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)


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
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