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
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