Category Archives: Action

Top 10 MCU One-on-One Fights

The MCU is, among other things, an action franchise, so it follows that fighting words lead to literal fighting. An on-screen fight is action and acceleration, yes, but here’s the thing: great fights are also storytelling. Revealing character through action; audience investment in the conflict beyond pitting avatars for good and evil against each other; dialogue surrounding a fight giving it greater impact. These factors, in conjunction with dynamic choreography, elevate exceptional examples of the form. But equally, some fights’ pendulums swing more one way than others and I can’t expect every fight to develop character, emotion, and spectacle. We’re concerned here with one-on-one fights specifically, not two-on-ones or group skirmishes, which could have their own list. ***Full spoilers for all MCU movies through Avengers: Endgame***.

A couple honorable mentions: A fight that’s good but just too short for serious consideration is Sam Wilson (Falcon) vs. The Winter Soldier, Captain America: The Winter Soldier. A fight that’s good but just too one-sided for serious consideration is Clint Barton (Hawkeye) vs. Vision, Captain America: Civil War.

10) Tony Stark (Iron Man) vs. Thor, The Avengers

Fight Tony Thor Alt 10

This is one of the premier examples of the “what if two superheroes fought?” mode of one-on-one fights (see also, Scott Lang vs. Sam Wilson in Ant-Man). It’s a fun balance of powerset showcasing and old-fashioned wrassling. Also not the last time a headbutt is used for a mid-fight laugh (see Thanos trying to headbutt Carol in Avengers: Endgame). What taints this fight for me is that it is extremely lacking in the character department. Tony and Thor are fighting for pretty specious reasons, and when Steve Rogers stops the fight, Thor brings Mjolnir down on him. If that shield wasn’t made of vibranium, Steve would be dead – and as the movie goes on, that doesn’t seem to faze anyone.

9) T’Challa vs. N’Jadaka, Black Panther

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A ferociously if chaotically choreographed fight, this one scores very high in the emotional stakes department. The fight is solid, but it’s elevated by some quality pre-fight trash-talk from N’Jadaka/Erik Stevens/Killmonger (though not as excellent an example of the form as M’Baku’s monologue before the movie’s other challenge fight), and the operatic drama at play here. The rise and fall of Kings, made violently intimate. The challenge fights in Black Panther stand out because, by design, they’re between depowered/unpowered people who are vulnerably attired (read: shirtless). The blade cuts that T’Challa and N’Jadaka get on each other are, to a PG-13 extent, visceral (not like when Clint Barton slashes Akihiko in Endgame and you can’t see blood from the wound), but the true star of the show is Michael B. Jordan’s dominating performance. “Is this your King?”

Favorite moment: N’Jadaka calling would-be-intervener Zuri Uncle James as he kills him.

8) Natasha Romanoff (Black Widow) vs. Clint Barton (Hawkeye), Avengers: Endgame

Fight Natasha Clint 8

This is a brief one, but as the culmination of one of the MCU’s strongest bonds of friendship, every move is intensely emotional. Both Natasha and Clint are fighting to sacrifice themselves, which is almost a farcical setup but in practice becomes heart wrenching. And while this is a compact fight, it nonetheless briefly displays each character’s powerset. Natasha uses her stingers and grappling hook. Clint uses his bow and arrow; the only thing missing is his sword. And the storytelling acrobatics going on here show that by successfully sacrificing herself, Natasha wins this fight.

7) Thor vs. The Hulk, Thor: Ragnarok

Fight Thor Hulk 7

The build-up might be this fight’s biggest strength and weakness. Big event status, filmed in IMAX, biggest crowd since the Quidditch world cup, sweeping score flourishes from Mark Mothersbaugh, the famous “friend from work” line. The hype is certainly there, if anything a little overdone. In the fight’s favor are a cartoonish quality, and the spectacle of the two most powerful original Avengers wielding comically oversized weapons and throwing each other across an arena. Adding flavor is Loki’s range of emotions watching the proceedings. The fight is fun but long, and some X factor is missing to really take it to the next level.

Favorite moment: The Avengers: Age of Ultron callback, complete with Brian Tyler’s score, with Thor trying to get Bruce Banner to emerge with the “sun’s gettin’ real low” lullaby.

6) Tony Stark (Iron Man) vs. Thanos, Avengers: Infinity War

Fight Tony Thanos

Tony makes full use of the bleeding-edge nanotechnology in his Mark 50 suit, all for a drop of blood. With pile drivers, shields, and rockets, Tony’s full arsenal proves insufficient to stop Thanos. The choreography introduces us to all kinds of new Iron Man suit functions but it’s all done quite flowingly. There are also shades of Iron Man 3 when the nanotech starts failing and Tony is left painfully vulnerable with the suit only partially covering his body. After a brutal stabbing by Thanos, Tony is saved by Strange and the rest is history.

5) Stephen Strange (Doctor Strange) vs. Thanos, Avengers: Infinity War

Fight Strange Thanos 5

A full-on wizards’ duel: Strange’s magic vs. Thanos’ infinity stone shenanigans. The fight is low on character but high on innovation. Doctor Strange manifesting additional arms and creating multiple versions of himself is great. I like the little touches, like when Thanos uses the Reality Stone to unnaturally collapse the distance between him and Strange. (When you think about it, that’s ironically the type of reality manipulation Kaecilius and the Ancient One can do in the Doctor Strange film, because they take power from the Dark Dimension.) It’s just a magic-based fight that takes full advantage of that.

Favorite moment: Thanos uses the Space Stone to send a Mirror Dimension shard vortex toward Strange and he turns it into butterflies.

4) Wanda Maximoff vs. Thanos, Avengers: Endgame

Fight Wanda Thanos 4

A delightful fight. Wanda starts by telekinetically throwing big chunks of debris, and after some energy-assisted hand-to-hand fighting (like when she fought Proxima Midnight in Infinity War), she gets Thanos in a really tight bind that’s only broken when his ship starts bombarding the battlefield. While not one-sided, she was definitely winning. This calls back to Infinity War when Wanda, with one hand, could hold back a Thanos wielding five infinity stones. Also, I realize that Wanda kind of rules at one-liners. Here, of course, “You took everything from me” and “You will”. After losing her brother, Wanda rips out Ultron’s heart and says, “It felt like that”. To Vision, “I can’t control their fear. Only my own.” To Tony, “You locked me in my room”. To Clint, “You were pulling your punches.” The only exception, which becomes comical in contrast to the others, is when she says to Corvus Glaive, simply, “Hands off”. Anyways, this is a comic-book-y fight that keeps the momentum of the Battle of Earth going beautifully.

Favorite moment: Wanda’s little flicking gesture to start dismantling Thanos’ armor.

3) Steve Rogers (Captain America) vs. Thanos, Avengers: Endgame

Fight Steve Thanos 3

Speaking of that Battle of Earth… It begins on the big applause moment. Steve summons Mjolnir, and the crowd goes wild (reminiscent of Rey summoning the lightsaber in Star Wars: The Force Awakens). Earlier during the three-on-one fight against Thanos, Steve uses the same flying kick he used to take down Batroc in Winter Soldier. But armed with Mjolnir and his vibranium shield, his powerset changes; in rapid succession, he uses almost every conceivable God of Thunder move with Mjolnir in a marvel of semi-digital choreography. You get lightning strikes, flying uppercuts, throwing the hammer into the shield for maximum sonic disruption. The fight must also account for the height difference between the two characters (like how Thor uses Mjolnir against the very tall Surtur in Thor: Ragnarok), so there’s an extra layer of creative choreography there. And you can’t beat the emotional payoff, as Thanos breaks the shield, leading directly into the one man vs. an army shot, and the portals sequence. All in all, it’s the crowd-pleaser that keeps on giving.

2) Steve Rogers vs. The Winter Soldier, Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Fight Steve Winter Soldier 2

On a pure choreography level, the best traditional one-on-one fight in the MCU. The movement is beautiful and logical; the knife flips, the resounding punctuation of metal arm-on-shield. Both evenly-matched combatants get more tired as it goes on, until the fight demonstrates that it’s no slouch in the character department either, with the big unmasking moment. Bucky is alive, Steve is paralyzed (a trait that continues in Civil War and Endgame), and his friends Sam and Natasha bail him out of the fight.

Favorite moment: Steve’s flying knee kick of the Winter Soldier into the side of the van.

1) Gamora vs. Nebula, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Gamora Big Gun

Not a traditional fight, to be sure, but an absolutely killer landmark of character and emotion for one of the key relationships in the MCU. This is action as delivery system for therapy. In this particular face-off on Ego’s Planet, something mysterious happens where the CGI, and the very exaggerated, external things the two sisters are doing become the perfect embodiment of what they’re feeling. When Nebula jaggedly crashes her ship through the cave just to desperately close the distance between her and her hated sibling, all those pixels are in service of something real. When Gamora fires the absurdly large mounted gun, it’s a metaphor for what people feel like they want to do to their family members in moments of frustration. The audience feels this on a primal level. The actual fisticuffs are brief, but this family squabble stands as a terrific integration of action and character work.

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Avengers: Endgame (2019) Film Review

“A hostile alien army came charging through a hole in space. We’re standing 300 feet below it. We’re the Avengers. We can bust arms dealers all the livelong day, but that up there? That’s the Endgame.”

So many superhero narratives find villains as the proactive ones, enacting plots and schemes to attain a goal that the heroes must stop. But after losing in Avengers: Infinity War despite viewers thinking so desperately that they’re right, the Avengers must finally live up to their name. And indeed, Infinity War was structured as the villainous Thanos’ movie in a way that Avengers: Endgame simply isn’t. It’s the beloved heroes’ time to shine, because for some of them, we may never see them again.

“… If we can’t protect the world, you can be damn sure we’ll avenge it.”

Tony Stark

At great personal sacrifice, Thanos (Josh Brolin) succeeded in using the six Infinity Stones to cull half of all life in the universe. Now, do what’s left of the Avengers move on, or attempt a Hail Mary play to save the fallen? Their only chance lies in a daring “time heist”; but not all the time traveling heroes were always on the virtuous side…

Thanos Armor

Avengers: Endgame is structurally interesting. Concomitant with its three-hour runtime, it has a very clearly demarcated three-act structure, almost to the point of containing three discrete but linked movies. Before Act One proper kicks off, just the first 15 minutes feels remarkably distinct from the rest of the film, playing out like its own compact “traditional” Avengers movie, before things take a sharp left turn. Act One is a quiet, mournful, and wryly convivial gathering of the team. Act Two is time travel hijinks. Act Three is a Lord of the Rings-scale battle followed by Return of the King-scale denouements.

Steve Rogers

Act Two is the weakest by the hair, while still filled with wonderful touches and featuring a treatment of time travel that seems to carry more weight than one might expect. By emphasizing that when you’re in the past, the stakes are just as high as when centered in your native present, the time travel aspect has more narrative gravity than a jokey gimmick. That being said, this Russian nesting doll of a sequence contains tons of deep-cut references and surprise returning characters (for the first time in the MCU, one previously exclusive to TV) that detail-oriented fans will appreciate.

The Avengers Benatar

In this third of the film, Endgame pokes fun at previous MCU movies in clever and subtle ways, like calling out how the Avengers are “posing up a storm” just to intimidate a villain, or how a character seems so much cooler from within their own cinematic POV than on the outside looking in. But best of all is a truly hilarious sequence where the Avengers have to study up on Infinity Stones and their intertwining history with previous movies, which puts these characters in the position of MCU viewers trying to make sense of the minutiae of the cinematic universe over Chinese takeout.

The Avengers

One of the great things about the MCU as a serialized story is that the characters change over time. And in a genius move on the part of screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, this is made explicitly part of the plot through Nebula’s (Karen Gillan) character. The heightened dramatization of her inner conflict and growth makes her my favorite character in Endgame.

Nebula

But the film services its ensemble remarkably well. There are satisfying payoffs to ten-year character arcs and a very sci-fi-TV-series-finale approach to showing familiar characters in unfamiliar situations in a less-than-ideal future. For example, the direction taken with Thor has to be seen to be reckoned with or believed, but it’s clear that Chris Hemsworth’s desire to lean into the character’s comedic stylings has been honored. I won’t spoil which characters are given the most definitive closure, but I find the standout performances in the movie to be Robert Downey Jr. (Tony Stark), Scarlett Johansson (Natasha Romanoff), Karen Gillan (Nebula), and Jeremy Renner (Clint Barton). The secret to the MCU’s success is the character work, and these performances have a particular dynamism here.

Natasha Romanoff

I appreciate composer Alan Silvestri’s deployment of established leitmotifs, including his own Captain America theme and Christophe Beck’s Ant-Man theme. The time heist score deftly weaves in Doctor Strange cues just to aurally key into the temporal nature of the shenanigans, even adapting it to decade-appropriate twists. But most importantly, Silvestri’s understated but sweeping music effectively underscores moments of great sensitivity, evoking the same emotional texture he brought to such films as Back to the Future and (though I’m not a fan) Forrest Gump.

The Barton Farm

Part of the journey is the end, and part of it is the surprise. Yes, at least one familiar character dies. And when they do, another character delivers a final line to them that is an absolutely perfect fit. Avengers: Endgame is filled with moments so warm it’s like being wrapped in a blanket, moments so heart-rending it’s emotionally exhausting, and moments so fist-pumping you’ll get carpal tunnel. All in all, it brings more than satisfying closure to Marvel’s unprecedented era of quality genre storytelling. The first time I saw it I held a couple minor reservations, but the second time it landed even better. I wouldn’t have gone so high at first, but: 10/10.

 

P.S.:**“DON’T SPOIL THE ENDGAME” SPOILER WARNING**

Natasha Romanoff Clint Barton

After Infinity War’s Natasha/Okoye/Wanda vs. Proxima Midnight fight, Endgame tops it with a beautiful moment highlighting the MCU’s female heroes. It’s especially appreciated after killing off Natasha. That larger battle sequence embraces more “comic book-y” imagery, including the unforgettable shot of Steve Rogers facing down Thanos’ entire army, Carol Danvers’ look, and Wanda Maximoff at the most “Scarlet Witch” she’s ever been. Wanda going toe-to-toe with Thanos is a definite highlight of the movie for me.

For those familiar with the lightsaber duel in Star Wars: The Force Awakens… In the spectacular one-on-one fight between Steve Rogers and Thanos, Mjölnir is summoned to Steve’s hand like Luke’s lightsaber is summoned to Rey’s hand. And, somewhat similar to Kylo Ren punching himself in his open wound to bleed out, Steve aggressively fastens his shield strap over an open wound. He’s taking the best of both worlds!

Steve Rogers Battle

Notice how many characters are motivated by love for a daughter… Clint and Laura Barton; Scott Lang; Tony Stark and Pepper Potts; and of course, Thanos himself.

Captain Marvel (2019) Film Review

In the series finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, we see a montage of young women standing up to abusers, challenges on the sporting green, and other trials, as the power of the Slayers is distributed across the world. There’s a similar montage in Captain Marvel, except at different stages of one woman’s life, as she picks herself up after a fall. It’s an empowerment sequence that worked in Buffy, and works here, in a solid superhero movie that seems to point the way forward for the Marvel Cinematic Universe after the closure of Avengers: Endgame.

Carol Danvers Crash

Under the stern command of Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), amnesiac Kree operative Vers (Brie Larson) hunts the shape-shifting Skrulls, led by the mysterious Talos (Ben Mendelsohn). But after a mission goes south, Vers ends up on Planet C-53 (to us, Earth) in 1995. Vers learns that she had a life on Earth as United States Air Force pilot Carol Danvers alongside wing-woman Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch), and begins to recontextualize not only her life, but also the war she has been a blunt instrument in.

Carol Danvers

Captain Marvel feels like a touchstone for the MCU post-Endgame. Slower, quieter, not without bombast, balanced between the weird and the grounded, doing something with the villain that’s pretty new to the MCU’s bag of storytelling tricks. There are vital sequences in the film that seem to have taken notes from Avengers: Age of Ultron’s lush and character-building Barton farm scenes (ironic given that Marvel Studios considered cutting the farm from that film).

Maria Rambeau Carol Danvers

Appropriately for a relatively unshowy movie, Brie Larson gives an appreciably subtle performance, doing a lot with micro-expressions to show Carol’s confidence, dry humor, and drive for self-discovery. That’s what happens when you cast an Oscar winner as your lead superhero. The film traces a well-thought-out arc for Carol regarding the source of her superpowers. The Kree’s Supreme Intelligence and Starforce urge her toward the unemotional, but it’s one of those Equilibrium situations where the people telling you to not show emotion are hypocrites well versed in anger and condescension.

Supreme Intelligence

The film’s approach to an origin story is novel, but may put off some viewers. Early on there’s a lengthy scrub through Carol’s fractured memories that’s purposefully disorienting, yet moored to Carol’s point of view. If directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck had chosen to film the story as a traditional origin in chronological order, this sequence is like taking all that and putting it in a blender. This choice to show Carol’s life on Earth only from a remove results in Wendy Lawson (Annette Bening), a major mentor figure in Carol’s life, never registering as a fully realized presence in the movie. But on the other hand, it is exactly this approach that enters Captain Marvel’s most powerful moment, the montage of Carol throughout her life standing in unison, into the cinematic vocabulary of the movie.

Nick Fury

For much of the film Carol is accompanied by the very welcome mid-1990s Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), whose performance is augmented by near-flawless de-aging technology. The de-aging on Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) isn’t as seamless. Maybe it’s the hair? A couple standouts in the cast are Lashana Lynch, who really tugs on the heartstrings in one of the movie’s best scenes, and Ben Mendelsohn. Reunited with his Mississippi Grind directors, Mendelsohn has fun playing with his eternal typecasting as middle management villains (Rogue One, Exodus: Gods and Kings, Robin Hood) and suited baddies (Ready Player One). There’s a great little moment when Korath (Djimon Hounsou), years before appearing as a henchman in Guardians of the Galaxy, is given one line for the briefest but most efficient of insights into his psychology. Jude Law’s rather meat-headed Yon-Rogg doesn’t make much of an impression, however.

Talos

Composer Pinar Toprak’s Captain Marvel theme, like “Fanfare for the Common Man” (or Woman, as the case may be), uses majestic wide intervals to create a sense of dramatic rising that doesn’t resolve. This fits the story of Carol learning to embrace the full range of her powers. (This constant rising feeling is also found in Christophe Beck’s Wasp theme, another leitmotif for a female MCU superhero.) The rest of the score is at its most ostentatious when it deploys standard space-age synthesizers for Kree-relevant flourishes. Sanja Milkovic Hays’ costume design, of course taking a cue from the comics, lands a bull’s-eye with the red, blue, and gold Captain Marvel costume, which looks terrific on screen.

Captain Marvel

Captain Marvel is a Marvel movie in a lower key, entertaining and with solid emotional bedrock. It doesn’t use its mid-1990s setting as a gimmick (but look for a key use of a certain grunge classic), centering on the quiet journey of discovery that unlocks the full potential of Carol Danvers’ powers. While not reaching the heights of top-tier films in the MCU, Captain Marvel decisively points the way forward for a cinematic universe that needs room to grow after infinitely scaled crossovers. 7/10.

Franchise Flashback – Mission: Impossible 2 (2000)

EXT. AUSTRALIAN FARM. A helicopter lands, and LUTHER STICKELL disembarks. Walking a few paces, he steps in feces.

LUTHER: Shit.

Mission: Impossible – Fallout and its predecessor Rogue Nation are so good, watching them is like going to your happy place. For all the tension they generate, they’re extraordinarily pleasant to watch. In stark contrast, Mission: Impossible 2 is the black sheep of the franchise for good reason, most often embarrassing rather than entertaining. I mean, this is a movie in which (see above) Luther steps in shit and says, “Shit”.

The Name’s Hunt… Ethan Hunt

The film takes quite a bit from the James Bond playbook, but in the most warmed-over, reheated way. There’s a romance of the week (atypical for the Ethan character), scenes highlighting local international festivities (Seville), and Hunt as not so much a skilled asset but a one-man army. There’s a sexy car chase that passes for 95-mph flirting –GoldenEye much? Nyah Nordoff-Hall (Thandie Newton) is a character with a lot of potential but becomes slightly edgy Bond girl eye candy. Because the central romance has to be established, the plot starts twice and walks the audience through stuff they’ve already seen after the movie’s done faffing around for the moment.

Ethan Hunt Nyah Nordoff-Hall

Romantic spinning of wheels aside, Mission 2 is a pretty inept spy movie. Rogue Nation and Fallout director Christopher McQuarrie has a rule that the maximum number of mask gags you can get away with in one movie is two. There are at least five here, which gets tedious fast. There’s even a five-minute stretch with two mask reveals! (As an interesting aside, the first two Mission movies show the complete unmasking gag in a single shot, while later films almost always cut at a transition point between the actors’ faces.)

Mask Gag

But I can’t deny the goofy entertainment to be had at the climax. Take the amazing moment when Ethan and villain Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott) play chicken with motorcycles, then jump off and collide midair. A ridiculous one-on-one fight ensues, with each move more flamboyant than the last. That’s complete with slow motion flying kicks like this is Mortal Kombat: Annihilation. It’s bonkers; it’s entertaining; it’s not strictly speaking good. At least director John Woo gets his slow motion white dove in there! Even though in its grand entrance it’s made of painful CGI!

Ethan Hunt CGI Dove

Try Hard with a Vengeance

In the opening moments of the movie, we hear the scientist Nekhorvich (Rade Šerbedžija) explain that every hero needs a great villain, in the context of a cure (Bellerophon) for a virus (Chimera). But the subtext is clear; the film itself is announcing a strong villain for Ethan Hunt. It introduces Sean Ambrose wearing a mask of Ethan, a tactic repeated later in the movie. Ambrose is former IMF, and in fact we witness his defection after the spy agency actually orders Ambrose to impersonate Ethan. Clearly Ambrose is intended as a classic foil, but for all of Dougray Scott’s predatory Scottish scenery chewing, Ambrose comes across as a damp squib.

Sean Ambrose

There’s a built-in conflict in the backstory between Ethan and Ambrose, but the film does next to nothing with their former antagonism. John Woo’s movies often excel at depicting duos of driven, strong-willed, totemic men, so when they square off, horizontal in the air, each with guns pointed at the other, there are personal stakes. Ah Jong and Li Ying in The Killer, Tequila and Alan in Hard Boiled, Riley Hale and Vick Deakins in Broken Arrow, and Sean Archer and Castor Troy in Face/Off all fit this pattern. Ethan and Ambrose only stack up in the most perfunctory way. There’s no spark, no fire. And it doesn’t matter how many times the Nekhorvich clip is played (it’s a lot). Repeating the point doesn’t help your case.

(Side note: Mission 2 is famous for being the movie that cost Dougray Scott the role of Wolverine in X-Men. Scott was cast, but Mission overran and on top of that he was injured in a motorbike stunt. And Hugh Jackman became a star. What might have been.)

But the most garish element of Mission 2 is that this is such a bro-y movie, filled with baffling toxic masculinity. As Ambrose’s henchmen are scanning Nyah for bugs, one says, “She’s clean”, and the response is, “All cats are.” What in the living hell does that even mean??? Ethan’s team consists of himself, Luther (Ving Rhames), and pilot Billy Baird (John Polson). Billy, who sticks “mate” at the end of every sentence so you know he’s Australian, makes a leering joke about the emotionally abusive Ambrose’s kiss-first-and-ask-questions-later policy. IMF secretary Swanbeck (Anthony Hopkins) makes a sexist comment about women’s skills at lying. But the most utterly bizarre sequence comes between Ambrose and right-hand man Hugh Stamp (Richard Roxburgh). It’s a standard setup of the villain punishing his henchman. But then Ambrose gets Stamp in a vice grip and starts breathily monologuing about how “some of us have the burden of sex”, and at the moment of climax Ambrose says he’s “absolutely gagging for it” as he cuts off Stamp’s finger! I guess they were aiming for Frank Booth but they’ve landed on a fourteen-year-old’s idea of edgy sexuality.

Hugh Stamp Sean Ambrose

When Nyah arrives at Ambrose’s house, she walks toward him in a dragged-out scene partially in slow motion, to the point where the viewer wonders out loud, “Will she ever get there?” The viewer can also wonder, “Will this movie ever get anywhere?”

The Silver Lining in the Sophomore Slump

The most spectacular part of the film is certainly the Utah free-climbing sequence. It’s quite a statement for the introduction for Ethan Hunt, even if the incongruous techno soundtrack doesn’t help. Above the sheer cliff face, an IMF helicopter shoots the mission (recorded on a sweet pair of shades) to Ethan in a rocket, then he throws the exploding sunglasses at the camera leading into the title sequence. That’s the type of self-conscious “cool” that I can get on the wavelength of.

Ethan Hunt Utah

And occasionally the high operatics of the film do take flight. During the showdown in Biocyte, composer Hans Zimmer thinks he’s scoring Gladiator. Similar beats in the score and more vocals by Lisa Gerrard help to elevate the material, at least for a few moments. Other than these fleeting strengths (plus the goofy entertainment value of the climax), it’s tough to pick out positive aspects of the movie. I guess it’s fun to see Cruise’s brother, William Mapother, as a henchman?

Should We Choose to Accept this?

In this sequel, the mission doesn’t seem very impossible. This feeling arises from a dull story. Ronald D. Moore and Brannon Braga of all people (writers of the rushed Star Trek Generations and the excellent Star Trek: First Contact) contributed a story that was scrapped when Woo joined the project; on the evidence of the final product, maybe their services should have been retained. Mission 2, with its overblown villain, hacky screenplay, bizarre sexual subtext, and flat pacing, is as dry as the Australian outback. It fits with the trend of 2000s blockbusters filmed in that country, like Superman Returns or Star Wars Episode 2: Attack of the Clones, and is of similar quality. Let’s just say that when the Mission: Impossible theme plays in this movie, it’s Limp Bizkit performing it. Do with that what you will.

Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018) Film Review

For an actor, “business” in the scene gives the performer something physical to do to complement their acting, whether verbal or nonverbal. For most people, this is something like fiddling with a water bottle, or shuffling through papers. For Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible – Fallout, he has to act as Ethan Hunt while also… for real, solo flying a helicopter. As you do. It’s a fitting act for this lead character, as in the two latest Mission movies writer-director Christopher McQuarrie has weaponized Hunt’s “main character powers” as a key element of the story. Hunt’s success is textually and metatextually inevitable, but a great strength of Fallout is that it constantly generates incredible suspense for this impossible hero. Accomplishing this unlikely task, Fallout is another exceptional entry in perhaps our greatest modern action series.

Luther Stickell Benji Dunn Ethan Hunt Ilsa Faust

When “the Apostles” of incarcerated anarchist Solomon Lane (Sean Harris) threaten the world with nuclear attack, Ethan Hunt and his IMF crew (Ving Rhames’ Luther Stickell and Simon Pegg’s Benji Dunn) must prevent catastrophe. But with the CIA insisting on the imposing agent August Walker’s (Henry Cavill) involvement, and Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) still in the spy game, the chessboard is harder than ever to master.

August Walker

To keep things fresh, Fallout trades in a variety of action scenes, from vehicular chases to foot chases to brawls. There’s a fantastic standout fight in a bathroom that has shades of The Raid, and features what others have referred to as Walker reloading his arms for a round of punches. But there are two stunning IMAX-format showstopper sequences that steal the spotlight: the HALO jump, and the helicopter chase.

Ethan Hunt HALO Jump

The HALO jump required Cruise to perform it nearly 100 times, reaching speeds of 200 mph. After scaling the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa in Ghost Protocol, Cruise here jumps out of a plane that’s over 100 times higher. (In the film the jump is above Paris, but it was filmed in Abu Dhabi; you can see the original ground-level location in the trailer.) The level of verisimilitude and pure human-in-the-void unease is only comparable to the space walk sequences from 2001: A Space Odyssey, but of course filmed with palpable realism. The helicopter sequence required Cruise to, you know, learn how to fly one, and to hairpin specifications. Visually, the scene resembles Go Pro footage; it’s that immersively real.

Ethan Hunt Helicopter

Even apart from these Buster-Keaton-on-a-mission accomplishments, Cruise gives a movie star performance. There are scenes where Ethan is acting, and Cruise’s intensity is enough to fool even the audience. There’s even a classic Jerry Maguire-esque moment of total befuddlement, plus an amusing showcase for the famous “Tom Cruise run”. And yes, the stunt that broke Cruise’s ankle is in the finished film.

Ethan Hunt Jump Buildings

“Ouch.”

Plot-wise, McQuarrie weaves a tangled web of standard spy movie material as a framework. But on a moment-to-moment basis, he and editor Eddie Hamilton generate a huge amount of tension. The buildup is just as precious to the movie as the relief of tension, whether it’s a flash of brutal violence or an aggressive kiss. The film delights in reversals. Not the expected espionage story double-crosses, but just smart cinematic storytelling. Scenes are set up a certain way, then subverted and flipped in a different direction (one early example really had me convinced it was steering the film in a certain direction then pulls the rug out). Moments from the trailer that you take at face value are given unexpected twists in the film. McQuarrie just knows the alchemy of movies; he speaks the language.

Ilsa Faust

A while back, when Tom Cruise was attached to The Man from U.N.C.L.E. as Napoleon Solo, Henry Cavill auditioned for Ilya Kuryakin and didn’t get the job because he looked too much like Cruise. Now, Cruise and Cavill are an electric double-act in Fallout, with Walker as a brick-muscled foil for Hunt. Ilsa Faust’s wild card status is preserved, while still respecting the character (though she’s maybe underused). Luther and Benji are excellent sidekicks, Solomon Lane works as a villain on the back foot, and Vanessa Kirby as “the White Widow” brings an amused-by-it-all quality to her scoundrel character, along with a connection going back to the first Mission: Impossible. The only real off moment for me comes in an emotional scene between Luther and Ilsa, which starts off great, but ends up slightly baffling.

Ethan Hunt Tom Cruise Run

The Tom Cruise Run™.

Fallout resoundingly closes another chapter in this storied action franchise. Through smart filmmaking that stokes both suspense and payoff, a likable ensemble, and another obstacle course for the human ragdoll Ethan Hunt, the sixth Mission: Impossible (M:I 6, which does factor in the agency MI6) chooses to accept its mission and delivers the goods. One wonders how long Thomas Cruise Mapother IV, now 56 years of ago, can continue topping himself. But for now, you will leave the theater exhilarated, exhausted, exquisitely tense, and extremely impressed. A strong 9/10.

Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018) Film Review

Many action movie plots revolve around a McGuffin that everyone’s chasing after. It can be a hard drive (who can forget the NOC List?) or a precious stone. Peyton Reed’s Ant-Man and the Wasp gives the old trope an upgrade; everyone’s playing hot potato with Hank Pym’s (Michael Douglas) shrunken office building, conveniently wheeled like a suitcase. It’s one of many amusing sight gags in this heartfelt superhero romp starring Marvel’s most variably sized heroes.

McGuffin Lab

Between the events of Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War, Scott Lang/Ant-Man’s (Paul Rudd) successful sojourn to the subatomic Quantum Realm gives Hank and newly-Wasp-costumed daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly), well, hope that Janet van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer), mother of Hope, may be alive there. But as a rescue mission is prepped, working around Scott’s house arrest in the wake of Civil War, the “ghostly” Ava Starr (Hannah John-Kamen) has other designs on the Quantum Realm.

Hello Kitty Pez

Now that the shrinking and enlarging premise has been established, the filmmakers constantly play with scale, to delightful effect. This visual inventiveness carries Ant-Man and the Wasp a long way, and past its predecessor (which is solid but at least visually, more on the TV movie end of the MCU scale). Incongruous items are enlarged, vehicles are carried in pants pockets, and a buggy suit gives Scott some height issues (Deadpool 2 also has a bit that mines comedy out of the hero being the size of a toddler). The 3D is also excellent, right at home with the shrinking gimmick and Ava’s phasing abilities.

Ava Starr

All this flashiness is in service of a basic plot: Save Janet. A bunch of subplots and character arcs orbit around it, but that’s the spine of the story. So both Ant-Man movies are about reconstructing family units. Not saving the world, but building and rebuilding relationships. These are unique stakes for a superhero movie, which is not to say there isn’t room for plenty of antics and action. The film does a better job than most of “faction plotting”; a lot of groups with conflicting agendas crash and separate and dovetail well (Scott, Scott’s family, Luis’ (Michael Peña) X-CON security agency, Hope and Hank, Ava, Sonny Burch’s (Walton Goggins) criminals, Jimmy Woo (Randall Park) and the FBI). Even so, room to breathe is hard to come by. It’s very busy, but with the jokes flying, one doesn’t mind so much. In particular, there’s a killer payoff for a joke about part of a car.

Hope van Dyne Scott Lang

The film has you from the beginning. One of the opening scenes shows Scott and daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson) on a Marvel meets Michel Gondry DIY adventure, fueled by cardboard and imagination. This is the movie establishing a contract with the audience; we’re in safe hands. Scott and Cassie’s bond is immediately strong, the resourcefully tactile production design is pleasing, and the film will have a lot of fun with Scott’s house arrest. Warm, charming, and deftly entertaining.

Cassie Lang Scott Lang

The cast is a deep bench of talent, so much so that I wonder if Judy Greer and Bobby Cannavale shot their parts in one day (two tops). Rudd and Lilly hold the screen as likable leads, Hannah John-Kamen impresses in a tough part that calls for intimidation and desperation, Park is endearing, returning player David Dastmalchian gets unexpected laughs, and Goggins has fun with his slimy black market profiteer. But it’s Michael Peña who’s still the comedic MVP, and just wait for him to be let loose.

Luis

Composer Christophe Beck’s earworm fist-pumping Ant-Man theme is back, both in the movie and in my head. It’s the centerpiece of a retro jazzy caper score, now with new emotional cues, and a blunt-force Wasp theme. Perhaps his standout work in this sequel is the electrifying car chase music, which helps to make that already deliriously amusing sequence sing.

Car Chase

Ant-Man and the Wasp is a frothy and fun confection. Because of the density of incident, watching it is a bit like being enmeshed in cotton candy, but in a good way. The Ant-Man franchise continues to be a good place to visit after a world-shattering Avengers movie, with themes of family and whimsical visual jazz carrying our heroes to victory and the audience out of the movie on a high. Not to mention, this is the first MCU movie where a female superhero gets billing in the title. As Hope says, it’s about damn time. But next time, maybe give Michelle Pfeiffer more to do. A weak 8/10.

 

P.S.: *SPOILERS* The mid-credits scene is effectively shocking (Hope, Janet, and Hank are all snapped out of existence by Thanos), but it’s also undeniably deflating after watching a whole movie about saving Janet. The movie earns the construction of this family, but a three-minute scene doesn’t have time to earn its deconstruction. I guess it’s a case of everyone reacting differently. I think this scene requires specific compartmentalization from the audience, to see the movie they just watched, and this scene, as two separate entities.

P.P.S.: As Scott, Hope, and Hank decide to hide out at X-CON, how in the world did Luis hear about Ava stealing Hank’s lab before they told him?

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018) Film Review

In your typical Jurassic movie, the first sighting of a brachiosaurus is a moment of pure wonder. In Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, this moment is framed differently. On Isla Nublar, in the ruins of Jurassic World, Dr. Zia Rodriguez (Daniella Pineda) jumps out of a jeep to observe this majestic herbivore, and the whole moment is minor key, both in terms of Michael Giacchino’s score with its sorrowful motifs and the backdrop of an island in natural chaos; we’re then shooed along to the next scene by another character. The uncharitable reading of the scene is that it’s an obligatory reference to past films in the series, presented with a confused tone, trying to invoke a sense of wonder and subverting it at the same time, and rushed through anyways, so what’s the point? You don’t know which thread to hang onto. Fallen Kingdom is a movie that struggles to cohere its ideas together, even as it remains competently entertaining in the moment.

Brachiosaurus

When Isla Nublar’s now-active volcano threatens all dinosaur life on the island, Jurassic World executive turned committed dino preservationist Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) is recruited by Eli Mills (Rafe Spall, doing his best Ryan Reynolds impression) to help get the dinosaurs to a stable ecosystem. But darker plans, and GMOs (genetically modified organisms), are afoot.

Isla Nublar Eruption

Dinosaurs are great (and the film puts them through the wringer, to an extent that will make some viewers uncomfortable), but we need a connection to human characters to fully engage with these movies. The characters given to us from screenwriters Derek Connolly and Colin Trevorrow are difficult to invest in, both in this film and previous entry Jurassic World. The biggest problem for the returning players is that it seems like almost everyone’s character has been retconned.

In World, Claire sees the dinosaurs only as “assets”, then learns to respect them as animals. That’s a character arc. In Fallen Kingdom, Claire recalls the first time she ever saw a dinosaur, recalls it as a miracle, and says she “still believes that”. So the writers frame her as retroactively being a dinosaur lover from the beginning. Connolly and Trevorrow, you wrote this character. This isn’t going to fly. Owen Grady’s (Chris Pratt) personal connection with the velociraptors is key, and mined for emotion, but at the top of the movie, he acts like he couldn’t care less about the dinosaurs (seemingly for the sake of a half-baked tough-guy arc). The late John Hammond (the late Richard Attenborough) is quoted as saying, “these creatures need our absence”. This is consistent with his characterization in The Lost World, after seeing his theme park/glorified zoo turn disastrous. But according to corporate heir Simon Masrani in World, Hammond’s dying wish was that the park be finally open and thriving. So when Connolly and Trevorrow need Hammond to give imaginary weight to the idea of the theme park in full swing, it’s one thing. And when they need Hammond to give imaginary weight to the idea of dinosaur rights, it’s another.

Claire Dearing

Something I have to give the writers credit for is not forgetting that it’s Claire, not Owen, who is the lead of these movies. But then again, there’s so little character real estate for either of them, it’s almost arbitrary at this point. New supporting characters don’t improve the ensemble much either. Franklin Webb (Justice Smith) is tech support comic relief, grating more often than amusing. Zia fares better; but the whole scared man and cool, calm, collected woman in the wild double-act felt obvious even earlier this year when it showed up in Dwayne Johnson vehicle Rampage.

Owen Grady Franklin Hall Claire Dearing Zia Rodriguez

When the good guys are such ciphers, once again I gravitate to the scoundrel: Vincent D’Onofrio in World, now Ted Levine’s Ken Wheatley in Fallen Kingdom. Levine is a lot of fun to watch, albeit playing a supremely clichéd mercenary character, and doing a better job twirling his mustache than the other villains of the piece. But the writers have to spoil the fun of his villainy by giving him an obvious President You-Know-Who line. Now I can’t even enjoy him being bad! Character is not this movie’s strong suit.

Owen Grady Tyrannosaurus Rex Claire Dearing

If Fallen Kingdom has a strong suit, it lies in the visuals. I haven’t liked director Juan Antonio Bayona’s other films, but it’s not because they looked bad. World’s gunmetal blue visuals are blown out of the water here, and Bayona adds some flair to some of the money shots. Hands-down the best moment of the movie comes when the dinosaur evacuation is ending. From the dock, a lone brachiosaurus gazes at the retreating boat. The ravaging eruption at her back, smoke billows around her and takes on an orange tinge, suggesting the amber from which the dinosaur was created. Back to amber, dust to dust.

Back to Amber Dust to Dust

The finale at the Lockwood Estate offers a variety of action (in contrast to the uninspiring disaster movie material beforehand). The pleasingly grotesque auction; the stygimoloch rampage (tragically, the name of that dinosaur is never spoken on screen. Throw us a bone!); the most elaborate one-on-one fistfights of the series. Bayona’s flourishes come most into play here, playing up the surreal “haunted house” quality of a raptor on the loose in a domestic setting.

Ankylosaurus Auction

But it’s the missteps that stand out. The T-Rex card is played in the first scene, a sequence in which the stakes aren’t clear. A token animal rights story is more-or-less shelved early on, and I don’t know what central point the movie is trying to make. The “it was all a lie” moment from the trailer doesn’t land with the proper context or motivation. There’s a very dumb twist late in the game; the worst part is that it’s there just to facilitate one inane, facepalm moment. The ending is attention grabbing, but poorly thought-out, an epithet that applies to most of the screenplay.

Indoraptor Lockwood Estate

For all its sins, Jurassic World hangs together more than its sequel. Fallen Kingdom offers some decent visual styling and two likable leads (as a consequence of being smoothed out with a rolling pin), but is also hamstrung by a confused screenplay. While passably entertaining, the film is also no more than the sum of its genetically hybridized parts. After the previous installment slashed a swathe through filmgoers’ wallets the whole (Jurassic) world over, Universal spared no expense here. It was in service of a movie that’s just okay. A weak 5/10.

Incredibles 2 (2018) Film Review

In the fourteen-year span between The Incredibles and its sequel, Pixar has revved up three Cars movies.

While you’re thinking on that, consider how CG animation has improved by leaps and bounds in those fourteen years. Incredibles 2 looks, how shall I put it, incredible. A Pixar action movie is a rare beast, and watching the kinetic quality of the animation is a pleasure. Tending to character first and foremost, writer-director Brad Bird delivers a more than worthy installment in his saga of a super-powered family coming into their own, together.

The Parrs

After the Parr family foils a bank robbery but not without some collateral property damage, Incredibles matriarch Helen Parr/Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) is recruited by a sibling-run corporation to be the face of superhero (or “super”) legalization. Meanwhile, her husband Bob/Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) faces the daunting challenge of domestic duties, juggling responsibilities toward three powered kids. And while Elastigirl stretches out and gets positive press, the mysterious “Screenslaver” is reaching out with a much more invasive type of PR.

Spy-Fi Aesthetic

This sequel to The Incredibles feels more like a “traditional” superhero movie, and maybe with all that’s happened since 2004, that was inevitable. This franchise resembles 1960s spy-fi more than anything else (see the production design aesthetic and Michael Giacchino’s jazzy score). Incredibles 2 retains that context, but also deals heavily with the politics of supers and accords being drawn up (familiar territory both from Captain America: Civil War and Holly Hunter’s own role in Batman v Superman). In the first movie, this was there, but more a backdrop for super-sneaking around a supervillain’s lair built into (of course) a volcano.

Dashiell Parr Portal

That’s really a key difference between the two films overall. The first movie starts from a place of sadness and eases gradually out of a greyscale world. The sequel is then free to be more of a colorful romp. As Tony Stark once said, “You’ve been tip-toeing, big man. You need to strut.” So Incredibles 2 runs on a more traditional engine – action scene, emotional drama, politics, comic relief, rinse and repeat. Once the film is done building momentum, its pace is an asset; however, the climax doesn’t match the imagination on offer elsewhere. Also, my audience was doling out applause, but the climax rather rushes through these applause moments. On the whole, the movie gets right to the business of being good without reaching the stratosphere of being great.

Elastigirl Elasticycle

Character-wise, the film is a fantastic showcase for Elastigirl. Putting her center stage brings the character into focus, both the idealist and the cynic. Plus her stretching powers continue to be a great showcase for the animation. Her son Dash (Huckleberry Milner) gets short shrift, but that leaves more room for Violet’s (Sarah Vowell) delightful romantic subplot. The Deavor siblings (Bob Odenkirk and Catherine Keener) are a welcome addition to the cast, Odenkirk in his typical huckster mode and Keener taking on a particularly dynamic role.

Violet Parr Romantic Subplot

Funniest subplot in the movie!

The villain this time around is the Screenslaver, and it’s pretty frightening for a family movie, laying down a lengthy manifesto monologue as everyone looking at a screen is hypnotized. A legitimately unsettling one-on-one fight between Elastigirl and an avatar of the Screenslaver puts our heroine on the back foot. The villain also weaponizes a criticism of Brad Bird’s movies. Dozens of thinkpieces have gone looking for Randian themes in Bird’s work, specifically relating to the superior entitlement of “special” people over the mediocre masses. Here, the Screenslaver argues that relying on superheroes makes the rest of humanity weak and complacent. If the Screenslaver saw Tomorrowland, we’d hear some choice words.

Screenslaver

“There’s nothing virtuous about selfishness. Is creativity at all human cost rational?”

The production design by Ralph Eggleston is outstanding, from the Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired Parr house to the sleek Elasticycle. Giacchino’s score is spicy, but perhaps could have made more triumphant use of the main Incredibles theme. For most of the running time, the film cuts between Elastigirl’s action/political story, and Mr. Incredible’s amusing domestic story, and both engage the audience equally, in different ways. The baby Jack-Jack’s powers take advantage of the wild abandon of animation (and get the iconic Edna Mode into the story), while his mother faces an insidious but intriguing threat. The joke is that it’s been fourteen years since these characters last lit up a cinema screen, but it’s been more like fourteen seconds for them. Incredibles 2 bears that out. Everything is in its proper place in as solid a continuation by Pixar’s cape-free First Family as could have been hoped for. A strong 7/10.

Deadpool 2 (2018) Mini-Review

Deadpool 2

At one point in Deadpool 2, Ryan Reynolds’ titular fourth-wall-breaking superantihero jokes about the first film’s box office figures relative to The Passion of the Christ. Delightful! After Deadpool gets ripped in half by his favorite comic book character, his lower half’s, shall we say, juvenile development becomes the object of much disgust from the other characters. Also delightful. Deadpool 2’s brand of humor can be a virtue, but the film also desperately wants to move the audience to great depths of feeling, and these conflicting impulses don’t mesh in this case, resulting in an emotionally disorienting experience.

Deadpool’s ability to make meta jokes about movies and particularly the one he stars in is a license for great fun, but it’s a double-edged sword. When one particular cliché is deployed with lengthy, sobering ramifications, you keep waiting for Deadpool of all people to skewer it. But Deadpool plays it almost entirely straight, and he’s led along on an inelegant emotional arc with heart forced in, reverse Temple of Doom-style. Such moments of emotion feel schematic – “this is the scene with earnest character development”, “this is the scene with heart”, etc. The first Deadpool, for all its foibles, has a blessedly straightforward narrative thrust and a much more successfully beating heart. By framing itself as a Valentine’s Day movie, the preceding film uses its central romance as its spine, even as it invents wonderful new profane phrases like “shit-spackled muppet fart.”

Deadpool 2 is also visually unappealing, all chrome and greasy grey. The hiring of director David Leitch was a hopeful sign, because I love Atomic Blonde, but the action is unengaging. The exception is where it involves Zazie Beetz’ Domino. After her luck powers are called out as “not very cinematic”, they prove to be the most cinematic thing in the film. Though to be fair, the X-Force parachuting sequence directly prior is an undeniable highlight. Deadpool’s “hit it”, timed with the perfectly synced warning lights and AC/DC needle drop, gives the feeling of a theme park thrill ride.

Amongst the chaos, my favorite running gag is Deadpool repeatedly accusing Cable (Josh Brolin) of being racist. Of course it’s delightful when Deadpool jokes about MCU superheroes, the DC universe, and Brolin’s other role as Thanos (my audience cheered at that). The James Bond title sequence is good, but a little passé. The mid-credits scenes are hysterical (but where’s my Blade Trinity shout-out as a movie where Ryan Reynolds’ character might be just as horny and quippy as Deadpool?). However, a major development occurs with wide-ranging implications not only for future movies but the one you’ve just watched, and casual viewers who leave at the top of the credits will miss some mighty fine dessert, because that’s what we call having our cake and eating it too.

Deadpool 2’s uneasy balance of slobbering silliness and big swings for deep pathos ends up undercutting them both. I love the idea of these Deadpool movies more than the movies themselves, which don’t stick the “superhero landing” for me. But maybe the greatest Deadpool movie of all is an experiential one that happens all around us. The marketing campaigns are better than the films themselves.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018) Film Review

We are creating the language necessary to react to Avengers: Infinity War. This is a film without precedent, ironically because it pays off eighteen preceding superhero stories. In the ten years between 2008’s Iron Man and 2018’s Infinity War, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has expanded by leaps and bounds, but now enters the Titan Thanos (Josh Brolin), whose goal is to contract it. Thanos seeks the six Infinity Stones, which together give him the power to instantaneously blink half the life in the universe out of existence, eliminating scarcity in one genocidal swoop. Opposing him: just about every superhero in the MCU. So this is a crowded movie where the villain’s plan is literally to de-clutter it.

Thanos

Like a season finale on TV, Infinity War requires a certain buy-in. In that light, the controlled chaos of the movie becomes impressive. It’s not the most perfectly balanced ensemble, but the fact that it’s elegant as it is counts as some minor miracle. (Some serious screenwriting heavy lifting from Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely.) While certain favorite characters (Chris Evans’ Steve Rogers, Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff, Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa) don’t get a whole lot to do, the writers know it’s their time to be a paragon, and that’s fine. Why not just soak in the applause when these characters merely show up and act? In top-heavy blockbusters, small details matter more, not less, and so it goes for screen time-challenged characters. Observe Steve running ahead of the vanguard of Wakandan warriors to the place of a true selfless soldier, and T’Challa’s warm greeting of M’Baku (Winston Duke), which carries the weight of a whole other movie behind it.

M'Baku T'Challa Bucky Barnes Steve Rogers

There is one fascinating detail about this ensemble. With the exception of the new children of Thanos (of which only the delightful Ebony Maw is given a personality) and Peter Dinklage’s character, every last speaking role is filled by a character returning from a previous movie. So the solution for accommodating a luxury liner’s worth of cast is to skip the usual authority figures, incidental professionals, and bit parts that populate any other movie. This is a payoff for MCU viewers in itself; for virtually the whole film, you will only be listening to people you already know.

Peter Quill Tony Stark

So, much of the joy of Infinity War is in seeing new combinations of characters bouncing off each other, and some of the interactions are perfect. Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) bickering with Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is leavened by Peters Parker (Tom Holland) and Quill (Chris Pratt) talking movies. One of the best scenes of this movie is a quiet one between Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper/Sean Gunn), where Thor tries to put a brave face on his pain.

Thor Emotional Wringer

As rewarding as such moments are, there is no central figure among the heroes; screen time is democratized. The most time goes instead to Thanos. The tragedy and menace of the character are anchored by an exceptional motion capture performance by Brolin, making the six-year build-up to this villain worth the wait. It also helps to no end that existing characters we care about like Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillan) already have a personal stake with him, so when all involved are put through the emotional wringer, it all clicks into place. In particular, there’s one pivotal scene of high drama involving the Soul Stone, a big swing that all but crumbles the movie if it misses. *Click* It’s pure storytelling, giving all the quips and extended action beats around it a foundation to stand on.

Gamora

Last time the directing Russo brothers and writers Markus and McFeely collaborated in the MCU, they were in Captain America mode, in a world of espionage and statecraft. Now, the canvas is the universe, and that scope is taken advantage of. A fight with Thanos on the planet Titan is pure comic book gold. The finale in Wakanda balances brutality with applause moments. The tone turns on a dime from comic to heavy; it feels efficient rather than strained. And with so many beloved characters colliding in the film, there are countless wonderful moments and grace notes. Dave Bautista the funniest he has ever been as Drax; three big heroic moments from Elizabeth Olsen’s Wanda Maximoff; Shuri (Letitia Wright) upstaging Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo); Ebony Maw’s (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor) dismissiveness toward Stark and Strange, and so on it goes.

Wanda Maximoff

Juggling this many story threads takes a village. One member of that village is composer Alan Silvestri, whose score is at its best when focusing on Thanos’ pathos. As Thanos receives the Space Stone, a violin reminiscent of The Lord of the Rings One Ring theme elevates the moment. Just as the Soul Stone sacrifice is the centerpiece of the film, it’s also the centerpiece of the score, all bombastic pain and purpose. Early in the filmmaking process, the idea of using the whole range of character leitmotifs was vetoed, and I wonder if something was lost there. How cool would it have been to hear Brian Tyler’s Iron Man theme when Tony first activates the suit, Michael Giacchino’s Doctor Strange theme during particularly mystical action beats, or Silvestri’s own Captain America theme when Steve emerges from the shadows of a Scottish train station? At least part of Ludwig Göransson’s Black Panther theme is used to score the first glimpse of Wakanda, and of course, Silvestri’s own Avengers theme gets a few airings, eight notes that even casual fans can get stuck in their head.

Steve Rogers

Avengers: Infinity War is a roller coaster, funny as hell when clashing familiar personalities, but also showing a constant willingness to put them through the emotional wringer. Just as Thanos runs the gauntlet, reactions to this movie from casual viewers will run the gamut. Maybe the biggest stumbling block here is coming to terms with the new type of movie this is. While given a structure of its own, Infinity War is all third act, all a climax for the MCU at large. This film can’t stand up terribly well on its own, but in no way should it. For defying the odds and delivering thrills, chills, and coherence, the third Avengers movie is a unique accomplishment. 9/10.

 

P.S.: SPOILERS FOLLOW. No pretty end title design for this film, no curtain calls for the cast. Just plain and dignified white text and the Avengers: Infinity War title crumbling to dust. This is a Serious Film™. At movie’s end, Thanos has succeeded in wiping out half the life in the universe, including many of the Avengers; the heroes have utterly lost. (Unlike Rogue One, where everyone dies but the heroes still “win”.) Steve Rogers is reduced to a defeated “Oh god…”, delivered beautifully by Chris Evans. Ironically, maybe everyone should be more worried about those who are left behind than those who are dust.

Peter Parker School Bus

Fun fact: Peter’s dying pleas were improvised by Tom Holland.

P.P.S.: Peter Quill must kill Gamora. Thanos must kill Gamora. Wanda must kill Vision. The way things are going, must Pepper Potts kill Tony?

Tony Stark Emotional Wringer

One of the signature images of this movie.

P.P.P.S.: I’m making my way through the “Infinity Gauntlet” comic miniseries by Jim Starlin, and can confirm that at least one line of dialogue made it in. “My humble personage bows before your grandeur” was Mephisto in the comic, Ebony Maw in the film. Speaking of Ebony: When characterizing Thanos, the writers drew inspiration from Darth Vader, another iconic, tragic villain. Thanos’ line “You killed the Maw… This day extracts a heavy toll” works as an inversion of Vader’s line “This will be a day long remembered… It has seen the end of Kenobi, and will soon see the end of the Rebellion.” Thanos also positions himself as a viewer of the MCU himself, who takes decisive action to curb its growth. He knows of Tony and describes himself as being also “burdened with knowledge”, and upon killing Loki, declares, “No resurrections this time”, as if he saw Thor: The Dark World. This isn’t even a new idea; observe the mid-credits scene of Avengers: Age of Ultron, where Thanos sees Ultron’s failure to destroy the Avengers and says, “Fine – I’ll do it myself”.

Ebony Maw

“Your powers are insignificant next to mine.”

P.P.P.P.S.: After Wong gracefully ducked out of the action, did he order a metaphysical ham-on-rye?