Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw (2019)

“Pinhead.” “She-Hulk.” “Sumbitch.” “Wanker.” “Bulldog Balls.” “Asshole.”

These are just a few of the lovely pet names the double-ampersand stars of Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw call each other throughout what unexpectedly turned out to be a deeply, deeply unpleasant trip to the movies. Of course, a little misguided machismo is always to be expected when venturing out to a Fast & Furious movie, but there’s usually an underlying sweetness & sincerity to the series that’s sorely missing from this scaled-down spinoff. Director David Leitch is unfortunately operating here in his Deadpool 2 shock humor mode rater than continuing the over-the-top action cinema slickness he brought to John Wick or Atomic Blonde. Fast & Furious is an absurdly melodramatic series in which global-scale action set pieces are flimsily glued together with teary-eyed speeches about what it means to be Family. It’s understandable why a spinoff from the series would operate with a smaller scale & budget in its action, but once you also substitute its Sappy Bro messaging for winking-at-the-camera meta humor there’s nothing left that feels Fast or Furious at all. It also doesn’t help that this film’s approach to “jokes” is to have its two absurdly muscly stars, The Rock & Jason Statham, insult each other for two solid hours about the size and/or existence of each other’s dicks. It’s as exhausting as it is repugnant.

The best way to encapsulate what’s so wrong-headed about this deviation from Fast & Furious tradition is to point to the godawful stunt-casting choices the movie floats as potential new members of the Family: Kevin Hart & Ryan Reynolds, two absolute clowns who believe any #haters don’t find them as funny as they believe themselves to be are #triggered #snowflakes. Their above-it-all, insincere Family Guy snark humor seeps into the rest of the film’s DNA like a fast-acting poison. In fact, the literal, potentially world-ending poison that Hobbs & Shaw are tasked to contain in this single-conflict plot is called Snowflake as a reflection of that #edgy sense of humor. You can hear it echo in a subplot wherein Hobbs & Shaw are wrongly reported by the Fake New media to be criminals instead of heroes. Worse, you’re strangled by it in every over-written one-liner insult they bitterly trade throughout, like when one describes hearing the other’s voice as feeling “like dragging my balls against shattered glass” and the other retorts, “Oh yeah, well, looking at your face is like having God projectile vomit right in my eyes.” Shut the fuck up, you cruel, unpleasant goons. The only satisfactory line of dialogue from either knucklehead is when they simultaneously point at each other and complain “This guy’s a real asshole!” I couldn’t agree more, but I don’t understand why that should entice anyone to spend 137 minutes with either of them, much less both at once.

Not everything about Hobbs & Shaw is a misstep. The third act of the film, in which our titular Heroic Assholes attend a family reunion in Samoa to overthrow their heavily armed enemies Ewok-style, is sincerely cheesy & melodramatic in a way that actually feels at home with Fast & Furious pathos. The earlier action sequences in urban spaces like London & Moscow are more aesthetically similar to the series’ past but aren’t nearly distinct enough in their goofball stunts to make much of an impression (give or take a shapeshifting motorcycle that hilariously defies all laws of physics, Transformers style). Hobbs & Shaw really finds itself in its Samoa stretch once its stars decide to get along for a common good and cool the insults for a much-needed breather. It’s too little too late, though, as the bitter taste of them flipping each other off & calling in false alarms so that security guards anally probe each other (har, har) has already poisoned the mood beyond repair. Vanessa Kirby & Idris Elba are also welcome additions to the cast who somehow shine through the winking snark humor as a badass hero and a futuristic supervillain, respectively, but both performances deserve to be in a real Fast & Furious movie instead of this Deadpool-flavored knockoff.

A lot of people complained when Statham’s character made the jump from villain to Family in this series, even starting a #JusticeForHan hashtag campaign to protest the decision. It was never really a complaint that registered with me, since the only consistent thing about the Fast & Furious series from the beginning has been its total disregard for consistency in favor of in-the-moment thrills & novelty. By the time the series had forgotten its allegiance to Coronas at its Family cookouts for crew to instead toast each other with Bud Lights or some other such blasphemy, it was clear that nothing is sacred. Apparently, that includes the one thing that has been consistent to this series up until this point: its big, stupid, dorkily sincere heart, which contrasts wonderfully with its over-the-top action. That’s a damn shame; the series is nothing special without it.

-Brandon Ledet

Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

Thor: Ragnarok marks the third Marvel release of the year that focused on fun and adventure, and all for the best. After last year’s kinda-dreary Civil War and the visually arresting but narratively empty Doctor Strange, the film branch of the House of Ideas was in top form this year, churning out an equal sequel with Guardians of the Galaxy 2 and the delightful Spider-Man: Homecoming. Although Guardians 2 may have leaned a little hard on the beats with its humor (kind of like your friend who tells great jokes but is also a little desperate and always ends up laughing too hard at himself) and Homecoming was an out-and-out comedy with intermittent superheroing, Marvel brought it home with a good balance of strong character moments, spaceships flying around and pewpewing at each other, new and returning cast members with great chemistry, and a hearty helping of the magic that is Jeff Goldblum.

After visiting the fire realm ruled by Suftur (voiced by Clancy Brown), Thor (Chris Hemsworth) returns to Asgard after a few years galavanting about and looking for the Infinity McGuffins, only to find Loki (Tom Hiddleston) still disguised as Odin (Anthony Hopkins) and ineffectually ruling Asgard while propping up the myth of the “dead” “hero” following Loki’s supposed sacrifice at the end of The Dark World. Thor enlists Loki in helping him seek out the real Odin on Midgard (Earth), but events conspire to release the long-imprisoned (and forgotten) Asgardian Goddess of Death, Hela (Cate Blanchett).

Her return to Asgard to take the throne leaves Thor and Loki stuck on the planet Sakaar, ruled by the Grandmaster (Goldblum), who offers the space- and time-lost denizens of the planet their proverbial bread and literal circuses in the form of massive gladatorial games. As it turns out, this is where our old buddy the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) ended up after his exit at the end of Age of Ultron, and he’s the champion of the arena after having stayed in his big green form since we last saw him on screen. Also present is Scrapper 142 (Tessa Thompson), a former Asgardian Valkyrie who likewise found herself on this bizarre planet after being defeated by Hela before her imprisonment. Meanwhile, Heimdall (Idris Elba) is hard at work putting together a resistance and biding his time until Thor and company can return to Asgard, stop Hela and her new lieutenant Skurge (Karl Urban), and prevent Ragnarok.

Despite apparently being no one’s favorite Avenger and being overshadowed in virtually every installment by inexplicable (to me) fan favorite Loki, Thor has experienced a lot of growth in the past six years since he was first embodied by Hemsworth, and so have his films. The Dark World was, in many ways, the nadir of the MCU franchise as a whole (until Doctor Strange came along), where it felt like everyone was just going through the motions after having a lot more fun with the surprisingly pleasant balance between the fish-out-of-water humor and royal family drama of the first film. I quite like Natalie Portman, personally, and I would have loved to see her continuing to have a role in these films, but she was sleepwalking through that last film with so much apathy that she made Felicity Jones look like an actress.

Here, however, everyone is totally committed to the job, which is probably easier under the guiding hand of the bombastic and colorful Taika Waititi, who seems to be the embodiment of Mr. Fun, than it was in a film helmed by Alan Taylor, whose work tends to be more grim, if not outright melancholy. This is a movie with setpiece after setpiece, all in different realms and on various planets with their own palettes and aesthetic principles, which lends the film a verisimilitude of scope, even though each conflict (other than the opening fight sequence) comes down to something much more intimate and personal: the friction between selfishness and the responsibility to something greater than oneself. The wayward Valkyrie forsakes her desire to drink herself to death while running from the past in order to defend her home once again, Bruce Banner risks being completely and permanently subsumed by the Hulk in order to lend a hand when Asgard calls for aid, Skurge finds a strength he didn’t know he had when faced with the extermination of his people, and even Loki ends up making a decision that helps others with no apparent direct or indirect benefits to himself. The oldest being in the film, Hela, has never learned this lesson despite having nearly an eternity to do so, and it is her ultimate undoing (maybe), and it’s a strong thematic element that comes across clearly in a way that a lot of films from the MCU do not.

There are some mitigating factors, as there always are. Those of you hoping for a Planet Hulk adaptation are going to be mightily disappointed, although you should definitely check out Marvel’s direct-to-video animated version, which is not only the only unequivocally good animated film Marvel produced before ceding that realm to DC, but also has a starring role for my boy Beta Ray Bill, who has a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo as one of the faces carved into the Grandmaster’s tower. There are also some character deaths earlier in the film that I think are supposed to be shocking in a meaningful way, but come on so suddenly and have so little effect on the plot that it feels kind of tasteless. I would have loved to see more of Sakaar’s arenas as well; it’s hard not to feel cheated when a movie promises some gladiatorial combat and ends up giving you only one match-up.

I’ll save the rest of my thoughts for our Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. review, but I’ll say this for now: this is a fun summertime Thor movie that somehow ended up being released in November, but it’s nonetheless a delight. Check it out while it’s still in theaters, as you should never pass up the opportunity to see a live action depiction of that ol’ Kirby crackle on the big screen.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Star Trek Beyond (2016)

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A few months back, I wrote about the then-upcoming release of Star Trek Beyond and discussed my hopes for the film and the franchise in general. I wasn’t particularly excited after the first trailer, but the second trailer seemed a bit better, and the fact that Simon Pegg was one of the credited writers was certainly a point in the film’s favor, given his actual fondness for the franchise (in comparison to Roberto Orci, which I’ll get to in a minute). A generally favorable early critical response was also heartening, despite the general dearth of any significant marketing push for the film. I did see the same TV spots play before almost every YouTube video I watched in the past three weeks, but I can never tell if that’s marketed to me specifically as a Star Trek nerd scholar or indicative of a larger initiative. And, as a scholar, was I satisfied?

Yes? Mostly? This is definitely a fun movie, and a major improvement over the tone deaf Into Darkness, which was bad on a such a high number of levels that it’s difficult to nail down which one was most absurd. Was it the nonsensical nature of the motivation of the film’s antagonists? Was it the fact that their motivation might actually make sense when viewed through the lens of the particular madness of screenwriter and notable 9/11 truther Roberto Orci (there’s a decent article about this on BirthMoviesDeath, which is pretty great even though I have mixed feelings about Devin Faraci)? Was it the recasting of a character whose name is Indian and was previously portrayed by a person of color with Benedict Cumberbatch? It was probably that.

I went into greater detail about my feelings about both of the previous films in this reboot timeline in the previous article, so I won’t get into it here, but I will say that, although this film is being billed as a return to Star Trek’s roots or a real “classic style” Star Trek story, that’s not entirely true. Of course, given that the same thing was said about Insurrection back in 1998 (and, for better or worse, that’s a more or less true description of the film’s premise if nothing else), that’s not necessarily a bad thing. This is still a film that takes characters from a fifty year old television series where most problems were solved within an hour and attempts to map them onto a contemporary action film structure, which works in some places and not in others. Other reviews of the film have also stated that Beyond is a more affectionate revisitation of the original series than the previous two films, which is also mostly true. The film does suffer from the fact that the opening sequence bears more than a passing resemblance to a scene in Galaxy Quest, which is a stark reminder of the kind of fun movie that can be made when someone loves Star Trek rather than simply sees it as a commercial venture. Overall, though, you’d be hard pressed not to get some enjoyment out of this film, Trekker or no.

The film opens 966 days into the Enterprise’s five year deep space exploration mission, and Kirk (Chris Pine) is beginning to feel the weight of both the mission and the impossibility of living up to his father’s legacy. When the ship docks at Starfleet’s newest starbase, Yorktown, a ship appears from a nearby nebula containing one alien astronaut, who says that her ship crashed on a mysterious planet within said nebula and asking for assistance. In true Federation fashion, Kirk and Krew jump at the chance to help out, but are immediately attacked as soon as they penetrate the nebula; the crew is forced to abandon ship, ending up scattered and/or captured by the villainous Krall (Idris Elba), who seeks a doomsday MacGuffin in order to exact violence against the concept of peaceful unity in general and the Federation in particular because of its idealization of these virtues. Along the way, Scotty (Pegg) meets a woman named Jaylah (Kingsman’s Sofia Boutella), who helps him reunite the crew and to plan a rescue and escape.

There’s a lot to love here. There are references peppered throughout to other parts of the franchise, and instead of feeling hamfisted or forced as in previous installments of the reboot series, they feel natural here. There are more overt connections, with the basic plot about a dangerous planet that acts as a graveyard for various interstellar travelers and their ships being somewhat reminiscent of the animated Star Trek series episode “The Time Trap,” as well as one of the proposed fates of a starship lost a century previous being that it was snatched by a giant green space hand, which happened to the original Enterprise in “Who Mourns for Adonis?” Kirk’s opening log even references the fact that there’s a lot of shacking up going on aboard the ship during its mission, which is undoubtedly a reference to the fact that NBC balked at Gene Roddenberry’s proposal that the coed Enterprise crew be composed of roughly half men and half women; the story goes that one exec stated that this would make it seem like there was an awful lot of “funny business” going on. Likewise, Roddenberry’s original script treatment was about a starship that bore the name Yorktown, not Enterprise, leading to the starbase in this film being named for the former. Those are pretty obscure references to pull out and use for the plot of this movie, and that’s pretty indicative of how much this film cares about the fandom. More obscure references, like discussion of the dissolution of the MACOs and the Xindi and Romulan Wars (all of which are references to Star Trek: Enterprise), the possibility of accidentally splicing two people together with transporters (transporter accidents are fairly common in the franchise, but this is probably a shout out to the Voyager episode “Tuvix” in particular), Kirk’s birthday melancholy and even some of the lines he uses in his toast (from Wrath of Khan), and the appearance of a Commodore Paris (the Parises being a family with a long history of Starfleet ervice, most notably Tom Paris of Voyager) are scattered throughout and are, frankly, quite welcome.

Of course, references do not a great Star Trek film make. There are some things that don’t quite work, and given that the film runs just shy of 2 hours and that there has been some discussion of what was cut (mostly backstory for Krall and Jaylah, but smaller moments like Sulu kissing his husband as well), there are some things that don’t quite read as well on screen as they likely did on the page and/or before the film was edited down. I’m also never going to be completely on board with the use of high speed land-based chases in Star Trek; I know that Justin Lin comes from the Fast/Furious franchise so that’s really his wheelhouse, and as a result these sequences at least work better than previous attempts (I’m looking at you, Nemesis). And I know that it’s nitpicky to point this out, but there’s a lot of Hollywood science going on in this movie. First of all, nebulae are not composed of giant rocks; they’re made up of mostly dust and ionized gases. The film presents the nebula surrounding the mystery planet as being more like the Hollywood imagining of what an asteroid belt looks like, with city-sized rocks knocking into each other; real asteroid belts are mostly empty space with some rock throughout (in space, such a small area with such large pieces of debris would mean that the rocks the Enterprise works so carefully to navigate would pulverize each other into dust within a very short time, relatively speaking).

But, this is still a good movie. There is a classic Star Trek idea here, in that Krall hates the idea that the galaxy is uniting under a banner of peace instead of strength/valor and will do terrible things to demonstrate his devotion to his anti-Federation ideals, as well as the fact that he is opposed and ultimately defeated by the strong bonds that the crew of the Enterprise have and their devotion to the ideals of unity and exploration. It’s not a terribly deep humanistic ideal, and is so faintly traced that the film could be accused of paying lip service to that idea more than actually exploring it, but the fact that this film actually bothers to have this idea means that this movie is actually Star Trek, and not just JJ Abrams’s Star Wars demo reel wrapped in Star Trek’s clothes. The new additions to the cast are very engaging as are the old standards, and there’s a lot of story here that makes it well worth investing in a visit to the theatre. The end of the film legitimately left me with damp cheeks (for those of you who have already seen it, I’m talking about the photo that nuSpock finds in Spock Prime’s possessions), and I can’t wait to see it again. It’s not a five-star movie, but it has my seal of approval.

Final thought, though: The Franklin is said to be the first ship capable of achieving Warp Four; on Star Trek: Enterprise, the NX-01 Enterprise is said to be the first ship capable of achieving Warp Five, even though the Franklin seems to have come later in the timeline given that her captain’s service record includes participating in the Xindi conflict, which followed shortly after Enterprise’s first few years of service. I’m not saying that this can’t work (the Franklin could actually be older than the Enterprise but Captain Edison took command of her later, like how OG Kirk took over command of the Enterprise from Christopher Pike, took command when Robert April was promoted to Commodore). I’m honestly just pointing this out because if I don’t mention it, someone will call me out on it.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Dr. Strange, Marvel’s Race Problem, and Conscientious Objection

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Marvel has a race problem. There’s really no arguing with that, unless you’re just not paying attention. So far, black men in the MCU have largely been relegated to secondary roles; Anthony Mackie’s Falcon and Don Cheadle’s James “Rhodey” Rhodes are great characters who play important roles in their respective films, but they’re still essentially sidekicks for the white main characters. Even in Age of Ultron, white newcomers Wanda and Pietro get more screentime than Falcon or War Machine; the two black characters are stuck on the second string. Idris Elba is awesome in the Thor films, but he’s still consigned to staying out of the action and isn’t treated with the same kind of importance in the rest of the MCU as other members of Thor’s supporting cast (like Stellan Skarsgård’s scientist or Loki, both of whom appeared in Avengers, with Dr. Selvig even making his way back to the action for Age of Ultron*). I understand that Gamora is green in the comics, but that doesn’t change the fact that Guardians of the Galaxy featured the biggest role so far for a black woman in this franchise but also saw her ethnicity being erased in the most literal sense imaginable. The problem isn’t that they kept Gamora green, it’s that it  took that long for a black actress to feature so prominently in one of these films. How many Asian characters can you count in the films? There’s Hogun, whose appearances in the Thor films maybe add up to ten minutes of screentime, and there’s Helen Cho, the doctor from Age of Ultron. But that’s pretty much it, isn’t it?

Frankly, it’s kind of pathetic that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has managed to have more POC in major roles than the MCU proper has (with superpowered characters like Daisy, Jiaying, Giyera, Joey, Yo-Yo, and Raina along with non-powered people like Mack, Mike Peterson, Melinda May, Blair Underwood’s Andrew, Edward James Olmos’s interim SHIELD director, and others). It would be easy to say that, for instance, Jessica Jones has thirteen episodes a season and thus more time to develop the character of Luke Cage, or that Daredevil has more time to focus on Rosario Dawson’s Claire Temple, but that’s essentially making the argument that white characters are of primary import, and non-white characters need only be included “if there’s time.” I can already hear the objection that there’s a Black Panther movie coming out soon, so can’t I just be happy about that? And, hey, I am! But I can’t ignore that it took over a dozen films to get to the point where Marvel was willing to “take a risk” on developing a film about a black superhero. This is especially ironic given that the MCU wouldn’t exist were it not for the surprise success of Blade, which we’ve been talking about over in Agents for a while now (it’s not surprising that Blade’s importance has been largely erased from film history; how many articles have you read talking about how Deadpool is “the first R-rated comic book movie”?).

All of this is a long-winded introduction to say that Brandon and I will not be doing an Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. feature for Doctor Strange while the film is in theatres. He might take the opportunity to review the film independently, but I can’t in good conscience contribute to the box office for this movie. Batman v Superman was not a good film (rants from defensive fans aside), but there will be sequels because of what a financial success it was. Even though the contribution that I made to that success with my ticket fare is largely negligible, I cannot divest myself of some sense of responsibility. Doctor Strange’s whitewashing of the source material, and the blatant monetary reasons for doing so, are not something that I can condone or participate in, so I will not be seeing the film in theatres. Brandon may view the film in order to review it, but readers should not expect an Agents point/counterpoint review until after I have the opportunity to view the film without contributing to it financially.

If you’re upset about this, decrying that Doctor Strange has never been depicted as a POC in the mainstream Marvel continuity and therefore the MCU is not beholden to make him non-white in the adaptation, then my guess is that you are already in the comments section letting everyone in the world know that you’re a low-key racist. But if you’re still with me, here are a few things to bear in mind. First, the argument that characters who are white in the comics should remain so in any and all adaptations because it stays “true” to the original vision of the creators ignores the history of representation (and the lack thereof) in entertainment history. The reason that there aren’t that many black or Asian or Latinx characters in comics isn’t because this is a natural result of reader interest. The reason that the Jay Garrick and Barry Allen Flash characters aren’t white in the comics is because they are of a different era, when accepting that white maleness was the default was the status quo; we live in the future, and it’s time to accept that. When you’re looking at a medium that is 95% white characters, expanding the number of characters who are non-white from 5% to 10%, 15%, or 20% is barely progress, and yet there are people who will fight tooth and nail to keep Johnny Storm, Wally West, and Stephen Strange white.

Secondly, it’s important to look at who is being left behind. Stephen Strange and Danny Rand (of the upcoming Netflix Iron Fist series) in particular are characters that would benefit from solidifying their ties to the Asian cultures that are relevant in their narratives (or, in Iron Fist’s case, connecting the character to something real rather than a fantasized fictionalized Asian culture). Iron Fist exists as a character because Marvel writer Roy Thomas caught a kung fu movie and thought it would be fun to do a kung fu storyline in the comics; Danny Rand’s basically a character that exists because of seventies films that reduced all cultures of the East into a single monoculture for the purposes of exploitation, just as Luke Cage was born out of the popularity of blaxploitation flicks. Yes, the character of Danny Rand is a white guy who is trained by the inhabitants of fictional K’un L’un, but he’s such an obvious choice to diversify the MCU that it boggles the mind that the powers that be chose to cast white actor Finn Jones instead of an Asian actor (off the top of my head Osric Chau comes to mind, or Godfrey Gao if you want to skew a little older). The Netflix adaptations up to this point had actually been somewhat radical in that they focused on characters who exist in marginalized spaces: the handicapped (Daredevil), women in general and abuse survivors specifically (Jessica Jones), and African American men (the upcoming Luke Cage). Casting a white actor as Iron Fist is a total fumble and isn’t even internally consistent with the other Defenders programs.

But when it comes to Doctor Strange, it’s not just a matter of severing ties to an exoticized and fetishized “Orientalism” that was the ground from which Iron Fist sprang. Stephen Strange, in all adaptations, is a conceited surgeon whose fine motor control is lost due to an accident resulting from his hubris, ending his medical career. Confronted by his limitations, he must be apprenticed to the Ancient One, a centuries-old magic user who trains young sorcerers; he is drawn to Strange because he believes that the younger man will one day become the new Sorcerer Supreme, the most powerful wielder of magic of this generation. The history of the Ancient One is that he was born in a Himalayan community known as Kamar-Taj, in what is now Tibet. And that’s where Marvel runs into a problem.

It’s a natural end result of globalization (and cultural colonialism as American  media is distributed around the world) that the international market be taken into consideration with regards to marketing and distribution. Films can live or die these days on the international box office, and China is one of the largest consumers of American film as a consumer good outside of the domestic sphere. As much as we hear complaints these days from regressive pedants about media “pandering” to “SJWs” because of the inclusion of gay, trans*, queer, and POC characters (you know, like people who live in the real world), the most obvious example of pandering in film is the way that films set themselves up to play to the Chinese market. For the most obvious example, just look at the most recent Transformers film, which relocates its action to China in the final third of the film’s runtime, including product placement for Chinese companies that have no foothold in the U.S. You don’t have to pay that much attention to the news to know that Chinese citizens live under an information embargo, with strict censorship laws and an inarguably totalitarian government (unlike the U.S., where we live under a totalitarian economy that controls the government, but the internet is open enough that even flat earthers and anti-vaxxers can voice their absurd beliefs). Transformers 4 went so far as to actually prop up the Chinese government, which is, frankly, amoral. Can you imagine if The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms was made in 1940 instead of 1953 and featured a 40 minute finale sequence set in Germany, with characters asking if they should contact Der Fuhrer for help fighting off a monster, because he’s such a good leader? Yeah, mull that over for a minute.

What does that have to do with Doctor Strange? Well, sweet summer children, the mythos of the comic is strongly tied to Tibet, which was annexed by China and placed under the control of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army in 1951. Ostensibly, the PLA wanted to leave Tibet to operate autonomously, even guaranteeing the people of Tibet the right to religious freedom, but this was a colossal falsehood (the PLA was particularly anti-religious, and the Tibetan monks’ willingness to provide asylum and safe haven for rebels fighting against the oppression of the PLA made them particularly vilified). Tibetan sovereignty essentially died with the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), when Chinese officials destroyed monasteries, temples, and religious icons in an act of inarguable cultural genocide. Religious leaders and highly educated people were forced to undergo re-education, and exposure of these atrocities to the public eye (most notably with the famous photo of the protestor in Tienanmen Square) brought some attention to the plight of the Tibetan people, but the fervor of Western support was shallow and ultimately short-lived.

References to Tibet in media are, obviously, strictly censored in China. The government bans pretty much any person or piece of media that mentions Tibet at all; the possession of a Tibetan flag is a criminal offense in China. The Communist Party of China (CPC) has effectively destroyed an entire culture and is actively working to erase the history of their atrocity and the people affected by it from the face of the earth, which is sickening. My problem with Doctor Strange is not merely that Marvel cast Benedict Cumberbatch instead of a non-white actor, or that they cast Tilda Swinton as the Tibetan Ancient One, which is basic whitewashing of the character and problematic in its own right. My major issue is that, in doing so, Disney/Marvel is actively participating in the erasure and cover-up of a cultural genocide against the Tibetan people, all for the sake of ensuring that they can continue to see high profit margins on the international (and specifically Chinese) market. Marvel has changed their source material not to keep up with the times, but in order to cowtow to a regime. I am but one man, and a very privileged one at that, but I can recognize that this is amoral at best, and as such I will not be purchasing a ticket to see Doctor Strange. I hope that you will stand with me and do the same.

*I didn’t forget that Idris Elba is also in Ultron, but only in a dream sequence Thor has, which hardly counts.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

The Jungle Book (2016)

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I’ve gone on record as not being a particularly huge fan of Jon Favreau’s Iron Man movies, but it seems the director might’ve learned a thing or two about how to deliver a big budget CG spectacle while helming that franchise. Favreau’s latest effort, The Jungle Book, is a “live action” remake of a Disney animation classic & marks the director’s most impressive work to date. I put “live action” in quotes because there’s really only one live action character here existing in a computer animated world, newcomer Neel Sethi as the protagonist Mowgli, which sort of positions The Jungle Book among nostalgia-inducing titles like Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and, less deservedly so, Cool World. The film intentionally cultivates this nostalgic lens through certain subtle details like a decades-old yellow font for the credits that look like they were lifted straight from an ancient VHS cassette. It’s a smart decision that eases the audience into a certain level of comfort & familiarity despite the state-the-art technical prowess on display. Again, Favreau seems to know exactly what he’s doing here, as if he’s seen it all before.

The story of The Jungle Book may be familiar to many audiences by now, but I’ve personally never read its Rudyard Kipling-penned source material & it’s been a good two decades since I’ve seen the Disney original, so I honestly didn’t remember jack shit about it going in. The only detail of The Jungle Book that was clear to me when I entered the theater yesterday was the character Baloo’s personal anthem “Bear Necessities”. Indeed, the modern version of this story doesn’t truly come alive until Baloo’s personal laid back huckster philosophy enters the scene. Early depictions of the lovable scamp Mowgli interacting with various animals of the jungle (after being raised by a pack of wolves like a little badass) range from cute to terrifying to majestic, but also lack a distinct personality & emotional pallet that Baloo brings to the table. The Jungle Book is a two-fold tale of revenge (one for Mowgli & one for the wicked tiger Shere Khan) as well as a classic coming of age story about a hero finding their place in the world, but those plot machinations are somewhat insignificant in comparison to the emotional core of Baloo’s close friendship with Mowgli (which develops a little quickly here; I’d like to have seen it given a little more room to breathe). So much of that impact rests on the all-too-capable shoulders of one Bill Murray, who delivers his best performance in years here (outside maybe his collaborations with Wes Anderson).

You might think that performance wouldn’t matter so much in a film populated with CG animals, but part of what makes The Jungle Book such a technical marvel is how realistic the animal faces are while still retaining the expressive qualities of the actors who voice them. The film essentially looks like those nature-themed t-shirts you can only seem to buy at national parks & gun shows come to life, but it’s the motion capture technology that adds a whole other layer of awe to the film’s visuals. Lupita Nyong’o is very sweet as the wolf mother Rashka who tells who tells Mowgli things like “No matter where you go or what they call you, you will always be my son.” Christopher Walken is wonderfully bizarre as the mythically gigantic orangutan King Louie (I’m guessing his uncomfortable turn as Captain Hook last year was a kind of dry run?). ScarJo & Idris Elba are both effectively terrifying in their respective roles as a murderous snake & tiger (with Johansson more or less combining her parts in Her & Under the Skin on her end). None impress quite as much as Murray does here as the con artist bear Baloo, however. Just look at his Harry and the Hendersons moment when he has to push Mowgli away despite his deep affection and you’ll find more pathos in those thirty seconds than most of the rest of the film could carry with all the time in the world. Murray has always been exceptional in his interactions with children on camera & his casting here was a brilliant choice that elevated the material greatly in terms of emotional impact.

That being said, I do feel there was somewhat of an emotional deficit at work here that made The Jungle Book more of a technical achievement than an all-around cinematic one. This was the most awe-inspiring depiction of talking animals I can think of since George Miller’s Babe (and one of the best depictions of animal coexistence politics since Babe 2: Pig in the City), but it didn’t quite reach Babe’s emotionally impactful penchant for drama. I could easily recommend The Jungle Book the same way I’d recommend a Hugo or a Dredd. You have to see this movie in the theater. You have to see it in 3D. I just don’t think it commands quite the same emotional weight as some of Disney’s more pointed work, with Zootopia being a great example from earlier this year. I should note that I might’ve been a little distracted by exceptionally poor movie theater etiquette at the particular screening I attended (screaming children, repetitive Facebooking, 4/20 bros acting unruly, the full gamut), but my emotional detachment from the film still remains true. It was beautiful to look at & Baloo made it fun, but I wish it had hit me harder square in the feelings.

It’s also worth mentioning, because it’s such an unfamiliar reaction for me, that the end credits for the film might’ve been my favorite part of the whole ordeal. The obnoxious crowd scuttled out of the theater & left me mostly alone with a beautiful pop-up book animation on a blue velvet background that made excellent use of the 3D technology on hand by playing with depth & scale. Walken’s weirdo performance also returned to serenade the (mostly empty) crowd with more New Orleans-inspired tunage and that oddly nostalgic yellow font returned to make me feel warm & fuzzy for reasons that are difficult to pinpoint. All that was missing was some extra Bill Murray content. It sounds kind of vapid to say, but the end credits in itself seemed to position The Jungle Book as a huge advancement in cinema’s visual tools, with encouraging implications as to how that advancement could be applied in a meticulously manicured art film (once it’s more affordable/accessible). The film was visually fascinating & at times wildly fun, but for the most part it just made me excited about the future of movies in general.

-Brandon Ledet

Zootopia (2016)

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fourhalfstar

As I explained when reviewing the much-loved Inside Out last summer, I have a complicated relationship with CG animation. I typically find the medium’s general look to be uninteresting & its tendency for easy pun humor to be a relatively lazy waste of ensemble voice talent. It’s often difficult for me to differentiate between absolutely dire properties like Norm of the North & The Angry Birds Movie and more prestigious pictures like all of Pixar’s non-Cars output. Still, every now & then a film will sneak past my defenses. Despite the film’s flat, Puzzle Bobble-esque visual palette & simplistic modes of characterization, I found Inside Out to be an impressive feat in worldbuilding, a remarkably well mapped-out personification of how the inner mind acts & develops. The buzz for Inside Out was fairly massive, though (mostly due to its reputation as a Pixar release), so liking that movie wasn’t really much of a surprise. What really caught me off-guard was how much I enjoyed the latest Disney-produced CG animation Zootopia. After a horrendous ad campaign that has driven me to near-unbearable frustration with merciless repetition of its sloths-at-the-DMV gag (Get it? Because the DMV is slow! Like sloths! Haha. Ha.) & Disney directly reaching out to furries (seriously), I was prepared to hate Zootopia, or at least to brush it off as a trifle. Instead, it won me over wholesale. This is a really great, truly enjoyable film, one that even manages to feel Important without ever feeling overly didactic. Honestly, despite myself, I enjoyed it far more than I did Inside Out, which is supposedly the “smarter” picture.

The reason I enjoyed Zootopia so much is that it takes Inside Out’s meticulous attention to worldbuilding & applies it to a complicated narrative with themes that extend far beyond its own setting’s structure. Inside Out gets sort of lost in its own headspace. Zootopia maps out a metropolis-sized amusement park of interwoven, animal-themed neighborhoods (Tundra Town, The Rainforest District, etc.), but uses that intricate sense of setting as a launching pad instead of an end goal. Much like with George Miller’s surrealist classic Babe 2: Pig in the City, Zootopia follows a small animal taking on a giant metropolis far beyond her limited resources. As the film’s bunny cop protagonist navigates neighborhoods designed for animals that range in size from elephants to mice, it’s near impossible not to sit in awe of the thought & care that went into the film’s setting (or to get lost in how cute the mouse-sized miniatures can be). However, that setting isn’t the film’s main focus, but merely a platform meant to host an exploration of the film’s true focus: institutionalized racism & other forms of prejudice. Our fearless bunny cop protagonist, Officer Judy Hopps (voiced by Once Upon a Time’s Ginnifer Goodwin), attempts to earn respect in a system that doesn’t want her, repeatedly kicking in shut doors with the boundless enthusiasm of a Leslie Knope. Because of her size & heritage, her dream of being a Brannigan-esque supercop is often shot down just because she’s the wrong species. Even her parents advise her to abandon her goals, trying to sell her “the beauty of complacency” & the idea that “It’s great to have dreams just as long as you don’t believe in them.” Hopps refuses to stay in her predetermined place as a milquetoast carrot farmer, though, and pursues earning respect as an exceptional officer of the law. Her journey takes the shape of a missing person case that recalls noir-style mysteries of yesteryear & eventually dismantles (or at the very least disrupts) the very system mean to break her spirit. Officer Hopps might weave through various animal-themed neighborhoods with impressive attention to detail & constantly-shifting perspectives, but the intricate worldbuilding is meant to serve the purpose of her story, not the other way around.

As for the anti-prejudice allegory at the heart of Zootopia, it’s a metaphor that probably works best without being examined too closely. There are plenty of direct references in the film to recognizable, real-world issues (such as racial-profiling in the modern day police state & workplace politics that devalue contributions from women), but no one systemic underdog group works as a direct correlation to the film’s interspecies politics. This isn’t a film solely about racism or sexism or any other specific kind of institutionalized prejudice. It’s a film that addresses all of these issues in a more vaguely-defined dichotomy (kind of the way The X-Men have been metaphorically worked into all kinds of social issue metaphors over the decades). Zootopia structures its anti-prejudice moralizing around the way various species of “vicious” predators & “meek” prey have been conditioned to stereotype & alienate one another. Small animals can’t get giant cops to care about their misfortunes. Coded language (such as calling an animal of a more disadvantaged species “articulate” as a compliment) raise tensions between disparate groups. Well-meaning victims of prejudice are revealed to be just as guilty of wrongly (and constantly) judging a book by its cover. Zootopia is at its smartest when it vilifies a broken institution that has pitted the animals that populate its concrete jungle against one another instead of blaming the individuals influenced by that system for their problematic behavior. A lesser, more simplistic film would’ve introduced an intolerant, speciesist villain for the narrative to shame & punish. Zootopia instead points to various ways prejudice can take form even at the hands of the well-intentioned. It prompts the audience to examine their own thoughts & actions for ways they can uknowingly hurt the feelings or limit the opportunities of their fellow citizens by losing sight of the ideal that “Anyone can be anything.” It’s there that the film finds a beauty in endless diversity & a destructive force in institutionalized prejudice that both extend far beyond a cartoonishly simplified message like “racism = bad, so you shouldn’t be racist”.

It’s hard for me to say for sure if audiences, particularly children, are likely to find Zootopia funny. The gags that worked best for me were stray references to ancient media like The Godfather & REM. I was also amused to hear the always-welcome voices of Jenny Slate, Idris Elba, and Jason Bateman included in the cast (if nothing else, so that people I find entertaining could cash in on some of some of those sweet, sweet Disney dollars). For the most part, though, the film is more poignant than it is humorous. Despite what the film’s never-ending sloth DMV advertising campaign might’ve been trying to sell you, this is not a film that lives or dies by an onslaught of animal puns & exaggerated, species-based attributes. It’s much closer to the heartfelt, earnest end of the Disney spectrum. The production company/financial titan has become so adept at emotional shorthand that Zootopia had me constantly crying throughout its runtime, tearing up at the most saccharine of character beats (such as, say, a hopeful bunny rabbit defiantly ignoring her naysayers because “Anyone can be anything”) as soon as five or ten minutes in. The impressive thing is that Disney is able to wield this tonal power while both undermining the racial & gendered stereotypes of its own past and bitterly teaching the lesson that “Life isn’t a cartoon musical where you sing a song & all of your insipid dreams come true.” There were a few aspects of Zootopia that didn’t land for me: an insufferably shitty pop song performed (twice) by Shakira, a stray foxes-are-like-this-bunnies-are-like-that gag or three, some uncomfortable aspects of the anti-prejudice metaphor played for cutesy humor, etc. For the most part, though, the film is massively impressive (for a CG animation starring cute, talking animals). The attention-to-detail in its setting, the narrative stakes of its central mystery, and the overall theme of the ways institutionalized prejudice can corrupt & destroy our personal relationships all amount to a truly special, seemingly Important film. Pint-sized audiences might not squeal with laughter, but they might actually learn something a little more complex & nuanced than Inside Out’s assertion that “It’s okay to be sad sometimes” (which is a valid lesson for kids to learn, just one with a much easier path to success).

-Brandon Ledet

Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X.: Thor 2 – The Dark World (2013)

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Superhero Watching: Alternating Marvel Perspectives, Fresh and Longterm, Ignoring X-Men, or S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X., is a feature in which Boomer (who reads superhero comics & is well versed in the MCU) & Brandon (who reads alternative comics & had, at the start of this project, seen less than 25% of the MCU’s output) revisit the films that make up the Marvel Cinematic Universe from the perspective of someone who knows what they’re talking about & someone who doesn’t have the slightest clue.

Boomer: It seems silly now to think that the ongoing existence of the Thor franchise was not a given. Prior to the first film’s release, Kevin Feige announced that there would be a second Thor following the release of The Avengers, but Kenneth Branagh wasn’t so sure. In fact, his response to the news seems almost pessimistic, as he stated that he felt the audience would have to decide. At the time, there was gossip that this was a response to what must have been seen more and more by the individual directors as executive influence. Although our culture has a tendency to think of studio influence as an inherently negative contributor to a film’s overall quality (probably because its impact is negative in most cases), but there are examples of this kind of oversight working. Two prominent examples in this same genre are Star Wars and Star Trek: The Next Generation: in both cases, once the creator had full creative control the content took a nosedive, and the material itself vastly improved when the property was returned to more corporate oversight. Although this would later (famously) be the reason that Edgar Wright would leave the Ant-Man project, Branagh’s stated reasons for leaving Thor 2 were that he was hesitant to get straight back into production so shortly after the first film was completed, given the long lead times that effects-heavy films like the Marvel spectacles have.

Branagh’s successor was originally slated to be Brian Kirk, and the film would have been his feature debut after working as a frequent director on Game of Thrones. He entered negotiations for the project in August 2011, but ultimately backed out, citing contractual issues. Patty Jenkins, who had previously directed the biopic Monster and who is slated to direct the upcoming Wonder Woman, was brought on to direct, although she too left the project in December of 2011; this time, the cited reasons were creative differences. Ultimately, Alan Taylor, who had also previously worked on Game of Thrones as well as Mad Men, was brought on to helm the picture. Don Payne, who had a hand in the script for the first film, was brought in to draft the script. Payne lost his battle with bone cancer in March of 2013, and it can be assumed that he may not have been able to contribute in the creative process after his initial script treatment. Whether or not his declining health took him off the project, Robert Rodat was brought on to give it another pass. Rodat was most well known at the time for his scripts for Saving Private Ryan and The Patriot, and there’s a darker text to this film than the first that can be attributed to his influence.

On the casting side, Mads Mikkelsen was in talks to portray a villain in the film (presumably Malekith) but was was offered Hannibal and took that opportunity instead. The role of the Malekith ultimately went to Christopher Eccleston, a British actor known for his portrayal of the Ninth Doctor in the Doctor Who franchise and who is currently starring in HBO’s series The Leftovers. All major cast members were set to return, as well as virtually all of the minor characters. One of Thor’s buddies, Fendral, was recast; ironically, Zachary Levi was set to play him in the first film but had to back out due to commitment to Chuck, but he replaced Joshua Dallas in the role when the latter was pulled away by his obligations to Once Upon A Time. Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje was cast as Algrim, an elf supersoldier (yeah) who takes on the name “Kursed.”

For those of you who saw the movie once and then kind of forgot about it while waiting for the next Marvel movie, the plot is this: Once upon a time, Thor (Chris Hemsworth)’s grandfather Bor took a magical liquid McGuffin known as the Aether from the leader of a race of “dark elves.” These elves existed before there was light in the universe and who, as a result, hate lightness, goodness, and pretty much life itself. In the present day, an interdimensional alignment is occurring where all the different “realms” that Thor talked about in the first film will line up and physics will be a little wonky. Luckily for him, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) is on the scene investigating these strange phenomena. The alignment allows her to get lost inside another realm, where she stumbles upon Bor’s hiding place for the Aether, and she becomes infected by it. The plot contrives to trap Thor in Asgard, so he must enlist the help of Loki (Tom Hiddeston) to cross over to Earth and save the day from the villain who keeps trying to kidnap his girlfriend so she can help him destroy the universe itself.

Brandon, what did you think?

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three star

Brandon: There seems to have been a monumental shift in the Thor franchise here. If you boil the series down to its most basic parts there’s exactly two contrasting realms where the narrative operates (although its internal folklore is heavily tied to their being nine realms, the rest of which are mostly relegated for brief visits): Earth (or some kind of variation of Earth that has seen modern contact with gods, aliens, and supermen) & Asgard, some kind of golden city of the gods that rests somewhere across the dimensions & can only be reached by a rainbow bridge. The first Thor film staged a familial, Shakespearean drama on the mighty purty Asgard, (which was a perfect fit for director Kenneth Branagh’s background), but for the most part it was a fish out of water comedy set on Earth. Although an near-immortal god, Thor was buffoonish in his attempts to adapt to Earth life & spent most of his MCU debut acting like a profoundly handsome & powerful Mr. Bean. Thor 2 takes a wildly different approach to its superheroics, borrowing a little Chris Nolan gloom to dampen down the good mood (right down to the wormhole fascination & the emphasis on the “Dark” aspect of its title). One of the things I enjoyed most about the first Thor film was that it lightened the mood of the MCU in a sincerely wholesome way. It felt like the start of what many people consider Marvel Studios’ “house style”. The Dark World ditches that bright outlook for a much gloomier aesthetic, but I ended up enjoying the film well enough anyway. After seven un-Nolan superhero movies the MCU can easily afford to go angsty for a single picture.

Completely ditching the fish out of water comedy of the original Thor film, The Dark World instead delves deeper into the distant world of Asgard. There are some comedic elements to the film (mostly in Kat Dennings’ strait -out-a-CBS-sitcom comic relief goof Darcy), but the plot is for the most part dead serious. A lot of the same Asgardian concerns about who will take the throne when it’s left vacant by an aging Odin (played again by an even-more-game-than-last -time Anthony Hopkins) & who exactly The Gatekeeper of Asgard (an equally more-engaged Idris Elba) is faithful to play out exactly like they did in the previous film, just with enough time & attention to take the main focus. Thor is still gleefully oblivious of his obligations to the throne. Loki is still an evil, manipulative weasel who teases playing nice before he pulls the rug form under his gullible brother. Aliens from other realms are still trying to cut deals with Loki to take over the Universe. All is right in the world(s). Instead of dragging Thor back to Earth to make more of a fool of himself, it’s Natalie Portman’s scientist hottie Jane’s turn to make a fool of herself on his world. While investigating a “gravitational anomaly” (the aforementioned wormholes) Jane is infected with something called The Ether, which is essentially purely-concentrated space evil. This is no run of the mill space evil, either. It’s an “ancient force of infinite deconstruction” that turns matter into dark matter or some such hooey. Some alien baddies seek to reclaim & harness the space evil & there you have the basic makings of a ludicrously overstuffed Marvel Studios movie plot.

By far the best aspect of The Dark World is the film’s visual treats. If I weren’t watching the film for the purpose of this review it’d be the exact kind of thing I’d zone out for just to drool over the imagery in isolation. It’s the exact way I interact with (don’t shoot!) the Lord of the Rings franchise. I’ve seen Jackson’s adaptations countless times, but can name you only a few of the characters’ names without Google’s help & know very little of the plot outside the endless walking & the quest to destroy The Ring. I treated The Dark World much of the same way. It’s a feast for the eyes, a gloomy trudge through so many alien bests, war ships, and swirling storm clouds that any given farm outside of the Earth scenes could easily pas as a heavy metal album cover. I didn’t evoke that Lord of the Rings comparison lightly, either. As soon as the film opens with Hopkins intoning the Epic Tale of the Dark Elves & warning of the One Ether to Rule Them All, Jackson’s work was already at the forefront of my mind. I was prepared to space out & maybe confirm some plot details on Wikipedia after the end credits. Honestly, that’ s probably something I should still work on. The details are a little fuzzy, but I really enjoyed what I saw.

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twohalfstar

Boomer: I forgot about everything that happened in this movie pretty much the moment I walked out of the theatre in 2013. I remember enjoying it as a pleasant diversion, but it’s apparent that this movie is spinning its wheels. The number of different directors who were at one point attached to the property makes one feel that there is a lot of welding between different ideas for the film, and not all the of the connections work. There’s also the fact that there are parts of this film that feel like the first Thor in tone but are out of place in this darker overall film. It also feels like there was a lot cut out of the movie, especially with regards to the motivations of the villains. Loki’s motives are the same as they always are, and his arc (such as it is) feels largely like a retread of everything we’ve already seen. They even have him reprise his “you must be truly desperate…” line from The Avengers, which feels less like an echo and more like a cynical cut-and-paste from one script to the next. Eccleston is particularly underutilized, as he has virtually no distinguishing features that separate him from all of the other generic genocidal dictators that make their home in this genre. The man is probably the best actor to portray a villain in this franchise since Jeff Bridges, and he’s utterly wasted in a role that a mannequin could play.

The tone is too dissimilar from the first film as well. Thor took place almost entirely in New Mexico and Asgard (give or take a couple of field trips to Jotunheim), and the bright sun of the former and the boisterous lighting of the latter gave that film a warm quality, and the gray overcast skies of the British Isles are a stark contrast. That dissonance characterizes The Dark World from its predecessor, and the tonal shifts within the film itself, along with the handing off of writing duties from Payne to Rotan, leads me to infer a few things. There may have been a hesitation to throw out too much of a dying man’s work, but Rotan’s tendency toward darker storytelling highlights the scenes that retain Payne’s lighter take from the first film and makes them stand out even more. There’s an argument to be made that, should you find yourself watching A.I., you can see the moment when Kubrick died and Spielberg took over to complete the film, because their individual visions conflict with more than complement each other. There’s an element of that here, where you can see Rotan take over from Payne, and the end result is a bit of a mish-mash of ideas.

The women in Thor’s life take it the worst this time around. Although Jane’s scientific knowledge comes through at the end of the film to save the day, she spends most of the movie in near catatonia, saying few lines and having to be protected constantly. The MCU has largely avoided the damsel-in-distress routine that seemed to be the standard in comic book film (give or take your Pfeiffer Catwoman) up to this point, but this is an all but a textbook example. Rene Russo’s Frigga has the best scene in the film (when she protects Jane from the invading elves), and her funeral is the closest the film comes to having a tone that works both as an amalgam of Payne and Rotan’s approaches and to a compelling feeling overall, but it’s not enough. Kat Dennings gets more to do this time out and, although I find her screen presence enjoyable, it didn’t do more to expand our understanding of Darcy, instead simply repeating character beats from the last time we saw her. In no other film is it more apparent that the MCU is killing time. Kevin Feige likely made a mistake by committing the film to a 2013 release date before locking in a creative team, because the final product feels somehow both rushed and overproduced. I think the upcoming third Thor film, Ragnarok, will be a step up, but only time will tell.

Lagniappe

Brandon: It wasn’t entirely intentional, but I’ve mostly relegated my thoughts on the MCU’s post-credits stingers to these “Lagniappe” segments so that they’ve become sort of a meta post-review stinger in a weird way. So, I guess I should touch on the two that occur here. One is a teaser for the (then) upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy movie that worked perfectly well by accomplishing two succinct missions: introducing Benicio del Toro’s weirdo “collector” character & relegating talk of the Infinity Stones MacGuffin to the credits, both of which were fine by me. Even more innocuous was a second stinger that served as one last romantic beat for the Me Thor You Jane relationship, which, again, was fine. I’m usually a lot more likely to be annoyed when the stingers are the sole tie to other properties in the MCU through a quick two-line cameo. That quick cameo actually occurs much earlier in The Dark World in a scene where Loki mocks the ultra-wholesome (and all-around best Avenger) Captain America in a one-off goof. I don’t know if it’s just that I like Cap so much or what, but that gag was actually quite amusing for me. It was at least funny to watch Chris Evans mime Loki’s sardonic version of himself.

Speaking of Loki, The Dark World really turned me around on that little scamp. I wasn’t particularly invested in his character as anything more than a pissant weasel before, but things took a much more interesting turn here: he reveals himself to be hurt & emotionally vulnerable in a way that never felt quite as convincing before. This turn toward the occasionally sympathetic makes his acerbic brutality all the more interesting when he inevitably changes his mind & commits himself to evil. Not that his Kylo Ren emo tantrums weren’t still amusing. I got a particularly good giggle out of the exchange where Thor confesses “I wish I could trust you” & Loki responds “Trust my rage.” That’s some high quality angst right there.

Boomer: Now that we’ve had Chris Eccleston play a villain in this film and David Tennant as Kilgrave on Jessica Jones, I guess it’s only a matter of time before we see Matt Smith in this franchise. Also, it’s such a bummer that they killed off Frigga in this film, but I am hopeful that they may find a way to bring her back for Ragnarok. A trip to the afterlife isn’t entirely out of the question for this franchise, right?

Combined S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. Rating for Thor 2 – The Dark World (2013)

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three star

-Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X.

Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X.: Thor (2011)

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Superhero Watching: Alternating Marvel Perspectives, Fresh and Longterm, Ignoring X-Men, or S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X., is a feature in which Boomer (who reads superhero comics & is well versed in the MCU) & Brandon (who reads alternative comics & has thus far seen less than 25% of the MCU’s output) revisit the films that make up the Marvel Cinematic Universe from the perspective of someone who knows what they’re talking about & someone who doesn’t have the slightest clue.

Boomer: The ironic thing about the Marvel Cinematic Universe is that it owes so much to the success of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, but Thor owes its placement in the MCU to the failure of that series of films, although I’m getting ahead of myself. Sam Raimi initially conceived of making a Thor film after he finished production on 1990’s Darkman, one of the best films ever made about a costumed hero even before one takes into account that it was not based on a previous intellectual property. This project never got off the ground, but after the success of Bryan Singer’s first X-Men film in 2000, interest in the potential of adapting Marvel’s Thunder God was renewed, although by that time it was being considered for a series adaptation for UPN. After a few years of discussion, the project was again tabled until Kevin Feige started dreaming up the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

In 2007, Mark Protosevich, fresh from having written the screenplay adaptation of the Will Smith vehicle I Am Legend, based on the novel by Richard Matheson, expressed interest in drafting a Thor script. That same year also saw the beginning of the definitive 21st Century arc for Thor comics in the wake of Civil War, penned by J. Michael Straczynski. Straczynski was already well known in nerd circles for having created Babylon 5 (and would become even more so following the publication of One More Day, the notorious Spider-Man arc in which Peter Parker makes a deal with Mephisto that costs him his marriage and unborn child). This new direction, envisioning a newly recreated Asgard hovering over farmland in the American breadbasket, featured interaction between Asgardians like Thor, Sif, and Balder and locals. You can see a definite influence from that story in this film, even if the specifics are quite different.

Ultimately, both Protosevich and Straczynski ended up with story credit on this film, with the screenplay credit going to Ashley Edward Miller & Zach Stentz alongside Don Payne (the ampersand here indicating that Stentz and Miller worked together on their version of the script). Stentz and Miller had also previously worked together on television series as varied as Andromeda, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, and Fringe, where they created the scripts for several episodes of the second season, including the premiere. The last screenwriter, Don Payne, had a series of one-to-two episode stints on utterly forgotten sitcoms in the nineties, like Hope & Gloria, Pride & Joy, Men Behaving Badly, and something called The Brian Benben Show. His breakthrough big screen work was 2006’s My Super Ex-Girlfriend, which is the antithesis of the above-cited Darkman, in that it is one of the worst films ever made about a costumed hero, even after taking into account those others which were not based on previous intellectual properties. As Payne also had the critically and popularly reviled 2007 Fantastic Four sequel on his C.V., there was much speculation about whether or not Thor would be the MCU’s first artistic and financial failure (which was later the speculative case for Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man).

At the same time, over at Sony, the Spider-Man series was running out of steam. The goodwill that was built up by the first two films had been virtually obliterated by the backlash against the third when it was released in 2007. Jokes about Peter Parker’s pseudogoth makeover following his bonding with the Venom symbiote persist to this day, even after an entire reboot series in the interregnum between Tobey Maguire and the new kid set to reappear when Spidey finally shows up in the MCU. A script for a fourth film was solicited, and concept art even appeared in Wizard Magazine showing designs for the costumes of Vulture and his daughter (supposedly to have eventually been played by John Malkovich and Anne Hathaway, which seemed farfetched even then). Ultimately, however, Spider-Man 4 was cancelled following friction between Raimi and Sony, and the release date for Thor was bumped up. Kenneth Branagh, who was most well known for his adaptations of Shakespeare, including Much Ado About Nothing and As You Like It, was brought on as director. With such a long time in development limbo and with so many fingers in the pot creatively, there was much debate as to whether Branagh’s film would be any good.

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three star

Brandon: At this point in the MCU’s trajectory I was just desperately hoping for a movie that didn’t involve Tony Stark in any way. It’s no surprise, then, that Thor ended up being my favorite film in the franchise so far, especially since I had set the bar so underachievingly low. The silliness is cranked to deliriously enjoyable heights in this film, a nice change from the wealthy douche fantasy fulfillment of the Iron Man movies & the somber romance machinations of The Incredible Hulk. Thor is essentially a fish-out-of-water action comedy about a Norse god stranded in Modern Times America once he is banished from an Oz-looking palace on a planet where gods live for being “nothing but a little boy trying to prove himself a man.” This is a film where a one-eyed Anthony Hopkins plays a space lord in a golden Jack Kirby getup similar to Skeletor’s at the end of Golan-Globus’ Masters of the Universe. Idris Elba, also playing a golden space lord, serves as a “Gatekeeper” for a “rainbow bridge” that can transport these gods to any location in the Universe (although they often end up settling for America, because of course they would). And then there’s the copious amounts of lush, reverent shots of a magical mallet, a.k.a. Thor’s hammer. It’s all quite ridiculous.

The comedy didn’t work nearly as well in Iron Man because it was coming from a nasty, misogynistic place. The Incredible Hulk had flashes of comedy spread throughout its runtime, but they were mostly buried under an overwhelmingly grim tone. After watching the self-absorbed antics of a playboy billionaire & the pensive longing of a blood-poisoned scientist, it was thoroughly refreshinging to watch an empty-headed, naive, absurdly trusting bimbo of an ancient god bumble his way through political relations between warring planets & through the logistics of life in modern America. And because Thor is played by handsome/buff/charming actor Christ Hemsworth, there’s an absurd lean towards shirtless beefcake here that’s a nice change after two movies’ worth of Tony Stark’s grotesque womanizing. Natalie “What Is She Doing Here?” Portman is also pretty refreshing as Thor’s Earthling arm candy, which is somehow less gross than it is when Tony Stark’s endless parade of faceless hotties fill that role. It’s at the very least amusing when Portman’s smitten scientist easily gives in to her boy-toy’s explanation of the Universe’s nine realms & his own origins in a place “where science & magic are one & the same”, disregarding all skepticism that would be necessary for her to sustain a career in her field.

I’m not saying that the film is entirely successful. It’s just that it’s silly enough to pass as an entertaining trifle. Most of what gets in the way of Thor being a thoroughly winning film is director Kenneth Branagh’s over-reaching personal style. I know that it’s a common complaint that Marvel Studios doesn’t allow for enough of a personalized touch in its films & relies heavily on a “house style” (especially considering the way they homogenized the typically-recognizable work of Edgar Wright & James Gunn), but I gotta say that most visual traces of Branagh’s touch are distracting in this particular case. I suppose he was well suited for the task based on the Shakespearean nature of Thor’s home life on the magical god planet Asgard, but the melodrama is laid on fairly thick here. Far worse is the director’s perverse use of Dutch angles, tilting the camera so drastically left to right to back again that I swear it was mounted to a seesaw. The effect was downright nauseating. There were also some generic superhero movie problems afoot here presumably out of Branagh’s control. The CGI “Frost Giants” serve as pretty bland, vaguely-defined villains. Tom Hiddleston’s Loki has a thoroughly unsurprising heel turn in the second act (Could anyone ever buy him as a “good guy”? Don’t answer that). There’s a pretty annoying false-death crisis (or “Disney Death” if you will) in the third act, etc.

None of these faults register as too tragic, though. For the most part Thor is a decent example of what sets the MCU apart from other post-Dark Knight superhero franchises: lighthearted humor. This a fun, dumb movie, one with irreverent gags like its alien god protagonist demanding that a strip mall pet store provide a horse or a dog/cat/bird large enough to ride & getting called a “dumbass” when he mindlessly wanders into traffic. I suppose they mostly made this tonal choice to contrast the ridiculous/large-scale power its Norse god hero holds in comparison to the blood-poisoned scientist & rich douche with a mech suit heroes in the films prior. Whatever the reason, it was a welcome glimpse into the mindless fun of films I had previously seen from this “universe” before starting this project: the two Avengers movies, Ant-Man, and Guardians of the Galaxy. It makes me a lot more eager to continue watching how this whole thing unfolds, as opposed to how Jon Favreau’s Iron Man movies were beating me down.

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fourhalfstar
Boomer: I was a little nervous about rewatching this film. It was the first MCU movie that I saw in theaters (in 3D, even, because some of my friends were a little slow to realize what a cheap and useless gimmick that is and always has been); in fact, we went to the opening night, and I still have the half-sized poster the ticket taker handed out to prove it. Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk had failed to make a huge impact on me even though I found them passable, but I was more hesitant to commit to a Thor movie. I had only been introduced to Thor as a character (outside of his involvement in Avengers and crossover events) as of the Straczynski run mentioned above. This was a character with a very involved backstory and so many supporting characters that I wasn’t certain how that would translate to the screen; moreover, this was a character that actually mattered to me as a reader, and I was almost certain it was bound to fail. My expectations were overturned, and I remember walking out of Thor and immediately texting several of my nerd friends in other cities about how it was one of the best comic book movies I had ever seen.

My concerns that the movie would not hold up turned out to be unfounded as well. The market saturation of the MCU and the omnipresence of superhero narratives has dulled a bit of the movie’s shine (not to mention some serious Loki fatigue brought on by the continual revisitation of that character), but it still holds up as a fun movie that manages to lend gravitas to the more outlandish and potentially cheesy ideas. Although it borrows the same tired opening structure as Iron Man—a bunch of characters in a vehicle encounter an event, and then the film flashes back to show the audience “how we got here”—the film makes this stupid in-media-res-then-[x time]-earlier thing seem fresh. In fact, considering that the film credits the story and script to a cumulative five people, the narrative is surprisingly streamlined and internally consistent, never splitting focus to the point where the audience becomes bored (as was the case with Iron Man 2).

I have to admit that I have never seen any of Branagh’s Shakespeare adaptations, but coming from that world probably made him the person best suited to helm this film, especially considering that the title character and his entourage were always based more on Shakespearean drama than real Norse myth anyway. The Thor books always used characters from a largely dead religion with great dramatic license; one of the most noteworthy things about Marvel’s Thor is that he has blond hair, but traditional Norse Thor has a fiery red mane and beard. It’s fine that the comics (and thus the films) deviate from tradition, and it’s much more fun to accept the Elizabethan speech patterns than try to rationalize them. The plot is like someone threw a Shakespeare anthology into a blender with some Norse characters and made a smoothie that was not merely palatable but compelling: a Lear-like Odin has unwittingly instigated a rivalry between his roguish natural-born son and the Iago-esque son he adopted; he realizes that his son is not yet fit to lead, to so he banishes him to a far-off land to teach him a lesson, but falls ill before the prodigal’s return, allowing his even more ill-suited, manipulative son to take the throne.

Thor could easily come off as terribly unlikable (and some parts of the internet will defend any interpretation of the film which lends itself to positing that Thor was a bully and Loki was justified in his actions by default), but Chris Hemsworth deftly treads the line between aggression and exuberance. Ultimately, he keeps Thor sympathetic and the audience is invested in his evolution from an immature prince to knowledgeable leader with enough wisdom to know that he is not ready to be king but will be one day. Tom Hiddleston is also quite good in his role, and I really enjoyed watching his manipulations this time around. It’s hard to divorce the role from the overwhelming outpouring of Loki apologia that has haunted particular corners of Tumblr for the past five years, but he does well in keeping Loki grounded. Sure, Loki wants More! Power! just like Obadiah Stane, Justin Hammer, and General Ross, but this desire stems less from the lust for power itself and more from his need to demonstrate his worthiness to his father. Of course, whether or not that’s actually the case or just one more of his manipulations is never made utterly clear, which is what makes him so interesting.

As a character and in theory, Thor had the potential to be just as much of a jerkass as Tony Stark; as the potential future leader of the highest realm, he was an even greater child of privilege than Stark was (as much as Howard Stark swaggers, I sincerely doubt he ever gave Tony a “all the light touches will one day be yours” speech). The film is well served by focusing on his depowered earthbound adventures, as this allows Thor to be a newcomer who must learn the ways of the new world in which he finds himself. Instead of your typical origin story, this is a spiritual journey in which a man who believes that his way is the only way and that peace can only be achieved with subjugation becomes a man who understands the importance of self-sacrifice and the realizes that the most virtuous use of power is to show mercy. Those are hardly groundbreaking concepts, but they’re larger and more thoughtful than the topics tackled in superhero films before this point, and Thor represents a step in the right direction towards more heady ideas and more inventive plot structures for the MCU.

There’s a lot to love here, from the humor of Thor’s exploration of Midgard, the great interactions between Jane and her crew of ragtag science outsiders, Thor’s confrontations with S.H.I.E.L.D. and the early-bird introduction of Hawkeye, the incredible performance that Idris Elba brings to a largely thankless part, Anthony Hopkins’s pitch-perfect Odin, etc. In fact, the only element that rings a little false is Jane and Thor’s relationship, which moves too fast. As a narrative weakness, that’s pretty common, and may even be part of the intentional Shakespeare atmosphere, but it doesn’t irreparably harm the movie. Overall, this was the first truly good MCU flick, and proved that there was potential for Marvel projects that weren’t based on names with which mainstream audiences were already familiar.

Lagniappe

Brandon: Although I enjoyed this film more than any other entry in the MCU so far, it did backslide a bit in terms of making its inter-connected universe count for something. The exciting development in Iron Man 2 was that it finally gave non-Iron Man Marvel characters something significant to do in an Iron Man film, namely ScarJo’s Black Widow & Sam Jackson’s Nick Fury. Here, Nick Fury is again relegated to post-credits stinger status & future-Avenger Hawkeye basically just pops into acknowledge that he exists. There’s also a quick, throwaway reference to Iron Man in a climactic battle with a space robot where one of the members of S.H.I.E.L.D. asks “Is that one of Stark’s?”. Speaking of S.H.I.E.L.D., they’re actually given the most do here as connective tissue, acting as total Big Government dicks even though they’re essentially on the same team as the scientists they overpower. That was a nice touch. I’m still getting the sense in these early MCU films that the studio was getting too ahead of themselves in promising the next big spectacle where all of this will finally pay off (in the first Avengers film) instead of making it count for something in the moment.

It’s also throwing me off how out of date & behind the times these films feel. This is mostly detectable in Thor by taking a glance at free spirit/comic relief Darcy’s (Kat Denning’s) wardrobe. I’d swear that her awful hats & scarves where purchased sometime in the early 2000s & not in 2011 if I didn’t know any better. Similarly, Thor’s ragtag group of immortal ass-kicking buddies are amusingly out of step with what’s cool & what’s corny (although I suppose you could argue that some of that effect was intentional). At some point in its lineage the MCU became the cutting edge of superhero cinema. I’m still not seeing it yet.

Boomer: Josh Dallas’s Fandral looks really silly here. Like, really silly. Every time he appeared in a scene, it really took me out of the moment. Also, how strange is it that his daughter on Once Upon a Time is played by Jennifer Morrison, who in turn played the wife of Chris Hemsworth’s character in the Star Trek reboot? That has absolutely no bearing on this movie but felt it merited consideration. As for how Thor fits into the rest of the MCU, this film features the return of fan favorite Coulson, although S.H.I.E.L.D. is outright antagonistic for the first time in this film in a way that will be explored further down the line. This is also the first appearance of Agent Sitwell, who was a total non-entity to me the first time I saw Thor, but his appearance here is noteworthy based on what comes to light later. Also, in retrospect, I can’t believe it took four films to finally introduce a villain who would recur later in the franchise (not counting General Ross, who is set to reappear in Civil War). It’s just too bad they’ll go to the Loki well so soon and so often that this goodwill will wear out.

Combined S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. Rating for Thor (2011)

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fourstar

-Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X.