Friday, 22 June 2018

Nic's Sticky Notes (feat Mike Orvis): A Wild Writhe

Nic here!

Yesterday we arrived back from Disneyland to find the magic had followed us home. Not only had some elves left an amazing wizard hoodie for me under the bushes, but a great and rousing battle anthem had been composed by the Mighty Mike Orvis in honour of my latest circuit around the Sun.

So, let's wind back a bit.

Those of you who read my Facebook posts may remember that a while ago I enquired as to who else amongst my friends fills the bath with too many bubbles then writhes about pretending to be the World Serpent Jörmungandr in the foamy seas of Ragnarok.

Not many, as it turned out - but Rainbow Wrangler Yel Zamor gets into the skin of an ice dragon of the glacial northern seas and writer Richmond Clements likes to emerge from the shower in the style of the Terminator.

Suddenly, into my head pops Iggy Pop's Passenger but as "I'm a Jörmungandr and I writhe and I writhe..."

Encouraged by the positive reaction to my nonsense I then substituted the rest of the lyrics in while on the bus to work the next morning.

And now, magnificently, Mike has recorded it.

Jörmungandr: Words by Nic Wilkinson and music by Mike Orvis (with thanks to Iggy Pop)

Here are the lyrics if you want to wave your tail in the air like you just don't care and roar along.

I'm Jörmungandr
And I writhe and I writhe
I writhe round Midgard on all sides
I see the wolf come out of the sky
His fangs are bright in a hollow sky
You know it looks so good tonight

I'm a Midgardsormr
Not as light as a cat
I give Thor's ox head bait a good bite
I see Hymir pale with fright
I hear the Gyallarhorn's hollow cry
Over the bifrost's rip in the sky
And everything looks good tonight
Roarin', ra, ra, ra, ra, rararara
ra, ra, ra, ra, rararara
ra, ra, ra, ra, rararara
rara

Get into the war
We'll be the Jörmungandr
We'll writhe round Yggdrasil tonight
Lick the torn gods' ripped insides
We'll see the light fade from their eyes
We'll see the fires that burn so bright
The fight was made for us tonight

Oh the Jörmungandr
How how he writhes
Oh the Jörmungandr
He writhes and he writhes
He looks through the shadow
What does he see?
He sees Fenrir devour the sky
He sees the brightest fall into night
He sees the Aesirs' ripped insides
He sees his dripping teeth like knives
And everything was razed for you and me
All of it was razed for you and me
'Cause it just belongs to you and me
So let's take a writhe and see what's mine
Roarin', ra, ra, ra, ra, rararara
ra, ra, ra, ra, rararara
ra, ra, ra, ra, rararara
rara

Oh, the Jörmungandr
He writhes and he writhes
He sees the gods' twilight
He looks through his gleaming eye
He sees his poison slowly drip
He sees Thor take nine steps and die
He sees Asgard empty at night
He sees the gods cast out tonight
And all of it is yours and mine
And all of it is yours and mine
Oh, let's writhe and writhe and writhe and writhe
Roarin', ra, ra, ra, ra, rararara
ra, ra, ra, ra, rararara
ra, ra, ra, ra, rararara
rara
Roarin', ra, ra, ra, ra, rararara
ra, ra, ra, ra, rararara
ra, ra, ra, ra, rararara
rara

Laters, babysnakes!

Follow Mike Orvis on Twitter at @The_Dark_Mike



Sent from my Samsung Galaxy smartphone.

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

Approaching Infinity Part Nineteen: Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

After 10 years of build-up, Infinity War is upon us...

AND I
HAVE
QUESTIONS!

An obligatory caution up-front. This post contains discussion of Avengers: Infinity War - a movie I was shocked to discover is composed ALMOST ENTIRELY OF SPOILERS FOR AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR!

The Villain
Well, Doom and Galactus are still over in Fox-land, so who's next on the Marvel Big Hitters list? Honestly, if you'd asked the random MCU appreciator in the street to name the top villains in the comics, you'd probably have to work your way through a bunch before you found someone who even knew who Thanos was. Then again, back in 2008 hardly any non-comics people (we call you Mundanes) could have picked Iron Man out of a line-up, so those considerations seem pretty trivial now. Anyway, Thanos is what we've got - and they did a Hell of a job with him. There's no Evil Shadow shit to wade through here, since no one even operates on Thanos' plane. There's just nothing to compare him with. Each of his henchcreatures alone could have served as the primary bad guy of any other MCU story in terms of raw threat level.

So, yeah - Thanos is solid. His overall plan, though... well, let's just say I have a couple of queries:

1) The global human population alone has literally doubled from 3.8 billion to 7.6 billion in the time I've walked the Earth. If your grand scheme is to wipe out half of all life, wouldn't you have to do it all again every few decades or so?

2) I guess we're talking about sentient life, here. Are we also wiping out half of all dogs? Insects? Bacteria? I mean, how far does this go? Aren't they consuming the universe's resources, too? I didn't see any trees or grass blades ashing at the end of the film, so I guess plant life is okay - but edge-cases like Groot arguably got royally shafted on that score.

3) You've got a Reality Stone and a Time Stone, giving you ultimate power over essentially everything. Doesn't deciding that there's no more efficient way of restoring balance than to wipe out 50% of all life seem like an almost comical failing in imagination?

4) Is there actually any evidence that the universe's resources are in any kind of short supply? Even if there were, and even without the limitless powers of the Infinity Gauntlet, was there really no prospect of a political or economic solution?

5) Wouldn't severing Thanos' arm in a Sling Ring portal and locking the rest of him in the Mirror Dimension have cut the Infinity War short about an hour earlier? Come to that, couldn't Strange have just decapitated the Mad Titan the moment he showed up?

The Story
...is sort of incidental, by this point. Thanos is here, he's collecting Infinity Stones and he's going to wipe out half of all life. There's basically nothing we can do to stop him. The end of Thor: Ragnarok gets basically Alien 3'd, Thor gets a new eye and weapon (despite recently realising that he needed neither) and Pepper Potts is back to being the twittering fun-vacuum she was in the first Iron Man. Never mind; I'm sure it'll all work out in the... oh.

The Universe
This is another MCU episode that takes a lot more than it gives. The Asgardians species is basically gone. Loki is finally dead, along with Heimdall and God knows who else. Every Avenger who joined after the first big team-up is supposedly out of the picture. How we're supposed to feel about that is questionable, given the number of the dead heroes with upcoming solo outings announced. Still, though, we're not punched in the feels by Spider-Man's death because we think it's permanent. We're punched because it's a beautifully crafted scene with a ton of emotional weight behind the blow.

To be fair, I'd add that Marvel still has a tough time earning some of the shots it takes. We're constantly asked to care about relationships that have never been convincingly established, from Black Widow/Bruce Banner to Scarlet Witch/Vision. A lot of that stuff feels rushed to me.

A couple more questions, while we're picking at threads here:

6) I know; I've griped about this before - but I REALLY don't get how languages work in the MCU. For reasons that go eternally unexplained, every species and every creature in the universe speaks English except for Groot. Groot's language is taught on Asgard, and several other characters are able to understand it, but no one can actually speak it except Groot himself. Starlord has a translator implant (which he clearly doesn't need since everyone else uses English well enough for no one on Earth to need one when dealing with aliens) - but Groot's tongue is uniquely immune to it. It just bothers me, okay? I'm allowed to be bothered by things. It doesn't make me a bad person.

7) Where does the new Iron Man armour's mass come from? We've let Hulk's size changes slide for ages, and we've accepted that older Iron Man suits can be slung around in a briefcase. This new nano-gear, though, either stores 800lbs of metal atoms in a fist-sized medallion or basically conjures them out of thin air.

8) Where the fuck are Korg and Valkyrie?!

Anyway, moving on.

The Stinger
Always good to see Nick Fury back in the game, albeit briefly. You kinda have to recognise Captain Marvel's symbol to feel the impact of this scene, though. Judging from the reaction in the cinema, pretty much no one got it and most left the theatre on a bemused shrug instead of a white-knuckle fist-pump.

The Take-Away
Infinity War is a really solid film by most standards. It's easily in the top tier of MCU efforts for me and, for whatever this means in the real world, makes a decent case for itself as Best Superhero Film Ever. A lot is going to depend on the follow-through, though. Almost by definition, the next Avengers flick is going to have to spend much of its runtime unpicking Infinity War to mitigate the damage it did. That's a tough trick to pull off, and I'm excited to see how they tackle it.

Previously: Black Panther

Friday, 27 April 2018

Approaching Infinity Part Eighteen: Black Panther (2018)


So... I guess I really don't understand vibranium at all.

I mean, it's incredibly strong and supposedly absorbs all vibrations - except when it clearly doesn't do that. It also makes cities fly somehow, heals bullet wounds, blows up cars and can't be synthesised by a man who - and I can't stress this enough - RECENTLY INVENTED WHOLE A NEW ELEMENT!

By the way, this is a really, really good film.

The Villain
Ouch - we're right back into slaughtering the villains territory with Black Panther. In this case it's a major shame, as Killmonger is one of the most persuasively realised antagonists of the whole MCU. It's like - he's not even wrong, really. He's just a bit murdery about the whole business. His grand scheme meanders a bit between giving oppressed people the tools to overthrow the systems holding them down and all-out world domination. Still, he's ex-CIA so he's probably used to a bit of "mission creep". There's really no getting away from the Evil Shadow angle in this flick, of course. Still, when it's done this well there's not much to complain about.

We also get a lot more Klaue, which is a positive delight. But yeah - we were wise not to get too attached there. The sonic arm cannon is fun but, given that this is it for the character, it's a weak echo of the supervillain they could have shot for.

The Story
We get a lot of information dumped on us at the outset of Black Panther, but it all pays off. Killmonger and Klaue have what amounts to a mini-movie of their own together, while T'Challa swings wildly between full-on Bond adventure and more-civil-war-than-Civil-War political epic. It's a concentrated blast of a story, building up and battering down relationships in quick succession. No one's 100% in the right and no one's 100% vindicated. Everyone significant grows and learns, and where we end up is somewhere very different from where we started.

The Universe
Okay, there's a lot to wade through here, as we're basically adding a whole new history, culture and mythology to the MCU in this film. Anyway, Wakanda itself is a significant contribution to the evolving universe - so much so that it's almost impossible for future films not to continue to address it overtly. There's definitely a pre-Black-Panther MCU and a post-Black-Panther MCU.

Shuri's a particularly intriguing addition to the roster. At first glance, she's almost too smart for the room. That is, she's already doing stuff that the top established MCU minds couldn't even dream of. The thing is, though, we're going to need that pretty soon. Even after the Thanos kerfuffle settles down, we're probably looking at a cast rotation that could easily see some of those top-level genius characters getting shuffled out. The universe is still going to need super-genius science heroes and inventors after RDJ sods off.

I still have a problem with vibranium, though. Those all-purpose kimoyo beads just bug the Hell out of me. Some of the weapons tech seemed oddly archaic to me at first, with all the energy spears and laser shields flying about - until I reflected on how many sci-fi broadswords and crossbows I'd cheerfully accepted in the past.

I still think topless fist-fights are an inherently shaky means of establishing supreme executive authority in a modern political system, though.

The Stinger
Wakanda decloaks and Bucky's the White Wolf. All cool stuff, but nothing that plays significantly into Infinity War - which is weird given that this was the last stop before we get there. 

The Take-Away
I have a couple of practicality questions about Killmonger's overall scheme. Several characters seem to be under the impression that Wakanda stands a strong chance of overthrowing the governments of the world here. It seems to me that the last time a technologically superior army attacked even one major city of even one MCU country, they got wiped out by half a dozen Avengers in about 15 minutes of screen time. Not to mention, those guys were led by a LITERAL GOD, with the backing of the near-limitlessly powerful Thanos.

Still, you've got to applaud ambition.

Previously: Thor: Ragnarok
Next: Avengers: Infinity War

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

Approaching Infinity Part Seventeen: Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

Right - first off, Thor: Ragnarok absolutely wasn't what I expected, or even wanted, a Thor film to be. It throws out over half of the established characterisation of the central character, tosses out significant MCU supporting cast members without a thought and replaces them with people we have no reason or opportunity to care about.

But damn - it's hard to hold any of that against a film that made me so incredibly happy for over 2 hours.

The Villain
So I guess we're talking about Hela here, for the most part - and, honestly, there really isn't that much to say. It's a wonderful performance and a terrific look. Once you get past that, though, she's a motiveless monster with no plan and nothing to fight for. She just wants to rule Asgard - even if that means killing literally every living thing that exists there. Then... what, exactly? Use her zombie army to conquer other worlds, I guess? Pretty sure there are enough Celestial-level threats out there to put a stop to that.

Beyond Hela, we've got Surtur (an off-the-rack CGI fire demon destined to destroy Asgard) and The Grandmaster (an inexplicable cosmic narcissist and planetary-scale game show host). Jeff Goldblum basically watched Benicio Del Toro's performance as The Collector and thought, "too subtle?".

Both are fine, as far as they go, although you get the feeling that no-one ever really explained to Goldblum where he was and what was going on. I'm not even convinced he knew there was a camera on him.

The Story
Doesn't matter. The whole film is just a Korg delivery vehicle. Every second of screen time they waste on any other character is irrelevant.

More seriously, though, there's a lot going on in this film. Thor and Loki struggle toward some kind of mutual understanding, while Hulk and Banner do the opposite. Hela is an impossibly powerful threat, a time bomb ticking loudly in the background for most of the film. There's not much back and forth between Thor and Hela, as he's kept busy by The Grandmaster most of the time. In fact, it's Heimdall who does most of the heavy lifting on Asgard in opposing her. The various story threads unravel largely separately, only weaving together at the end. It's a pretty unconventional structure for an MCU film, but it all still works.

The Universe
Honestly, Thor: Ragnarok takes more away from the MCU than it gives. Sure, we get Valkyrie and a few gladiator characters, but we lose Volstagg, Fandral, Hogun, Odin, the entire realm of Asgard and Jane Foster. There's no word on Sif, and new additions like Skurge, Surtur and Hela are either killed or written out. The entire surviving population of Asgard apparently fits into a single spaceship, which winds up on Earth. Given that even an Asgardian plumber is probably at least as powerful as Spider-Man, we just ramped up the superhuman population by a hefty margin. It remains to be seen if anything's going to be made of that, though. Honestly, it wouldn't surprise me if the Asgardians were quietly sidelined while the upcoming Thanos unpleasantness shakes itself out.

The Stinger
It's cool - Avengers Assemble was ages ago. No-one's going to remember all those people Loki killed. Oh, hey - giant deathship!


While we're at it, The Goldblumster survived and still hasn't worked out he's in a movie.

The Take-Away
This is the first MCU film that had me laughing out loud in the cinema. Any gripes or criticisms I might have are entirely secondary to that fact. Weirdly, you'd have to count this as the highest bodycount of the series to date. 600 on the nose, according to the people who track these things. Although nothing much was made of it, we also saw a severe and unceremonious scything off of figures from previous films. Only Hogun made a half-decent account of himself. Everyone else went down like a crude simile clumsily inserted at the end of a blog post for minor shock value.

Onward...

Previously: Spider-Man: Homecoming
Next: Black Panther

Friday, 13 April 2018

Approaching Infinity Part Sixteen: Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

Huh - didn't see that coming...

After the decent stab of Sony's first Sam Raimi effort, I pretty much tuned out of Spider-Man films. I know, I know; everyone else loved Spider-Man 2 more than I did. That's fine. You go right ahead believing that Alfred Molina had the first clue what he was doing with that accent. I won't get in your way.

Don't get me wrong; Spider-Man was my go-to superhero as a kid. I just wasn't that taken with the inexplicable facial contortions of the Tobey Maguire version. The Andrew Garfield ones somehow managed to do even less for me. Anyway, I had fairly low expectations of what Sony could accomplish, given the weirdly hazy idea they had about the specifics of their deal with Marvel. I mean - his solo films weren't going to be in the MCU, then they were. Then the sequel wasn't going to be, now it might. Then Venom simultaneously is and isn't and also somehow doesn't have anything to do with Spider-Man at all.

In the end, though, Spider-Man: Homecoming impressed me a lot. Here's why:

The Villain
Ladies and gentlemen, I think we have a winner. This, right here, is how you build a solid villain for an MCU film. Michael Keaton's Vulture isn't needlessly evil, and he doesn't have a ridiculously unmotivated and/or over-complicated plot to take over, destroy or otherwise inconvenience the world. He's a skilled, ambitious father looking out for his family. He's got legitimate grievances, but never lets them dominate him. He's a thief and an arms dealer, but never goes out of his way to kill anyone. In fact, the single murder he does commit (the film's only death, I think) is accidental. Even when he's getting slammed around by Spider-Man, all he's focused on is trying to get the work done. In this case, that means heisting some technology from the Avengers as a last-ditch "final job" he only needs to resort to because Spider-Man's wrecked everything else he's got going on.

Speaking of Keaton, he completely owns this role. The scene in the car is a full-on classic. He suddenly realises he's got his nemesis in his back seat, apparently trying to threaten his family. He already knows what Parker's capable of, and how precarious this moment is. He's got a gun in his hand, but it's almost useless against the superhumanly fast, strong and alert kid in his car. All he's got going for him are that voice, that face and that single moment in time.

The Story
Spider-Man films have a certain convention that they all seem to cling to. The villain of the piece is necessarily mired in weird coincidences. In the Maguire days, the bad guy was always Parker's best friend's dad, one of his mentors or some sludge that dripped exclusively onto him. With Garfield, it was either a teacher or a guy he'd just rescued and who'd become instantly obsessed with him. In Homecoming, they took the bold step of having the villain pre-date the hero for once. Vulture's been quietly active for years before Spider-Man comes along and throws things off-balance. Despite that, the film still manages to come up with the most awkwardly unearned coincidence of any Spidey flick to date. Out of nowhere, we get a reveal that the Vulture is his would-be girlfriend's dad. I wince every time that scene comes around, but end up instantly forgiving the film because of the car scene that comes right after.

The Universe
Alright, Spidey's back in the MCU! That's great - although I find myself waiting for the inevitable moment when Sony shits the bed again. Tony Stark still hasn't retired as Iron Man, despite endless protestations to the contrary. Spider-Man may or may not have his danger sense - but if he does it's extremely temperamental. Like, he dodges things he probably didn't see coming one moment, then gets severely blindsided by an untrained thug with an unfamiliar science-vibrator the next. I don't think anyone's ever tackled the "spider-sense" particularly well or consistently on film, though, so it'd be weird to ding Homecoming too harshly over that. Also, The Prowler kinda exists, Scorpion possibly will in the future - and maybe Miles Morales too?

The Stinger
Literally anyone who matters knows Spider-Man's secret identity and Captain America thinks you're a moron for sitting through the credits to find out about that.

The Take-Away
I have very few major complaints about Spider-Man: Homecoming - with the one possible exception of the coincidence reveal. There's a solid cast of characters on both sides, and enough soap-opera stuff to balance out the heroics with a bit of "heart". Very interested to see what's next for ol' Webhead - but still full of confidence in Sony's ability to fuck it up yet again.

Previously: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
Next: Thor: Ragnarok

Wednesday, 11 April 2018

Approaching Infinity Part Fifteen: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

You've got to admire the outright balls of this one. Not content with somehow capturing lightning in a bottle with the first Guardians film, James Gunn sets out to recapture the exact same bolt of lightning in an only fractionally different shaped bottle. On the one hand, it's absolutely one of the most enjoyable MCU films so far. On the other, it's set in a universe where David Hasslehoff exists and Kurt Russell doesn't - and I'm not completely convinced I can live with that.

The Villain
So, technically, we've got a villain who doesn't get revealed as such until pretty late in the film. Kurt Russell's Ego is (in addition to being the name of my first university band) basically the only kind of performance you get from a stunt-cast character like this. It's a fat slice of medium-strength William Shatner/Bruce Campbell cheese, and no less effective for that. Thirty years ago they probably would've spent the extra fiver and given the part to Doug McClure. Anyway, Ego's scheme is just moronic. He's disappointed in the lifeforms he's found in the universe, so he decides to wipe them out and replace them all with... himself, somehow? Why he needed to do that instead of just using his total control of all molecular matter to build from scratch isn't spelled out - but at that point you might as well ask why he didn't use that power to disintegrate the entire Guardians crew in an instant, instead of fist-fighting Starlord while an idiot shrub stuck a bomb in his brain.

Taking the stage as runner-up bad guys and endless tide of disposable grunts, we've got the Sovereign - but they're really only around for comedy and to make up the numbers in the action scenes. They provide more than decent value for money on both scores, though.

The Story
Right - we're slightly retconning, or at least back-filling, the final moments of Guardians 1 here. It turns out that Starlord is part-god, which is why he could hold an Infinity Stone for a few pivotal seconds. Exactly where that leaves other Stone-fondlers like Nick Fury is left entirely unclear, of course. Yondu gets reverse-engineered into a good guy and father figure, Nebula kinda-sorta gets the second dimension she was missing in the first flick and Quill and Gamora talk incessantly about their relationship to avoid the trouble of actually having one. Also, Rocket undoes virtually all the character progression he underwent in the previous volume and becomes an outright dick for most of the film.

Weirdly, it all works. I mean, it really works. It's glorious to look at, full of inventive action and pumps out dialogue that must've been sharpened with some kind of fancy laser device. It's a little too reliant on having characters laugh out loud to punctuate the funny bits, but I was generally laughing too anyway.

The Universe
Guardians 2 thoughtfully puts all its toys back in the box when it's done playing with them. Everyone's relationships get thrown into upheaval, but settle back into equilibrium in the end. Peter gets godlike powers for thirty minutes, then loses them. Nebula fights briefly for the good guys, then pisses back off. Yondu is made immensely important in Peter's life - then dies to restore the all-important "orphan" part of his character. At the end of the day, it's hard to suggest that anything major changed. The Guardians set aside their in-fighting and learn to work as a team just in time to overcome a greater threat. Again.

The Stinger
The director's brother nearly kills Drax, Stallone pitches his own MCU Expendables movie, Adam Warlock gets a tease, Groot's a sulky teen and Stan Lee's a... Watcher, I guess? In other news, Jeff Goldblum does a weird little dance.

The Take-Away
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is an Age of Ultron kind of deal. A lot of the ground it covers has been gone over in the previous entry, but it's all done well enough to justify its own existence and identity. Despite the light-hearted tone, this probably has one of the more impressive MCU bodycounts at 289 largely anonymous on-screen deaths. Yes, there are people who keep track of these things. Vol. 2 is possibly a little funnier than the first one, but maybe a little less substantial as well. Killing off Ego seems like a wasted shot and the whole idea of The Expansion feels like a tacked-on and deeply generic Evil Plan (TM). None of that really dents the whole package, though. The characters are still a joy to watch and the story does a good job of delivering them to the screen. So yeah, this one's fun.

Previously: Doctor Strange
Next: Spider-Man: Homecoming

Thursday, 29 March 2018

Approaching Infinity Part Fourteen: Doctor Strange (2016)

Yes, yes, I know - it's just Magic Iron Man, but you're missing the key point:

IT'S
ALL
SO
PRETTY!

The Villain
So what have we got here? He's an evil wizard with a crew of jobbing MMA wizards and they're trying to sell the world to a ripple-faced Dark Dimension entity whose main gimmick is... he hates time, I guess? Kaecilius, my minimal research appears to indicate, was some kind of Mordo henchman in the comics. The film paints him in very broad strokes as someone who lost all he ever loved, learned some magic and went evil when he didn't get everything he wanted. It's sketchy at best, but Mads Mikkelsen somehow makes it seem a lot more fleshed-out than the script should have let him. His plan is actually a pretty good one, given the information he had to work with: stop time so no one dies any more. Couldn't he have just done that with that clearly marked Infinity Stone just sitting unguarded in the sanctuary, though? Was the whole Dormammu deal actually necessary? Still, the film spends a great deal of its running time trying to convince its characters to stop asking questions and just go with it, so I'll do that too. Oh, look - they're doing the Inception scenery fold thing in 3D!

The Story
A super-surgeon who's somehow already on a Hydra watchlist texts and drives and gets his magic hands mashed. He goes to Tibet and gets some REAL magic hands from Magic David Bowie, then breaks every rule and makes every mistake he can until he saves the world in reverse. Along the way, he meets an approximately Thanos-level threat and basically annoys it into submission. Between this film and the one directly succeeding it, Thanos-level threats are becoming the new Infinity Stones of the MCU: you can generally overcome their immense, world-shattering powers by just pushing them over and running away.

The Universe
Marvel gets magic! Except, it kinda already had that from Thor. It's cool though, and feels very different from what we've seen before. Seeing Mordo as a good guy's interesting, but his arc feels like it's missing several steps. His repeated "the bill comes due" theme only kicks off two thirds of the way through the film, and there's literally no evidence that he's right. Magic David Bowie's been running up that bill for centuries without incident, and Strange himself merrily kicks off a tab of his own - which Mordo does nothing to prevent.

The Ancient One, incidentally, was a peculiar casting choice. Hiring Tilda Swinton set off a lot of angry internet fireworks for a while, but they blew themselves out pretty quickly. The performance, though, is perfectly enigmatic. Her every minute shift in expression or body language feels calculated and almost inhumanly precise. Fascinating to watch.

The Stinger
A brief clip of Thor: Ragnarok, and a weird Mordo moment. There's not much connective tissue between the Mordo we've been watching in the film and the one from the stinger. He's made a leap in logic that the number of sorcerers on Earth needs to be reduced. We're never told how he arrives at that position, and it seems like a weak launchpad if he's ever elevated to a primary villain role in the MCU. Still, considering how gleefully these films cast off plot threads, we'll probably never have to worry about any of that.

The Take-Away
Doctor Strange is a pretty bold gambit - in its own way as big as Thor or Guardians were. It's stunning to watch, particularly in 3D, and has enough action and humour to keep the inconsistent philosophy from clogging the works too much. Rachel McAdams is cast pretty much just to ask audience questions and break up the shots of Benedict Cumberbatch's oddly immobile snake-face. I don't know exactly what Cumberbatch is, though. With just the one facial expression and being permanently stuck in emotional first gear, he's clearly not an actor in any conventional sense. In fact, watching him leads me to suspect we throw about the title "human" a little too broadly at times. Either way, though, he works very well in roles like this, where the character is basically a hardened crystal of raw intellect shrink-wrapped in an overstretched layer of pale latex.

Previously: Captain America: Civil War
Next: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Tuesday, 27 March 2018

Approaching Infinity Part Thirteen: Captain America: Civil War (2016)

Oh, Tony - don't you ever get tired of being wrong? Or possibly right, maybe? I haven't decided.

So this is a Captain America film in name only. It's pure Avengers territory, and no worse off for that. Probably not quite up to Winter Soldier standards, but it doesn't miss by a huge margin. Also, I have to give it credit for doing something interesting with the bad guy here. Which brings us neatly to...

The Villain
I've seen a few professional reviewers and a ton of Talking Internet Faces giving Civil War shit for having a weak villain. I disagree. Not only is Zemo one of the most believably driven bad guys in the MCU, but he pulls off the tricky feat of providing credible opposition with neither personal might nor an army of CGI thugs going for him. His plans and goals are entirely directed at righting a specific wrong, and he pursues them whether it's Hydra, the CIA or the Avengers themselves standing in his way.

The Story
Civil War deals in a big way with something that superhero stories are often seen as ideally suited to avoid: consequence. We get a lot of character work for Stark - more than for Rogers, in fact, and it's all designed to push him down a questionable path. His own mistakes and ego have been the cause of virtually all his misfortunes so far, leaving him perfectly primed to fall for the false absolution of the Sokovia Accords - which, naturally, he does.

Meanwhile, Zemo sets up Bucky in expert fashion, then seizes control of him to drive a wedge into the heart of the Avengers. You can bat around the number of things that have to go exactly right for his plan to work, but I think it's fairer to say that Zemo's moves are dictated by opportunity and circumstance. He adapts his game as the board state changes. In the end, he probably saves more lives than he ends by destroying the last of the Winter Soldier programme. By contrast, Rogers' greatest achievement in the film is failing to stop him from wiping out a roomful of near-unstoppable murder machines.

The Universe
There's a case to be made that Civil War's biggest contributions come from putting both Spider-Man and Black Panther into play. Those two additions pretty much justify the film's existence on their own. Ant-Man kinda sneaks into the wider Marvel world along the way, and gets some very cool moments of his own. So, yeah - the MCU takes a few pretty hefty steps forward with this flick.

The Stinger
Bucky goes back into cold storage in time for Black Panther's end credits scene and Peter Parker gets a... flashlight, I guess?

The Take-Away
I give Civil War credit for a couple of strong decisions. Firstly, I love that it delivers its biggest action punch at the half-way point, with the airport fight. From that moment, the focus gradually narrows down to an agonising pinpoint in the final confrontation between Cap and Iron Man. That last fight feels like it has much higher stakes than any of the the slam-bam stuff that preceded it, and to end it on a conversation between a skulking Black Panther and a suicidal Zemo was basically genius. Furthermore, having Panther not only let Zemo live, but actively prevent him from killing himself is a strong move from a series that's been murdering a good percentage of its antagonists so far.

Previously: Ant-Man
Next: Doctor Strange

Thursday, 15 March 2018

Approaching Infinity Part Twelve: Ant-Man (2015)

Following on from their second Big Team adventure, Marvel marks another X on its Avengers Roster bingo card with a weirdly and refreshingly low-key solo film. Ant-Man caught me off-balance a little bit, as this really wasn't a character I had any specific feelings about going in. Can't complain too loudly about what we got here - although the few flashes of Edgar Wright we get really have me wondering what Ant-Man could've been if Marvel hadn't crushed his soul quite so comprehensively.

The Villain
Okay, so - Darren Cross is a paint-by-numbers MCU Evil Shadow, partially redeemed by some very interesting character work and a really tightly-wound performance. As Yellowjacket, he's really not much more than a Mortal Kombat palette-swap of the hero (Nega Scott Lang, to cram in a clumsy Edgar Wright reference). Yellowjacket is Ironmonger to Ant-Man's Iron Man - a needlessly evil upgraded version of the hero with no plan and nothing to gain, who still fights the hero out of... dunno. He's a sledgehammer with no purpose but to destroy.

As Darren Cross, though, he's a scalpel - a supremely competent bad guy struggling with betrayal and desertion by a father figure who pushed him away out of fear of his own darker side. He's complex and motivated, with a criminal mind and a child's temper. His primary plan is to get rich, sure - but more importantly, to do it in a way that proves his superiority over his own fallen mentor.

When that doesn't work out, he decides to threaten a child and murder a train set instead.

The Story
I think this is probably the first MCU film that made me want to care about the protagonist's personal life. I never accumulated enough fucks, for example, to spare one for whether Steve Rogers and Peggy Carter ever hooked up. Iron Man 2 never convinced me that Stark's relationships with his dad or Pepper were worth the screen time they got. Perplexingly, I found myself partially along for the ride with Scott Lang's juggling act between his two families (one nuclear, one criminal). I don't think the flickering romance with Hope Van Dyne was needed, though. She stood up more than well enough without that, and I'm hoping she does even better as The Wasp. That pseudo-relationship seemed a little tacked on compared to everything else that was going on.

Anyway, there's a pretty serviceable MCU story going on in the background of this mash-up of soppy family melodrama and prickly romance. Everyone who needs to have something at stake does, more or less, even though some of that shakes itself apart in the grand finale. Also, there are, like, three heists in this film. That's about three heist films' worth of heists!

The Universe
Ant-Man is noticeably light on Infinity Stones, which is a quality I'm growing to appreciate in MCU films. Despite that, it does put some interesting Marvel-balls into play. Hank Pym's a really nice addition, for one thing. I'm really liking how some familiar faces are being seeded into the universe's history. The prospect of the Wasp is also very cool, and I think a lot of good groundwork was put down for Hope in this film. Beyond that, we put a couple of pieces on the Civil War chessboard with the Falcon fight and the post-credits scene. Which brings us to...

The Stinger
Yup, the Wasp's coming. I wonder if she'll have anything cool to do.

Also, here's a scene from Civil War. Nice!

The Take-Away
It's good to see David Dastmalchian playing something other than a Joker henchman for once. Seriously - he did it in The Dark Knight back in 2008 and again in Gotham in 2017. Also nice to see that Marvel can take a step back from sky-portals every once in a while and do something a little more level-headed. Of course, an argument could be made that letting Hydra get hold of a vial of Pym particles might become a world-ending problem at some point, but these films have a habit of not watching each other too closely, so maybe that's nothing to worry about. 

We're still killing off a lot of our MCU villains, which always feels a little short-sighted. I guess it's not like they're in short supply, though - and they're about to do something very interesting with the next one...

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Approaching Infinity Part Eleven: Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

I have to say, I was a little unconvinced by this the first go-around. At times dazzling, at other times frustrating, I kinda landed in a place where I was willing to wade through the latter to get to the former. Watching it again, though, the unearned emotional stuff and agonisingly obvious Whedon Swerves are much less of a problem. Let's get a couple of knuckles deep into this thing:

The Villain
Ultron: possibly the most on-the-nose Evil Shadow villain of the MCU to date. He's literally the creation of Tony Stark, with non-specific and largely irrelevant contributions from Bruce Banner. James Spader, working on the career-defining performance that he'd kicked off and would later perfect in The Blacklist, acts the crap out of this thing. Ultron is conflicted but obsessive, strategically brilliant but frequently absent-minded, unfailingly loyal but ruthlessly vengeful. All at once, he's somehow utterly unshackled and yet still totally enslaved to his core programming. His plan develops with his circumstances, from saving the world by forcing humanity to evolve to provoking an extinction-level event and starting from scratch. So, yeah - this is a much more interesting charcter than I'd been expecting.

The Story
Robert Downey Jr. obviously and desperately wants to get out of these films.

Beyond that, this is pretty standard MCU stuff, with occasional digressions into full-on Whedonism. Stark ropes Banner into the private obsession he's been tackling since the whole sky-portal incident, but without the benefit of the healing and character development we were promised in the completely irrelevant Iron Man 3. He's as messed up as ever, but at least doesn't need to spend any time in make-up getting his chest reactor thing fitted every day on set. It goes kinda like this:

STARK: I'mma do a thing.
BANNER: Don't do the thing!
STARK: I did the thing! Help me fix the thing I did.
BANNER: Okay, cool.
AVENGERS: AARGH - look at the terrible thing you did! Fixitfixitfixitfixit!
[10-second pause...]
BANNER: Stark, did you just do the thing again?
STARK: I TOTALLY DID THE THING AGAIN!

The Universe
So wait - JARVIS isn't an AI, but Ultron is... except when JARVIS is as well. Ultron's supposedly unique AI-ness means he can hack the world and access nuclear codes, but the supposedly inferior non-AI JARVIS has him blocked at every turn. Honestly, given that JARVIS has already been shown to be better than all the Avengers put together in the I-can't-believe-this-is-actually-canon-oh-my-God-it's-like-they-didn't-think-it-through-at-all Iron Man 3, I just don't see why we even need anybody else in these films. The fact that they then put JARVIS into an immortal, inexplicably density-shifting magic-metal body just ices that nonsense-cake.

But hey - look, they gave us Scarlet Witch and Quicksi...

Look, they gave us Scarlet Witch!

Side note: I would seriously pay good money for a Klaue solo flick at this point. Best not to get attached, though. Speaking of Black Panther spoilers, vibranium does literally anything.

Yeah... all that Banner / Black Widow stuff manages to come out of, and end up going, absolutely nowhere. Total waste of time, and never feels like a natural progression of either character's arc. Actually, almost nothing Banner does in this film makes sense, from helping Stark and half-heartedly romancing Widow right through to pissing off in a plane he can't fly at the end. Even his comical mispronunciation of Wakanda seems weird for a man as well informed and travelled as he supposedly is.

Also, are we counting The Vision as another character who can withstand the touch of an Infinity Stone? I mean, they've painted themselves into a corner on this one. Either Vision is a living thing and Infinity Stones are bullshit or he's not and the supposedly pivotal moment where he first handles Mjolnir is meaningless. Thinking of it, did he possess the power of Thor on the two occasions he wields the hammer? Just another cute-moment-at-all-costs from Whedon, I guess...

As for all the heavy-handed "Hawkeye's gonna die" signposting, did that actually fool or pay off for anyone? Really?

The Stinger
Thanos again! Wait - didn't we already know that?


The Take-Away
Seriously - how badly did Downey Jr. want to get out of the MCU at this point? It's actually kinda weird even to see him here, after Iron Man 3's sincere efforts toward closing the book on the character. This time, his entire story seems to be about shuttering the whole Avengers enterprise. By the time the film ends, he's driving off into the sunset and a new Stark-free roster is presented. I guess that's the last we'll be seeing of him in the series, then - because anything else would be borderline ridiculous...


Looking back over this post, it probably comes across as way more negative than I actually feel about Age of Ultron. That Spader performance buys a LOT of leeway, for one thing. Looked at in the broader context of the whole MCU, most of the stuff in Ultron that doesn't quite fit feels more like minor course correction than legitimate flaws. It looks great, has better dialogue than it needed to have and it pushed Joss Whedon out of the MCU forever. Couldn't ask for much more than that, really.

Huh - even that Whedon dig overstates the issue. Getting a project this big to work even half this well would have been a minor miracle. I might find some of his writing a little cloying at times, but this film still kicked the living shit out of the mediocre expectations I had for it.

Everything involving Quicksilver was total bullshit, though.

Previously: Guardians of the Galaxy
Next: Ant-Man

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Approaching Infinity Part Ten: Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

Okay, Marvel - now you're just showing off...

To be completely honest, I was actually one of the Guardians of the Galaxy sceptics (yes, that's the UK spelling. Look it up). I mean, I shouldn't have been; I've loved James Gunn's work since his Troma days and still hold The Specials up as one of my favourite superhero flicks. Even so, when that first trailer dropped with that soundtrack, I was... wary. I just couldn't see where it was all going.

As it turned out, the answer was... well, I'm still not entirely sure. All I know is that Guardians is a really, REALLY fun ride.

The Villain
Nothing about Ronan the Accuser works for me, conceptually. His dialogue's clunky as all Hell, his delivery's mechanical and by-the-numbers and his plan to murder billions serves no practical purpose other than spite. He's a fanatic, a war criminal and a dozen other scary-sounding things, but he's pretty much a half-rehearsed Thanos understudy in this film. He's out to destroy a planet - or maybe a thousand planets; he's a little unclear on that point at times. Anyway, he stands to gain nothing and will stop at nothing to gain it. It shouldn't work at all, but I still somehow love every second of screen time he gets.

While we're talking Ronan, let's chalk up another entry in the list of characters who've physically handled an Infinity Stone without ill effect. Starlord gets a pass on this in retrospect, as it does indeed turn out he's a literal god (small g) later. Ronan, though, is just a Kree - a species that never before or since is shown to be anywhere near powerful enough to justify this. Kree are currently getting kicked to shit and shoe leather by unarmed humans in the apparently canon Agents of SHIELD TV show. To be fair, there are probably good reasons why Ronan is powerful enough to shrug off an enraged Drax the Destroyer without a thought in this film. Those reasons really aren't on the screen, though.

The Story
Everyone speaks English in space.

Yes, there's a brief nod to a translator in Starlord's neck - but that makes no sense of why everyone else in the universe can instantly and easily understand one another. Even if it did, it whatever magic translation technology everyone seems to have access to suddenly and specifically fails to work at all when Groot talks - despite the fact that Rocket appears to understand the subtle nuances of every word he says. Yes, this is absolutely the most unrealistic thing in this film - and yes, this is absolutely the hill I've picked to die on.

In a minor non-linguistically based side-plot, a team of criminals and killers stops a warmonger from genociding a planet, I think. Not sure - I was distracted by the translator thing a lot.

The Universe
Yeah, we actually are talking about the universe in this one. Guardians of the Galaxy throws so much new MCU-building into its running time that's it's just dazzling to watch. We get war history, galactic politics, interstellar law enforcement, pirate armadas, Celestials, alien abduction, Thanos' family life and about a hundred more new additions to Marvel cinematic lore. The fact that it never even seems to shudder under the weight of this - and actually keeps up an astonishing pace without ever short-changing its characters is, frankly, miraculous.

The Stinger
Howard the Duck. Really, movie? Really? Still, dancing Baby Groot, though...

The Take-Away
For my money, this is practically flawless in terms of achieving what it sets out to do. In a series of films known for carefully, methodically earning its ensemble pieces through single-hero episodes, Guardians throws the whole Marvel rulebook away and looks badass doing it. It probably helps that Gunn has done this before with The Specials, and knows exactly how to ration out his characters' backstories - but the scale here is so much bigger that it's practically a magic trick to pull it off this well.

Previously: Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Next: Avengers: Age of Ultron

Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Approaching Infinity Part Nine: Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

By the time Winter Soldier came out, Marvel really had its routine down. They'd built enough of a track record for quality that they'd moved beyond the initial high-risk stage where everything was riding on each successive release. Basically, they'd shifted into a position where their individual films were more like episodes of an established TV show. A ropey one every now and then might generate some choppy internet coverage for a few days, but it did nothing to damage or invalidate the series as a whole. DC, by contrast, is still well and truly stuck in the make-or-break phase, where they have to hold their breath each time a film comes out to see if they did just enough to ensure their cinematic universe survives to limp on for one more instalment.

With that in mind, it's impressive that the MCU still had things to surprise us with - probably since they weren't handcuffed into playing the safest possible game like DC (although we could kick around the question of how accurate their assessment of "safe" was). Anyway, Winter Soldier was a Hell of a lot better than it needed to be by this point in the MCU's development.

The Villain
Okay, so who are we calling the villain in this one - the bad guy who turns out to be good in the end or the good guy who turns out to be bad? This is basically a spy thriller in spandex, where rival organisations are more important than which individual fist ploughs in what individual face. I'm just going to go ahead and lump the entire antagonist role under the banner of Hydra in this one. We already know what their motivations are, and the threat they pose neatly straddles the territory between ludicrously theatrical and ruthlessly pragmatic. They've got magic megaguns that can kill through buildings and a Naughty List with literally millions of names on it. This is Hydra simultaneously at its most powerful and its most desperate. They've won, but no one knows about it. They've secretly stolen the world - now they're genocidally paranoid, seeing enemies everywhere and moving against threats that may never even emerge.

The Story
As a spy thriller, this is pretty conventional stuff. You could more or less slap a Mission Impossible sticker over it and get Cruise on the phone right now. As a superhero story, though, it's something we really hadn't seen before. They tell the story straight, and let the characters take it just seriously enough without sacrificing that essential Marvel mouthfeel. Captain America's adjustment to the modern world is handled effectively without weighing down the plot too much. We continue to get glimpses into the immense backstory burden Black Widow's carrying around and the Winter Soldier himself is given exactly the right treatment. He's presented as both a massive threat and a salvageable asset at once - a balance that forms the core of how he's handled later.


The Universe
There's a fair bit to chew on in the world-building of Winter Soldier, although not all of it pays off. I wish Zola had been something more than an exposition box, for one thing. Nick Fury gets to show why he's the world's greatest spy, though, and the Falcon somehow makes the leap from flamboyantly impractical comic character to credible cinematic action hero without a glitch. There's a weird Stephen Strange reference mid-way through, which really doesn't belong there no matter how earnestly Marvel hand-waves its explanation. Hell - I even liked what they did with Batroc the Leaper! In retrospect, they put a weird amount of effort into Rumlow - later Crossbones - considering what a non-event he turned out to be in Avengers 2. Still, there are often a lot of cast-off characters in these films. At least they aren't as married to killing off villains as so many pre-MCU superhero flicks seemed to be.

The Stinger
Y'know, I really thought we were going to get through this one without an Infinity Stone - but no, Loki's staff makes an appearance here. Not exactly sure how Von Strucker got hold of it or how he's using it to make things-that-are-legally-distinct-from-but-functionally-identical-to mutants, though. Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch show up for a few seconds. He's fast, she's weird.

Also, Bucky finds out who Bucky is! It's not clear whether he cares.

The Take-Away
It's pretty clear that Marvel had found the nerve to experiment with what it actually means to be a superhero film by now. We've had weirdly fantastical takes, bold but fairly conventional sci-fi and now Cold War espionage. Considering how much the "Marvel formula" gets slammed (and not always unfairly), it's still encouraging that they're occasionally willing to stray this far from the sky-portals and evil shadows that brought them to the dance.

Previously: Thor: The Dark World
Next: Guardians of the Galaxy

Friday, 16 February 2018

Approaching Infinity Part Eight: Thor: The Dark World (2013)

Wow...

Okay, that was...

... yeah.

I guess, if nothing else, it speaks well of the MCU in general that it can withstand a pretty unqualified dud once in a while. Thor: The Dark World just flat-out doesn't do anything for me. It makes more or less the same mistake with Jane Foster as Iron Man 3 did with Pepper Potts, for one thing - only on a much grander scale. It also counts on a degree of investment from the audience in the Foster/Thor relationship that it, frankly, never even tries to earn. It's all pretty throwaway, and you could easily skip it without missing anything of ongoing value - if not for the weak Infinity Stone angle.

The Villain
Was there one? Really?

I mean, sure - Malekith and the dark elves - but their origins, aims and abilities are so fluid and ill-defined that there's really nothing to get a grip on here. They seem to be able to go toe-to-toe with mid-range Asgardians, but they really just shoot lasers a lot and fly their ships into things.

The Story
We're told Malekith is some ancient enemy of Asgard, sworn to harness the power of the Aether to... something-something Dark Side? I think it was about extinguishing all light in the universe or something, but it's never really explained why anyone would want this or how they would survive it or - oh, thank fuck: here come the sky-portals!

You can tell that the dark elves come from a time before the rest of the Marvel universe, because they're the only things in that universe that don't speak English amongst themselves. I mean, they can speak English - and do, frequently. However, we get some kind of subtitled alien drivel when they're alone. Even Thanos and his crew don't do that. Typical snooty bloody elves. Anyway, they have this thing they can do that turns some of their warriors into unstoppable rage-monsters - but they get stopped pretty easily anyway, so it really doesn't seem worth the bother.

The Universe
Okay, so we find out after the film ends that the Aether is an Infinity Stone. Again, though, it's pretty unclear what it does and why that matters. Jane Foster kinda absorbs it without any lasting harm, and when Malekith gets it he just grows a few ineffectual tentacles and gets run over by a spaceship. I'm actually having a hard time taking the Infinity Stones seriously at this point. Like, if I met one in an alley I'm pretty sure I could take its wallet.

Jane Foster gets a fair amount of cowering, sulking and affronted snapping to do, but it turns out that it's all wasted effort because this is apparently the last we ever see of her. I appreciate the care that was put into making her relevant, but Iron Man 3 already showed that granting characters one-shot god-level powers is a short-cut to nowhere worthwhile in Marvel-land. It doesn't make them interesting, and only highlights how under-used they are the rest of the time.

There's actually a much better film going on in the background of Thor: The Dark World, though, in Loki's troubled and self-undermining road to... if not exactly redemption, then at least development. Most of the best moments in the film are focused on the relationship between Loki and Thor. That's a genuinely interesting thing to watch Thor 2 explore, but unfortunately it's hard to let that angle breathe with the much less interesting Malekith plotline sitting on its head for 110 minutes.

The Stinger
People really need to stop giving Benicio Del Toro enough screen time to hang himself. The man's a bizarre collection of inexplicable mannerisms and vocal eccentricities that make him seem out of place in any environment. Anyway, he's The Collector, he's got an Infinity Stone now and I can only assume that matters, somehow...

Also, Thor and Jane Foster are a couple again. Don't get too comfortable with that, though.

The Take-Away
There isn't one. This went nowhere and took too long getting there.

Previously: Iron Man 3
Next: Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Approaching Infinity Part Seven: Iron Man 3 (2013)

Okay, then - Iron Man 3. If there's an over-rated entry in the reasonably sure-fire Marvel Cinematic Universe, then this is it for me. After the victory lap that was Avengers Assemble, the second phase of the MCU launches with two pretty timid efforts in this and Thor 2: The Dark World. The idea of Stark losing his shit after the Chitauri invasion and his brief adventure through the obligatory sky portal is a pretty good one. However, the meaty stink of Shane Black is all over this. That means a clumsily welded-on, utterly cosmetic Christmas setting and an insufferable kid who provides 20 minutes of empty screen time. On top of all that, we've got probably the biggest waste of a villain opportunity in the series so far. Speaking of which...

The Villain
So, the Mandarin probably ranks up with the top tier of Iron Man villains, but this film completely refuses to commit to its use of him. First he's a bog-standard terrorist guy with a Ten Rings connection, then he's a bog-standard Evil Shadow guy with flame breath and exploding henchmen, then (if you take the One-Shot short into consideration), he was never even there at all. To be fair, Killian's plan here seems pretty reasonable, by comparison to some of the others we've seen so far: control the War on Terror by providing both the ultimate evil and the means to fight it. The trouble for me is that they play Trevor Slattery's unmasking as this huge plot twist, when it actually changes nothing about the story. We already knew Killian was the bad guy, so revealing him as the boss instead of the second-in-command is a narratological wet fart. I've talked about this elsewhere on the blog, so won't rehash it all now. 

The Story
Tony's no longer dying from palladium poisoning, but his mind's fucked. He makes a rash threat and his house blows up as a result. A guy he insulted ages ago becomes beautiful and starts breathing fire because of super-botany. There's a super-smart super-botanist doing all this super-botany, who does an inexplicable double-heel/face turn and dies. Tony overcomes his mental health issues by killing a few guys with home-made gadgets and talking shit to a child. Along the way, Pepper Potts goes supernova in a nakedly obvious attempt to give her something interesting to do, but her contribution's quickly hand-waved away with some weird end narration. Also - and I can't believe I have to type this - the President of the United States of America is kidnapped, the Iron Patriot armour is stolen, exploding terrorists flood the streets, a founding Avenger is apparently murdered in his home - AND NO ONE EVEN THINKS ABOUT CALLING CAPTAIN AMERICA!

The Universe
For a film whose position in the chronology more or less requires that it anchor the MCU as it pushes on post-Avengers, Iron Man 3 does a great job of making itself irrelevant. AIM, an organisation with a long history in the comics and a lot of potential for use when Hydra isn't around, gets pissed down Marvel's leg. The Mandarin misfire may have closed the door on using the character well in future, as following up on the One-Shot tease would basically drive this film even deeper into redundancy. There's some super-interesting stuff done with Stark swapping suits on the fly toward the end, which really showed me something I'd never seen before. However, burying all that cool stuff in the middle of a fight scene that utterly depowers Stark's Iron Man seems like a... questionable choice.

I'll expand on that for a moment. The final fight scene includes about 40 empty Iron Man suits being flown remotely by the AI JARVIS. That's an army of Iron Men, and every one of them is orders of magnitude more effective than Stark. As he continues to demonstrate, the only thing he does by getting into the suit is hold back what it can do. In every way, it's better off without him.

The Stinger
Throw-away Ruffalo cameo in "goes nowhere" shocker.

The Take-Away
So, yeah. Not a big fan of this one. It's still very watchable, but I really feel that fawning over Shane Black for turning out a mid-range, very conventional film is setting the bar unnecessarily low. Iron Man 3 undermines itself in so many ways - and at the end of the day, you're selling a story that keeps Stark out of the suit for most of the time and goes to great lengths to show how totally superfluous he is when he's wearing it. It's a collection of weird choices for a one-hero showcase story. The end-credits montage from previous Iron Man films really makes it seem like they were closing the book on Robert Downey Jr's involvement in the MCU. Moreover, they're showing Stark systematically disentangling himself from it by blowing up his entire supply of suits, getting his heart damage fixed and basically passing the torch to Warmachine.

Of course, all of that character growth is immediately ditched in Avengers 2, and Stark is suddenly back with more suits and emotional damage than ever. In fact, literally nothing that happens in Iron Man 3 is carried forward in any meaningful way. Zero impact.

Previously: Avengers Assemble
Next: Thor 2: The Dark World

Thursday, 1 February 2018

Approaching Infinity Part Six: Avengers Assemble (2012)

So here we are at the big pay-off of Marvel's Phase One. Yes, I know it wasn't called Avengers Assemble out in the civilised world, but that's what we got here so that's what I'm going with. Avengers Assemble is exactly what it needed to be in structural terms: every action figure in the collection stuffed into a box and smashed around by an over-excited child. That same over-excited child, of course, has made a career out of turning teenager-level pen-and-paper roleplaying game sessions into screenplays and TV pitches, with somewhat mixed results. Everything Joss Whedon gets his hands on ends up feeling like an adaptation of a 90s RPG campaign, but it definitely works when the circumstances are right. In a superhero film, with an ensemble aesthetic that Marvel's been working on earning since 2008, those conditions are definitely met. In that light, all Whedon had to do to make Avengers work was avoid tripping over his feet while he danced in the end zone. He pulls it off, for sure - even if the film ends up feeling like it's showing what the characters do when they aren't off having their solo adventures, rather than reversing that emphasis.

The Villain
Well, we already know we're on pretty solid ground with Loki here - although he looks like someone's pissed in his proverbials throughout most of this film. Basically, Loki's being bullied by largely unseen forces, and he's putting up with it in hopes of bullying a planet of billions in return. I've talked a fair bit about trying to pin down the MCU villains' motivations in these posts. Loki's plan seems pretty standard stuff, as these things go: he wants to rule the world. Quite what an archetypal force of chaos could be hoping to achieve by imposing order on this scale never quite comes into focus, though. At least the Red Skull saw seizing power as the route toward eliminating the tribal concepts of nations and warfare forever by... wait, why was he the bad guy again? Oh, yeah - killing all the people.

The Story
We're doing Tesseract sky-portal stuff here, with a side-order of genocide. There's a Hollywood saying, which I'm about to butcher, to the effect that once you've spent $100 million, you pretty much have to be saving the world. Usually, that means sky-portals and legions of faceless cannon-fodder enemies. Meanwhile, there's some shouting, shooting and some Hulking out - but basically we're blowing up sky-portals to save the world.

The Universe
There are some ups and downs to the world-building in Avengers. Mark Ruffalo does an admirable job of sweeping Ed Norton under the carpet and stomping the lumps down. Hawkeye gets (ahem) shafted from the outset, but Black Widow gets a decent shake. I don't particularly like this version of the character, but she's given some interesting parts of the story to carry for now. She scores a point off Loki and survives a full-on Hulk attack, which is decent going for an unpowered human in a film with about 4 gods in it. Yes, I said 4, because I'm counting (SPOILERS) Thanos for one and Nick Fury for  another.

That's right: Nick Fury is a god.

He has to be, right? I mean, we established twice in Captain America (once in dialogue and once in action) that a mortal can't touch an Infinity Stone and live. Red Skull evaporates (or gets teleported away, or whatever) when he touches the Tesseract. In later films, we find out that only Celestials are powerful enough to survive contact with the Stones. Barely 10 minutes into Avengers, Fury grabs that same Tesseract with his hand and stuffs it into a briefcase - WITH NO ILL EFFECTS WHATSOEVER!

Also, as in Thor, aliens all speak English. I'll never stop complaining about that in films - and pointing out that Starlord has a translator implant ONLY RAISES FURTHER AND STUPIDER QUESTIONS!

The Stinger
Thanos! The 5% of the people watching who know who that is go wild. Everyone else goes to Wikipedia. Also, like, kebabs or something?

The Take-Away
There is some HORRIBLE scripting in this film, ranging from the clumsily banal ("I don't all the time get what I want") to the skin-shreddingly theatrical ("Humans - they are not the cowering wretches we were promised..."). Still, Avengers Assemble survives that and blasts the ball into the back of the net. Moreover, Marvel makes the unfilmable look effortless - laying a trap that DC can barely seem to stop falling into to this day.

Onward to Phase Two...

Previously: Captain America
Next: Iron Man 3

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Approaching Infinity Part Five: Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

If Thor was a risk in partially unshackling the MCU from mainstream, modern-day America, then Captain America was the double-down. On the face of it, the film's asking quite a lot of the audience. We've got an uncritically patriotic, absurdly stoic hero who believes in taking orders and punching every single one of the Nazis, a frankly ridiculous costume to explain away and we're basically abandoning the world we've been methodically building for the last 3 years in favour of World War II. It's a pretty impressive move, but it pays off well enough that it never feels like we're just marking time until Cap gets flash-frozen for easy delivery to The Avengers.

The Villain
Speaking of doubling down, Red Skull is the absolute perfection of the Evil Shadow routine we've been toying with on and off (mostly on) since Iron Man. He's Captain Hitler with a weird face, weirder accent and a power set that matches the hero's exactly. I actually really like Hugo Weaving's hilariously evil performance here. He's been set what is probably the least enviable task in all of cinema - be less likeable than the Nazis - and he tears into the role with phenomenal energy. By contrast, Tommy Lee Jones never really seems like he knows where he is or why. He looks like a disappointed, soggy teabag in a uniform, sadly mumbling his bewildered way through his part.

The Story
SPOILER ALERT: the Nazis lose World War II.

Actually, as it turns out, the Nazis are barely even involved in World War II. It's all about Hydra, apparently. The Hitler-boys barely get a look-in after the first half hour. It's wall-to-wall death rays and super-bombs. We get a decent amount of Agent Carter - who's essentially the MVP of the film AND the war. Obviously, they're painted into a corner as to continuing characters who can plausibly make the transition to the main roster. Even so, it always feels like they were setting Carter up for something more, which they then couldn't pay off in either the films or the seriously under-seen TV series.

The Universe
Considering the setting, Captain America does manage to put a fair amount of continuity balls in play. We get enough Bucky to build the Winter Soldier out of later, plus our second version of Howard Stark. Dominic Cooper does a good job, but he just seems really... tiny, compared to the older Stark we see in Iron Man 2. Of course, they switch actors yet again the next time Big Daddy Stark shows up, so... whatever. Arnim Zola looks like a promising addition, but it's not worth getting attached because they piss him right down their legs in his next appearance. It's slightly weird that the super-serum's creator is called Erskine here, when he's Reinstein in Incredible Hulk. There's a reason for that in the comics, of course, but they don't go into it in the films. Oh, look - there's that Tesseract again. I bet that's probably important...

The Stinger
The Avengers are coming. Here's a cut-down scene from that.

The Take-Away
Considering how much of the action Cap sits out, selling war bonds instead of punching Nazis, this is still a big-time action flick. Surprisingly gory in places, with Hydra soldiers getting minced in flying bomb propellers. Cap transitions quickly from "I don't want to kill anybody" to "I'M KILLING ALL THE THINGS!" with no explanation or comment but, other than that, no major problems. We get our first warning that touching an Infinity Stone is bad for you here - which sets up a key Guardians of the Galaxy plot point, but also a weirdly inconsistent moment in the next MCU film. We'll jump that shark when we come to it, though...

Previously: Thor
Next: Avengers Assemble

Tuesday, 30 January 2018

Approaching Infinity Part Four: Thor (2011)

Okay - this is where the MCU kicks off with some authority, for me. They've danced around the wilder aspects of superheroics so far by offering either just-about-plausible technologies or familiar takes on tried-and-tested 70s TV shows. Thor is the MCU's first taste-test on a grander scale, and it very nearly pulls it off without a hitch. We get a pretty complex villain, a decent mix of comedy and drama and some solidly planted seeds for future exploration. The dialogue lets it down in places, notably in the Asgard bits, but all in all it could have been a whole lot worse if  Kenneth "Brick-Subtle" Brannagh been given enough creative rope to hang himself.

The Villain
Loki is pretty much the linchpin of MCU villainy, so it's almost weird that we're 4 films in before we meet him. He neatly dodges the Evil Shadow problem by having an established mythology behind him (however mangled Marvel's interpretation might be), and is just really well played by Tom Hiddleston. He's genuinely conflicted a lot of the time, but keeps falling victim to his own nature. By this point, the MCU is going about 50/50 in killing off the bad guys in their films, so it was a relief that Loki's ambiguous end in this film gets quickly clarified during the credits - even if that kinda steps on the dramatic climax of the film.

The Story
Thor throws everything at you in the first few minutes in an attempt to steamroller you into acceptance of the stuff they might otherwise seem ashamed of. In fact, they do such a good job of establishing the power of Thor and the world he inhabits that it feels distinctly weird when they abandon it all early on to talk about quirky astrophysicists and unlikely hospital escapes. It's all pretty goofy from the outset, of course, but they get a lot of mileage out of making everything seem convincing and consistent while we're in Asgard, then throwing it all into sharp comic relief when the gods start walking the Earth. De-powering Thor for half the running time feels cheap - and maybe even a little cowardly. The Destroyer still looks cool, though.

The Universe
We get a lot of new stuff hurled into the ever-expanding Marvel-verse with Thor - a whole mythology's worth, in fact. This is the point where the MCU really earns its U. There are a couple of weird choices - the 2 minutes of half-arsed Hawkeye we get, for example. There's some retrospective confusion about the Casket that gets kicked around here, too. Once the Tesseract is introduced at the end, it seems like they might as well have used that instead to avoid having 2 blue, glowing super-weapons cluttering up the place. Anyway, we get some more solid Coulson work, plus the first appearance of Sitwell. Jane Foster and her peripheral cast seem like a wasted opportunity now, given the amount of work put into establishing them here, but that's a purely post-Thor 2 hindsight issue and we're not there yet.

The Stinger
Okay, we're reaching the Phase 1 climax, so this credits sequence had to be something special. We get a little Nick Fury to sweeten the pot, an Infinity Stone and an instant, slightly odd resolution of Loki's apparent death. The stakes are ramped up respectably, and we're on our way to The Avengers...

The Take-Away
The Asgardian scripting and delivery is clunky in places, with those clumsy little mock-Shakespearean flourishes tripping everyone up. Thor himself does a decent rage-sulk and even Anthony Hopkins doesn't seem quite as bored as usual. Idris Elba, as always, deserves a lot more time and attention than he gets, though. As a radical expansion of the ground Marvel films can cover, Thor more than does the job it needed to. Even the CGI holds up surprisingly well. Thor was a creative risk, but more than earns the weirdness it introduces.

Previously: Iron Man 2
Next: Captain America: The First Avenger

Monday, 29 January 2018

Approaching Infinity Part Three: Iron Man 2 (2010)

SPOILER ALERT: I probably like this film more than you do.

Iron Man 2 gets slapped around on the internet quite a lot, for no good reason I can see. In comparison to previous MCU entries, we get a lot of bad guy per square inch, and more character development than the rest of the films combined. There's plenty of practical action to complement the CGI work, and all told it does the job well enough. The world-building is solid without getting in the way of the main story, and there are a few comic-based crowd-pleaser moments thrown in. I still can't bring myself to believe that an entire Iron Man suit fits in a briefcase that still weighs little enough for agitated stick-figure Gwyneth Paltrow to toss around, but generally the faults are minor enough to let slide.

The Villain
Iron Man 2 does some interesting work with the bad guys. Mickey Rourke's constantly moist Ivan Vanko probably has the most coherent backstory and motivation of any MCU villain so far. He's a physical and tactical threat both in and out of costume, ties into the Iron Man origin pretty neatly and follows a clear objective all the way through. For me, those features alone make up for the fact that he's a bit of an arbitrary mash-up of whip-themed villains and Evil Shadow clichés. By now, it's pretty clear that the main drive of Marvel villainy is firmly rooted in James Bond's "we are not so different, you and I" bullshit.

Underlining this to the point of scoring through the paper altogether is Sam Rockwell's Justin Hammer, who's effectively a Tony Stark cosplayer with some money behind him. That said, Rockwell does what he does every time you put him on a screen - steals it, eats it, then somehow steals it again. I genuinely lose all interest in Stark's suicide-adjacent storyline every time Rockwell appears.

The Story
Your dad was probably a more complicated person than you realised. Also, the guy from 9 1/2 weeks got huge and wants to kill you with laser-whips.

The plot's pretty serviceable, as these things go. Tony's inconsistently explained heart battery is killing him, but it's also the only thing keeping him alive. Pepper Potts is getting enough heavy lifting to do in the story to make her much more than the jittering irritant she was threatening to become. Everyone wants Stark's Iron Man suits, from the government to his business rivals. In the end, almost everyone gets what they wanted.  Even Vanko dies on his own terms, believing he's won by avenging his father. Only Hammer gets shafted outright, by my count. Happily Ever After...


The Universe
Iron Man 2 sneaks a lot of MCU into its relatively short running time. We get Hammer, Black Widow, War Machine, a blink-and-you'll-miss-it Ten Rings moment and an always-welcome touch of Coulson on the side. Hammer never gets another serious mention after this until the Luke Cage series, sadly, barring a possibly homophobic comedy moment in the Marvel One Shot, All Hail the King.


The Stinger
This is the first time an MCU stinger has more or less been lifted straight from the film it references. More Coulson is always better than less, of course, so no complaints there. To me, though, this stinger reads mostly as a test of how "on-board" we are as an audience. They're saying, "look - you stuck with us through all the science fiction stuff, and that's great. The thing is, we more or less HAVE to do Thor, okay? It's going to be a bit of a gear change from the stuff we've been doing, but we'd get eaten alive by the comics people if we left him out."


The Take-Away
I don't get the Mickey Rourke hate, or the generally ugly vibe I hear so often around Iron Man 2. What's more, we finally get a villain with a game plan and a reason for opposing the hero. All told, it's a reasonably strong film.

Previously: The Incredible Hulk
Next: Thor

Tuesday, 23 January 2018

Approaching Infinity Part Two: The Incredible Hulk (2008)

Episode 2 of the Marvel soap opera series is barely recognised as part of the MCU at all, from the way people talk about it. If Iron Man was a weird opening gambit because no one really cared all that much about the character, Hulk should've been an easy shot at an open goal by comparison. The old TV series is still thought of disproportionately fondly, given how simplistic it looks to a modern eye. In fact, I'd probably argue that the key weaknesses of The Incredible Hulk grow out of the inspiration it draws from the Bill Bixby show. From the replication of the TV classic origin sequence to the light slicing across Ed Norton's green-lensed eyes in the first transformation sequence - not to mention the Ferrigno cameo part-way through - the first wall The Incredible Hulk smashes is the fourth wall.

All that said, I really like this film.

Norton plays his neurotic little heart out as Banner, William Hurt does a damn good job bringing a second dimension to a furiously one-note character and Liv Tyler makes the brave decision to act exclusively through motions of her upper lip. It basically hangs together pretty well, all things considered.

The Villain
For the sake of argument, I'm going to call Tim Roth's Emil Blonsky/The Abomination the villain of this film. There's definitely a case for Ross to be made, but I think it's pretty clear where the main threat's supposed to come from.

If Obadiah Stane's motivations were a little tough to pin down at times, they were clear as day compared to Blonsky's. He's a weathered career soldier given a physical boost by the military. He instantly becomes addicted to... well, either the power or the face-punching and goes about ramping up his treatments any way possible. By the end, he's totally batshit and just wants to fight the Hulk, Ross and anyone else with literally no end game in sight. Suppose everything had gone right for him and he killed both the Hulk and the army. What was his next move? He's huge, angry and - let's not dodge the subject - naked on the streets of a major US city. Does he think he's still getting paid for any of this? Is he planning on getting more mercenary work, or will he be changing career? Does he even know where his next protein shake's coming from?

Oh, yeah - chalk this one up alongside Iron Man in the Evil Shadow column as well.


The Story
This is a Louis Leterrier film, so the story is necessarily about people doing parkour. Like, virtually everyone. Banner does parkour, the army does parkour, Blonsky does major parkour - even the Hulk does parkour.

Somewhere in the middle of the parkour, basically the only story that's ever been told in live action about the Hulk gets told again. Banner's trying to hide from the army and cure himself. The army's trying to hunt him down and weaponise him and eventually Hulk has to save everyone from something worse than himself. It's serviceable.


The Universe
There are a lot of orphaned ideas in this one, so as a world-building exercise it's kind of a dud. Betty Ross vanishes after this moment. The Abomination never shows up again, despite the fact that he's definitely still alive and the authorities clearly have absolutely no way of restraining or containing him. The Leader's here, kinda - but again we'll probably never be picking that thread up again. I guess the major lasting legacy of the film is the revelation in the final moments that Banner can now transform more or less at will. Of course, it also muddies the waters a bit by linking the Hulk's emergence strictly to Banner's heart rate, rather than specific emotional states. Meh...


The Stinger
Not much to say about this, really. It's pretty much a repeat of the one from Iron Man, but with Tony Stark playing Nick Fury and General Ross playing Tony Stark. Good to keep the ball rolling, though.

The Take-Away
I think The Incredible Hulk's been neglected a bit, as pretty much the last MCU film before the MCU (and Marvel Studios itself) became a thing. There are apparently legal issues preventing further stand-alone Hulk films, and the switching in of the non-parkour, non-yoga-doing Ruffalo as Banner more or less draws a line under the while thing. Nevertheless, this is still a very watchable flick and a worthwhile brick in the MCU wall for me.

Previously: Iron Man
Next: Iron Man 2
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