under the command of people with agendas who might send them places they shouldn’t go or stop them doing what they should. Stark, fresh from a confrontation with a distraught mother who lost her son in Sokovia, argues that the Avengers need to accept responsibility for their actions, though Cap points out that accepting the Accords would absolve them of responsibility by passing the buck.

The issue of the Accords, however, turns out to be secondary when the UN conference to ratify them is bombed by what appears to be the Winter Soldier, killing the Wakandan king T’Chaka in the process. Steve takes it on himself to go after his old friend, but Bucky denies involvement. From there things escalate as Cap tries to find a way to clear Bucky’s name and stop what appears to be a plot to destroy the world, while Iron Man tries to bring him in in order to prevent anything worse happening to him, with the different Avengers each taking a side based on their own particular views and loyalties. All the while, a quiet, sinister figure named Zemo manipulates events for his own purposes.

A full description of the virtues of Civil War would easily outweigh the film’s original script. It’s simply a great film all around, and there is so much care put into the story, the characters, the dialogue (almost every word has meaning and purpose, often more than one. As a simple example, when taken into government custody, Cap quips “I’m going to want that shield back,” to which Sharon Carter says, “technically it’s not yours, it’s the government’s;” sentiments that are hauntingly echoed in the climax), the action, and everything else. We have the film smoothly picking up plot threads from both Winter Soldier and Age of Ultron, and even making something of the execrable Iron Man 3, while smoothly introducing two major new characters and, essentially, tearing apart everything we’ve seen being built up for the last eight years, not cynically, but tragically, based on personal flaws and perspectives well established in past films.

One of the most impressive aspects of this film is how well it juggles its massive cast. Joss Whedon managed something similar in the first Avengers, though was less successful with it in Age of Ultron (where he sometimes ended up shuffling characters off screen for flimsy reasons when he couldn’t use them), but the makers of Civil War carry it off even better with their even larger cast. Though Cap and Tony are the focus, the film makes time to develop, say, Wanda and Vision’s relationship with a few warm conversations discussing their respective oddities, to give another meaty role to Natasha as both the team’s ambassador to the UN and the one trying to keep the team together, and, again, to introduce both Black Panther and Spider-Man and have them each be vivid personalities (T’Challa in particular is actually far more vivid and well-developed here than he is in his own film…but we’ll get to that). It even gives time to tertiary characters like Sharon Carter and the long-absent General Ross (now somehow Secretary of State).

Most importantly, when the two teams square off, we know exactly why each one has chosen the side he has, and that it makes sense in light of their character. Vision wants to create peace both within and without the team; Wanda doesn’t want to be controlled by other people’s fear; Rhody has always been the law-and-order type; Falcon always sticks with his wingmen; Spider-Man and Ant-Man aren’t really invested in the issues, but want to help the people they admire.

Likewise, their reactions to the subsequent events are entirely in character; Tony losing his temper and blasting Falcon after Rhody is accidentally hit (foreshadowing a far greater loss of control later), then being shocked and ashamed to find out where they’ve been imprisoned; Natasha switching sides when it becomes clear Cap isn’t going to stop, hoping to keep all her friends as safe as possible; Tony discovering Cap was actually right and quickly moving to help him, because they are, in fact friends.

I also like how, after the fight on the tarmac, Bucky wonders whether he can be worth all this to Steve, who reminds him that what he’s done “wasn’t your fault.” “I know,” Bucky answers. “But I did it.” He also asks about what’s going to happen to their friends, and Steve says that whatever it is, “I’ll deal with it.” Steve’s focus is on doing the right thing, carrying out the immediate mission, and trusting that he can meet each challenge as it comes without compromising.

But the film shows that it is a struggle for him; Steve doesn’t just righteously refuse to compromise throughout. There are several scenes where he honestly considers going along with the accords, where he considers the possibility that Bucky might have to be taken in, and he faces them. Like when he wavers about signing the accords, suggesting that if there were safeguards…but then realizing that Wanda’s been locked up in Avengers HQ makes him recall what they would really mean.

The relationship between him and Tony is expertly shown; Tony’s simmering resentment of how much his father talked Cap up, blended with real respect and a sense of inferiority (“sometimes I’d like to punch you in your perfect teeth”), yet also genuine affection. I like how Steve is surprised and concerned to learn that Tony and Pepper have broken up (“we’re taking a break. It’s no one’s fault”), and how Tony is still going to bat for Steve after the chase through Bucharest.

Both Steve and Tony are shown to genuinely care for each other, and even though they’re fighting at the moment, they sincerely want what’s best for the other, so that when Tony is convinced that Cap was right (which, as Natasha points out, he really should have been earlier if his ego – and possibly his extreme stress over his guilt regarding Ultron and latent PTSD – hadn’t prevented it), he immediately throws in on his side and sets off to help him as much as he can. Which, of course, makes what ultimately happens that much more tragic.

Before we talk about that scene, let’s deal with a few other matters. First and foremost is the villain; Helmut Zemo, who is surely the most unexpected, insidious, and one of the most interesting bad guys in the MCU. He has no powers beyond special-forces training, no technology beyond an EMP bomb, and no army or henchmen, yet he inflicts deeper wounds and comes closer to destroying the Avengers altogether than any other bad guy before him (and topped by only one to come). Zemo is chillingly believable as a relatively ordinary many driven by obsession and grief into doing startlingly evil things to get his revenge; he doesn’t just want to kill his enemies, he wants to destroy them morally, to tear them down, turn the Avengers against each other and, in his mind, reveal them for what they truly are: not heroes, but murderers.

And the really scary thing is that he nearly succeeds.

But then when we finally learn just why he’s doing it, we completely understand. It’s still incredibly evil and misguided, but why he would go to such extremes makes a frightening amount of sense. Zemo is immensely pitiable in his grief, and all the more disturbing for it. We come to learn that, under his cold, heartless exterior is a man in the most extreme emotional agony.

What’s more, his plan, once we understand it, makes perfect sense. It’s intricate, but based on a clear understanding of the heroes and how they might be expected to react, and all his crimes are directly related to it, not just there to show how evil he is. He even expresses sincere regret for the death of T’Chaka, and tries to reason the Hydra officer out of senselessly sacrificing his life to keep his secrets (though he still kills him in cold blood).

In summary, Zemo is without a doubt one of the best villains of the franchise; a man who is almost hypnotically frightening precisely in how ordinary and even relatable he is.

Then there are the two newcomers. First is Peter Parker, a still young and green Spider-Man, who when invited to come to Berlin and fight alongside Iron Man protests that he has homework (“I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that,” Tony groans in answer). Having Spidey in the MCU was something fans never really expected to happen, given that the film rights were still owned by Sony, so having him present – one of the most important superheroes in all of fiction – is a big deal, and it helps that this is one of the best portrayals of him to date. He’s a smart, nerdy, friendly kid. He’s eager to help and generally just thrilled to be there among all these great heroes (and of all live action Spider-Mans, this one finally meets the expected level of quippage during the battle, hilariously prompting Falcon to tell him there’s usually not this much talking). But the film also sketches his motivation very well, with his disjointedly trying to explain to Stark that, “When you can do the things that I can, but you don’t, and then the bad things happen…they happened because of you.”

Which is just brilliant; it hints at the incident with Uncle Ben, while mirroring both Tony’s typical motives (to do all he possibly can to avoid disaster) and Captain America’s current motivations (that he can’t ignore a threat, whatever the cost). Spider-Man, thus, is hinted to be a potential successor to both Cap and Tony, though he obviously needs to get a bit of mileage under him first. But even as a greenhorn superhero, he shows himself a force to be reckoned with his extreme strength and agility allowing him to fairly dominate the battlefield (he even catches Winter Soldier’s metal arm…and then exclaims about how cool it is) and showcasing just what he could be when he comes into his own.

The other newcomer is even more impressive: T’Challa cuts an awesome figure, in and out of his Black Panther persona, as a sophisticated, intensely dignified young man with an underlying current of ferocity lurking below the surface. T’Challa has a calm, cool, hyper-focused and cultured personality that embodies the message, “I am a king. You will treat me as a king, or I will rip your throat out.”

He also is refreshingly convincing as a man with a distinctly non-western outlook, as seen in his affectionate, but deeply reverential interactions with his father (the film expertly invests their relationship with great emotional weight even though they have only one scene together before T’Chaka is killed), and his matter-of-fact promise to kill Bucky in vengeance. I also really like the scene where he describes his culture’s views on death to Black Widow, and when she says that it sounds lovely, he answers, “my father thought so.” Later, when he’s been arrested along with Steve, he calmly asks him, “as both warrior and king, how long do you think you can keep your friend safe from me?” He doesn’t make any effort to apologize, nor does he berate Cap for trying to protect Bucky; he simply informs him that he will never stop coming.

Yet, he’s not completely serious or stiff either; he has moments of levity, as when he quips that he really would like to see Black Widow and his female bodyguard take each other on, not to mention his practical assessments of bureaucracy (“Two people in a room can get more done than a hundred”). I also like his snarls of frustration when his quest for vengeance is foiled at the end of the airport battle, and how he is literally trying to grab on to the departing jet with his finger tips. He’s single-minded, stoic, and has a very different perspective on the world than the western characters, but he’s still entirely human.

Black Panther is one of the most striking and unique heroes to come out of the MCU thus far: regal, intelligent, and single-mindedly virtuous in his own idiom; sophistication blended with ferocity. He’s just bursting with awesome potential. We’ll…come back to that.

Of course, one of the chief appeals of the film is seeing the Avengers taking each other on, and the movie delivers with the spectacular airport battle which undoubtedly ranks as one of the best action sequences ever filmed, certainly for a superhero film. It builds and builds from the confrontation between Cap and Iron Man, through side-skirmishes involving Spider-Man against Bucky and Falcon, Ant-Man against Black Widow, Cap against Black Panther, and so on, until there’s the famous ‘face-off’ scene where the battle lines are drawn and they charge each other. The sequence is full of great moments, like Wanda throwing cars at Iron Man, or Cap complimenting Spider-Man on his heart and discovering that they’re fellow New Yorkers. Ant-Man in particular gets another chance to show just how dangerous he can be by, among other things, entering and partially disabling Tony’s suit (“Who’s speaking?” “This is your conscience. We don’t talk much these days.”) and, as a climactic move, revealing his new ability to become Giant-Man, temporarily taking on almost the whole opposing team single-handedly (prompting a frustrated Tony to ask, “Anyone on our side hiding any shocking and fantastic abilities they’d like to disclose, I’m open to suggestions”).

Best of all, on top of the glorious action, everyone remains in character throughout. Tony and his crew are there because they actually care about Cap and the others and don’t want to risk them being shot by trigger-happy special forces troops (Ross makes it clear he’s perfectly willing to use lethal force), while Cap and his crew are trying to prevent a potentially world-ending threat. Neither can back down because they both think they’re doing the right thing. Moreover, they make it clear that (with the exception of Black Panther trying to kill Bucky), none of them are really trying to hurt each other: they’re “pulling their punches,” as Wanda says. Natasha even pauses in her duel with Hawkeye to ask “we’re still friends, right?” to which he answers, grinning, “depends on how hard you hit me.”

Yet, equally realistically, with all this power and deadly skill flying around, they can’t keep everyone safe all the time. Spider-Man gets knocked out of the fight by an errant blow from Scott Lang, who earlier nearly incinerated three of the other side when he mistook a fuel truck for a water truck. Worst of all, an errant beam from Vision meant to ground Falcon ends up knocking Rhody out of the sky, breaking his back and leaving Tony even more emotionally charged than usual (as shown by his blasting an apologetic Sam in retaliation).

Then comes that scene; the final card, the real plan all along. Zemo expertly plays the Avengers off against each other over one issue or another, weakening their bonds of trust, and then, luring Cap, Winter Soldier, and Iron Man together, far from any help, he springs his trap; not seven super soldiers (“Did you really think I wanted more of you?” he sneers), but a video tape. A tape revealing that the people the Winter Soldier assassinated in the opening scene were Howard and Maria Stark.

It’s then that the gloves come off. Tony’s emotional instability, his complicated relationship with his parents (touched on in an early scene where he demonstrates a device meant to relive and work through painful memories, in his case the last time he saw his mother and father, and didn’t take the chance to reach out), his PTSD, his resentment against Cap for being the ideal he could never reach, all the issues that we’ve seen him struggling with and working against throughout the series come out on this revelation: that his best friend has been protecting the man who killed his parents, even though he knew what he had done (a mark of the film’s care is that this was actually revealed back in Winter Soldier, meaning that if we remembered a fleeting detail from that film, we could have guessed the ending of this one).

It’s the one thing that we’ve ever seen Cap compromise on; the one time he has ever been dishonest, trying to shield both his best friends from each other. And it is these flaws – Tony’s emotional baggage, Cap compromising to protect his friends – that give Zemo his opening (foreshadowed by his sarcastic comment, “How nice to find a flaw”).

The fight between Cap and Iron Man is truly heartbreaking; these two have been the core of the franchise since its beginning, and we’ve watched their friendship and their respect grow, despite their vastly different personalities, and now that’s being torn apart before our eyes. We’ve never seen Tony lose control like this, and it’s frightening, especially since it’s not clear what Cap is going to have to do to stop him.

That was Zemo’s plan: either Iron Man will murder Bucky and possibly Cap, or Cap will have to kill Tony. In either case, there would be no going back; such an act would destroy them. Once Tony came to his senses, he would realize that he was now a murderer, while Cap could never be the pillar of virtue that he is if he either had to kill one friend to save the other, or if he failed to stop the one from killing the other. Whatever happens, the Avengers and their two leaders would be utterly destroyed.

What this means is that, as Cap is fighting Iron Man, he’s actually fighting to save both his friends. He would not, I believe, ever actually kill Tony, so the question is whether he’ll be able to disable him long enough for him to come to his senses and stop him from murdering Bucky. Of course, even if he does that, their friendship is effectively over. This is a falling out that will take a long time to heal, if it heals at all.

The fight itself is excellent, paying full respect to the abilities of both combatants: Cap dominates hand-to-hand, but generally can’t deliver enough force to seriously injure the Iron Man suit, while Tony’s technology gives him a deadly advantage, enough to take both Cap and Bucky on at the same time. But of course, Cap’s main advantage is his strategic mind and his unbeatable determination (the line “I could do this all day” returns: Cap never abandons his friends), and his final gambit is brilliant in its simplicity.

(I can’t resist noting that, in all of this; storytelling logic, emotional impact, logical choreography, and respect to both characters, this fight is the polar opposite of the battle in the contemporary Batman v. Superman. The two films could easily form the subject of a ‘dos and don’ts’ demonstration of how to do a story like this).

Then, after all that, we get a glimmer of much-needed humor (courtesy of Stan Lee as a FedEx guy) and of hope, first through Rhody learning to use his new legs and accepting his condition, then from a letter of apology that Steve sends to Tony, along with a phone to call if he ever needs him. That is perfectly Cap: he bears no grudge, understands Tony’s pain, and lets him know that he is still his friend, but leaves it up to Tony to attempt the reconciliation when and if he is ready for it.

All this and there is so much else I could talk about: the subtle villainy of Ross. Black Panther’s own character arc of coming to understand the corrupting effects of vengeance. Steve finally making his move with Sharon Carter (prompting hilariously supportive nods from Sam and Bucky). Wanda’s arc of refusing to accept responsibility for what isn’t her fault, and on and on. We have great jokes, like Sam taking offense that his suit is itemized as “bird costume,” or Scott’s awestruck first encounter with Captain America, or Vision’s habit of entering rooms through the wall (“Yes, but the door was open, so I thought…”). And perceptive moments, like when Tony wishes they had the Hulk, Natasha rhetorically asks “You really think he’d be on our side?” or the honest debate they hold over the Accords, with everyone bringing up valid and character-appropriate points.

If I really wanted to pick out some flaws, I might say that, on subsequent viewings I noticed that a few of the combatants during the airport battle – notably Vision – seem to more or less disappear when they’re not needed, and that you could ask things like where Zemo got the EMP bomb (though there are many possibilities, given what we know of him, it just isn’t explained in the film).

Really though, that would be beside the point. I’m calling it: Civil War is the best film in the MCU, and one of the best superhero films of all time. The story, the characters, the dialogue, the action, everything works, and works spectacularly. You could spend weeks studying this plot and digging out just how well put-together it is and how much it manages to accomplish. This is more than a film to appreciate; this is a film to study, and it gets better every time I watch it.

Thoughts on ‘Ant-Man’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts on ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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