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.


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
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