MC(rev)U Series: Last Minute Reflections

By Martin

Yup, still gives me chills

So here we are, on the eve of probably the biggest movie of the biggest franchise, 4 months and 18 reviews later.  This would have been nearly impossible for me without support from a few good people, but the zenith among them is my friend Nick.  Nick has read every single review, and gave me the most insightful and helpful feedback I’ve ever had. I used that feedback to craft my final drafts, so Nick is directly responsible for whatever semblance of quality I was able to sustain.  The fact that he was able to find the time, patience, and attention to do this is not just remarkable, it’s unbelievable. People like Nick help the rest of us in our darkest moments to believe there is good in the world. If this reminds you of anyone in your life, don’t let them slip away.  This is the kind of person you need to keep around. And if you can’t think of anyone like this, keep your eyes peeled for one. The best advice I can give you in life is: find yourself a Nick.

This experience has been interesting.  I found some new perspectives on movies I thought I knew inside and out.  I had some revelations about characters that show the deep brilliance in the meta-narrative as much as any single story.  I had some laughs, shed some tears, and had more than a few deeply nerdy conversations. The whole Marvel Cinematic Universe is pretty incredible in its ambitious scope, but also in its consistent execution.  The approach taken with these movies has evolved as Marvel’s own success has destroyed their ability to keep doing the same thing. And at every turn, they’ve rolled with the punches and managed to deliver surprises when we thought we knew it all.  There will probably be a time when MCU movies are terrible, but we should try to remember this moment, right here, full of promise and optimism.

As a side note, let me just say that it has been a real pain in the ass trying to avoid info about this movie.  I was in Hall H at Comic-Con last year when they showed a preview of Infinity War, and most of that footage ended up in the above trailer.  And of course, I watched that first trailer. But I’ve been on complete media blackout since, and trying to avoid all the posters, bus ads, billboards, youtube videos, commercials, headlines, tweets, and telepathic projections has not been easy.  You have to wonder, at this point, what good are the ads doing? Has anyone actually not made up their mind about seeing this movie?

A very wise man recently said to me that love is feeling safe.  It may seem flippant to use that term to describe entertainment, but that’s how these movies make me feel.  They are entertaining, affirming, and touching more than a few times. This weekend, hundreds of millions of us will have a shared experience all around the globe, which itself is the culmination of a 10 year shared experience we all have varying levels of participation in.  I take a great amount of comfort in thinking about that. It reminds me of what T’Challa said at the end of Black Panther: “more connects us than separates us.”

It’s kind of a cool thing, when you think about it.

MCU(rev)U Series: Black Panther (2018)

By Martin

Black Panther has the highest domestic gross of any superhero movie.  Not just a solo movie, not just a Marvel movie, but any superhero movie.  That’s a much bigger accomplishment when you consider that it was released in February, a time when studio executives think people don’t go to the movies.  And with critical rating of 96% on Rotten Tomatoes, to say this movie is anything but a runaway success would be insane. That success was for a good reason: it fulfilled a desperate need in cinema.  The movie itself is a statement, but it’s fortified by its own message within the plot, tapping into issues that have been neglected in the popular discourse for too long. Although deeply intertwined, the twin pillars of plot and message worked together to elevate this movie to the level of cultural phenomenon.  The only way I can process them is separately. So get comfortable, this is going to be a long one.

 There won’t even be space to discuss how the badass women of Wakanda were treated as an integral part of the fabric of the country

There won’t even be space to discuss how the badass women of Wakanda were treated as an integral part of the fabric of the country

The Movie

Black Panther is a movie about a prince who must take charge of his kingdom after the death of the king, and when a challenger to the throne arrives with secrets that threaten the integr...hey, wait a minute.  This story may have the same broad strokes as Thor: Ragnarok, but the setting of Wakanda sets the tone and themes apart. Wakanda is an African nation, rich and technologically advanced due to a huge store of vibranium, the most precious substance on the planet.  Historically, whenever valuable natural resources are found in an African country, that country is devastated as colonizers tear it apart to line their pockets, so Wakanda has used their technology to keep their true nature hidden behind the facade of a poor nation.  That facade keeps the country in isolation, which echoes the isolation of the movie from the rest of the MCU, and both must settle their issues before they can join the larger stage. The country’s wealth allows it to provide its people with free education and healthcare, which contribute to the unparalleled unity we see that establish Wakanda as a literal utopia.  In case you need further proof, Wakanda is also jaw droppingly gorgeous, but for the first time in the MCU that beauty is here on Earth, in a country that has a rich culture and history defined by its traditions. Those traditions and ceremonies have guided Wakanda to their immense wealth and prosperity and are so revered that they border on sacred. All traditions must be upheld, even the one that allows certain people to challenge the king for the throne in ritualistic combat.  It’s that same tradition that designates the powers of the Black Panther, who gains superhuman strength and reflexes through an herb that developed due to exposure to vibranium, and augmented with incredible vibranium based technology. Since the Black Panther is a representation of Wakanda, you could almost say that Wakanda itself is the real superhero, making the reveal of Wakanda’s true nature in the end a clever adherence to the MCU’s “no secret identities” policy.

But the guy in the suit isn’t Wakanda, it’s T’Challa, the new king.  As a superhero he is kind of the uber-avenger, with strength that rivals Captain America, technology that rivals Iron Man, powers that rival Thor, and agility that rivals Spider-Man.  As a leader he is unsure of his purpose, and so he surrounds himself with the competing ideologies of different advisors, such as W’Kabi who wants to take their army into the world and fix all the problems but does not want any foreigners in Wakanda, and Nakia whose heart bleeds for the injustices in the world and thinks that Wakanda should use its wealth to help those who suffer.  T’Challa’s perspective begins to come into focus when he learns that he has a lost cousin, Erik Killmonger, whose father, N’Jobu, was killed by T’Challa’s father when N’Jobu betrayed Wakanda by assisting in the theft of vibranium, then threatened the life of another Wakandan. Killmonger was abandoned in the US as a child, and fought his way through the world, picking up training from his time in the Navy SEALs so he could eventually take the throne of Wakanda.  Due to a great performance by Michael B. Jordan, Killmonger is compelling and charismatic, and when he cites the historical and continuous mistreatment of black people worldwide as his motivations, we believe him. He inherited those motivations from his father, N’Jobu, who was planning an armed revolution at the time of his death. N’Jobu’s views were tempered by the love he had for his home, and his wife and child, but Killmonger holds nothing in his heart but pain, obscured by hatred.  He is a villain because he wants to use Wakandan technology to enable oppressed people all over the world to rise up, plunging the world into violence and chaos. T’Challa is forced to answer for for his father’s actions, and while both of them start off beholden to their paternal values, only T’Challa manages to grow out of them when he decides that Wakanda’s isolationist policies are wrong. Given that bringing Wakanda to the world stage was Killmonger’s goal, albeit through different methods, the fact that T’Challa ended up agreeing with him means that, in a way, Killmonger ended up winning.  It even seems that T’Challa is trying to honor Killmonger by building the first ever Wakandan outreach center on the site where N’Jobu was killed.

 There won't even be space to mention what a delightful weirdo Andy Serkis was

There won't even be space to mention what a delightful weirdo Andy Serkis was

This is the story of how Wakanda changed forever, perhaps changing the world forever.  It is downright necessary that this movie be so serious, emulating the dignity of royalty to illustrate the magnitude of the stakes.  It’s not just that this movie is light on jokes; the Cap movies often veer towards serious. It’s not just that the settings and visuals feel foreign; we have seen stories entirely on other planets.  It’s not just that this movie is self contained and singularly focused; we have seen that more often than not. It’s all those things combined with a distinct identity and afrofuturist style that make this movie feel like the least “Marvel” of all the MCU.  Like Thor: Ragnarok, this movie feels like the realization of the singular vision of director Ryan Coogler. The surface story is enjoyable, if not a tad simplistic and predictable, but it's also the sugar used to deliver the medicine. It doesn’t matter that the broad plotting is very similar to Thor: Ragnarok, or that it borrows the “hit the ground running” play from Spider-Man: Homecoming.  The wealth of this movie is in the rich setting, themes, and most importantly content of what it has to say.

The Message

This movie is deeply black, both African and American.  When you consider costume and set design, the predominantly black cast, and the music which is mostly composed of african tribal music and hip hop, that seems a bit obvious.  But the deeper messaging of this movie is inherently tied to the black experience. From his first scene questioning the ownership of african artifacts in the British Museum, Killmonger makes a slew of very compelling arguments.  His vantage point outside of Wakanda enables him to see all the suffering and injustice that led to his father’s acceptance of violence. The suffering Killmonger was subject to generates a sympathy that blurs the lines between hero and villain.  For example, the movie opens with a father telling his child a story about the history of Wakanda, but who was the child listening to that story: T’Challa or Killmonger? Their competing viewpoints evoke the dichotomy between Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, as Killmonger’s thirst for blood reminds us of the militancy attached to Malcolm X.  The humanitarianism of Dr. King is echoed in T’Challa’s decision to bring Martin Freeman’s character back to Wakanda to heal him, which risks the secrecy of Wakanda for the sake of one man’s life. Killmonger is devoid of that human decency as it’s shown he is willing to use any necessary means to accomplish his goal, even killing his woman when she gets in the way.  Like most black people in the US, Killmonger was deprived of a meaningful connection to his heritage, but unlike most black people, the identity he created was one of pure hatred. Killmonger says he wants to liberate oppressed people, but the truth his actions speak is that he really just wants to kill oppressors. He wants to make the world pay for what it did to him, he wants blood and he will not compromise.  In the end, he chooses death over compromise, saying “Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors that jumped from the ships, cause they knew death was better than bondage.”

If nothing else, this movie supplants the primary image conjured by the phrase “Black Panther.”  It could have left it at that, but instead the movie reaches back deliberately to connect to the Black Panther Party by setting the opening scene in Oakland, where the party was founded, and during the LA riots, a manifestation of the struggle of black people against oppression.  Pepper in a few posters of Public Enemy and Huey Newton, and the connection is clear. The militancy of the Black Panther Party obviously connects directly to Killmonger, but that connection falls apart upon closer examination. The symbol of the black panther was chosen by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale because it is a creature of great strength, but will only attack if it is backed into a corner.  The Black Panther Party For Self Defense (its original name) were committed socialists; everyone remembers their militancy, but few remember the free breakfast program, the employment training, the drug and alcohol treatment centers, and the free medical and dental clinics. When you consider the socialist programs of Wakanda, it becomes clear that the figure that best symbolizes the Black Panthers is T’Challa, whereas Killmonger best represents the public perception of the Black Panthers.  His approach is so reckless and threatening that it connects to no real world analog: not Black Lives Matter, not the Black Panther Party, not the Nation of Islam. In fact, the intellectual divide between Dr. King and Malcolm X that we like to imagine was as wide as the Grand Canyon mostly comes down to this: Dr. King and the SCLC were strict adherents to non-violence; Malcolm X was not. They shared most of the same values, and the Nation of Islam was actually more involved in community improvement than the SCLC.  Our collective need to believe in the binary of saintliness and villainy enables us to think of the Black Panther Party as violent revolutionaries when they were mostly a community outreach organization. It’s that same willingness that makes Killmonger seem more real than he is. He connects to pure hate, a way of thinking that everyone agrees is wrong. He is compelling because a lot of what he says reflects on the real world, but Killmonger himself is nothing but a fantasy.

So What, Then?

This is only Ryan Coogler’s third movie, after Fruitvale Station and Creed.  Marvel must have known that he has something to say, and wanted him to say it.  At this moment, Marvel’s reach arguably exceeds any other film franchise; they have the power to deliver a message that people will listen to.  The message against government surveillance in Captain America: The Winter Soldier is marshmallow fluff compared to what Black Panther has to say.  Like Get Out, this is a movie of right now, touching on a variety of painfully relevant topics. Aside from its deeper social messages, it’s also one of the few depictions of African culture that isn’t deeply pessimistic.  The fact that the flight into Wakanda reminded so many people of the Lion King just shows how badly we need new representation of Africa in cinema. Just like the inclusion of Rey in Star Wars makes that franchise more accessible for girls, T’Challa makes the MCU and cinema in general more accessible for a significantly neglected segment of the population.  You don’t need to understand the messaging to enjoy this movie, but it enhances the viewing experience, like an easter egg for real life. The rich culture, the poignant visuals, the strong style, and firm identity make this movie a joy to behold. But the messaging is the reason this movie became a cultural phenomenon, why people who don’t go to the movies came out for this one.  It says something we wanted to hear. This could be the very first important comic book movie.  Even if the plot isn’t all that strong.  4/5

Coming up next: Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

MC(rev)U Series: Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

By Martin

The emergent narrative about Thor: Ragnarok was that the whole franchise needed to be fixed.  Whether or not that was the plan before they brought on Taika Waititi: Professional Weirdo to direct remains unknown, but the fact that audiences loved this movie so much indicates they agree with that emergent narrative.  Thor: Ragnarok was quickly regarded as one of the best movies in the MCU. But as much as I wanted to love it, I can’t help feeling that something is just.... off.

 Off, like Thor's shirt

Off, like Thor's shirt

Thor: Ragnarok is a movie about a prince who must take charge of his kingdom after the death of the king, and when a challenger to the throne arrives with secrets that threaten the integrity of the kingdom, he loses his position, powers, and gets thrown out only to return and reclaim his place as king. Waititi makes this feel new by infusing this story with a peculiar sensibility, pouring in jokes to fill every available gap and layering in a distinctive style that evokes geeky 80s sci-fi fantasy fare like Heavy Metal.  The inclusion of the Hulk is exactly the kind of advantage you get from a rich shared universe, and he is so prevalent that this could be called Hulk’s movie as much as Thor’s. Both Thor and Loki end up on the inhospitable world of Sakaar, where Hulk has been enhulkened for two years and now has the speech patterns and general demeanor of a young spoiled child. Sakaar is ruled by Jeff Goldblum at his highest level of Goldblumousness, and is basically a cosmic garbage dump from which it’s made clear there is no escape. The populace have resigned themselves to hopeless lives of digging through the trash, distracting themselves with the dominant form of entertainment: gladiator fights.  Predictably, this leads to Thor and Hulk going head to head in one of the best sequences of this movie (even if it was spoiled by the trailer) but I kept getting a strong Mojo-World vibe from the whole thing.

His four previous MCU appearances have defined Thor as having a modest dignity gained from his exile to Earth, while dutifully carrying the responsibility of a protector of both Asgard and Earth.  At least that’s what he used to be because from the beginning of this movie he is an oafish buffoon; awkward, vain, constantly cracking wise, and obsessed with his own heroics. Tessa Thompson’s character, Valkyrie, also suffers from an identity crisis, but her problem is weak characterizations.  Valkyrie’s details are clear; she is an Asgardian warrior running from her past by staying hidden at the bottom of a bottle on Sakaar. But aside from a general defensiveness, there isn’t much in her character that tells us what she cares about. Nor are there clear motivations for Hela, our villain du jour.  The movie seems to be telling us that she is a fearsome badass, but it just doesn’t land right. Within minutes of her introduction she destroys Thor’s hammer, defeats both Thor and Loki, and kills the Warriors Three along with the entire Asgardian army. She starts off so completely overpowered that she has nowhere to go, robbing her character of any dynamic.  That might not be a problem if she had clear motivations, but the only thing she seems to care about is revealing Asgard’s warmongering origins, and wanting to conquer shit. Add to that her flippant jokes and posturing like an annoyed diva, and the two mismatched personality traits tear each other down until the character is a thoroughly uninteresting mess. Hulk dodged these kind of problems since there wasn’t much existing character for him beyond a love of smashing, and the childish mannerisms they gave him make for some of the best laughs in the movie.

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The relationship between Thor and Loki has always been a core part of this franchise, and this movie does a good job evolving it in a way that retains its integrity.  By the end of the movie, Thor seems to have forgiven Loki for his misdeeds by accepting him for who he is, not who Thor would like him to be. Loki has the chance to return to the lawless garbage planet where he can thrive, but he chooses to stay with his brother as Thor reluctantly accepts the throne.  It could be that Loki was only looking for acceptance all along, or that he now understands he is unfit to lead, but you can never really tell with Loki. The ending makes a nice capstone to the series, as the first movie was about Thor realizing he is not ready to rule, then the second movie ends with him deciding he doesn’t want to.  Retrospectively, it seems this series was about Thor’s long and winding road to becoming the king of Asgard.

 Whereas some people are just handed the crown

Whereas some people are just handed the crown

The movie seems to only take itself seriously as a compromise and delights in those moments where it can throw the canon to the wind, shedding as much of the Thor mythology as they can get away with.  They start off by wisely dropping Natalie Portman’s character which sharpens the focus of the movie. Then Odin abruptly dies, followed pretty quickly by the destruction of Thor’s hammer and his stranding on Sakaar, where they chop off his hair.  By the end, the entire realm of Asgard has been destroyed and Thor has lost an eye as well. The rebellious nature of the movie extends into the tone, not just with the overflowing jokes I mentioned, but also in the 80s inspired synth heavy soundtrack and the dayglo color scheme amidst the trashiness of Sakaar that puts this movie more in line visually with Guardians than the other Thor movies.  The result is a mass market movie that feels more like the realization of a singular, personal vision rather than a big collaboration. Marvel seems to be taking more risks in letting their filmmakers’ voices shine through, but in this case, it has come at the expense of a well paced story. This movie wastes no time introducing Hela and getting us to Sakaar, but we spend way too much time there.  The story loses momentum for the sake of marveling at the weirdness of its setting, which drains the finale of a critical dramatic tension. The last act has some pretty exhilarating moments, but it feels a bit tacked on to a movie that would have rather stayed on Sakaar. It’s a pretty odd thing to say about a movie that makes such huge sweeping changes to its canon, but the whole thing ends up feeling pretty inconsequential.

 Good point, Rock Monster

Good point, Rock Monster

Thor: Ragnarok is a revolution in the sense that it was popular, flashy, destructive, not well planned, and may lead to something worse.  Every movie in the MCU exists within a continuum, and apart from being individually enjoyable, it must reinforce the shared narrative and identity.  This movie approaches breaking both. But it’s a very fun ride. The offbeat tone is delightful and refreshing, and we get to meet Korg, who steals every scene he is in.  All that fun unfortunately wrings most of the gravitas from this movie as almost every serious moment gets undercut with a flood of jokes that make it hard to feel what the actual stakes are.  I’m conflicted because I really love that they had the courage to take such big risks in the first place. I like the rich tone of this movie, and I like the big changes they made. I just don’t like them together.  3/5

Coming up next: Black Panther (2018)

MC(rev)U Series: Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

By Martin

In 2002, the Spider-Man movie apparently blew everyone’s minds by showing that a superhero movie could be good.  By 2015, everyone agreed that Spider-Man movies were going to suck forever after a failed reboot by Sony assured that Marvel Studios would never get the character rights back.  Somehow Marvel and Sony found a way to play nice and allowed Spider-Man to join the MCU, but what could Marvel make with a character so overexposed and mishandled? The same thing they’ve always made: cinematic gold.

 Uhh... not that kind

Uhh... not that kind

So much of Marvel’s approach to Spider-Man was dictated by the mistakes of previous attempts.  In both previous versions, Spider-Man was the only superhero in the world, but the MCU has already been up and running for nearly a decade, so Peter Parker would have been about 7 or 8 when Loki ripped a hole in the sky and flooded New York with an alien army that the Avengers formed to stop.  His generation grew up in a world where superheroes are a given, and they regard them like rockstars. Being an Avenger is a childhood fantasy for Parker, so when he is in the suit he is having the time of his life and we see that expressed in his relentless motormouth, too excited to stop joking even for a second.  With the casting of Tom Holland, Parker finally looks like a teenager because he is one, and his teenage decision making leads to him repeatedly fucking up in his desperation to be a superhero. Holland plays a bratty child, not an adult with an amused detachment like Tobey Maguire or Andrew Garfield. Marvel Studios vaults expertly over every dull, overdone point of the previous versions; they skip the spider-bite, Uncle Ben’s death, and the “great responsibility” speech since no one needs to see it again.  Instead of having Parker masterfully tailor his own suit, they have Tony Stark make it for him, and use that to solve one of the biggest problems this character brings: the Spider-Man mask.

 Why is THIS  ^^^ such a big fucking deal?

Why is THIS  ^^^ such a big fucking deal?

Before I explain, let me warn you that this is going to get geeky.  You can skip this paragraph if you can’t handle it. Spider-Man is one of the few really popular comic book characters that wears a full face mask.  From the beginning, illustrators would cheat it by making the eyes change from panel to panel, allowing emotion to come through an otherwise expressionless face.  But when it came time to make the movies, they couldn’t have the mask moving around like it was magic. Compound that with the fact that the studio didn’t want their star’s precious face hidden the whole time, and the solution they came up with was to have Parker remove his mask or lose it as much as possible.  It didn’t make sense for someone with a secret identity to keep exposing his face, and this just added to the disbelief we were supposed to suspend. Marvel wisely knew they were going to have to solve this if they were going to bring the best possible Spider-Man to the big screen. As a result of his spider-sense, Parker needs to wear goggles while Spider-Manning to focus his senses, and when Stark decided to build him a suit, he built mechanical apertures over the eyes that can also mimic facial expressions.  It follows that Stark would dump a bunch of hidden extra tech into the suit, and when Parker decides to unlock it all at once to prove he’s not a child, (like a child would), it gets him deeper into trouble. Their solution to the mask problem brought consequences that add to the plot, and fit in perfectly with the character and the universe at large. Whereas Deadpool just decided no one would care and cheated it.

 But according to Jackie Kashian, Deadpool is just Spider-Man for the new generation anyway.

But according to Jackie Kashian, Deadpool is just Spider-Man for the new generation anyway.

Spider-Man is a hero that stays pretty low to the ground.  He is the only hero in the MCU that regularly rides a school bus, and has a unique perspective among the superpowered to see the affect the Avengers have on the lives of everyday people.  As a working class kid with limited resources, he matches up pretty well for the movie’s villain: Adrian Toomes, AKA The Vulture. Michael Keaton knocks it out of the park as Toomes, wielding the quiet intensity of a seasoned actor like a goddamn flaming sword.  Toomes was a blue collar business owner whose livelihood is threatened when aggressive political maneuvering by Tony Stark puts his entire industry of superhero-related clean up under government control. While Civil War recycled the narrative waste of the MCU into an explosive product, Toomes literally recycles the physical waste, stealing alien tech from the Avenger’s fights and building them into black market weapons.  Spider-Man movies always attempted to show Parker failing to balance his two lives, but this movie takes it further by showing him repeatedly failing to keep his identity secret. Toomes is able to figure out who Spider-Man is on his own, but Parker’s carelessness with his mask cause his friend Ned and eventually Aunt May to learn of his big secret. It feels like a wink at Maguire’s and Garfield’s inability to keep their masks on, but it also fits into the MCU tradition of “no secret identities”.  

Given Stark’s role in the foundation of MCU Spidey, it’s pretty reasonable that he would play an important part in this movie, supplanting Uncle Ben as Parker’s default father figure.  Stark is all too happy to let Parker hold him in such high regard, but is too absent to mentor Parker away from his increasingly reckless behavior in his scramble to prove he deserves to be an Avenger.  At least three separate times, Parker’s carelessness with powerful things lead to massive property damage and danger to civilians. After Parker causes the Staten Island ferry to get split in half, Stark swoops in to demand the suit back since Parker has proven he can’t be responsible.  Stark is looking for some kind of redemption after the fallout from Civil War to prove to himself he’s not a shitty person, but the thoroughly shitty job he does mentoring Peter just kind of reinforces his insufficiencies. Peter is so devastated by his failures he walks away from Spider-Man and focuses on putting his personal life back together.  Unfortunately, Spider-Man isn’t done with him, and when he finds out that his date’s dad is The Vulture, he feels it’s his responsibility to stop him since no one else will. Peter learns that it takes more to be a hero than just fighting criminals, so when Tony extends an offer to join the Avengers, Peter understands that he is not ready for that and passes on his childhood dream to stay where he belongs. If you were disappointed this movie did not include the iconic adage, you only have to look into the subtext to see it spray painted in giant letters all over the story. The writers snuck in the “great responsibility” speech as a theme instead of dialogue, and by showing Peter absorbing that lesson as he learns how to actually Spider-Man, they hid the fact that this movie actually IS an origin story. Clever bastards.

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Maybe I was burnt out on Spider-Man when this movie came out, or maybe I was disappointed that this movie lacked the epic scope of recent MCU fare, but for whatever reason, I didn’t really appreciate this movie until recently.  The story is fairly satisfying and there is plenty to like on the surface, but multiple viewings allowed me to see the sheer brilliance with which they reinvented this character. Marvel has again proven they know what they’re doing; they are not too precious with Spider-Man to drop or change whatever they need to make this character work in the MCU.  By deviating from the core components of the mythos, they created a Spider-Man that feels more true to the spirit of the character than any previous attempt. The intricacies of the writing reveal just how intelligently this character and story were reconceived. They nailed it so hard that it’s going to come back to life 3 days later. This is, without question, the best Spider-Man movie that has ever been made.  It’s so good that it comes very close to eradicating the memory of past misfires that weigh this character down. 4/5

Coming up next: Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

MC(rev)U Series: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

By Martin

It’s not going to be easy, but for the sake of this series let’s see if I can find anything to say about Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 that I didn’t cover in my first review of this movie.  Marvel Studios has a definite “Part 2” problem. Only Captain America: The Winter Soldier managed to surpass expectations and be successful by sequel standards. Every other one has fallen victim to the big expectations created by its original.  The first Guardians of the Galaxy was such an unknown quantity that audiences didn’t know how to build expectations, but now the die is cast. When the experience of the first movie evaporated, it left behind a vague longing to recapture those feelings that enchanted us.  Expectations are the enemy of enjoyment, and our expectations for this movie could not have been higher. This is the rock that James Gunn and Marvel have to push up their own personal hill.

 Seriously, this is some motherfucking SORCERY!

Seriously, this is some motherfucking SORCERY!

Guardians of the Galaxy often tops lists about the MCU.  The movie coalesced into a delightful experience, but it’s a tempting mistake to pin its success on the sum of its parts.  The humor, the music, the pop culture references, the lavish style, and likable characters were all instrumental to that movie’s identity, but in this movie it seems the filmmakers are determined to double check every box on the audience wish list, and that sometimes comes off a little pandering.  The humor in particular steps into self-indulgence, but careful handling on the part of the filmmakers keep the jokes focused on the characters in a way that builds our sympathy for them. The movie trips up trying to keep audiences happy as it drives towards it’s emotionally complicated story of resolving the question of Quill’s parentage; the answer to which is so weird that the movie loses momentum trying to hurdle over increasingly bizarre concepts.  Peter’s dad is Ego the Living Planet, a celestial who consists of a giant floating brain that somehow gained the ability to control molecules and used them to construct a planet around him, and then a Kurt Russell-looking human avatar that can travel away from the planet and breed with other species. While the movie does lose a little steam in the set up, it is nearly as fun, funny, and exciting as the first. “Nearly” might be a disappointment for some, but this movie is still charming hell.

 Plus it's just all...

Plus it's just all...

Now onto the emotional crap.  The first movie showed us how the main characters came together as a makeshift family, but this movie showcases how they dysfunction.  Peter Quill chases after Gamora, who clearly loves him but is mature enough to know he cannot sustain a healthy relationship. Meanwhile, Peter is constantly butting heads with Rocket, as Rocket won’t stop acting out as a means of testing how much bullshit the rest of them will tolerate, and keeps himself distant for fear of rejection from his new family.  Drax is the most emotionally open of the group, perhaps because he felt the death of his family was avenged and stopped making that pain stoke his fury, and in keeping with his simple-mindedness, he is constantly bellowing feelings most would keep hidden. He strikes a friendship with the newest member, Mantis, who began as a servant to Ego. Mantis’ ability to sense and manipulate emotion highlights what the crew has been missing: empathy.  They are all covered in rough edges that callously grind away at each other, ignorant of the damage they cause.  And then there is Baby Groot, who the director declared to be the offspring of Groot from the first movie, and that the original Groot is gone forever. Baby Groot provides the lion’s share of laughs and is so overwhelmingly, obnoxiously cute that he plays like a deconstruction of the “Let’s add a kid” trope from 80s sitcoms. Baby Groot might not add much to the story, but how can you hate that face?

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While the focus of the movie shifts across all the members of the Guardians, the majority still lands on Peter Quill.  The end of the first movie showed him finally confronting his mother’s death and stepping into adulthood. Unfortunately, his stunted emotional life has left him terribly unprepared to do so.  The trauma of his mother’s death burned so intensely he never dared to approach it for fear of getting charred, and it’s only when that fire is extinguished that he can notice his abundant stock of daddy issues.  He is defenseless when Ego shows up, and while he would like his friends to join him on his journey of self discovery, he displays a willingness to scrape them off if they get in his way. He has been pining for paternal acceptance since the only previous father figure he had was Yondu, a tough and harsh outlaw.  Yondu’s attempts to be both a nurturing father figure and an ice cold space pirate captain fail spectacularly when his crew get fed up with his leniency on Peter and carry out a mutiny. Losing his captaincy frees Yondu to focus on being a father figure, first with Rocket to break through his fear of rejection, then with Peter as he sacrifices himself so Peter can live.  This comes just in time as Ego reveals his plan to replace all life in the universe with himself, and that he deliberately gave Peter’s mom brain cancer to remain emotionally distant from her, causing Peter to violently reject him. Peter must learn to step out of the emotional trappings of fatherlessness, and become a self-actualized person by defeating Ego (GET IT?). By the end, Yondu has earned his redemption as the movie graces him with a beautiful and touching funeral that tops the one for Thor’s mother.  

For an in depth look at the deep emotional lives of the Guardians, check out this video by one of the best video essayists around, Lindsey Ellis

We expected this to be a bigger, better version of the first movie, not learning our lesson from every other part 2 in the MCU.  This movie has a lot of heavy lifting to do in the narrative, and while the first movie carried its story effortlessly, this movie shows a little strain under the weight.  The filmmakers knew our expectations were high and tried to meet them while delivering the stealth attack of this movie: the emotional punch. Loving these characters opens us up to experiencing their pain, and there is plenty to experience here.  The ending of this movie left me sobbing like I had just watched Marley and Me after half a bottle of rosé.  If you were only open to a movie that could beat its predecessor in spectacle, this movie was probably a disappointment.  But if you are willing to check your expectations at the door, you’d find a real emotional journey that could leave you moved.  Also, it could have used more Steve Agee. 4/5

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Coming up next: Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

MC(rev)U Series: Doctor Strange (2016)

By Martin

Appropriately named, Doctor Strange is an oddity.  In the comic books, he is the most powerful practitioner of magic on Earth, frequently travelling to other dimensions and planes of existence other characters aren’t aware of.  Various movie studios have been trying to make a movie based on him since the mid 80s, far before there was ever an MCU. While the very fabric of the MCU has been rooted in plausibility, Doctor Strange’s adventures tend to veer towards the irrational, mystic, and extra-dimensional.  Adding him to this world means finding a place in this rational universe for a litany of extra crazy ideas, and finding a way to make them palatable for mainstream audiences. Doctor Strange’s deep end craziness cannot threaten the established integrity of the MCU.

Just like Ant-Man this movie is a genuine origin story, showing Strange’s journey from a conceited neurosurgeon whose hands get mangled in a car accident, to mastering the “mystic arts”; the MCU’s version of magic.  One of the few unwritten rules in the MCU is that there is no true magic, so the filmmakers declare that sorcerers draw their power from other dimensions. This explanation feels just deep enough to allow people to not think about it, but it does seed the ground for the definitively comic-book idea of the “multiverse”, a seemingly infinite number of alternate universes that is most frequently used to introduce alternate versions of known characters.  While the sorcerers take themselves very seriously, co-opting the stylings of vague asian mysticism and the solemnity that goes with it, the movie doesn’t let that get in the way of the fun we expect from an MCU movie; provided here in the form of jokes and jaw dropping visuals. This movie is a feast for the eyes, best enjoyed on the largest possible screen you have access to. The visuals are the primary method they use to drop these crazy-ass concepts on us, making the most outlandish sights full of meaning and importance.  From the first scene, this movie is eager to show off the strength of its visuals, borrowing from Inception and The Matrix to take reality-bending to new heights. Incredible visuals collide with the multiverse concept when Strange meets The Ancient One, the current sorcerer supreme who teaches and leads a group of sorcerers, and as a means of shattering Strange’s limited worldview, sends him crashing through the most batshit insane sequence ever included in a comic book movie, which the filmmakers dubbed the “Magical Mystery Tour:”

The casting of Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One became a point of contention since the character is depicted in the comics as an old asian man.  Personally, I find it funny that Marvel’s attempt at dodging a racist asian stereotype drew claims of Hollywood whitewashing. I don’t think there is another actor on the planet capable of appearing as peculiar as a bald Tilda Swinton, looking like an albino lizard.  To compound the weird face quotient, the title role of Doctor Strange is played by Benedict Cumberbatch, doing his best American accent while trying not to sound too much like Dr. House. He is an arrogant genius who wisecracks his way through a journey of self discovery while developing a new power, and if you think that sounds a bit like Tony Stark, you’re definitely not the first.  But where Stark is supremely intelligent, Strange is instead very talented and that makes him somehow more arrogant than Stark. That might lead you to think this story would head towards Strange learning humility, but his ego is only broken down enough to get over his self pity from his damaged hands, and then his preternatural talent with the mystic arts builds his ego back up. Doctor Strange is not supposed to be humble, he is supposed to be the most powerful sorcerer on Earth, charged with protecting the entire planet from mystical threats.  Hopefully, on his journey to becoming that, which is not reached by the end of this movie, he will learn the Ancient One’s final lesson: “It’s not about you.”

 Mrs. Swinton, they're ready for you on set.

Mrs. Swinton, they're ready for you on set.

Sorcerers existed long before the Avengers formed, and just like Ant-Man did, this movie has to justify why no one knows about them.  Most of the action in this movie takes place in other dimensions or otherwise removed completely from public view. The climax, which has the entire planet and perhaps even the entire universe being consumed by an entity from another dimension is simply rewound by Strange through the use of time manipulation made possible by an artifact called The Eye of Agamotto, another Infinity Stone in hiding.  It’s a refreshing change from the usual punchy-kicky method of problem solving in the MCU to see Strange using his intellect and newfound skills to trick the big bad into leaving on his own. But given that it’s such an important part of the plot, it’s a little surprising to find that this movie, and by extension the MCU, does not really take a strong stance on the causality of time. They give indications of both uncertainty and fatalism in the future, but mostly leave the question unasked and unanswered.  

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This movie unfolds slowly because it has a lot to introduce.  Much like Ant-Man there is an adherence to a more traditional comic book movie structure, and likewise, this makes it feel more like a Phase 1 movie.  There is a lot this movie does better than others, mainly the introduction of the multiverse, and visuals unparalleled not just within the MCU, but anywhere in cinema.  Unfortunately, those highlights don’t affect the narrative in any meaningful way and the story we are left with is just average. This is a perfectly serviceable Marvel movie; fun, funny, interesting, and exciting.  But the experience contained within the confines of the actual run time is not as exciting as the possibilities these concepts and characters bring with them. I’d love to see where they go from here. 3/5

Coming up next: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

MC(rev)U Series: Captain America: Civil War (2016)

By Martin

Captain America: Civil War is the thirteenth movie in the MCU, but it’s the very first that requires having seen at least some previous MCU movies in order to get it.  If you don’t already have an understanding of the relationship between Cap, Bucky, and Stark, large portions of this movie will be lost on you. This is also the first time I will actively warn about plot **SPOILERS**.  If you haven’t yet seen this movie and want to, stop reading this. After twelve previous movies, this seems to be the first that wants to grab maturity with both hands. The conceit of these movies from the beginning has always been “what if these heroes really existed in our world?”  Now the Russo brothers are bringing that idea around to show the real world consequences of their superheroics.

 If we go by the "Cap's Shield" rule of tone setting, what the fuck is this trying to say?

If we go by the "Cap's Shield" rule of tone setting, what the fuck is this trying to say?

As explained by Secretary Ross (formally General Ross from The Incredible Hulk), the governments of the world are no longer willing to tolerate the freewheelin’ antics of the Avengers and want to put them under the authority of the U.N.  Up till now, the sobering idea of civilian casualties and property damage has either been completely ignored or treated as an afterthought, but the filmmakers very brilliantly take what has basically been an inert byproduct of these movies and turn it into rocket fuel, an idea so volatile it could only end in catastrophe.  Because of the damage they cause every time they fight, the Avengers must place themselves under government control or be criminals. To enhance the energy of this movie, most of the action is grounded in physical fights between people, allowing a large portion of the action to be captured in camera and imparting a realism that is just far more engaging.  This also allows the action to do a little character work as most of the fighters have a distinct style that showcases their personality, but none so much as Cap and Bucky. These two fight so well together that it is like watching a ballet on fast forward, which just highlights how they are basically two sides of the same character. Given that there is a full egg carton of heroes in this story, it is remarkable that every single one of them was characterized justly.  Ant-Man was utilized to deliver some great laughs and huge moments, but the gold star of this movie belongs to Spider-man. His inclusion was as close to a miracle you can get while making a superhero movie, and the character brings the baggage of two previous on screen versions spanning five films. Against all odds, they managed to get this character so completely right, every previous attempt feels like fan fiction. Spider-man and Ant-man are two examples of the way this movie packs in these explosive story elements that all detonate in the big brawl at the airport.  This is the biggest, best realization of the meeting of superpowered individuals that fulfills wishes we didn’t know we had. It is expertly crafted to get hearts pounding and minds engaged through a steady escalation of story within the action itself. It’s just….. everything….. so hard……..

 Plus, there's this.  You'll never convince me this isn't magic.

Plus, there's this.  You'll never convince me this isn't magic.

The airport scene is this movie’s zenith of entertainment.  The fight ends with an escalation that has lasting consequences and guides the story down a darker and more serious path.  The looming threat has been the promise of 5 other winter soldiers being unleashed on the world, each of them more deranged and powerful than Bucky.  Flashbacks to a mission Bucky completed in 1991 have laid the groundwork for this, showing him stealing the five IV packs used to make those winter soldiers.  So we are primed to be fooled when we see that the villain, Zemo, has killed the other winter soldiers in their cryogenic chambers and reveals his true purpose: to tear The Avengers apart by showing Tony that the mission from 1991 ended with Bucky killing both of Tony’s parents, forcing Cap to defend Bucky from Tony.  From here, there truly is no going back.

 No, seriously, Tony.  Go back to therapy.

No, seriously, Tony.  Go back to therapy.

This movie features 10 existing superheroes and introduces 2 new ones.  That’s 3 more than were in Age of Ultron, but this movie feels focused and personal while Age of Ultron felt overstuffed and adrift.  The Russo brothers managed this by paring down the focus of this movie to Captain America first, and Tony Stark second, allowing all the other heroes to fall back into supporting roles.  It’s like they know exactly where our minds are, what we expect, and what we want. This movie goes further than I thought it would, starting with the toughest issue any superhero movie could face, and then keeps pushing.  It’s more serious than the last few recent MCU movies, but given the stakes here, any more levity would have damaged the dramatic tension. The humor that is here seems to come from the combination of fantastic elements with mundane ones, like seeing Vision looking like a pig wearing lipstick in his J. Crew outfit, or the rivalry between Bucky and Falcon for Cap’s friendship.  The movie remains charming without jokes, while displaying the other side of the Marvel Identity: an ironclad integrity in the story and shared universe.

It’s pretty incredible that the MCU has slowly evolved Captain America and Iron Man to the point where they now take viewpoints opposite of those they started with and it feels so natural we don’t question it at all.  We care so much about them because they feel like real people we know as we have been watching them evolve from movie to movie. The conflict between these two guys boils down to Socialism vs. Libertarianism; Cap has been betrayed too many times for him to submit to anyone else’s authority, while Tony’s repeated failures of judgement combined with his anxiety of the unknown make it a natural step for him to want someone else to ultimately be responsible for their actions.  Tony is dressing up his selfishness as altruism, saying that the Avengers need a check to their power when he is really trying to fight his own guilt, while Cap is being specifically selfish in his desire to be free from external control in a way that is altruistic. The filmmakers managed to get me, a liberal with socialist leanings, to identify with the libertarian. That’s how you know, despite including so many other heroes, this really is a Captain America movie.

 And they even managed to fit in a callback to the first Cap movie that is perfect for this scene, the character, and the movie?  GODDAMN!!

And they even managed to fit in a callback to the first Cap movie that is perfect for this scene, the character, and the movie?  GODDAMN!!

I don’t want to see any more truly solo MCU movies.  The universe is now so big and crowded, it doesn’t make sense for any of them to operate alone.  This movie should set the standard for every sequel from here on out: they should be big, they should have multiple heroes involved, and they should make important and lasting changes to the shared universe.  Superhero movies have been toying with maturity ever since The Dark Knight in 2008, but up till this point the MCU has been focused on delivering child-like wonder to adults. While that does work, I would love to see more of this kind of maturity and evolution from the MCU.  I want these movies to be smart, well written, and well executed. I want the MCU to twist and turn into places I didn’t think they would go. I want to silence my criticism, deny my pessimism, and be taken on a journey. I want what this movie delivered, again and again. 5/5

Coming up next: Doctor Strange (2016)

MC(rev)U Series: Ant-Man (2015)

By Martin

While the last origin movie in the MCU was technically Guardians of the Galaxy, it was so materially unconventional it seems unfair to call that an origin story.  That would make the last origin movie in the series Captain America: The First Avenger, way back in the first phase of the MCU. Just like every other aspect of a film franchise, the existence of The Avengers makes it difficult to do a simple origin story.  This story needs to be anchored in the existing world, and the character needs a solid reason for not being present up till this moment.

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In Ant Man, this is accomplished through figure of Hank Pym, the original Ant-Man as played by Michael Douglas.  He invented the Pym Particle, some logically inconsistent technology, and used that to become Ant-Man for SHIELD when we was younger, a hero that can become the size of an ant.  Now, he is a paranoid old kook, shrinking into secrecy due to a history of being wronged by SHIELD and Howard Stark. He retreated into a small life that includes only himself and his company, which he has been ousted from.  He has a strained relationship with his daughter, much like the younger man he recruits to be the new Ant-Man. The man he recruits is Scott Lang, played by Paul Rudd, a divorced ex-con thief who is struggling to get back on his feet and have a relationship with his daughter. This movie quickly delves into the heist genre, as Scott makes it clear from the beginning that he chooses to shrink from violence.  This is a pretty big change from most superhero movies that have the heroes relying on their might to succeed. While there is a bigger sense of humor in this movie, perhaps growing from the fact that Adam McKay and Paul Rudd rewrote the script after the departure of Edgar Wright, there aren’t quite as many laughs as Guardians or Avengers. This is a very small movie, scaling down from the scope of the MCU to be perhaps the most self contained.  There are references made to the Avengers and the events in Sokovia, and SHIELD and Stark play a role in the foundation, but the story operates in a pretty compact space. The small stakes are a little artificially enlargened by declaring the technology behind the Ant-Man suit a danger to the world if it got out, but compared to what we have already seen in the MCU, this movie operates under a microscope.

 This is also the first time they used the CGI de-aging technique, which is SORCERY, I TELL YOU!!!!

This is also the first time they used the CGI de-aging technique, which is SORCERY, I TELL YOU!!!!

Ant-Man doesn’t do much to expand the MCU beyond the introduction of the Quantum Realm, a plane of existence below the atomic level and hasn’t yet come into play. The goofiness of the premise defines the light tone of this movie, from the gleeful sociopathy of the villain to the silliness of the ants-as-allies concept.  Paul Rudd’s specific comedic style plays perfectly in this movie, and rightfully so since he was involved in the writing. This movie is as full of quirks as Guardians and illustrates the Marvel Identity I previously discussed, but with a unique visual style that really brings to life the experience of being tiny. Multiple viewings helped me to understand that this is supposed to be a small story and allowed me to enjoy it for what it is: a Marvel movie colored with the shades of a heist movie. The biggest problem with this movie is the logic behind the Pym particle being massively inconsistent, but the movie compensates for that with superficial explanations.  As long as you don’t make it a big deal, it all makes enough sense to follow the story. And the story is the pleasing part here, it is the engine that drives the likeability of these characters and the movie’s unique humor.

 I mean, c'mon...

I mean, c'mon...

I don’t understand the studio’s choice to make this the last movie of Phase 2 instead of Age of Ultron.  This is an odd low point in the MCU’s trajectory, not because it misses its mark, but because of its small ambitions.  It’s a grounded story that would fit snugly in the beginnings of the MCU, exceptional only because its introduction of the Quantum Realm, and successful only by virtue of its sizable charm.  Ant-Man is fun, funny, and interesting, but it might have been a better fit when the stories were smaller, instead of being a contrast of the epic scale of the MCU. 3/5

Coming up next: Captain America: Civil War (2016)