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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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”.
P.P.P.P.S.: After Wong gracefully ducked out of the action, did he order a metaphysical ham-on-rye?
In the Thor movies, we’re used to the camera lovingly panning through the wonderland of Asgard, magisterial music blaring, spectacle rolling by. In Black Panther, simply replace Asgard with the African country Wakanda, the most technologically advanced nation in the world. This sense of wonder is right here on Earth, not in the far-flung cosmos, and the question of what the King of such a utopia owes to the rest of the world is central to the film; newly crowned King/Black Panther T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is still finding his feet when Erik “Killmonger” (Michael B. Jordan) challenges his claim to the throne.
The film opens with the intertitle “Oakland, 1992” (incidentally the city and year of my birth), establishing the setting of Erik’s upbringing. Upon seeing the post-Jetsons Wakanda, Erik calls for the nation to help its descendants affected by the African Diaspora in overthrowing their oppressors and “starting the world over”. And this causes a great conundrum for the audience. Wakanda is hidden and unspoiled, but their secrecy makes them the envy of everyone watching the movie. Minus the violence, Erik’s evil plan loses the evil part. Smartly, other characters like Nakia (Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o) and W’Kabi (Oscar nominee Daniel Kaluuya) make political arguments that are just less extreme versions of what Erik is saying. It’s up to T’Challa to mediate all these points of view, and by the movie’s end, he’s found a way forward.
Erik’s association with Oakland, both early in the film and reinforced in a beautiful moment toward the end, makes him in some way a stand-in for Oakland-born Ryan Coogler, director and co-writer of this very motion picture. Like Joss Whedon said of writing Avengers: Age of Ultron, “You’ve got to love your villain”. There’s a lot of Whedon in Ultron, and a lot of Coogler in Killmonger.
Our hero T’Challa is a very internal character, so he doesn’t so much own the movie as center a great ensemble. Other standouts include M’Baku (Winston Duke), leader of the independent Jabari tribe, and Okoye (Danai Gurira), General of the fierce Dora Milaje, essentially the King’s elite all-female Secret Service. Best of all is T’Challa’s sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), who fulfills several archetypes; she’s the sister, the Q to his James Bond, and the comic relief (and, on paper, a Disney Princess). The virtually all-black cast includes two significant roles for white men, including Martin Freeman reprising his Marvel role as Everett K. Ross. Freeman is really smart casting because he’s so likable, but also a schmo and easily put in his place. Trailers for Black Panther used Ross as a POV character to introduce the concept of the hidden country of Wakanda. “I’ve seen gods fly, I’ve seen aliens fall from the sky, but I’ve never seen anything like this”. By proxy, he was representing white mainstream moviegoers. Thankfully, the angle of using him as an “in” to the world of Wakanda is nowhere to be found in the movie proper.
Of course, it’s hard to overstate the cultural significance of a lot of this Afro-Futurist iconography. It’s an aesthetic that informs everything presentational in the film, from production design to eye-popping costume design to cinematography (the Veldt scenes look beautiful) to score. (Ludwig Göransson’s main theme feels very much of a piece with his theme for Creed, his prior collaboration with Coogler.) There’s something to be said for world-building a very fictional space like Wakanda; in a way it makes the audience more invested than, say, a fictional version of New York City does. We’ll see how this plays out in Avengers: Infinity War, when Wakanda is threatened by a full-on alien invasion.
The action here is a bit of a mixed bag. Some sequences impress, like a brawl in an underground gambling den that Coogler brings one of his Creed-style one-shot wonders to, and a Lord of the Rings-esque battle on vast grassy fields. But the film suffers from occasional CGI issues, and their nadir is the final Panther-on-Panther fight between T’Challa and Killmonger. These are already non-tactile suits, glitching like an ugly Microsoft Paint program, fighting in a heavily digital environment. It’s too many layers of unreality. On reflection, I don’t think that on a visual level, there’s ever been a worse main hero vs. main villain fight in the MCU.
There are minor storytelling problems here and there – a romantic connection between two characters that could’ve been mined for great drama but is largely forgotten, awkward scene transitions – but the operative word is minor. There are certain tipping points in the film, when Shakespearean revelations come to light and the plot viscerally pivots, where everything just works. These moments are operatic, befitting the talk of royal succession. Black Panther is a dynamite entry in the superhero genre, another win for the MCU, an action movie that touches on vital political themes, and a hub of groundbreaking Afro-futurist iconography that will inspire all who see it. Long live the King. 9/10.
Contains full spoilers for, and forensic analysis of, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. See the movie, read the essay.
“More of the same, but different.” That’s the balancing act that most sequels are judged by, and it’s hard to think of a clearer example of that axiom in practice than Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. A psychedelic smorgasbord of color, it’s an inwardly focused character movie with the window dressing of a space opera. But the thing is, Vol. 2 is a brazen spoof of that genre, to an extent unheard of in a major summer tentpole. Over and over, the film undercuts elements that would be played straight in most other movies, including its own predecessor. The spine of Vol. 2 is the drama between Peter Quill and his wayward father Ego the Living Planet, as well as the dynamic of the Guardians team. Because the character side of things is established as the core element, elsewhere the film consistently takes the audience into the realm of spoof.
– The violent battle with the many-tentacled Abilisk cedes the foreground to Baby Groot dancing to Electric Light Orchestra.
– A self-described “massive space battle” – or space chase, for the Milano, like Serenity before it, has no weapons – takes a backseat to the alpha male competition of Peter and Rocket Raccoon, fighting over the wheel like some people fight over the TV remote.
– In perhaps the most explicit parody motif, the Guardians are chased by remote-controlled drones, piloted like arcade video game cabinets.
– During the Abilisk fight and Ravager massacre, Rocket insists on playing diegetic 1970s pop-rock as a soundtrack – after all, the Disney-approved slaughter of an entire pirate crew would be laid bare without it.
– Space travel is given a Looney Tunes twist with the hilarious jump point sequence.
– The iconic and overly dignified group shot is quickly subverted.
– And of course, Groot bumps into the camera.
I can imagine a different version of the movie where Nebula’s monologue isn’t undercut, and where Taserface’s name passes without comment. (In Avengers: Infinity War, Nebula’s vengeance won’t lead into a joke about hats.) In fact, going back and rewatching the first Guardians of the Galaxy makes for a shocking contrast. Vol. 1 has unconventional elements in service of a conventional action movie, filled to the brim as it is with one-on-one showdowns, henchmen to punch, and mini-bosses to overcome. With maybe a couple subtle spoof-like moments here and there, Vol. 1 plays out on a much wider (and, I would say, more bloated) canvas, and while Vol. 2 lacks that scale, its intimacy is an asset. And again, it’s because the core of this sequel is laser-focused on character that a lot of the plot stuff is free to go off the reservation and embrace parody.
Indeed, in Vol. 2, the action is just a delivery system for therapy. My favorite scene of the movie is Nebula and Gamora’s fight/extremely violent sisters’ therapy session. In this particular face-off on Ego’s Planet, something mysterious happens where the copious 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. And so Nebula in particular gains the roundedness that was only hinted at in the first film in this most well executed subplot of Vol. 2.
Of course, this movie exists to put Peter Quill through the emotional wringer. The villain is his own father, played with saucy gravitas by Kurt Russell, casually owning up to the murder of Peter’s mother. Peter goes from suspicion of Ego’s true nature, to embracing it, to wrath at Ego’s capricious killing of the woman he claims he loved, to acceptance of space pirate Yondu as his true “daddy”, to grief at Yondu’s sacrifice. When Peter turns on Ego on a dime at the revelation that Ego introduced Meredith Quill’s cancer, he might as well have said “I don’t care – you killed my mom” like another Marvel hero.
However, this moment of high drama gives way to the negative side of spoofery, as in a case of tonal whiplash we go from “you killed my mom” to a David Hasselhoff cameo in a matter of seconds. Similarly, the film’s audaciously intimate final shot (Rocket crying as he realizes that his friends will always love him even after he risks pushing them away by acting like a grade-a asshole) would have had more impact if we didn’t go almost directly to a jokey first credits scene. And fans of Drax in Vol. 1 will be mixed on whether turning him almost exclusively into a comic relief character in Vol. 2 is a change for the better. These examples might show that the parody moments work better when subverting genre tropes and plot mechanics rather than the actual characters we’re here to see, but in the end these are minor demerits.
In fact, desperate as Vol. 2 is to entertain by any means necessary, it’s also another thematically engaging Marvel movie. When Ego identifies as a “small g” god, we are invited to notice he has much more than a “small e” ego. Ego’s evil master plan that threatens the whole universe™ is to make everyone an extension of him, which is an exaggeration of a recognizable impulse. Why can’t other people understand me? Why do they have to see things differently? Mantis, the very embodiment of empathy, is the only thing that can give the pure expression of Ego any form of rest from its apocalyptic egocentrism. And so, Ego’s forced homogenous connection with others comes into conflict with the explicit diversity of the Guardians. The Guardians are the good guys here because they find empathy with other people: when Gamora and Nebula learn to view their dark childhoods from the other’s perspective; when Yondu and Rocket find they recognize the same insecurities in each other even while retaining their own distinct identities. All three villains in the film (Ego; Ayesha, pursuing a grudge across the galaxy to the ruin of her fleet; Taserface, insisting that his judgment as captain is best) are egos out of control. Their justification for evil comes only from their inflated sense of rightness, particularly Ego, who in a pleasingly unusual scene of lyrical analysis uses the song “Brandy” to explain that he will always choose selfishness over other people. Unlike Nebula, Yondu, Mantis, and even Kraglin, a person like Ego would never be “welcome to the frickin’ Guardians of the Galaxy”.
Staying tethered to character-based humor and drama gives Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 license to take a page from the Airplane!/Monty Python and the Holy Grail book and go wild with the tropes of its genre. Its spoof elements feel natural with its world, even if it laughs at its own jokes a bit much, and after the dust settles this sequel makes its predecessor look grounded by comparison. It’s a risky way to thread the needle of “more of the same but different” but I expect nothing less from the franchise peopled by the biggest-hearted a-holes in the galaxy.
P.S.: Guardians of the Galaxy, with its spaced-out aesthetics and unhinged humor, has a kindred spirit in the Australian science fiction TV show Farscape, so it’s only appropriate that Farscape star Ben Browder appears in Vol. 2 as one of the gold-painted Sovereign. Speaking of them, I love that in the finale “Wham Bam Shang a Lang” becomes an absurd villain theme for the Sovereign.
P.P.S.: Something that bothered me when hinted in Vol. 1, and becomes even more deflating now that it’s confirmed in Vol. 2, was that Peter was only able to hold an Infinity Stone because he’s part Celestial. In Vol. 1, Peter and the other Guardians contained the Power Stone with the power of friendship. This colossal monument to their constructed family is now a plot point for Peter’s biological one. For a movie so attuned to theme over plot, this stands out as a poor retcon.
The Marvel Studios brand is even more powerful than any of the superheroes in its stable. The mere association of the studio with an untested property is enough to spin offbeat ideas into gold, and their risks are getting gradually more exciting. So ever since kicking the doors down with 2012’s crowd-pleasing The Avengers, Marvel has premiered a surefire box office smash in the front half of a year, followed by something weirder in the back. In 2013, the billion-grossing satirical action comedy Iron Man 3 was followed by the cosmic portal-hopping fantasy of Thor: The Dark World. 2014’s espionage thriller Captain America: The Winter Soldier was succeeded by the acerbic space opera of Guardians of the Galaxy. In 2015, the thematically rich and aurally deafening team-up Avengers: Age of Ultron was complemented by the small-time heist comedy Ant-Man. And this year, the superhero masterpiece Captain America: Civil War gives way to the infinite magical dimensions of Doctor Strange. Marvel has effortlessly produced another entertaining, well written, light on its feet origin story with a compelling actor holding it all together, plus the added twists of stunning trippy visuals and an exhaustive magical mystery tour through obscure mystical realms.
Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a world-class neurosurgeon with an equally world-class ego. But when his negligence behind the wheel leads to a crash, the hands that had been so vital to his career and identity can never operate again. After exhausting his fortune on moon-shot surgeries, a desperate Strange travels to the Nepalese sanctuary Kamar-Taj to find a more mystical cure. There, he studies under the tutelage of the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and her fundamentalist lieutenant Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), even as the wayward sorcerer Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) threatens the fabric of reality. Strange will need help, including from former colleague Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), to wrestle with this new world of magic and monsters and nothing he was ever trained for.
On paper, Doctor Strange comes armed with the best cast in a non-team-up Marvel movie. That comes in handy, because seeing as this is the MCU’s full-blown introduction to interdimensional magic, boy howdy there is a lot of magixposition to get through. But the cast elevates the material, and make up for some of the imperfections of the screenplay. I do find the film very sharply written on a scene-to-scene basis, but connecting the dots is sometimes a stumbling block, as there is a lot of exposition, and side characters that do stand out but are nonetheless underwritten. So, sharply written, but maybe not the most tightly written.
Those supporting characters are out of focus at times because the film is rightfully keen to keep a laser focus on its lead. It would be easy to point out similarities between Strange and Tony Stark (rich, arrogant luminary brought low and humbled) and even Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes (no social niceties, uncomfortable with hugging), but these are surface level. What makes the character work so well (besides the magnetic performance) is that he’s given a beautifully plotted out, movie-long redemption arc wherein Strange learns to accept the things he had always rejected (and I don’t mean the existence of magic). No quick fixes; this is refreshingly gradual.
Strange is the audience surrogate into a new world, and has to soak in all that exposition I mentioned before. But Strange is not a mere vessel, and his dynamic character helps to keep the film engaging. Also, the characters that inhabit this magical world are all performed exceptionally. Ejiofor sells the hell out of what is a really tough and ambiguous character in Karl Mordo, the kind of man who dangerously overcompensates in atoning for his past sins. Swinton constructs a playful and enigmatic Ancient One, and Benedict Wong as… Wong makes for a valuable and entertaining presence. In the case of the film’s villain, Kaecilius, smart choices off the page help to sell an underwritten character. Cosmetics help. The makeup on his and the other Zealots’ faces resemble a grotesque extension of what happens when you weep your eyes out. They wear their brokenness for all to see. It’s on the nose, but it works. And, Mads Mikkelsen’s menacing screen presence does a lot to animate the semi-flimsy role (his role as Le Chiffre in Casino Royale also has an eye condition, where he cries blood!).
A big draw of Doctor Strange is its visual effects. Director Scott Derrickson’s vision of reality manipulation is truly delightful to look at, and an interesting balance is struck where the gonzo visuals don’t go too far into craziness where a general audience won’t follow. Even so, the film might have been helped by going even further in its imagination. A couple really pivotal scenes play out with people in their spectral form, and the artificiality there goes some way to undercut the emotion and tension. Also, the Zealots’ weapons are almost invisible. I get it, they’re drawing on power from another dimension, but this uninspired and at-times confusing design seems less like a creative decision and more like a PG-13 compromise so as not to “see” blade pierce flesh.
As for the magic itself, it’s strikingly done with geometric shapes in place of beams of light, delivered with Wanda Maximoff-like hand gestures. The magic aesthetic (oddly foreshadowed by this year’s semi-noble semi-failure Warcraft) is complemented by a healthy dose of defying gravity, which is what really livens up the action scenes. But while the magic action is great, the hand-to-hand fights remind me of the cluttered choreography of something like Batman Begins. (And of course, some of the city-bending visuals are reminiscent of a brief scene in another Christopher Nolan movie, Inception, albeit taken to a whole other level.) There’s also a fair bit of magic-as-Buster-Keaton-slapstick, which is unexpected but welcome.
In a lot of ways, Doctor Strange is a full-blooded medical drama as well as a magical extravaganza. This brings needed attention to Christine Palmer, who is easy to lose in the greater tapestry of the plot, and it gets at a really great aspect of Stephen Strange’s character. He’s not going to stop thinking like a doctor after his magical training. The tension between the medical and the mystical is laid bare in what I’ll call the “do no harm scene”, and it could well be the standout of the entire picture.
Michael Giacchino’s score is solid, but feels a bit like a missed opportunity. The end credits music (“Master of the Mystic End Credits”) is a fantastic slice of trippy progressive-rock, throwing organs and sitars around with abandon. But by being so distinctive, it gives a tantalizing glimpse at what the whole score could have been – indeed, the main Doctor Strange theme heard throughout the film is oddly similar to Giacchino’s own Star Trek fanfare.
Doctor Strange is a really solid magical action movie, with wonderful kaleidoscopic visuals, a fascinating central character, a great cast, and a partially-genius high concept finale. It’s very much a familiar template for an origin story, and the film has its shortcomings, but they don’t spoil the whole. The world of Doctor Strange is an interesting space to play in for two hours, a unique story about accepting mortality and where men are allowed to cry. 8/10.
P.S.: Paul McCartney walked into Abbey Road Studios during the mixing of the score. Upon hearing Giacchino and Derrickson working on “Master of the Mystic End Credits”, McCartney observed, “Shades of ‘Walrus’…”
P.P.S.: *THE SPOILER DIMENSION* So Kaecilius works to serve the dread Dormammu. And the finale in the Dark Dimension is a provocative one, providing a unique climax to the conflict. Strange’s time loop of self-sacrifice certainly one-ups Tony Stark’s “sacrifice play” through a portal in The Avengers, and is a tidy bow on Strange’s arc to boot. The entire theme of the film is the acceptance of failure and death. Kaecilius refuses to accept the concept of time and thus mortality after death “insultingly” ravaged everyone he loved. For a long time, the Ancient One held onto artificially extended life, before finally accepting her legacy and the end of her story. In his career as a surgeon (being the best means juggling the highest stakes) Strange was motivated by his fear of failure. Strange’s willing submission to an eternity of skewering is one of those perfect metaphors that crop up in fiction sometimes. He embraces failure and mortality stubbornly, sacrificing himself with the same tenacity he had used before in his years of medical study. The very pathology of Strange’s arrogant past is redirected, aimed differently, to save the world. And in choosing to wear the broken watch that was Christine’s gift, Strange signals his knowledge that everything must eventually come to an end. Whether it’s a life, a world, or a relationship.
Oh, and the CGI monolith of Dormammu gives me bad flashbacks to Parallax in Green Lantern and Galactus in Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer.
There has never been a superhero movie like Captain America: Civil War. Weighty character drama, politics, gritty action, comic-booky action, and humor are all pushed to the limit and brought into harmony. The film contains a moment that might be the funniest in a Marvel movie, alongside the most gut-wrenching drama. It can do both, folks. Characters who have been around forever in this cinematic universe have emotional stories, while two important new heroes are debuted. How does this movie even function? That Civil War works at all is impressive. That it works this well is incredible.
After an Avengers mission in Nigeria results in 26 civilian casualties, the superheroes are brought up to speed on the Sokovia Accords, a United Nations document bringing the Avengers under bureaucratic oversight from a UN panel. The heroes are split on the issue. Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) is in favor of any measure to legitimize Avengers operations, both for professional accountability and personal guilt. But Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) would rather cut through the bureaucracy to ensure that the Avengers can always go where they deem themselves most needed. Both are trying to save lives and serve the greater good, in their own way. But their disagreement over the Accords, as well as Steve’s need to protect formerly brainwashed best friend Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) from the arrest Tony and the UN know is rightful, ends up drawing battle lines. Tony and Steve each find support from five allies, and the stage is set for catastrophe. And all the while, the unassuming Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl) has his own mysterious agenda.
What grounds the central battle of wills is that both Steve and Tony are right, and both are wrong. That makes it the most satisfying kind of heroic conflict, because both perspectives are aired throughout the film in smart conversations and through their actions. The actors are up to the challenge, as Evans plays respectful defiance really well, while Downey Jr. is like an exposed nerve, so open and vulnerable. It all explodes in a notably contained (not necessarily restrained) climax featuring the marquee fight between Captain America and Iron Man. But the thing is, during this title bout, we are internally begging Steve and Tony to just – stop – fighting. Our emotional investment in the characters in some way eclipses the obligation for an action-packed finale. It’s character before blind reliance on cool spectacle. And that, in microcosm, is why the Marvel Cinematic Universe works.
A big reason why Civil War is so successful as drama is that the huge ensemble is humanized and many have their own character arcs. Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) faces the consequences of the Nigerian disaster, which she feels is her fault, and must come to terms with the power inside her that she doesn’t understand. The Vision (Paul Bettany) begins to explore his own “humanity”, but might not be thrilled that he did. Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) brings in an everyman perspective. Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) plays diplomat and constantly tries to prevent violence between the factions, using her skills of manipulation from a genuine emotional place. So all these established characters are served, while two new heroes complement the story without overshadowing it.
Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland) is not shoehorned into the proceedings. He’s presented as the uncompromised vigilante. When Tony looks at him it’s like he’s seeing a glimmer of where Steve Rogers came from, and the nobility that still defines him. Tony’s desire for conciliation with Steve makes Tony’s relationship with Peter, and the movie’s use of the web-slinger, more integral to the story than a because-we-can cameo. In a movie that throws around big concepts like UN oversight and accountability, Peter’s inclusion is a show-don’t-tell reflection of what a superhero is at the core, and his streetwise perspective grounds the larger-than-life conflict.
If Spider-Man’s is well done, then the introduction of Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa is perfect. Everything about his role in the film impresses. Boseman brings a quiet gravity to his scenes, his Black Panther costume is one of the best comic book translations on screen, his fighting style is instantly distinctive, and most important of all, his character arc cuts right to the heart of Civil War’s thematic core. What is one’s duty to family? To friends? Can the cycle of revenge and trauma be broken? Where does a superhero’s responsibility to the world conflict with other agendas? Civil War’s mature screenplay asks these questions, with the film being nonetheless appropriate for kids who just want to see well-drawn heroes in entertaining fights. It’s a balancing act that other contemporary superhero movies bungle.
The villainous side of things is a rewarding slow-burn mystery story, of all things. Daniel Brühl does great work as Zemo, giving a disturbing portrait of the kind of person who can present a genial face in public, while building a bomb in the closet. Zemo is a very singular kind of comic book villain, defined by subtlety, intelligence, and persistence. Has anyone noticed that previous Marvel villains Alexander Pierce, Ultron, and Loki (in The Avengers) all have the same motivation? They rail against the chaos and infighting among humans, and set out to bring order on a global scale – ending war with a violent cleansing that the heroes must stop by blowing stuff up real good. There is no such bluster in the ending of Civil War, as an intimacy of setting and stakes reap a lot of dramatic rewards. The way Zemo interacts with the story as a whole, and the finale in particular, quells any fear that he’s one antagonist too many in a busy movie, as his subtle machinations and shadowy menace complement the themes of the film very nicely.
At the end of the day, while Captain America: Civil War has a lot going on under the surface, it’s still a seriously kick-ass action flick. The four action scenes in the film escalate in meaningfulness, until the finale goes for the emotional punches by way of actual punches. But the crown jewel action centerpiece is the airport sequence, half-cartoonish, half-intense, and all incredible. It’s like a twenty-minute comic book come to life, but one informed by the very specific characterization and precision-strike humor we’ve come to expect. Dizzying choreography, dynamic pacing, and well-judged match-ups make for an absolutely spectacular showdown. While not everyone gets a big show-stopping moment, each of the twelve heroes contributes to a sequence that will go down as an all-timer in the comic book movie canon.
A small detail I pick up on is that the film takes potential weaknesses and turns them into strengths. The less significant example is that the physical resemblance between Bucky and Zemo (potentially confusing for general audiences) impacts the plot at one point. The more significant is that Bucky wonders aloud if he is worth all the trouble his presence causes. Now, of course he’s worth it to Steve and that’s the whole point, but the line plays with the fairly bare bones way his connection to Steve played out in the first Captain America movie. Civil War’s depiction of Bucky, brought to life with broken dignity and wounded charisma by Sebastian Stan, retroactively makes his setup in previous films better by association.
On the subject of negatives, the most I can come up with is a subjective one. A lot of the setup for the film is predicated on the “downer” reality check of civilian casualties of previous Marvel movies, particularly Avengers: Age of Ultron. There’s something a little dramatically convenient and obvious about this, like being lectured after eating a cake about how many carbs are now up to no good in your body. (It’s an interesting choice because the whole point of Ultron‘s ending is to reconcile Avengers and civilians.) But the way the theme is actually implemented in the film works a charm and adds to the complexity of the story.
There are many ways Civil War is unique among superhero movies, and its ending is no exception. If it’s not a spoiler to say that Civil War is smart, then it’s not a spoiler to say that the ending is not pat and wrapped up in an artificial bow. The emotional wounds have not been healed, the ideological conflicts of the film have not been resolved, and the film leaves the story in a rich place for other stories in this universe to pick up on. Captain America: Civil War is a globe hopping, down-to-earth political thriller, which is also a character-driven drama, which is also a superhero extravaganza with effective incidental humor, and which also contains an all-timer comic book action scene. What other movie can claim this? What other movie can claim this and be this good? 10/10.
Despite Ant-Man being a founding member of the comic Avengers, and also despite a power set opening the door to fun/creative/unique action, the prospect of Ant-Man the film was met with more than a little skepticism. What Marvel Studios has crafted is a well-cooked palette cleanser after the operatic mayhem of each of their films since 2012’s The Avengers. Ant-Man scales back on scope, but that doesn’t mean it scales back on quality or payoff.
At San Quentin, petty thief and absentee father Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is being released, ready to reconnect with his daughter and former partners in crime including Luis (Michael Peña). Nearby across the San Francisco Bay, Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) watches as Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) is shown the fruits of technology he created back in the Cold War era, now weaponized by unbalanced mogul Darren Cross (Corey Stoll). And plans are drawn up to bring everyone together in a web of superpowered shrinking suits, heists, daddy issues, and wacky comedy.
Straddling all four of those elements is Rudd, anchoring the film with his everyman Scott Lang. As both the butt and deliverer of jokes, he’s an appealing lead, equally at home showing off MacGyver-esque chops in a remarkable heist sequence as he is internalizing more dramatic beats. As Ant-Man, his power set is used brilliantly for visual gags and straight action. And no spoilers, but the shrinking and enlarging mechanism of this power is used for a couple extraordinary, punch-the-air moments in the Third Act. You’ll know them when you see them.
As an ant does, the supporting cast also carry more than their weight and taken in ensemble make for an impressive wall of protagonists. Douglas is not trotted out for a few token scenes, but rather given a full, vital, present and active character with an edge and an arc. Lilly is given a strong character in Hope – often female characters in tentpoles are presented more as archetypes than realistic people; to be crude about it, either cuddly or cold. But Hope is in the middle spectrum; confident, knowing her own value, with her ultra-competence offset by snarky as well as warm humor. And let’s just say she looks to have a bright future in this universe. Leading the comic relief, and stealing every scene he appears in, is Peña as Luis. Having established dramatic chops elsewhere, Peña is the MVP in bringing a great Ant-Man-specific comedic energy to the film, precisely because his character is so broadly played.
Speaking of broad performances, Stoll as the villainous Darren Cross fits into this. The only real fun to be had with Cross is with Stoll’s performance. For example, he’s given the ridiculous-as-scripted line, “You tried to hide your suit from me, and now it’s gonna blow up in your face”, and delivers it like a petulant child, making the line sort of work on that level. The big problem here is indeed the character as written. Stoll has said in interviews that Cross’ motivation changed from draft to draft, and boy howdy does that show. There are facets of his character we are constantly told about without being shown; he doesn’t convince as a scientist, and much more importantly, neither as a mentee of Hank Pym. And there are twists in the Third Act about Cross’ character that are worth as much as the added-in-post flimflam that they are.
The villain is weak, and so are parts of the screenplay’s setup and structure. In the early section of the film there are a handful of on-the-nose lines that land with a clang as clumsy exposition. But the bigger picture problem I have with the First Act is that it feels like there are two movies being run in parallel: the hi-tech machinations of Cross with Hank Pym’s countermoves, and the story of Scott Lang and his band of “cute criminals”. And rather than having them symbiotically feed on each other, they feel like each is paying for the other. As if the screenplay wants to counterbalance the straight-faced with the wacky, rather than bringing them into harmony. This is not to mention the half-assed shoehorned romance, which feels profoundly unnecessary.
So with the bad out of the way, Christophe Beck’s score is pretty great. It supports the heist element, and when the main theme is aired, parts of it are like Lalo Schifrin writing for a Disneyland roller coaster! Returning to the use of Ant-Man’s unique power set, its use is really a lot of fun (particularly in a Second Act training sequence) and I feel comfortable leaving the thrill of the ride to the viewer rather than describing it on the page.
Ant-Man is a very enjoyable action-SF-comedy that inverts the stakes of more typical Marvel movies (just look what happens to a big building towards the end). It gets by on plenty of heart and even more humor that together create a fairly unique tone among superhero films, plus it’s not afraid to get a little weird, with sequences that resembles Interstellar and The Rocketeer of all things! Especial props go to the cast, with Rudd, Douglas, Lilly and Peña making for a formidable bouquet of likable heroes. Ant-Man admirably fills in its little corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and its small hero accomplishes big things. 8/10.
P.S.: Edgar Wright, bastion of visual humor and my personal favorite living director, was for the better part of eight years attached to Ant-Man, eventually forced out through creative differences with Marvel Studios. Obviously I would have preferred he stayed on; equally as obviously, I can’t compare the finished product to a movie that was never made.
P.P.S.: I want to talk a bit about the interesting way that Ant-Man is at war with its marketing. We heard over and over again in the trailers jokes that were pretty much saying, “See Ant-Man! And yes, we realize that name sounds ridiculous!” There was even a version of the gag where Scott Lang says, “Iron Man was already taken”. It was a bit savvy, but also more than a little insecure. Now observe how in the film proper, jokes of that type are nowhere to be found! Another fun undermining of the marketing: you see “tough-guy” shots in the trailer of Scott in the prison brawl, but the movie turns that on its head for a neat little gag.
P.P.P.S.: The MCU’s “second phase” closes with Ant-Man, and I noticed something sort of interesting about my opinions of the Phase 2 films’ villains. Iron Man 3‘s Aldrich Killian (good villain); Thor: The Dark World‘s Malekith (bad villain); Captain America: The Winter Soldier‘s Alexander Pierce (good villain); Guardians of the Galaxy‘s Ronan (bad villain); Avengers: Age of Ultron‘s Ultron (good villain); Ant-Man‘s Darren Cross (bad villain).
The runaway success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has changed the film industry. Now DC, Ghostbusters, Knights of the Round Table, Transformers (Unicron help us) and more have announced their intent to get in on the shared universe craze. But the secret to much of the MCU’s success (through its self-styled first two “phases”) is that much of the material is, well, good! Action, heart and humor are all parts of the formula, and for my part I am a fan but a critical one who knows there’s room for improvement. So in the first section of this post I’ll just run down some of my personal rankings of all things MCU (and I’m sure I’ll think of some later I’ve neglected to include); in the second, I want to get my recommendations for Phase 3 out there. And now, something to think on. If the release slate as it stands now plays out as planned, by summer 2019 there will be 22 films in the MCU (released in a span of 11 years). 22!!! That is only one fewer than the 23 films in the James Bond series now in 2015!
My MCU Rankings
Ranking the films, least favorite to favorite: Iron Man 2, The Incredible Hulk, Thor: The Dark World, Thor, Iron Man, Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant-Man, Captain America: The First Avenger, The Avengers, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Iron Man 3
Ranking the TV seasons, least favorite to favorite: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 1 (although I’m a fan of pretty much everything after the Hydra reveal), Daredevil Season 1, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 2, Agent Carter Season 1
Best Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. episodes: “Turn Turn Turn”, “Melinda”, “The Dirty Half Dozen”
Best Agent Carter episodes: “Now is Not the End”, “Bridge and Tunnel” (the first two)
Best Daredevil episodes: “Speak of the Devil”, “Nelson v. Murdock”
The Two Strongest Post-Credits Scenes: Schawarma in The Avengers (simply classic – my favorite detail is Chris Evans trying to cover the beard he grew for Snowpiercer); “Therapy” in Iron Man 3 (a tag that actually reaches its tendrils into the opening of the film to give it a layer of humor).
The Two Weakest Post-Credits Scenes: The Gym in Captain America: The First Avenger (exciting in 2011, weak by technicality in 2015 since it’s basically just an Avengers sizzle reel); Thanos and the Infinity Gauntlet in Avengers: Age of Ultron (I’ve talked a bit about this before).
Best Third-Act Blowouts: Battle of New York in The Avengers; London Portalpalooza in Thor: The Dark World; The Incredible Shrinking Skirmish in Ant-Man
Best Stan Lee Cameo: Thor: The Dark World as a mental patient
Favorite Scores: Ramin Djawadi’s Iron Man; Brian Tyler’s Iron Man 3; Henry Jackman’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier; Christophe Beck’s Ant-Man
A moment of acknowledgement for creative “casualties” of the studio: Edward Norton, Mickey Rourke, Jon Favreau, Alan Taylor, Edgar Wright
My Recommendations for Phase 3
1) Diversity in Character
Right now, in the wake of Age of Ultron, there is only one white male Avenger. The film series as a whole would be wise to lean into this and follow its cue into other movies (not to mention utilizing that Avengers team to its potential). One of the only negatives from the MCU Spider-Man announcement was the news that including a solo Spidey film would push back Black Panther and Captain Marvel, crucial films when it comes to addressing diversity in comic book movies. But even so, the urban high school setting of the Spider-Man movie is also a good place to cultivate a diverse (nonsuperpowered, supposedly) cast of characters. The bottom line is that forward momentum in representation here is key. The world is watching.
2) Diversity in Genre
You hear a lot about comic book movie “fatigue” in discussions about if and when the superhero bubble will burst. One great way to pre-empt monotony is to lean into genre diversity for your superhero films. Make Doctor Strange a horror-tinged supernatural/psychedelic freak show (early comments by cinematographer Ben Davis calling it “Marvel’s Fantasia” are encouraging). Make the next Spider-Man solo film a high school dramedy with fireworks. Make Black Panther a mix of mysticism, politics, and science unlike anything we’ve seen. Create unforgettable and distinct space operas with Captain Marvel and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. Balancing these novel elements with what you could describe as Marvel’s house style is a challenge that the filmmakers behind Phase 3 will need to meet head on.
3) Manage the Sony Issue
Asa Butterfield is the new Peter Parker! … Oh, okay, it’s Tom Holland. Jonathan Levine for director! … Who’s Jon Watts again? I’m not saying anything against Holland or Watts, or even that there’s anything to the speculation I’m about to peddle, but it’s hard for me to see these evolving news stories and not think that the reversal at the finish line is due to Marvel finally having to compromise with another studio, namely Sony. I hope I’m wrong, and that Marvel is sticking to its guns where its talent recruitment is concerned, but the fact is, it’s a lot harder to come to an agreement about anything creative when two major studios are involved. I think the 2017 Spider-Man film is in danger of being micromanaged and pulled in two directions throughout its production. Don’t forget, his solo outing is still nominally a Sony movie. The fact that for the first time Marvel has to meet another studio halfway for something other distribution is a bit of a red flag for me, so I recommend to Marvel that they really make sure they’re getting the Spider-Man they want on screen.
4) Honor the Source Material, but Still Take Risks
In the current landscape, many comic book movie designs look like they’ve leapt right off the inked and lettered page. Looking to Fox for two examples, Storm in X-Men: Apocalypse and Deadpool in, er, Deadpool, feel of a piece with familiar comic book art. This same tendency will likely mean more and more faithfulness to the storytelling of the source material. Which is great, to a point; I would urge Marvel Studios to continue to take significant risks when diverging from the tone, content, or what-have-you of the comics, when they feel it’s right. Balance pleasing the diehard readers with telling the best possible story. Speaking for myself, I don’t want an MCU where a Trevor Slattery can’t be used to play a fake Mandarin.
5) Make Thanos Stand Out
The Mad Titan Thanos is the villain pulling the strings throughout the first three phases of the MCU, trying to bring the Infinity Gems into his Infinity Gauntlet, thereby gaining unlimited power, absolute dominion over every living soul and the universal subconscious, not to mention mastery of time, space, and reality itself. So you’d better end up making this a character for the ages, one you remember for who he is, in addition to the omnipotent, multifarious powers he gains. No pressure!
So those are my nerdy musings about the MCU. Its commercial hit streak looks to just keep on rolling in the years to come, and just in this year and the next there’s plenty to look forward to. Onward Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Dr. Strange, and the continuing adventures of the agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Peggy Carter, Captain America, and Daredevil!
The Critique (*NO SPOILERS*)
In 2012’s The Avengers, the titular superhero team assembled and saved the world with all the flourish of a child’s toys crashing together in a sandbox. Now, it’s time for the team’s insecurities to drive them apart in ways both subtle and overt. The Avengers are comprised of Steve Rogers’ Captain America (Chris Evans), Tony Stark’s Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Natasha Romanoff’s Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Bruce Banner’s Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and Clint Barton’s Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). The team finds themselves pushed to their limits by the alliance of rogue A.I. Ultron (James Spader) and two humans enhanced by experimentation with an alien artifact: Wanda Maximoff’s Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Pietro Maximoff’s Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson)… together this trio conspires to tear the Avengers apart. All the while, an opposite number to Ultron lurks behind the scenes.
The chemistry and clever dialogue binding the heroes is the main draw of these all-hands-on-deck spectacles, and writer-director Joss Whedon delivers this in spades. There is an overlap that connects the “marketable” iconography of the Avengers and numerous profoundly human moments that punctuate the film, in between bouts of action heroism. These things are inseparable, of a piece. Not only do the Avengers have the easy banter of people very familiar with each other, there is also a contrast with how the team is presented versus the previous film. In the 2012 film, each Avenger was an icon, an idol beholden to the symbols of their characters. But here, Black Widow wields Cap’s shield like a pro, and most of the Avengers try to pick up Thor’s hammer, Mjölnir. The larger point that details like these signify is an evolution of the team dynamic that feels appropriate and necessary for a sequel.
So how about the new arrivals to the cast? Despite the Maximoffs’ accents being at times distracting, consider their entrances an unqualified triumph. In last year’s Godzilla Olsen and Taylor-Johnson played the most milquetoast married couple you’re likely to see on screen, but here their chemistry is redirected to a sister-brother pairing, and they make a big positive impression. They always give a sense of weight and history to their parts, and commit totally to their arc over the course of the film. (They are also not a symptom of an overstuffed narrative, as they play a very significant thematic part in the story, as I will detail in my analysis section later.)
Main villain Ultron is in the title, and he deserves the billing. Probably my favorite thing about Age of Ultron‘s trailers was Ultron’s voice, for the simple reason that I think it sounds just like Joss Whedon! In interviews Whedon has deadpanned things like, “I have a crush on Ultron”, and that sets the tone for the level of care given to this villain who could have easily been a static and generic threat. Look at the adorable moment when Ultron tells a character that he’s glad to have someone new to talk to; Spader’s motion-capture performance really enhances this petulant and quite funny character.
I made a veiled reference earlier to Ultron’s opposite number, and the dichotomy of the two reflects a novel approach to the A.I. movie. This year we’ve had great cinematic interest in artificial intelligence; we’ve had the movie where A.I. is cute and complementary to us (CHAPPiE), we’ve had the movie where A.I. is freaky as shit for a host of reasons (Ex Machina), and now comes Avengers, able to have it both ways. Ultron and his flip side represent negative and positive takes on A.I., but after both Chappie and Ava in their respective films integrate wholly into human mores and culture, the two in this film stand apart. There is a truly wonderful scene in which the two A.I.s meet in the woods and speak of their philosophical differences and reflect on humanity. It’s a scene that feels very fresh. Granted, if there’s a robot Bechdel test looking for a scene where two A.I.s talk about something other than humanity, it fails, but I’m just being a smart-ass. Also, the woods scene is set up much earlier by a bit in which these not-yet-corporeal matrices duke it out with digital tendrils. It’s an audacious scene, Whedon daring the audience to watch what looks like techno-spaghetti (albeit, techno-spaghetti voiced by considerably talented actors).
I do have a couple issues with the film. There is a digression with Thor and a sequence introducing Andy Serkis to the Marvel Cinematic Universe that could have been folded to make for a more streamlined experience. But my biggest issue is that the climax is too long, and the resolution of the ultimate threat still confuses me after two views.
Now, I’ve said next to nothing about the six original Avengers and a whole host of other things. It’s time for the meat of this post, a spoiler-laden analysis of the film’s themes that will do justice to those core characters, take a moment to address the Black Widow controversy, and in general illustrate the very well integrated themes of Whedon’s screenplay.
The Analysis (*SPOILERS*)
The Avengers’ Witch-Induced Visions
Throughout the first act of the film, Wanda Maximoff afflicts all but one of the Avengers with disquieting visions. Tony Stark and Thor’s visions reflect insecurities regarding the future. Tony’s vision shows all the other Avengers dead, and the earth being subjugated by what appears to be Thanos’ fleet. Tony says that the death of all the Avengers, and the conquest of Earth, is “the end of the path [he] started us on”. Firstly this a meta line because he did start the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the build-up to the Avengers initiative, and the battle with Thanos, way back in 2008’s Iron Man. Tony calls it his “legacy”, and it is so typical of Tony Stark that he would put the responsibility for this fate squarely on his own shoulders. He has never been a man to do things piecemeal – In Iron Man, Tony was a man who didn’t give a crap about anything. Now, he’s the man who obsessively course-corrects, and gives a crap about everything… to the point where he styles himself single-handedly responsible for the world’s salvation via Ultron (“a suit of armor around the world”). This is a trait that is explicitly passed down to Ultron. When Ultron talks about extinction-level events in Dr. Cho’s lab, he says that “God is winding up” to throw another big rock at humanity. But it’s Ultron who is throwing the rock. God complex, much?
Thor’s vision is one that relates to his own power run amok, bringing death to those “weaker” than him. Think about the moment in the Bartons’ house when Thor breaks the LEGO structure, and then tries to shift the damage away from view. That is Thor’s insecurity in a nutshell: his godlike powers are a great asset, but they are also volatile in the extreme. He is a force of nature that can all too easily be turned to destructive purposes. (Too bad he didn’t have this attitude in the last Avengers film when he recklessly attacked Captain America in the woods with all the power of Mjölnir!)
While Thor and Iron Man brood on the future, Captain America and Black Widow are stuck in the past. Steve sees a vision of a post-WWII celebration, wherein he and Peggy Carter finally have their dance together. It’s a gorgeously filmed sequence, with every innocuous-seeming element of the party being tainted by an association with war (the spilled wine=gunshot wound, the camera flashes=bomb blasts etc – it’s really quite brilliant), but the main point is that in the end, Steve’s status as a man out of time is a source of major angst for him. In the absence of a healthy personal life, he commits himself to his team. And in his down time, what does he do but try to chase down the tainted “ghost” of his best friend from the 1940s, Bucky Barnes? Similarly, Natasha commits to work in the present to tip the scales of the past. After the Soviet Union’s covert agents did everything they could to make Natasha a killing machine, all Natasha can do is use those skills for good in the here and now.
So we have seen how Thor and Iron Man’s insecurities court destruction, how Captain America and Black Widow’s insecurities hang them up on circumstances beyond their control, and how the Hulk’s South African rampage speaks for itself in pure volatility. It is incredibly significant, then, that the Scarlet Witch’s mind manipulation doesn’t work on Hawkeye. He stands apart from the team because he is by far the most well-adjusted (more on this later).
On the Black Widow Controversy
Natasha really didn’t grow as a character until she admitted she didn’t have a character in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which is kind of fascinating. But we know from The Avengers Natasha’s background as a Soviet spy with a ledger “dripping” in red. So I was, and am, so locked into the “monster” bit being because of the people she’s assassinated and the attendant collateral damage that anything else was simply not an implication that could have sunk in with me, especially not because she’s sterile. That Natasha would see her infertility as what makes her a monster is absurd. And that’s what everyone can agree with: it’s absurd. (Not to mention that every Avenger save Clint compares themselves to monsters at various points in the film: Tony and Bruce as monstrous mad scientists, Steve as the result of “mad science”, Bruce as the Hulk, Thor as a force of destruction, and Natasha as an assassin with the blood of innocents on her hands. As Ultron says, “How could you be worthy? You’re all killers.”)
Natasha Romanoff does not consider herself a monster because she can’t have children. If she did, she would be a pitiable character. No, she considers herself a monster because she comes from a place where monsters ruled the roost. They cut off all of the choices she could have made for herself, but now, Natasha is doing her best to mitigate that legacy. She chooses Bruce to romantically pursue. In the field, Natasha puts the mission first in two crowning moments. First, she secures the Vision’s Cradle on the Quinjet, facing the consequence of capture by Ultron. Second, she unleashes the Hulk and enters the fray of Sokovia to fight Ultron and save civilians, rather than choosing selfishly to remain with Bruce and make a discreet exit on the ground (which, I hasten to add, was Bruce’s suggestion). These are the choices of a hero, of a woman who is, has been, and will continue to be, one of Earth’s mightiest heroes.
Who is the “Character” in this Screenplay No One is Talking About?
or: Where Do We Fit Into the Avengers?
Many people are saying that there are too many characters overstuffing the film. I disagree, because every character’s insecurity informs the story. In fact, I identify another vital “character” that is very much a constant, vital presence in the film: the everyday civilian population of the earth. When the Avengers return to New York City, we see Whedon pan from a monument of the first film’s Battle of New York (featuring “ordinary heroes” such as firemen and police officers) up, up, up to the Avengers Tower. The message is clear: think about this divide between the Avengers and the “normal” people on the ground. As I will continue to explain, the film is extraordinarily preoccupied with the theme articulated very quickly and visually here.
As Tony Stark says, the Avengers live high in the sky, near the portal to space that was opened in the first film, and apart from the street-level crime that humanity visits upon itself. Look at Ultron’s initial “puppet in strings” scene after the party; the Avengers and their chosen elite allies are on a raised platform, and Ultron walks in downstairs. Ultron says something along the lines of, “Down here sometimes you have to make hard choices”. In an odd way, Ultron is speaking from a streetwise perspective that the godlike Avengers don’t experience. Also, remember that when Tony Stark sees the grimy smuggling operation Ulysses Klaw runs in South Africa, Tony remarks, “This was never my life”. Even when Tony was an arms dealer, he never got his hands dirty… until that fateful day when his humvee escort was shelled in Afghanistan.
Here we see the Maximoffs’ vital thematic importance to the story. They were the civilians (“smallfolk” to the uncharitable) whose home was destroyed with the tools of Stark Industries’ former trade; they embody a consequence of the unchecked arm of the 1% finding a way to turn the lives of the 99 upside down. Remember that in Sokovia, there is graffiti of Iron Man with a dollar sign painted over his head. Because while intellectually they may know that Iron Man helped save the world in the Battle of New York, they cannot forget this billionaire’s questionable history. The Maximoffs then volunteered for enhancement to be like, and compete with, the mighty Avengers. Wanda and Pietro artificially made themselves powerful, but then they correct their misguided alliance with Ultron to eventually use their potentially monstrous gifts to change their worldview, save civilians and, in the end, help save the world. It’s an extremely rich arc for these characters, who come from the street and have retained their grounded humanity even as they enhanced it. Pietro died a hero’s death, of course, but Wanda will keep this important perspective on the team.
Let’s apply this theme to the original Avengers, who consistently and with only one exception stand isolated from normal lives. Tony Stark has always been a genius, separated from an average life by excess and billionaire-sized defense mechanisms. Steve Rogers admits that he wanted a normal life back in his home era, but that a “different man” came out the ice, one who is stuck in the past. Just look at the shot Whedon gives us when, after Thor’s departure from the Bartons’ safe house, Steve looks back in the house and freezes outside the door frame. This is a super-allusive shot, hearkening back to the famous final frame of The Searchers, wherein John Wayne played another character who was a product of wartime, and now has no place among the people he has fought for. Bruce Banner is a man so insecure that after the Scarlet Witch artificially induces his South African rampage, a clear case of malevolent influence, he calls it “the real Hulk”; and if it wasn’t clearly evident, Bruce himself states that he can’t have a normal life. Natasha Romanoff learned from her training in the Black Widow program that “she has no place in the world”. Thor is an alien and harbors deep-seated fears as to the damage he can do to those without his power. The only original Avenger who can have a normal life is Clint Barton. His presence grounds the team – he has a wife, and kids who read Jeff Kinney. It’s a normality that all the other Avengers struggle with profoundly.
Tying the bow on this theme, remember the shot panning up from the monument to the shining skyscraper Avengers Tower? Well, guess where the New Avengers facility at the end of the film is located? On. The. GROUND. So we have a payoff to this theme of the divide between the Avengers and “civilians”, and it is integrated beautifully into the screenplay.
Ultron and the Vision
Ultron is created covertly by Tony Stark and Bruce Banner. The Vision is a synthesis of all the Avengers, directly engaging with themes of legacy and parentage. In the case of Ultron, it’s after his creation that he starts resenting his “father” Tony, but also in a strange way emulating him. He’s got the trademark Stark wit and humorous barbs (observe that the omelette joke works as a gag and reflecting something more disturbing). Also, the climax of hordes of Ultron bots terrorizing Sokovia works as a dark mirror of the House Party Protocol climax of Iron Man 3, where a host of automated Iron Man suits arrived to save the day.
By contrast, the Vision comes from the whole team of original Avengers. Tony and Bruce created the framework, you have vibranium which is associated with Steve through his shield, Clint and Natasha act as midair midwives with what is actually called “THE CRADLE”, and Thor quickened the birth with his lightning and gives the Vision its name (not to mention the Vision creating a cape for himself based on Thor’s). Thus, the Vision is a synthesis of the Avengers (guess what the Vision’s life form is called in the comics? A synthezoid). And maybe that’s why the Vision is “good” and Ultron is “evil”. Teamwork versus isolation. The constructed family versus the sequestered megalomania of a scientist thinking he can save the world from his lab. And in the creation of the Vision, Avengers such as Captain America, Black Widow, and the Hulk, who struggle with their inability to have a normal life, now have something whose creation they collaborated on, that they have the grounds to be proud of.
As a final point, contrast the first fully corporeal moments of Ultron and the Vision. The former: on a raised dias, on a throne of sorts, spouting the smug and aggrandizing words of a tyrant – King Lear with pistons. The latter: a poetic and understated moment high above the din of civilization, but making a silent connection. Ultron represents unchecked Avengers-level power, while the Vision declares quietly that he is “on the side of life”. So, two sides of the same coin. Like the tiny detail of showing the audience a sculpture in Seoul, as seen directly below.
The Significance of the New Avengers
The Avengers line-up revealed at the end is amazing. For one thing it’s diverse, with two women, two African-Americans, a synthezoid and only one white male. But the significance of this team runs even deeper on an emotional level. The first Avengers were brought together because they each happened to have exceptional talents or powers. Now look at the new recruits that co-leaders Captain America and Black Widow choose. You have a representation of the good the Avengers can do in a woman who pulled a heel-face turn to their side, and as we’ve established, comes from the ground-level, “civilian” perspective (Wanda Maximoff’s Scarlet Witch); a living embodiment of the positive collaboration of the previous Avengers team (The Vision); and two soldiers who have proved fierce and loyal friends to team members (James Rhodes’ War Machine and Sam Wilson’s Falcon). This team is bound by something more than being Earth’s mightiest heroes, making for a great dynamic. I dearly hope that this Avengers line-up has room to breathe amongst the chaos of Civil War! But in any case, I’d say this constructed family is doing just fine.
Compared to the first Avengers, we are given better character work, more interesting themes, and more organic humor. The first one has more individual crowd-pleasing moments but in my eyes the sequel is richer. I don’t want to rag on the first one because I do love it, but my preference stands. Despite an overlong climax, this film brings it home with great performances and seriously deft writing and direction from Joss Whedon. The film does not feel overstuffed to me since every element serves a thematic purpose, as discussed above. So for those who are invested in these characters, Avengers: Age of Ultron is a gift. 10/10.
P.S. (*POST-CREDITS SPOILERS*): The Thanos reveal was a very underwhelming post-credits scene. It comes off like a pale repeat of the one three years ago; to make matters worse, to this day Thanos has given us next to nothing to latch onto, other than a bit of a wink-wink nudge-nudge to comic fans. Thus far Josh Brolin has played him very middle-of-the-road, with no sign of anything deeper going on. Hopefully Thanos will make more of an appreciable impact in the films leading up to Infinity War, because at this point his status as a Marvel Big Bad has been locked as a fait accompli with no real leg to stand on. I get that the point is to bring him into the foreground later, so my words may mean nothing in a few years – I just didn’t like this post-credits scene.
P.P.S.: Can’t wait for the extended edition later this year. Hopefully this opens the door for similar releases? Like, I dunno, director’s cuts for Iron Man 2 and Thor: The Dark World? In my opinion they need it more than this one.