Tag Archives: Marvel

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.

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?

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?

Black Panther (2018) Film Review

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.

T'Challa

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.

Wakanda

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.

Erik 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.

Nakia Shuri

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.

Veldt

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.

Panther-on-Panther Fight

Maybe Hulk vs. Abomination looks worse. Maybe.

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.

2017: A Spoof Odyssey – Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 as Whoopee Cushion with a Heart

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.

Gamora Baby Groot Hi

“Hi!”

– 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.

Guardians of the Galaxy

Pre-pratfall.

– 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.

Nebula

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.

Gamora Big Gun

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.

Peter Quill

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.

Ego

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”.

Ego's Planet

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.

Look-Alikes:

Aleta Ogord Hela

Michelle Yeoh as Aleta Ogort = Cate Blanchett as Hela? Aleta even says, “Hell yes.”

Martinex Night King

Martinex = The Night King from Game of Thrones?

Doctor Strange (2016) Film Review

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.

stephen-strange-trip

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.

doctor-stephen-strange

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.

doctor-strange-magic

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.

karl-mordo

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!).

kaecilius

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.

kaleidoscope

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.

strange-mordo-citybending

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.

doctor-christine-palmer

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.

ancient-one-spirit

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’…”

cloak-of-levitation

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.

Franchise Flashback – X-Men (2000)

2000’s X-Men is an important film. While Blade creaked the comic book movie door ajar, X-Men blew it off its hinges. A great financial success at the time, it directly led to greenlights for Spider-Man, Hulk, and Daredevil, and generally signaled a new era for the superhero film. (The next paradigm shift: Batman Begins.) Additionally, the franchise that grew out of the original film can boast incredible longevity – the multiplex-ruling Marvel Cinematic Universe has only been around half as long. From 2000 to 2016, the X-franchise is still going strong (-ish), with the same continuity (-ish). Of course, the timeline is tortured within an inch of its life to accommodate this, but that doesn’t invalidate it – no true reboot has wiped the slate clean. And with X-Men: Apocalypse currently wandering its way out of theaters, we can look back on the film that started it all. Much and more came from X-Men, but what’s the deal with it? Does it hold up? Is it special in itself, beyond its place in film history?

01 Statue of Liberty

Liberty and Laser Beams

The X Factor: A Comic Book Film About Something

I think X-Men is special, because this is a superhero movie with ideas, fully aware of the potential social commentary inherent in its source material. It paints simplistically, in broad strokes, but elegantly. It feels small-scale but full-bodied, and it takes storytelling risks. I mean, the damn thing opens on a concentration camp. The main characters being mutants, discriminated against by “normal” people, gives the screenplay the opportunity to use this as a catchall allegory. Any feared or shunned group of people can find familiar themes at work in the world of the film. No doubt the concept spoke to director Bryan Singer, who is openly gay.

02 Death Camp

The opening fifteen minutes or so is a dizzying tour of everything that works about the film. We open on the villain’s backstory as a Jew separated from his parents in a Nazi death camp, establishing Erik Lensherr/Magneto’s (Ian McKellen) motivation. Then, straight into Marie/Rogue (Anna Paquin) traumatically discovering her power – it’s hard puberty imagery, adding another layer to the film’s relatability. Next comes the Senate committee scene, giving a potted sociopolitical overview of the stigma around mutants. And as the cherry on top, we proceed to a dynamite scene between Erik and Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) commenting on humanity, flaunting the incredible acting talent on hand. This is all in the opening salvo of the film! It’s a great statement of purpose.

03 Charles

This desire for meaningfulness is not forgotten afterward, as the finale takes place on Ellis and Liberty Islands in New York, these loaded symbols of the immigrant experience. Speaking of loaded images, a young mutant walks on water with his power. And another fun and unique thing is that the X-Men superheroes themselves are professors. There’s a great moment when their X-Jet takes off from the school and the students look up in awe. Give Ms. Grey an apple.

04 Jean Grey

The People Behind the Powers

So the overall scheme of the film is unique and meaningful, but your X-Men movie also needs some X-Men, so let’s talk characters. The duo of Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and Rogue provide an excellent outsider’s view of the X-Men and Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters. Logan’s more feral side is contrasted well by his tender elder-brother-like relationship with Rogue, and their relationship is central to the arc of the film. And Logan’s adamantium claws are a cool power and all, but they are brought down to earth and a human level when he says as an aside that every time they come out, they hurt.

05 Logan and Rogue

That idea is mirrored in Erik’s eeeevil plan, as his use of the mutant-creating device hurts him terribly. The strength of his convictions outweighs his regard for personal safety. Ian McKellen’s characterization instantly makes Erik an all-timer comic book movie villain, and his antagonistic yet respectful relationship with Charles is the entire franchise’s not-so-secret weapon. Each of the three scenes the two share in this film are brilliant, leaving the audience wanting more. The first posits the two as aloof observers of humanity, Erik the cynic and Charles the optimist. (In a different Marvel universe, this exact dynamic plays out in the brief gem of an exchange between Ultron and the Vision.) Their second scene is the train station showdown, a compelling setpiece where the two generals are buffeted by a force of cops, with a complicated human argument at its core. And the third scene is iconic, two old rivals sharply musing over a game of chess.

06 Chess*

But not everyone in the cast is given attention. The weak link is ironically the main X-Men trio of Scott Summers/Cyclops (James Marsden), Ororo Munroe/Storm (Halle Berry), and Jean Grey (Famke Janssen). Scott… is a plank of wood. And he refers to himself as “a boy like me”? What? Ororo doesn’t have an accent, until she does, more than halfway through the film. Jean’s “romance” with Scott is downplayed to make room for a forced attraction with Logan. So it’s not a great showing for the flagship X-Men. A shame, because most of the characters work a charm.

07 X-Men

Is there a Script Doctor in the House?

Most fans of Joss Whedon know that he was brought in to punch up the third act of X-Men, that he went above and beyond the call of duty with a complete pass on the screenplay, and that only a few of those beats were retained in the finished film. And let me tell you, those Whedon-y lines stick out like sore thumbs. “This certainly is a big, round room.” “You’re a dick.” But of course, the most infamous is Storm’s one-liner, “You know what happens when a toad gets struck by lightning? The same thing that happens to everything else.” Halle Berry spectacularly misread the line, proclaiming it grandly rather than throwing it away. This sounds silly, but if I could change one thing about the film, that might be it.

08 Storm

X-Kitsch

There’s a lot of silly stuff in X-Men. While some of the action has a low-budget elegance to it (especially the way the powers flow into each other in the train station fight), other elements haven’t aged well – blobby Y2K CGI, for one. But other things just need to be preserved as weird little, did-you-see-that moments: The way Toad’s super-jump just crushes a dude into a puddle of mush on the ground! The adamantium middle finger! The look on Logan’s face as he rides Scott’s motorcycle! Mystique morphing from Bobby to her natural state, lingering on a hybrid of the two! Ray Park as Toad referencing his role as Darth Maul in Star Wars Episode I – The Phantom Menace! The takeaway is that while X-Men is dealing with weighty themes, it’s also a movie where Toad can spit dumb Nickelodeon green gunk at Jean Grey.

09 Sabretooth

… and where Sabretooth can look like this

Drawing a Line to the Apocalypse

The original film’s Cerebro sequence is still a great effect, prefiguring the IMAX theaters that are showing 2016’s X-Men Apocalypse today. The latest X-offering is at once an inert and busy film, and one thing it’s juggling is putting a bow on the entire franchise. As such, the original X-Men is explicitly referenced several times (the concentration camp, the mutant cage fight, Charles’ baldness explained just like Rogue’s white streak was, a direct quotation of the “great swell of pity” exchange). And looking back on the original with the knowledge of eight subsequent movies yields enough inconsistencies to fill a whole other essay (that Mystique voice modulator!).

10 Erik

But most of all, reflecting on the first X-Men solidifies its status as not just a prelude of better things to come, but as quite a strong movie in its own right. After seeing the franchise move the Golden Gate Bridge, travel decades in time, and resurrect an Egyptian god, it’s refreshing to rewind to this one humble tale of “the not too distant future”. The 2000 film has a great lo-fi charm to it, while at the same time being lent gravitas by McKellen and Stewart’s war of wills. It holds up not just as a curiosity, but also as a well-told story of mutants and morals.