Ghost Stories (2018)

It can be amazing how much an ambitious, go-for-broke ending can raise a horror film out of genre-faithful tedium. Every now and then a potentially so-so horror film like The Boy, Marrowbone, or The House on Sorority Row will go so deliriously off the rails in its final stretch that its conclusion will elevate the entire middling picture that unfolded before it to a retroactive artistic high. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film pull that trick off as well as the cheapo British horror anthology Ghost Stories. For most of its runtime, Ghost Stories pretends to be a very well-behaved, Are You Afraid of the Dark?-level horror anthology with open-ended, unsatisfying conclusions to its three mildly spooky vignettes. It turns out that dissatisfaction is deliberate, as it sets the film up for a supernaturally menacing prank on an unsuspecting audience. As its individual pieces start lining up into a clear, distinct gestalt, the film devolves into a playfully bizarre, sinister mindfuck. Ghost Stories had me shrugging off its minor charms as a cheekily funny horror anthology for nearly 2/3rds of its runtime, and then somehow turned the experience around in its final half hour to make me reconsider it as one of the more cleverly conceived genre films I’ve seen all year.

Adapted from a stage play by the same name, Ghost Stories is about an “arrogant & disrespectful” celebrity skeptic with “modern disregard for the spiritual life,” who’s achieved minor fame as the host of the (fictional) television show Psychic Cheats. His life’s work is called into question when his aging hero, another famous skeptic who he’s been worshiping since he was a child, reveals himself to now be a true believer in the paranormal. The older skeptic offers a challenge to the younger one in the form of three unsolved case files he could not himself prove to be hoaxes. Anchored by recognizable Brits Martin Freeman, Paul Whitehouse, and The End of the Fucking World’s Alex Lawther, these three case files are laid out in rigidly segmented vignettes that slowly chip away at the younger skeptic’s sense of reality. Their stories of psych ward hauntings, ghostly apparitions, and woodland demons are a little too toothless in their shocks & gore to leave much of an impression individually. However, as strange, menacing details build up & recur around the skeptic as he investigates the cases, a cold undercurrent beneath the film’s deceptively well-behaved horror anthology surface begins to pick up strength & speed. By the end of the film, the individual case stories cease to matter as a much more sinister narrative builds around the details lurking at the edge of the frame.

As a genre, horror is built on the foundation of disruption. Whether supernaturally or via a real-world force, there must be a break in the daily routine of reality for a film to qualify as horror in the first place. Following titles like Trick ‘r Treat & Southbound that have been playing with the structure of the horror anthology as medium in recent years, Ghost Stories presents its own disruption of reality by way of disguise. The film boldly masks itself as a middling, decent enough supernatural picture for most of its runtime, exploiting audience familiarity with the horror anthology structure to lure viewers into a false, unearned comfort. I’ve never had a film border so close to outright boredom, then pull the rug out from under me so confidently that I felt both genuinely unnerved & foolish for losing faith. That kind of patience is not going to work for everyone. Without the distraction-free environment of a movie theater, I can see many VOD viewers walking away from Ghost Stories mid-film or scrolling through social media throughout, feeling like they’ve already seen everything it has to offer before. The ending only works if you stick with the film’s minor visual details and moments of unexplained pause, affording it patience & attention. It’s a glorious, surprisingly heady prank of a conclusion, though, one of the best horror film turnarounds I’ve ever seen.

-Brandon Ledet

Black Panther (2018)

Oh man oh man oh man, the magic duo of people’s sexiest man alive Michael B. Jordan (not to be confused with People‘s Sexiest[?] Man Alive[?] Blake Shelton[?]) and Ryan Coogler has done it again. Black Panther is as fantastic as we were all hoping, and I’m super excited that Marvel Studios finally started using the privilege of being this generation’s premiere film franchise (for better or worse) to finally push forward with an explicit intersectional, anti-colonialism, and afro-positive message. I’m here for this, and you should be too.

It’s been a little less than two years since I wrote out my thoughts on Marvel’s race problem, which I drafted up in response to the whitewashing of the character of the Ancient One in the then-upcoming Doctor Strange film. That film was a disappointment on more levels than that (there’s a reason our Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. coverage hasn’t resumed, as every time I think about rewatching Strange I get depressed) Since then, superhero broadcast and cinematic media has gotten better about addressing the ongoing issues that are shaking the foundations of our society, and even our democracy. For instance: Supergirl continuing to knock it out of the park as far as political commentary goes, from Cat Grant’s speech in the season two finale (appropriately entitled “Nevertheless She Persisted”) to the show’s episodic intro for this season (“My name is Kara Zor-El. I’m from Krypton. I’m a refugee on this planet.”). The CW also premiered Black Lightning at the beginning of this year, which I’m also finding both to be both moving and entertaining in addition to drawing more attention to issues that middle America tends to ignore. In the first episode alone, our hero Jefferson Pierce faced disproportionate police violence against communities of color, the preponderance of racial profiling in America, the bias of media when reporting on black citizens in comparison to treatment of white citizens. Our media should and must address these vitally important issues that demand attention and discussion in our culture right now, when the Attorney General is using (barely) coded language to signal to white supremacists that they have tacit approval from and are welcome to be part of law enforcement amidst dozens of other horrors.

I’m speaking out of my lane a bit here, as neither a woman or a person of color, and I’ll be the first person to admit to that. I’m not the final word on this, and I have no authority to speak to these matters. What I do have is a responsibility to do so. As Bell Hooks tells us in Homegrown: “Privilege is not in and of itself bad; what matters is what we do with privilege” (emphasis mine), and as such I want to take a second to talk about Star Trek: Discovery (I know, I know, but hear me out). The Star Trek franchise flirted with queer themes a number of times before this most recent series with episodes like TNG‘s “The Outcast” and DS9‘s “Rejoined,” but those episodes, when they discussed queer identities and presences in society, did so with a reliance on metaphor to distance the characters from the “taint” of homosexuality in the getting-better-but-still-not-great nineties. In Discovery, when we finally see Dr. Culber and Lieutenant Stamets standing at their sink and brushing their teeth together, then stealing a quick kiss, I cried. It’s hardly important, not plot-relevant (at least at the time), and part of me wants to decry that this is barely good enough, and yet… seeing, for the very first time, a reflection of myself in the fictional universe that had meant so much to me elicited an emotional reaction for which I was not prepared. Culber and Stamets—Hugh and Paul—were not victims. They weren’t dying of AIDS or as the result of violence, neither was the butt of a joke or a sassy best friend, they weren’t having to face systemic oppression or deny their birthrights to be together; they simply were.

People of black African descent watching Black Panther will have some of the same feelings I had watching Discovery and other feelings as well. There are better and clearer thinkers out there from whom you should be getting this information, but just in case Swampflix is the only website you read and are under a cultural embargo in every other way, listen up: there’s no one-to-one correlation between the experiences of one marginalized group and another, and the history of colonialism is baked into every single facet of contemporary life. The current progressive discourse is about intersectionality and rising higher by lifting each other and standing shoulder to shoulder, but white people like myself are still the beneficiaries of a social order built virtually entirely to ensure our supremacy and maintain a status quo that keeps the reigns of power in white (or, given the current political situation, orange) hands. If you’re capable of empathy and the most basic building blocks of open-mindedness, you either already know this or are not surprised, but down here on the ground in flyover country, even in a progressive urban enclave like Austin, we’re still trying to get the White Gays™ understand intersectionality even just a little bit. Their claims of having have an “inner black woman” are misogynoir in the first degree, their vocal disgust at people of size is fascism of the body, the sexual fetishization of black men is racism, and the claim that sexual attraction to only one (or all but one) ethnicity is “just a preference” is, at its core, a statement of “I treat people differently based on the color of their skin.” Institutionalized homophobia and racism are both legacies of colonialism that (just in case the people in the back didn’t hear me the first time) is a factor in every level of Western society; we’re struggling to slough off like so much dead skin, but some people will take any small advantage that they have without a moment’s hesitation or a second thought to those whom they may be stepping over. That’s something that the alt-right is happy to take advantage of.

I’m sure that, among readers with a moral philosophy that differs from the values I hold, this will be interpreted as some bleeding heart liberal cuck virtue signaling. Maybe a review of Black Panther isn’t the place for me to air my grievances with the White Gays™ and the fact that even my beloved Supergirl anchors itself pretty solidly in the garden of white feminism; I’ve gone a bit off track, but I just wanted to point out to you, dear reader, that even if you are not a person of color, Black Panther is still a movie you ought to see, and basic empathy means that you should be able to grasp some small part of the immeasurable importance of this film, even if its message of empowerment isn’t aimed at you directly. Despite the issues within my own community, I as an individual recognize the awesome power that representation has, and moreso the power of representation that forsakes the trappings of the meager pittances of visibility that came before. Not every movie about The Gays has to be Philadelphia, not every trans* movie has to be Boys Don’t Cry, and not every movie about the black experience has to be 12 Years a Slave. Representation can and must transcend dramatization and metaphor-making of real world trauma; the past and the framework it created for contemporary existence cannot be denied, but looking to the future is important too. This movie may not be for you, but you will be better for having seen it, and the huge numbers of white Americans who would never pay to see a movie with an (almost) all black cast were it not a Marvel property will also be better for it. This is a film company that has become an indomitable box office powerhouse using that power for good, and that’s worth celebrating.

Away we go! Black Panther picks up shortly after Civil War, showing T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), prince of the technologically advanced isolationist African nation of Wakanda, preparing to take on the mantle of king after the death of his father T’Chaka (John Kani) in that film. He retrieves his ex-girlfriend Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) from the mission she is on as a “war dog,” a term for Wakandan spies living in other nations, and returns home to be greeted by his mother, Queen Ramonda (actual goddess Angela Bassett), and tech wiz younger sister Shuri (Letitia Wright). His coronation is preceded by ceremonial combat, in which he engages M’Baku (Winston Duke), the leader of a different tribe, for control of the throne. Filling out his coterie are: General Okoye (Danai Gurira, who steals the show), leader of the Dora Milaje, elite female warriors who serve as kingsguard; spiritual leader, tender of the garden of heart-shaped herbs that give the Black Panther his power, and overseer of the transition of power Zuri (Forest Whitaker), who also hides a shameful secret; and W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya), T’Challa’s confidante and Okoye’s lover. Meanwhile, a literal and figurative world away, American black operative Erik Stephens (Jordan), aka Killmonger, has teamed with Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis, reprising his role from Age of Ultron) to raid Wakanda in order to steal vibranium, the precious metal that fell to earth long ago and accelerated the technological advancements of Wakanda far beyond its neighbors. Stephens, however, has a greater purpose than Klaue has dreamed, and their machinations lead T’Challa to reunite with American CIA operative Everett Ross (Martin Freeman). Unexpected revelations occur, the long-term reverberations of a shameful act that happened in 1992 echo through the present, and fierce debates about the potential for colonialist interventionism to arise from pure and honest intentions, the de facto violence of isolationism in a world teetering on the precipice, and the wisdom of building bridges versus the foolishness of building walls arise.

That’s a lot of discourse to wrap up in a 134 minute superhero film that has to introduce nearly a dozen heretofore unseen characters, establish vital information about the history of a fictional nation that is unlike any society in the real world, and create a stunning afro-futurism aesthetic that looks cooler than anything else we’ve seen before in this franchise (only the colorful world of Ragnarok really comes close). On top of that, the film also has to give the audience the action thrills that they’ve come to expect: a (badass) car chase, two slugfests on a waterfall outcropping, a (kind of forgettable) opening sequence under the cover of darkness, a casino shootout, and the final climactic battle. But Coogler manages to compress all of those things into that runtime, and churns out an early contender for one of the best movies of the year. Just like Get Out last year, this is a February release that I predict will continue to be part of the conversation for quite some time to come. Granted, Disney is essentially a national economy unto itself, and this is a “product” for them in the strictest sense, but Marvel Studios seems to have learned the lesson that getting out of the way and letting their directors have extensive creative control makes for better art (who could have guessed?). The only bad thing about creating a movie with so many rich layers and elements is that it’s almost impossible to decide where to begin discussion.

First things first: I can see why this movie is making racists angry, especially those who hate being called out on being the recipients of the benefits of being the descendants of colonizers. Ross is explicitly called a colonizer, and much hay is made of the fact that Wakanda has only managed to reach their staggering technological achievements because of the nation’s isolationism, made explicit in the text by showing other African states being devastated by the slave trade in the film’s opening moments. I come from a rural white family and have family members on Facebook, so I know what its like, as I assume you do, to see the same people who want to “Never Forget” incidents like 9/11, Pearl Harbor, the Alamo, and whatever else you can put a name on that involved Americans being heroic in the face of tragedy (although what defines “heroism” and “tragedy” varies from ideology to ideology, especially when talking about something like the Alamo) but are also vocally resistant to movies like the aforementioned 12 Years a Slave, saying things like “why can’t the past be the past?” I’d wager that no matter what walk of life you come from, you’ve got at least one of these people in your social network because of family or work connections; they’re probably going to hate this movie, because this ideology so often goes hand-in-hand with disliking any art made by people of color, regardless of quality (funny that), although they usually couch it in the rhetoric of “it’s not for me” or “I just don’t understand because it’s not something I know.”

And that is not to say that the film is without flaw. Of all the conspiracy nonsense out there, one that I hate the most is the “ancient astronauts” theory. Ever since Erich von Däniken published Chariots of the Gods? in 1968, the idea that various architectural wonders of the ancient world were inspired by extraterrestrial contact has gained wide acceptance among the irrational, a problem that has only been exacerbated by the History Channel’s passive approval of the idea with the launch of TV shows like Ancient Aliens. But the truth of the matter is that the “paleo contact” and “ancient astronauts” hypotheses are also part of a colonial narrative. Europeans in Africa and the New World saw the ziggurats and pyramids that had been built using rope, stone, wood, and gumption and said to themselves “Well, sure Monte d’Accoddi and the Hulbjerg Jættestue and Newgrange were ancient structures that our ancestors built with primitive tools, but how on earth did these non-white pagans do it? [Snaps] That’s it! There’s no way that they could have expressed such ingenuity… on earth. They must have had help from spacemen!” I’ll admit that I’m a huge nerd and, frankly, very little would make me happier than any sort of evidence of extraterrestrial contact, but this “theory” and all the “evidence” for it starts from the presupposition that non-whites outside of Europe were inherently savage and incapable of the same architectural feats as their European contemporaries. This concept was manufactured out of nothing based on the core idea of denying African and South American ingenuity. Again, this is a long aside, but the reason that I bring this up is that there is a smidgen of this in Black Panther, as Wakanda’s futuristic nature is only possible because of the presence of vibranium. One could argue that Black Panther devalues and undermines African inventiveness in much the same way as von Däniken and his followers by showing a nation that is only exceptional because of an external event; on the other hand, real world history often demonstrates that nations can rise and fall based upon the presence or absence of certain natural resources, and that the film treats the abundance of vibranium beneath Wakanda’s surface as such. As a potential problematic issue in the text, it’s minor, but something I expect to generate an inevitable argument about how “Black Panther isn’t as progressive as you think” in the coming weeks. There’ll probably be some complaints about the monarchic nature of Wakanda as well, despite that the potentiality of abuse of power within that method of governance is addressed pretty explicitly in the text.

Everything else is amazing. It’s beautiful. As excited as I was to see this movie, I’m glad that I waited until it was in its second weekend, and that we’re going to be pushing back the publication of this review. As I was reading Shoshana Kessock’s essay “The Feminism of Black Panther vs. Wonder Woman” this morning while waiting for the bus, she perfectly encapsulated my feelings about this: “[T]here are other voices than mine which should take precedent [sic] in a conversation about a film so strongly impacting people of color right now. There are so many writers of color putting out thoughtful, insightful articles about Black Panther that I felt it was important for me […] to sit back and listen without stepping in and having my say.” I have so much more that I want to say about the movie, but it’s important now for me to stop taking up your time with this writing and send you forth into the world to see the movie, read the brilliant discourse that the film has created (here, here, here, and here are good places to start, and this is a counterpoint that raises interesting issues), and be excellent to each other.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X.: Captain America 3 – Civil War (2016)

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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: After the success of Winter Soldier, the Russo brothers were invited back to direct the next Captain America sequel, confirming their involvement in March of 2014. Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, who had previously drafted the scripts for both First Avenger and Thor 2 in addition to Winter Soldier, presented the Russos with the script for Civil War around the same time. Early reports featured the production team stating that they saw the film as more of a direct follow up to Winter Soldier, and that the intent was to further pursue the Bucky/Steve relationship in this flick.

There were mixed reactions to the announcement that the film would adapt (however loosely) the basic plotline of the Marvel Civil War plot from the comics. I’ve mentioned how I feel about this particular storyline in a few of our earlier reviews, but it’s worth outlining here and seeing how it stacks up against the plot of the film. One thing to bear in mind is that the Marvel comics universe is full to the gills with super-powered people. Mutants, Inhumans, actual alien refugees and expatriates, mystics and magicians, survivors of experimentation, people who were involved in chemical/radiation accidents: there are a lot of them. A decade or so back, the company tried to cull its ranks by reducing the number of mutants– just mutants– to less than 200, and there were still too many to allow time for each to be sufficiently developed. It’s also important to bear in mind that the books had spent the past few decades showing bigoted human legislators attempting to pass a Congressional Act that would require all mutants to register with the government. Marvel took the correct stance on this issue, demonstrating that (a) such a thing would be utterly unconstitutional and (b) that the advocates of this act were unequivocally in the wrong from a moral and ethical standpoint.

The plot of the comic Civil War opens with a team of third-tier superheroes, called the New Warriors, filming an episode of the reality show in which they were participating in exchange for funding of their operations. The group finds themselves involved in an altercation with a few villains; though they realize that they are out of their depth they press on, and their interaction with the villain Nitro results in an explosion that incinerates 612 people, including 60 schoolchildren. In the film, the circumstances are different: it’s the new Avengers team (minus War Machine and Vision) taking on a mission in Lagos that is successful but not without collateral damage, mitigated by but blamed upon the heroes. In the comics, Tony Stark is confronted by the mother of one of the children who died in the “Stamford Incident” (here he is confronted by a woman whose adult son died in Sokovia, which was a separate incident from the Lagos mission that opened the film). As a result of this shaming, Comics!Tony works with the U.S. Government to draft the Superhuman Registration Act, which would require all Americans with enhanced abilities to report their nature to the government without complaint.

It’s immediately obvious how questionable this is, especially when readers had been taught to expect (and, it bears mentioning again, rightfully so) that proponents of these types of laws—laws that require vulnerable minorities to essentially surrender not only their right to privacy but also the expectation of protection from hate violence—are villains. Comics!Tony may have had a point in that there should be a system of accountability in place for superpowered people, but the methods by which this was introduced resulted in a fandom backlash that Marvel should really have expected but seemed to be utterly surprised by. The miniseries later further added that not only did the SRA require powered people to register, but it also made them part of a de facto superhuman draft; people who registered (and remember: not registering is not a choice) could be called upon to act as agents of the government at any time, even in conflict with their own political and moral ideals. For a miniseries that was very much born of the paranoia of the War on Terror and the global politick of the Bush Administration, Marvel seemed shockingly out of touch with how its readership felt about that administration and its policies.

Worse, Marvel doubled down on the idea that they wanted readers to be on Team Iron Man instead of Team Cap, who was the much more reasonable figure, voicing the logical issues that come from drafting unwilling innocents to participate in missions that could be in violation of their beliefs in the name of political agendas.

Film!Tony’s proposition, that the Avengers act only when called upon to do so by a U.N. Accord, is much more sensible as an act that isn’t in violation of anyone’s civil rights or political autonomy. It has its own problems, some of which Cap points out (like the potential for the Avengers to be called upon to act against the greater good or their own consciences in the name of someone’s agenda) and some of which he doesn’t (there’s no way that an emergency session of the U.N. could be called together quickly enough to confer and vote upon deploying the Avengers in time to save anyone if, for instance, Thanos’s fleet appears in the skies above earth with the intent of burning all living things to ash). Overall, however, it strikes enough of a compromise between freelance vigilantism and wholesale surrendering of one’s right to forced government employment that one can feel conflicted about which side to choose, instead of everyone being Team Cap by default.

Back on the production side of things, the Russos acknowledged the difficulty of referencing this much-contested miniseries in their films, but stated that they were confident that they had found the right balance. It was announced early in production that Chadwick Boseman had joined the cast of the film as Black Panther and that Daniel Brühl of Goodbye, Lenin and The Edukators had been cast in an undisclosed role, although early internet speculation that he would be playing a version of Baron Zemo turned out to be correct. Other speculations, such as the much-touted fan belief that Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk would appear in the film, turned out to be unfounded, although virtually every other superpowered person who had previously appeared in the MCU films was back (so no Thor and no TV-only characters like Jessica Jones or Quake). Other returning characters included Emily VanCamp’s Sharon “Agent 13” Carter, who ends up reciting a remixed version of one of Comics!Cap’s speeches in her eulogy for her Aunt Peggy, and William Hurt’s General-cum-SecDef “Thunderbolt” Ross, who was last scene in the Norton Incredible Hulk film.

Other new characters announced included Martin Freeman’s forgettable Everett Ross (no relation) and, the big news, Brit newcomer Tom Holland as Peter Parker. In a recent interview with ScreenJunkies, the Russos admitted that they always intended for Spider-Man to inhabit the role that he plays in the final film; it was their insistence that this story would not work without the character that eventually led to the Sony-Disney deal that allows for crossovers. The two never considered for a moment presenting Marvel with a script that included a different character in that role. As a result, we also get our youngest Aunt May to date, played by Marisa Tomei.

Brandon, what did you think of Civil War?

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Brandon: In the current media landscape where the borders between cinema & television have become increasingly blurred, I’ve found myself becoming most attracted to films that buck the trend. Formally bizarre titles like Under the Skin, The Duke of Burgundy, Upstream Color, and Beyond the Black Rainbow are so magnetic to me because they remind audiences that there are still things film can achieve that television can’t. As a franchise, the MCU has gone in the exact opposite direction. After a dozen films’ (and a difficult to calculate amount of supplementary televised content’s) worth of worldbuilding, the MCU can’t help but function as the cinematic equivalent of televised fiction. Each individual movie in the series, sans maybe the origin stories, is starting to feel like a compact season of absurdly well-funded television. With Civil War, the MCU seems to be hitting its stride the same way the Fast & Furious franchise did around its fifth installment. I enjoyed the film thoroughly, but felt as if I were enjoying it more as one small piece to a much larger whole than as a standalone property. I can’t even say for sure if Captain America was the star of his own movie here, despite his name being slapped on the title, since the series has adapted the sprawling cast format of a long-running television show. As much as this film seems willing to break nearly every rule of avoiding superhero conventionality, however, I couldn’t help but to enjoy every loud, bloated minute of it.

My most hopeful expectation about Civil War going in was that Tony Stark would essentially do what pro wrestlers call a “heel turn” and finally reveal himself to be the villainous prick I’ve taken him for since movie one. I would still love to see that dynamic play out (and I vaguely understand that it works that way in the comics), but Civil War goes a whole other route that may be an even better take on what superhero movies can be. A dull take on this story would be to have Cap & Tony fight for a minute, realize they have a bigger enemy at hand, and eventually team up to fight the film’s true baddy. If this sounds especially familiar at this moment it might be that it sounds awfully parallel to the way Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice structured its d.o.a. conflict. Despite the two movies’ striking thematic similarities, however, Civil War makes a much bolder, stranger turn. The film threatens to back out of its central hook of having its franchise’s two most popular heroes feud, but instead doubles down & gets murderously vicious in its brutal, climactic battle. Sticking to its guns in this way is a brilliant move, as was keeping the film’s true villain, (expertly portrayed by the always-welcome Daniel Brühl) a small pawn in the larger chess game who can stealthily cause a lot of damage. This is a superhero movie where the bad guy wins, which is not something I can’t remember on this large of a scale since, what, The Dark Knight? Because Civil War is just one puzzle piece/stepping stone/drop in the bucket in regards to its massive franchise, that aspect can feel a little drowned out. You know for a fact that the discord will eventually be undone, but for now it feels refreshingly pessimistic considering the supposed sameness of the superhero movie as a medium.

The most impressive thing Civil War did for me was revive my giddiness in the novelty of seeing all of its various “superpeople” sharing the screen in its titular centerpiece action sequence. It’s been at least since the first Avengers film hitting the theaters that I got this excited watching superheroes battle each other. Ant-Man going kaiju, Falcon toying with drones, Spidey geeking out, and Black Widow kicking close range ass (Remind me again why she doesn’t have her own movie yet?) were all touches of pure joy for me, as was the premiere of the fierce feline Kitty Cat Man, er, Black Panther. You could point to so many similarities Civil War shares with Dawn of Justice, not least of all its fretting over superheroes’ dead mommies & the collateral damage incurred while saving the world from an Apocalyptic threat, but the DC films so far seem to entirely miss the point of what makes the MCU so enjoyable. Civil War may wring its hands over concepts like “Victory at the expense of the innocent is no victory at all” & the necessity of “doing what has to be done to stave off something worse”, but it’s nowhere near the dour mess delivered by Batman v Superman just a couple months ago. Even early glimpses of the as-yet-unreleased Suicide Squad movie look like the cinematic equivalent of a sad sack’s depressive trip through a Hot Topic lingerie section and that film’s actively trying to ape some of the MCU’s Joss Whedon jokeyness in a conscious effort to lighten the fuck up. It took a lot of work to get there, but the MCU can now have its heroes beat each other into near-death, paralytic submission and somehow have the audience walk away thinking, “That was fun.”

I don’t know exactly how to rank this movie. Did I enjoy it on its own merits or as yet another chapter in a much larger story? These divisions are getting much more difficult to define as I become something closer to an in-the-know fan with these characters’ particular trajectories. Realistically, Civil War is probably just as good as The Winter Soldier or the first Avengers film, both of which I ranked slightly lower, but my enthusiasm has been raised merely through longterm familiarity. I’ve become too entrenched in the Marvel mindset to really look at these films with that outsider perspective anymore. If I end up reading the comic book source material as the next step (and I’ve already broken the seal with the first run of Howard the Duck), I’m in danger of losing total perspective of where I fit in here, except maybe as a Johnny Come Lately. Either that or Civil War did a fantastic job of encapsulating the totality of what makes the MCU a continuously entertaining product, even if its structure is more television-adjacent than it is cinematic. All I know for sure is that I’m enjoying what I’m seeing.

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Boomer: I put my non-spoilery notes in the individual review of this film, so please note that here there be spoilers.

I’ll be honest right out of the gate and admit that I never really fully bought into the relationship between Bucky and Steve as something that would be so all-consuming for Cap. I know it’s a popular pairing in the fandom and that the film franchise spends a lot of time telling us about how important they are to each other, but it’s hampered by the fact that Chris Evans and Sebastian Stan share fairly limited screen time in The First Avenger. After Bucky goes off to war, he disappears from the narrative for the entirety of Steve’s training and transformation, only reappearing when Steve, now Captain America, shows up to rescue him from Hydra captivity.

Then they have a montage about all their victories against the Axis, and go on a mission where Bucky “dies.” Everything that happens after that is about the two trying to reunite, and the framing of this relationship as the most important in Steve’s life never really “read” for me in the way that his relationships with Peggy, Natasha, and even Howard Stark did. Winter Soldier is the best movie that this franchise has churned out to date as far as I am concerned, but my affection for it is completely independent of any particular affection for the Steve/Bucky bromance.

Of course, Howard Stark is dead, and we even get to see how in this film (confirming a long-held film-specific fan theory that’s been circulating for a while). Also dead is Tommy Lee Jones’s character from First Avenger, and everyone else that was a part of Steve’s life before he went into the ice, except for Peggy… until the end of Act I. Peggy Carter, the best character in the MCU, dies offscreen in Civil War, passing painlessly in her sleep. And, yeah, I cried. It was an ugly cry. Rest in peace, Agent Carter. May your televised adventures carry you on forever in our hearts (oh no). Regardless, the fact that Bucky is now the last anchor to the life that Steve had before the 21st century, and in fact the only connection that he has to a time before his life was a never-ending war, strengthens the connection between the two. For the first time, I buy the relationship and its importance as much as Marvel wants me to.

The movie does fail to wring sufficient pathos out of the relationship between Cap and Black Widow this time around. I’m much more invested in their friendship, which we got to see grow and change over the course of Winter Soldier, than the relationship between Steve and Tony, who are barely friends and really only tolerate each other because of Howard’s hero-worship of the former, which was a source of contention for the latter. That tension isn’t fully explored here, especially in comparison to how well Winter Soldier addressed the points of contention between Natasha’s espionage-oriented worldview and Steve’s point of view as a lifelong soldier. As Age of Ultron showed us, Cap fears the end of war (probably because he can’t imagine having a place in a world of peace), which would have been an interesting point to explore here but is ultimately left out.

I’ve been a big fan of Brühl’s work since I was in high school (where the German club hosted a screening of Goodbye, Lenin), and I’m glad that his appearance as a hero of the Nazi army in Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds has brought him more exposure in the U.S., but his presence on screen here doesn’t quite measure up. To be fair, a lot of that may have to do with the fact that Civil War has two major plotlines that aren’t happening concurrently so much as intermittently. The framing of Bucky for the bombing of the Sikovia Accord ratification conference sets the stage for conflict between Iron Man and Cap that then takes over the narrative, in a plot that is somehow more light-hearted than the more Winter Soldier-esque plotline involving Zemo and the Winter Soldier Squad. It’s tonally inconsistent, but this is one of those productions that shows having tonal changes in a film doesn’t necessarily mean failure, as the brightly-colored, quippy airport battle brings some much-needed levity to the film before we go back to Siberia (and a quick side trip to an undersea Guantanamo) for the finale. It doesn’t break the seriousness, it just keeps the film from being too dark. Winter Soldier excels because of the consistent grittiness that characterized that picture, but Civil War benefits from mixing it up a bit. Overall, however, any complaints that I have pale in comparison to how much I enjoyed the film.

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Lagniappe

Brandon: Something that’s difficult to pin down here is the film’s sense of humor This was one of the quieter trips to the theater I’ve had with an MCU picture in terms of audience laughter. A one-liner or two landed here or there, but for the most part that typical Joss Whedon-type yuck-em-up humor was more than a little muted. Ant-Man & Spidey felt like necessary injections of silliness into the two sides of level-headed pondering on the balance between ignoring terrorism & combating it with outsized, unchecked aggression. I had a ton of fun watching this film, but my giddiness was less “That’s hilarious!” and more “That’s so cool!” In the absence of the Whedon-esque humor I found myself reaching for jokes that might not have actually been there. Was the line “Help me, Wanda” a subtle Traci Rearden reference? Did I actually see the Bluth family stair car hiding in the background of that epic airport battle? Was Spidey shooting little web wads in his teen boy bedroom subversively spermy for anyone but me? I can’t tell how far I’m reaching for these.

It seems like Captain America as its own isolated series (as much as it’s allowed to be one) has become more of a political thriller than a joke-a-minute action comedy, despite the lighter tone that made The First Avenger a franchise favorite for me. The next Thor movie is being billed as a road trip buddy comedy helmed by the almighty Taika Waititi, so the MCU is obviously not done with humor altogether. It’s just becoming increasingly unlikely that we’ll ever get my dream title of Captain America: The 100 Year Old Virgin off the ground (especially if Cap’s uncomfortable relationship with the unceremoniously dispensed-with Peggy Carter’s niece continues on its current, inevitably, oddly slimy path; Yikes!).

Boomer: If you’re looking for a basic introduction to the Black Panther mythos, I found the Black Panther animated series created by BET a few years back to be pretty good. It features Djimon Honsou (who appeared in the MCU proper as one of the Kree in Guardians) as the voice of T-Chaka, and features cameos from Captain America, Nightcrawler, and the Juggernaut as well as a recurring role for Storm, as voiced by R&B artist Jill Scott. I never loved the Storm/Black Panther pairing in the comics (it always came off as Marvel curtailing their individual, separate story arcs in order to create a “tokenistic” pairing; admittedly, I might be a bit biased since I always preferred Ororo’s relationship with Forge and hated how their breakup was handled), but it works in that series.

As for how this film relates to the MCU at large, the impact of this film on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was not as immediate as the fall of S.H.I.E.L.D. in Winter Soldier. Agents has been focusing on more Inhuman-related plotlines in the past season and a half, and there was much speculation that the MCU would be using the Inhumans in place of mutants in the franchise, featuring a mass-empowering that would require more government oversight and lead into Civil War. Although that ended up not being the case, the events of Civil War did lead up to an argument between Director Coulson and General Glenn Talbott over the merits of the Sokovia Accords vis-à- vis Inhumans, with Coulson obviously being Team Cap (surprisingly, Agent May was as well, perhaps because the showrunners already used up their May vs. Coulson chip last season with the “Real S.H.I.E.L.D.” arc and felt it would be too early to go back to that well). Talbott is eventually brought around to Team Cap, too, but it remains to be seen whether or not the show can recreate the strong endings that characterized the respective finales of Seasons 1 and 2.

And what of the man who can do whatever a spider can? The new Sony-produced flick starring Tom Holland will be titled Homecoming, which was one of the words that was used to activate the Winter Soldier’s sleeper programs. There’s also been news that the new film will include Tony Stark in a key role, possible revisiting the Iron Spider arc from the comics (which led up to Civil War on the page). It remains to be seen how these will become further connected. There are still many other connections that have yet to be followed up on even now (like the fact that the first season of Daredevil revealed that Matt Murdock grew up in the same orphanage as Skye/Daisy, which hasn’t been mentioned since), so it’s unclear what the future holds for the MCU.

In conclusion, this will be the last Agents review for a while. I’ve already written up a piece detailing why we won’t be performing a review of Doctor Strange while it is in theaters, so you can expect to see that review only once it becomes possible for me to watch the movie without contributing to it financially, maybe in early 2017. The next MCU flick that I’m excited for is the sequel to Guardians, which is set to premiere in about a year, so be on the lookout for us then!

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Combined S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. Rating for Captain America 3 – Civil War (2016)

fourhalfstar

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