Endgame: New Nerd America

I was several weeks behind the curve when I finally caught Avengers: Endgame on the big screen. Thoroughly spoiled on which characters were going to die and filtered though several cycles of praise & backlash for its merits as either A. the greatest film of all time or B. just another superhero sequel, I was predisposed to a fairly lowkey moviegoing experience. Ultimately, I did have about the same reaction to it that I did with last year’s less-loved Avengers film, Infinity War: I was tickled by the components of the MCU that already tend to tickle me and bored with the characters & storylines that always tend to bore me. That high-floor/low-ceiling quality of this series leaves a lot of room for the mind to wander, especially when stretched out over a three-hour downer of an “action” film that is very light on action. What I couldn’t stop thinking about throughout Endgame was how inconceivably popular it is, and profitable. Making over a billion dollars in its first weekend and still packed to the walls in our spacious Faux-Max theater many weeks into its run, Endgame is a mind-bogglingly popular film – one that’s even gunning to become the #1 box office earner of all time. How, then, is it possible that what was playing out on the screen in front of me was so deeply, incurably nerdy?

It wouldn’t really be going out on a limb to suggest that nerds have won the culture war. Considering the regularity with which the box office is dominated by superhero flicks, Star Wars sequels, and all other Disney-owned properties within that spectrum, it’s been clear for years that nerd culture is popular culture. You can no longer infer any general characteristics of a person who says they’re “such a nerd” because they’re into Marvel superheroes or Star Wars. Everyone is into Marvel & Star Wars to some degree. They’re the foundational pillars of our Disney-owned monoculture. Still, there was something uniquely extreme about Avengers: Endgame that felt like the arrival of a new paradigm in modern pop media. I was no longer sharing theater space with moviegoers who were being slowly, gradually indoctrinated into watching “nerd-ass shit” by way of handsome movie stars delivering snarky one-liners to reinforce how above-it-all & non-nerdy the characters & creators actually are. I was in the deep end. Endgame is a very long, deeply sincere film where the (supposedly) relatable smartass of the group that holds audiences’ hands with nerdery-deflating jokes dies onscreen and you’re supposed to cry over the loss. I got the distinct sense during our screening that I was now sharing theater space with a New Nerd America. The snarky training wheels are off. Our transformation is complete.

It’s not just that Endgame is long or overly serious, either. It’s also that it follows a complex sci-fi plot most audiences would balk at if it were in service of an original property. This is a time travel film in which several teams of costumed superheroes travel through distant times & places throughout the galaxy to retrieve the Infinity McGuffins necessary to undo their failure from the last nerdgasm. All the usual time travel paradoxes from sci-fi nerdery past arise during this mission – including the implication that their actions could be creating alternate timelines throughout Avengers history (that, of course, can be dealt with in future adventure$ on platform$ like Di$ney+). A few dismissive, smartass jokes about the absurdity of the heroes’ “time heist” reassure the audience that what we’re watching is still Cool & With it, but for the most part it’s treated like a dead-serious genocide prevention mission staged across the vast nerdiness of space-time – one that’s largely met with genuine, heartfelt tears from its loyal, global audience. What’s especially bizarre about that reaction is that it’s evoked by scenes from the audiences’ own indoctrination into the New Nerd America paradigm. When the Avengers time-travel back to their Infinity McGuffin-encrusted past, they’re also traveling to the milestones of the monoculture’s gradual nerd transformation, fully displaying how far we’ve come in the ten years of MCU culture domination.

Sequels that time-travel back to their previous installments to observe & alter their own lore aren’t an entirely new plot phenomenon. It’s been done before in Back to the Future II, Terminator: Genisys, Happy Death Day 2U, and probably several others I can’t name offhand because I’m just not nerd enough. What’s different here is that Endgame has twenty-one pervious films in its own franchise it can choose to revisit, an oceanic wealth of #content. Revisiting those past franchise entries, especially the first Avengers team-up from 2012, is a stark reminder of how far off the nerd-culture deep end America has truly gone. This is a time-travel sci-fi picture where superheroes square off against their own doppelgangers in a world-threatening conflict you have to watch nearly two dozen previous pictures of homework before you can fully understand. It sounds exhausting in the abstract, but so many people have kept up with the series so gradually that we hardly had time to step back and consider just how elaborate & convoluted it has become. It’s an engagement with pop media that has become common in the American household: binging on over fifty hours of a single story (usually on television) to keep up with talk at the watercooler, even in instances when you’re told that the story only “gets good” after the first twenty hours or so. I’m not the first person to compare Marvel movies to television, but it definitely wasn’t lost on me that at the exact same time this film was eating up the nations’ screen-space at the theater, the same audience was ravenously digesting the swords-and-dragons show Game of Thornes at home, over seventy hours into its run. Nerds.

I mostly enjoyed the experience of watching Avengers: Endgame. I can’t match the emotion or enthusiasm of Boomer’s five-star review, but it was pretty alright. I also enjoyed the twenty-first Marvel film that preceded it – another sci-fi action film titled Captain Marvel – which is so recent that it’s still playing in theaters simultaneous to Endgame. I also stayed after the credits of this three-hour epic that I kinda-sorta liked to watch a spoiler-loaded advertisement for its next follow-up, Spiderman: European Vacation, out this summer. I don’t know, I guess you could say I’m a total nerd that way. Or, more accurately, you could say that I’m a totally average, unexceptional American consumer, just counting down the days until our official form of currency is converted to Disney Dollars. The culture war may have been lost a long time ago, but Endgame has offered its casualties a rare opportunity to step back & observe how nerdy we’ve become, like live frogs gradually being brought to a boil.

-Brandon Ledet

Avengers: Endgame (2019)

Oh boy oh boy oh boy! It’s here! It’s finally here! We’re in the Endgame now. All good things must come to an end, after all.

Speaking of all good things, remember how that was the title of the series finale for Star Trek: The Next Generation? And how that episode showed our dearly beloved Captain Picard visiting the past and the future, solving a mystery that spanned decades and giving the audience a chance to revisit where that series had started and where it could go in the future, while also putting a nice little bow on the journey of Picard and his cohort? Going into Endgame, I had the same feeling, and as it turns out, this was intentional, going as far back as last March, when Marvel Films bigwig Kevin Feige cited “All Good Things … ” as an influence on this latest (last?) Avengers picture. So for once, I’m not just inserting a Star Trek reference where it doesn’t belong; it’s relevant.

Here there by spoilers! You have been warned! There’s virtually no way to talk about this movie without them, so saddle up buckaroos.

The film opens exactly as Infinity War ends, with Hawkeye/Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) at a family picnic teaching his daughter archery. He turns his back for a moment and looks back, only to find that his entire family has been raptured turned to ash as part of Thanos (Josh Brolin)’s stupid, stupid plan to end scarcity across the universe by killing half of all living things. (This is also the plan of Kodos the Executioner from the classic Star Trek episode “The Conscience of the King,” because you should know by now that you can’t trust me not to insert Star Trek references were they don’t belong from time to time as well.) Three weeks later, the devastated remains of the team, Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), and War Machine/Rhodey (Don Cheadle) are joined by the only surviving Guardian of the Galaxy, Rocket (Bradley Cooper) in their existential depression. Luckily, Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and his companion Nebula (Karen Gillan) are found in deep space by Captain Marvel/Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) just in time to prevent their suffocation, and she brings the two back to earth. With Nebula’s help, they locate Thanos’s little retirement farm and head straight there to retrieve the Infinity Stones and bring back everyone who was raptured dusted. When they get there, however, they learn that Thanos has already destroyed the Stones to prevent exactly this thing; Thor beheads the mad titan unceremoniously.

Five years later, people are still struggling. Struggling with depression, struggling with moving on. Cap goes to group counseling meetings. Natasha keeps the mechanisms of the Avengers in place, coordinating efforts to keep the peace, overseeing outreach and relief. Captain Marvel’s in deep space, helping the planets that don’t have the benefit of superheroes looking after them. Banner has managed to reconcile his two selves and lives full time as an intelligent Hulk. Tony has retired to a lakehouse with wife Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow) and adorable daughter Morgan. And Ant-Man/Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is still stuck in the Phantom Zone Quantum Realm until his equipment is accidentally reactivated, popping him back out into the regular world so that he can have a tearful reunion with now-teenage daughter Cassie (Emma Fuhrmann) and heads to Avengers headquarters, where he tells Cap and Natasha that it’s only been five hours for him, not years. With help from a hesitant Tony, the team works out how to use the Ant-Man equipment to stage an elaborate “time heist,” plucking the Infinity Stones out of time to recreate Thanos’s gauntlet and undo the damage he wrought. It’s “All Good Things … ”! But Marvel! And I cried! I really did!

You don’t need the ins and outs of how all this shakes out. There’s that Marvel house style of comedy that you’ve come to know and (probably) love, coupled with the emotional devastation that you would expect in a world where half of the population has disappeared. Clint’s taken on the Ronin persona from the comics (although this codename is never used on screen), tracking down and murdering criminals as the result of having no moral tether after the loss of his family. Scott’s headlong run across San Francisco to try and find his daughter only to discover a memorial to the lost, which he searches frantically in the hopes that her name won’t be there. Natasha puts on a brave face, but you can tell that she counts every life lost as red in her ledger (she clears every crimson drop by the end of the movie, and then some). An unnamed grief-stricken man in Cap’s support group recounts a first date with another man; they both break down in tears over the course of the evening, but this is the status quo now, so they’re seeing each other again (so, you know, the post-snap world isn’t all bad).

The time travel premise lets us revisit past events from new perspectives, which makes for a lot of fun to counterbalance all that drear. This includes contemporary smart Hulk having to act like his brutish past self, much to his embarrassment and consternation. Tony’s interactions with his daughter are adorable, and went a long way toward making him more relatable and likable, especially after I’ve been pretty anti-Iron Man for a while. One of the most moving parts of the movie also comes as a result of its comedic elements; we learn that the remaining refugees from Asgard have set up a “New Asgard,” where a broken Thor has retired and let himself go (he’s got pretty standard dad-bod, but the internet has reacted as if he looks like Pearl from Blade, just in case you were wondering if bodyshaming was still a thing). Once the heist kicks off, this means that Thor and Rocket have to travel to the time of Thor: The Dark World to get the Aether from Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), giving our favorite Asgardian hunk a chance to have an affirming heart-to-heart with his departed mother Frigga (Rene Russo), retroactively adding more depth to her character in a lovely way.

I’m burying the lede, though, since what really matters about all these time travel shenanigans is that we get to see Peggy (Hayley Atwell) again. PEGGY! As soon as there was a wrinkle in the time plan and they mentioned having to go back to the seventies, I knew where we were headed and could barely contain my excitement. If I remember nothing else from this movie on my deathbed, I will remember the thrill of seeing Peggy one last time (and then again). That doesn’t even include the fact that Tony gets to have a nice moment with his father (John Slattery), too, and that there are appearances from every character.

Look, this is the perfect capstone for this franchise. If there were never another MCU film, it would be totally fine, because as a finale, this is pitch perfect. Every important and semi-important character (other than Lupita Nyong’o’s Nakia, because she was presumably busy shooting Us) gets a moment to shine, as the Snap is undone (come on, you knew it would be). There’s even a moment where every living lady hero from the entire MCU is onscreen at once, and it is delightful, although I’m sure the internet is already full of comments about how it was “forced” or “cheesy,” but I don’t feed trolls and I try not to cross the bridges that they live under, so I wouldn’t know. But, as the people behind the MCU have noted, this is a finale, not the finale. We get to say our goodbyes to many of our favorites, but the future is in good hands with Falcon/Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) taking up the mantle and shield of Captain America, Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) taking her place as the new leader of the Asgardians in diaspora, and the possibility of future adventures of Pepper Potts as the heir apparent to Iron Man. The future is now, and it couldn’t be brighter.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Captain Marvel (2019)

She’s beauty, she’s grace, she can kick you into space.

Well, the first Marvel movie of 2019 is here. And, hey, it’s pretty good! Nothing that’s so exciting that it’ll melt your brain out, or anything, but Captain Marvel has finally hit our screens and damned if we aren’t glad to see her. Right? Right?

I don’t want to be down on this one. I really enjoyed myself as I sat in the theater and mindlessly absorbed a little nugget of Marvel product, which loudly and proudly is set in the 90s. Remember the 90s? There was a Democrat in office, the economy was essentially okay, we weren’t at war with anyone for a little while, and when the President got a blowjob and perjured himself about it, we all were in agreement that the office of the PotUS had been so thoroughly tarnished that no future President could ever sink lower (ha). But also, you know: AIDS, Hurricane Andrew (which goes strangely unremarked upon here despite the fact that a significant portion of the film takes place in 1995 Louisiana), Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, etc. Never let your nostalgia get the best of you, is all I’m saying, but it’s no crime to feel a little warm inside when you hear the opening strains of “Come As You Are,” either.

It’s 1995. Vers (Brie Larson) is a member of the Kree Defense Force, a group of interstellar “warrior heroes” who keep the peace in the Kree Empire (the blue [mostly] aliens from the Guardians movies and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) by performing various acts of apparent valor, including rooting out cells of Skrulls, a race of green reptilian shapeshifters. She herself is a woman without a memory, à la Wolverine, only getting glimpses into a past she can’t recall when dreaming of a mysterious woman (Annette Bening). Under the tutelage of Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), Vers attempts to learn more about herself using the AI ruler of the Kree, the Supreme Intelligence (Bening again, as we only see her from Vers’s point of view and it takes different forms for different people), without much success. After being taken captive by Skrulls and fighting her way free, Vers lands on C-53, better known to its inhabitants as Earth, where she immediately runs afoul of S.H.I.E.L.D., before bonding with a young Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and setting out to discover why the woman in her dreams seems to have had a life on C-53, including involvement with a top secret aerospace defense project. Along the way, she connects, or perhaps reconnects, with Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch) and her daughter Monica (Akira Akbar). Opposing her is the Skrull leader Talos (Ben Mendelsohn), but there may be more to his motivations than meets the eye.

A lot of the internet is pretty up in arms about Captain Marvel, and for the most part, it’s just trolling and various degrees of personal toxicity. And the problem with every dudebro out there who’s angry about the injustice of Captain Marvel/Vers (as I’ll refer her to remain spoiler free, if that’s even possible at this juncture) stealing a motorcycle from a man who told her to smile, as if a microaggression warrants grand theft, is that it leaves very little room to be critical of the elements that don’t actually work from a narrative perspective. Look, I’m not MovieSins; I’m not here to ring an annoying little bell just because the final mental showdown between two characters is set to a Nirvana classic from an album that we don’t actually see Vers hearing (although she had plenty of chances offscreen). But I have to admit that even I was a little tired of some of the pablum and the unwillingness to take risks that were on display here. Sure, there was some inventiveness with the subversion of both what we’ve come to expect from films in general and this franchise specifically, especially in regard to the villainous Skrulls and their true motivations, but that doesn’t mean that the storytelling itself is inventive, and that’s the issue here. We’ve seen the fish-out-water story before in Thor, but that doesn’t mean that this is inherently derivative. I remember walking out of that film way back in 2011 and being pleasantly and refreshingly surprised by it, and there’s a part of me that wants every Marvel movie to give me an equivalent rush, but that’s not a realistic expectation to have after ten years and twenty movies. Time makes you bolder, children get older, and I’m getting older, too. It may be that these movies are just as fun as they’ve always been and I’m just too cynical to enjoy them the way that I used to.

Because, hey, this movie is fun. There are a lot of great setpieces: a sequence of dodging questionably aligned federal agents deep in the heart of a research base library, a terrific train fight sequence featuring the best Stan Lee cameo to date (I’m more of a Jack Kirby stan, if we’re being honest, but even I thought it was nice), and others. But the main one, the big finale, was just a big CGI fest that tired me more than it thrilled me. Compared to the relative viscerality of the Independence Day-esque desert dogfight that came earlier in the film’s runtime, not to mention the undetectable de-aging of Jackson to make him the Fury of yesteryear, it lacks any concreteness and feels hollow; I’m glad to hear that other people found this to be exciting, but it just didn’t work for me. Admittedly, that’s always been the case with the MCU, as all of the films peak early, going as far back as Iron Man, where the best sequence wasn’t the toe-to-toe showdown between our “hero” and Iron Monger, but the more stunning and ground-breaking sequence in which Tony finds himself flying alongside two fighter planes. But still, there’s something about this movie that doesn’t quite sit right with me, and it’s not just that they didn’t have an appearance from Peggy, even though she was totally alive at this time and, per Ant-Man, still active in S.H.I.E.L.D. a mere six years prior, although that omission is a crime.

Still, it’s hard to fault a film for having a poor finale after a lot of fun beforehand. Fitting for a movie that is at least on some level about both Girl Power and The 90s, the comparison that kept coming to my mind was Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It may just be that I rewatched the 1992 film within the past six months (and also watched it about 47 times over the course of a single summer once), but the aforementioned scene in which Vers steals a guy’s motorcycle reads just like the scene in that film in which original Kristy Swanson Buffy does the same after a rude biker asks if she “wants some real power between [her] legs.” It’s a sanitization of something, to make it more palatable for you to be able to bring your kids to see the new superhero movie, but it’s almost the same scene, and I genuinely enjoyed that the film evoked that rhetorical space in the era of its birth. Further, the sequence of Vers getting up over and over again, used as a shorthand about her past and her resilience in the face of limitations placed on her by a masculine culture, included one of her as a little girl stepping up to the plate and getting ready to knock one out of the park, which once again evoked the scene from the series finale of Buffy the show, during the title character’s famous “Are you ready to be strong?” speech (believe it or not, this is the best upload I could find of the scene; sorry). I don’t know if there was a subliminal attempt to invoke the memory of disgraced Avengers and Age of Ultron director Joss Whedon by summoning relevant images from both the beginning and end of the Buffy franchise, but if so, that’s a next level of synergy, and I’m impressed by the mad genius of it.

I’m hot and cold on this one. As it’s been out for almost a month now, it’s unlikely you need me to tell you whether or not to check it out, as your decision was probably made months in advance of its original release date. Larson is a terrific actress who’s really not given as much to do characterwise as someone of her talent could, but she’s effortlessly charming and magnetic, and her chemistry with Lynch and Jackson is very good. When it comes to integrating a child as a main character and instigator of plot, it also certainly works a lot better than Iron Man 3, where the character was so blatantly an audience surrogate that it almost derailed a film that is, outside of that plot detour, the best Iron Man movie (don’t @ me). And after quietly making his bones in the mainstream as a one-dimensional villain in a lot of hyped releases the past few years (Rogue One, Ready Player One, and that Robin Hood that no one saw), Mendelson brings a pathos to a scaly monster that you wouldn’t expect to find in a movie that’s as relatively flat as this one is. There are twists and betrayals, but they all seem rather rote at this point. And yet . . . and yet . . . I enjoyed this one. And you probably will, too.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)

On July 20, 2015, my first Swampflix contribution was published: a review of the Peyton Reed by-way-of Edgar Wright Marvel flick Ant-Man, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Since then, I’ve written 102 solo reviews, participated in 35 Movie of the Month roundtables, and written or contributed 27 additional articles – including eight under the Late Great Planet Mirth label alone and thirteen collaborations with Brandon as an Agent of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. Now, three years later, Marvel has released the first direct follow-up to that film that was my first review, and, hey, it’s pretty great! Not perfect, but great!

As the film opens, we find Scott “Ant-Man” Lang (Paul Rudd) under house arrest following his participation in (and pursuant violation of the Sikovia Accords as a result of) the events of Civil War. He’s only three days away from being a free man, but his situation is jeopardized when he finds himself once again embroiled in the activities of former Ant-Man, Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), and his daughter Hope “The Wasp” van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly). The two believe that Scott’s trip into and return from the “Quantum Realm” at the end of the first film means that there is a possibility that the previous generation’s Wasp, Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer), may still have a chance to be rescued, 30 years after her disappearance. Their efforts are complicated by the Pym family’s own fugitive status, as well as opposition from Sonny Burch (Walter Goggins), a crime lord who wants to capitalize on Pym’s technology, and Ava “Ghost” Starr (Hannah John-Kamen of Killjoys), a former SHIELD asset who exists in a state of molecular instability as the result of the accident that killed her parents as a child and who hopes the secrets of the Quantum Realm can restore her to a state of stability. Along for the ride are old friends like Scott’s fellow ex-con Luis (Michael Peña) and his crew and Scott’s daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Forston), as well as new allies/antagonists like Bill Foster (Laurence Fishburne), a former colleague and professional frenemy of Pym’s, and Jimmy Woo (Randall Park), the FBI agent tasked with overseeing Scott’s “rehabilitation,” which in practice means trying to catch the Ant-Man in his extramural exploits.

Like the first film, Ant-Man and the Wasp prioritizes fun shenanigans over the more superheroics of its MCU brethren. 2015’s Ant-Man was following in the footsteps of what was arguably the franchise’s first true comedy outing in Guardians of the Galaxy, but by foresaking that film’s space operatics for the more terrestrial mundanity of a heist film, it cemented a move that has come to be one of the motivating forces of why people love these movies and keep forking over money for them: humor, plain and simple. This is not a heist film, however, and unlike other outright comedic entries in the MCU (Thor: Ragnarok = synth-heavy 80s-style gladiator opera, Guardians 2 = manchild coming-of-age narrative, Spider-Man: Homecoming = John Hughes-style eighties high school flick), there’s not an easily-identifiable genre or style that director Reed has grafted the Ant-Man team onto this time around. There’s a little bit of Ferris Bueller energy floating around here, especially with Scott constantly having to return home before the FBI (herein acting with the same vaguely-menacing but largely bumbling inefficiency as Ferris’s principal), and while that’s central to the narrative, it’s not the central plot.

There are flaws here, but they’re small, and you have to go down to the nitty-gritty to find them. My largest issue here is that there are several points that feel uneven, the largest of which is anything involving of the Quantum Realm, which is a weirder concept than anything in the first film and feels out-of-place here, all things considered. The idea that our characters could go so microcosmic that they enter another dimension is fine, but some plot points are glossed over too quickly: How does Janet know how long her family has to find her? How does she know that if they don’t find her within that time limit that it’ll be another century before there’s another chance to attempt a rescue? What makes Ghost so certain that the Quantum Realm will repair her damaged body/cells? Why did the Pyms get mixed up in working with Burch in the first place, given that Wasp could easily get the parts they need for the quantum tunnel without having to ally with, essentially, a thug? I’m not one to get a bee in my bonnet about plot holes that are generally minor, but the cumulative effect of them in this film makes it feel sloppy in comparison to its predecessor, which was as trim and tight as a comedy that was equal parts origin story and episode of Leverage could possibly be.

Recently, Reed joined some of the ScreenJunkies boys for a commentary on their Honest Trailer for the original Ant-Man, wherein he confirmed that the idea that the film should be a heist movie was always Edgar Wright’s. This comes as no surprise to fans of Wright’s: you may be able to criticize him for being self-indulgent or esoteric in his references (not that I do or would; I adore his work), but you could never accuse him of being anything less than a ruthlessly efficient artist when it comes to writing and directing. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I adore Hot Fuzz not just because it’s hilarious (which it definitely is), but because it’s a crime mystery whose detective protagonist come to a logically sound and reasonable conclusion based upon available evidence, but which also happens to be completely incorrect. Although I wrote at the time that we would never know how much of the first Ant-Man was an invention of Wright’s and not Reed’s, I feel like this movie proves there was more Wright in the film than one would have initially thought, given that once Reed had free reign he made a film that lacked the tight cohesion and plotting of its antecedent.

Not that this isn’t still a delightful movie. Some disappointment is understandable given that, even more than other films in the MCU, each of this film’s major action beats was included in the trailer in some way. The marketing for Civil War did a great job of hiding the fact that Scott was going to go “big” in that film, which made for an exciting reveal in the film proper, but no such luck here. The giant PEZ dispenser, Wasp running along a knife, re-enlarging a tiny vehicle to crash another, etc.: there’s a cool moment in every one of the action sequences that was already shown in the previews, which makes some of them feel underwhelming, but rejecting the film outright on these grounds is absurd as they’re still lots of fun, kinetic, and really make the small-big-small-big roundabout work. There’s also a new Luis-explains-things montage, which is again delightful, and the chemistry between Team Ant-Man (and the Wasp!) has grown in an organic way, which makes the film a delight to watch.

Ghost is a bit of an underwhelming villain, but I’ll also go out on a limb here (mild spoilers through the end of this paragraph) and say that, although the character isn’t terribly interesting, her arc certainly is. Discounting the fact that you, dear reader, are one of those people who loves Tom Hiddleston so much that you forgive Loki all his sins, then this is the first film in which the primary antagonist is not defeated (or in the case of Thanos, is the victor). The conflict here has nothing to do with the end of the world or even stopping a villain from stealing a bunch of weapons. Instead, for the first time, Marvel has given us a film in which our heroes win not by trouncing their enemies, but by redeeming them. It’s a lovely sentiment, and I enjoyed it.

Overall, despite being less cohesive than the first film, this sequel is still a lot of fun and definitely worth the cost of admission. Just maybe be prepared for an uplifting ending followed immediately by despair. It’s great!

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

It’s hard to be anything other than cynical these days. Coming of age during the Bush Administration (how quaint our worries from those days seem now), then passing into the not-free-from-issues-but-generally-pretty-good halcyon days under Obama only to emerge into the rhetorical hellscape that is the current state of American affairs has left me in suspension between various states: hollowed out, terrified, and using humor as a form of non-violent resistance to oppression (check out Majken Jul Sorensen’s essay about the topic here, if you so desire). I find it pretty hard to garner much enthusiasm for anything of late; I’m certainly happier in my current city and living situation on a day-to-day basis than I’ve been for much of my life, but like Lisa Simpson in “Homer’s Triple Bypass,” I feel like all of the static and my own age have left me incapable of feeling either highs or lows. It’s unusual for me to be able to get myself hyped about anything, even something that I’m looking forward to, like the recent premiere of the second season of Westworld, or my own upcoming birthday. But I was excited about Avengers: Infinity War, especially with it coming so close on the heels of Black Panther, which was amazing. And after 18 films and ten years of lead-up, how could I not be? Maybe I was setting myself up for a disappointment right from the start.

Picking up almost immediately after the end of Thor: Ragnarok, Infinity War opens with Thanos and his hideous CGI minions aboard the Asgardian refugee ship. From there, we check in on each of the characters that we’ve come to know over the course of the past decade: the crew of the Milano are out and about doing good, bad, and a little bit of both; Dr. Strange is being a snarky snarkman; Tony Stark and Pepper Potts contemplate their upcoming nuptials and perhaps starting a family; Rhodey is holding down the fort at Avengers HQ while Vision and Scarlet Witch sneak away for a secret tryst, Montague/Capulet style; Cap, Falcon, and Black Widow are still fugitives from the law per their rejection of the Sikovian Accords; Bucky gets a new arm from T’Challa and Shuri; Peter Parker is on a field trip to MoMA. And then all hell breaks loose as Thanos’s various heralds show up to retrieve those blasted Infinity Stones.

I’m not going to spoil anything for you here, so that may mean this review is shorter than you’ve come to expect from the needlessly verbose windbag that I am. I’ll save all of that for the Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. discussion (I can hear poor Brandon‘s wrist bones creaking already, despite the next zine transcription being some time from now; sorry, buddy). There’s only so much you can discuss when you’re trying to avoid sharing any details, but I’ll try. I will say that a lot of people die in this movie. Like, so many more than you’re expecting. That number that you’re thinking of? Double it, then double it again. You think your favorite character is safe? Think again, buddy.

Not that this is a bad thing, necessarily. It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of these flicks and am a staunch defender of even those that some consider their missteps (I’ve long held that Iron Man 3 is the best of the three), although I’ve also been quick to criticize their racial or regressive issues (suffice it to say that I’m not a fan of Doctor Strange), but there are other legitimate problems that crop up over and over again. Eighteen of these films preceded Infinity War, and they almost all follow a similar formula. In 2/3rds of these, in fact, the conflict is all but identical: in Iron Man 1, 2, and 3, The Incredible Hulk, Thor and Thor: Ragnarok, Captain America, Doctor Strange, Ant-Man, Black Panther, Winter Soldier (to a certain extent), Spider-Man: Homecoming, and even Age of Ultron if you think of Ultron as a dark mirror of Tony all follow the same basic plot of “protagonist meets a dark reflection of himself and defeats him (or her, but only once).” The original Avengers and both Guardians films are more about opposition to an external invading force, with the inclusion of personal stakes, sure, but with a different kind of immediacy and intimacy as the whole “Obadiah/Winter Soldier/Yellowjacket/Mandarin/Vulture/whatever is me without a moral compass” element. I honestly can’t remember at all what The Dark World was about.

Obviously, that doesn’t mean that these movies are always formulaic or generic, as the uninformed armchair critic likes to claim: Winter Soldier is a seventies-style conspiracy thriller, Ant-Man is a heist flick, Homecoming is a John Hughes-style high school comedy, etc. A more legitimate criticism is that these films are usually lacking in stakes, as character death is often a misdirect (Loki’s multiple “deaths,” the fakeout death of Nick Fury in Winter Soldier) or otherwise undone (Bucky was revealed to have survived his apparent death in The First Avenger, Agent Coulson’s death in Avengers was undone in Agents of SHIELD); the only permanent deaths leading up to this film among protagonists has been the death of Quicksilver in Age of Ultron and the elderly Peggy’s death in Civil War. Infinity War seems to be attempting to course-correct, with the deaths of a lot of people, but only some seem more or less permanent, while others are so obviously temporary that it makes the whole thing seem . . . pointless.

The fact that this is a dark movie isn’t a problem, per se. There’s just something that feels . . . off. There’s been a sharp uptick in the outright comedy in this franchise ever since Guardians showed that the audience was hungry for that kind of mix of humor and action, and that’s been for the best overall, with Ragnarok and Homecoming both being very funny. But a lot of the jokes in this film don’t seem to land as well as in those films. I saw Infinity War late on Sunday night, so it wasn’t a packed theater, but even when there were obvious punchlines that would normally elicit at least a chuckle or two from the general audience, there was dead silence. Which isn’t to say that all the jokes missed; a lot of them were actually pretty strong. There’s also a lot more Doctor Strange in the film than one would expect, but that wasn’t a detraction for me either. All the hallmarks are here: the great interaction between characters that we’ve come to know so well over the past ten years, the action sequences to make every viewer’s inner child jump for joy, and the grouping of characters who have never interacted before coming together in a brand new calculus of characters playing against each other.

It’s hard to narrow down what exactly doesn’t work for me here, but there are a few things that I can point to as being problems. Thanos’s cronies are no fun, and every single one of them looks terrible. Only one of them is named onscreen (Ebony Maw), and perhaps not coincidentally, he’s the only one with any kind of real personality in his brief appearances. Two of the three others are on par with Justice League‘s Steppenwolf when it comes to character modeling, as they appear to have been rendered using some truly outdated technology (like, maybe two generations newer than what was used for Babylon 5), and the third, an ax-throwing hulk of a man, is so needlessly baroque that he resembles a Transformer. None of them have even the smidgen of personality afforded to even the most shallow Marvel villains we’ve seen so far, so although there are stakes on a large, intergalactic scale, it feels like our protagonists are fighting cardboard cutouts.

I can only guess that this issue is the result of editing the film down from a longer narrative, as this would explain quite a bit. For instance, when last we saw the purple stone, Starlord et al had left it in the care of the Nova Corps on Xandar; at the beginning of this film, Thanos already has it in his possession. Structurally speaking, it feels like too much of this film happens offscreen or in between cuts. The pacing of the movie works perfectly, however, so I must conclude that there was a choice between a movie that had good narrative flow and one in which all the relevant scenes were present, and the choice was made to jettison chunks of the story in order to maintain a better flow. That’s probably the right choice, but it still left me feeling unfulfilled when I left the theater. That’s not even getting into the complete irrationality of Thanos’s entire plan (killing half the universe “at random” to ensure that the other half has enough resources, which is some Malthusian nonsense on top of being illogical), or the fact that some characters get a “moment” but are still ill-served by having very little to do (Cap, Black Widow, and Falcon are notably absent for long periods and do little more than punch and shoot when they are on screen, despite being, you know, the Avengers).

I’m sure that future re-watches (especially at home, on a screen that’s smaller and thus better at hiding the flaws of bad computer imagery) will likely leave me with a more positive feeling (and I reserve the right to change my opinion at a later date), especially after the second half of this narrative is released next summer. For now, though, I just can’t bring myself to love this. It’s not because it’s a bummer; I think that was a good choice and I usually prefer that. It’s not because it’s popular, either; that’s never been a problem for me. Ultimately, the problem for me has nothing to do with what’s in the movie, but everything that it’s missing. Here’s hoping the next outing is something better.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

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

Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

Spider-Man: Homecoming is a delightful movie. Featuring baby-faced Brit Tom Holland reprising his role from Captain America: Civil War as the eponymous arachno-person, the film has already met with widespread approval from most critics and fans. It’s not difficult to see why; even when playing an exasperatingly ebullient modern teenager complete with inappropriately timed self-videoing, Holland has a magnetic screen presence and brings a lot of charm to the role, not to mention that he actually looks like a teenager and not just Tobey Maguire in his late twenties wearing a backpack. This newfound verisimilitude when it comes to casting young people as young characters is reflected in the rest of the cast who portray Parker’s classmates, including Laura Harrier (27 but looks younger) as Peter’s love interest Liz, Jacob Batalon as his best friend and confidante Ned, Grand Budapest Hotel‘s Tony Revolori as bully Flash Thompson, and Disney debutante Zendaya as Michelle alongside others.

While recently watching The 3% on Netflix with my roommate, he remarked that he found the show to be “effortlessly Tumblr friendly,” which is also true of this film. One thing you may notice about the cast list above is that, other than Holland, all of the actors listed are people of color. This is a great step forward as far as diversity goes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which is something that I have written about here before, especially in regards to the largely white-washed and underwhelming Doctor Strange. More admirable than that, however, is the fact that the film has largely cast actors with strong comedic ability beyond any arguable (or marketable) “tokenism”  in what is probably the funniest film that the MCU has produced outside of the Guardians movies so far. Other notable comedians in the adult cast include comedic actors like Hannibal Buress as Coach Wilson (who has some of the film’s best lines), my beloved Donald Glover as two-scene wonder Aaron Davis, and Orange is the New Black‘s (admittedly underutilized) Selenis Levya, making her the second actress to break free from that program into a superhero film after Elizabeth Rodriguez’s appearance in Logan earlier this year.

Rounding out the adult cast are Marisa Tomei as Peter Parker’s Aunt May, Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man (yet again), and Michael Keaton as the Vulture. Downey is essentially the same in this appearance as he is in all of his appearances as this (and frankly every) character, the rich asshole who is less charismatic than he thinks he is. Those of you who were wondering if he would express any regret or mixed feelings about his role in drafting what is essentially a child soldier into his personal grievance with Captain America in last year’s Civil War are bound to be disappointed, although probably not surprised. It’s still a nice touch that the film acknowledges in its text, if not in its characters’ self-awareness, that (once again) the film’s villains are created by Tony Stark and his lack of foresight. Keaton’s Vulture, nee Adrian Toomes, is a blue-collar Salvage worker whose contract with the city is rendered null when Tony Stark creates a new government agency to deal with the cleanup of the Battle of New York, forcing Toomes and his associates to find a new line of work. As is so often the case in the real world, these working-class men have no choice but to turn to crime, in this situation the theft and customization of advanced technology into weapons, in order to support themselves and their families.

This creates the backdrop of the film, which tells a much more grounded story than more excessive, loftier films like The Avengers. The stakes are largely personal, especially in one particular story beat that is obvious in retrospect but I didn’t see coming and won’t spoil here. Of course, just because the fate of the world isn’t on the line, that does not mean that the stakes are small. One could be easily forgiven for assuming that this movie would be a cliche teenage film that just happens to be filtered through a superhero lens, especially given the film’s subtitle of “homecoming,” but everything feels like it is awarded the dramatic weight that is warranted and appropriate given the setting and the tone. I’m hesitant to say more in this review as I want to save some of my insights for our Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. review, but I can say that this is one of my favorite films of the year so far and definitely worth the price of admission. I may be any easy sell (especially anytime a film uses “Space Age Love Song,” aka the best thing Flock of Seagulls ever made), but I’ll admit there are a few jokes and nods to the source material that don’t quite land, and I can confess that I had a fairly unpleasant viewing experience due to the loudness and phone usage of the film’s target audience (which is probably what I deserve for going to a screening on opening weekend that was not at the Alamo Drafthouse). All in all, however, I can all but guarantee you’ll have a good time.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

The gang is back with a few new faces this time around in Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2, with director James Gunn returning to the helm of the weirdest series in the MCU franchise. Although there are a few missteps this outing, including a lack of screentime for some of your old favorites, violence that is at turns disturbingly unexamined in its brutality when it’s not cartoonish, and hit-or-miss emotional resonance, this second installment reminds us that Guardians is still the funniest and most charming Marvel property currently being produced.

After a flashback opening sequence that shows a CGI de-aged Kurt Russell planting a strange alien plant on Earth in 1980s Missouri while romancing Peter Quill’s (Chris Pratt) mother, the film finds the team performing a mission to protect the extremely powerful batteries of a race known as the Sovereign from theft by a gross, fleshy tentacle monster (its essentially Caucasian flesh tones and stubble make the thing quite nauseating to gaze upon, as it looks like a scrotum come to life). This first action sequence felt a little off to me, as the obsession Rocket (Bradley Cooper) has with getting Peter Quill’s (Chris Pratt) music ready before they fight seemed a rather on-the-nose tip of the hat to the popularity of the first movie’s soundtrack. As the action primarily occurs in the background, the camera follows Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) around the platform in a one-shot that’s impressive despite being largely CGI.

We then meet our decoy antgonist, the High Priestess of the Sovereign (Elizabeth Debicki), as she presents the Guardians with their payment for the successful defense of their batteries, a captured Nebula (Karen Gillam), who is to be taken back to Xandar by her sister Gamora (Zoe Saldana) for the bounty on her head. The team is pursued by the Sovereign as Rocket, unable to control his kleptomania, made off with Sovereign tech; as a result, the team is forced to crash land in a forest after taking heavy damage and ultimately being rescued by Ego (Russell) and his servant Mantis (Pom Klementieff), an empath who helps the powerful being sleep. After revealing his familiar connection to Peter, Ego offers to take him, Gamora, and Drax (Dave Bautista) to his planet to explain his abnormal existence, and present Peter with a unique opportunity.

Elsewhere, Yondu (Michael Rooker) faces an existential dilemma when it is revealed that he and his squad are outcasts in the greater Ravager community, in a way that ties back to his essentially having raised Peter after abducting him, moments after the boy watched his mother die. He accepts a bounty for the Guardians from the Sovereign, but when his crew learns that he did so in order to protect them rather than hunt them, they mutiny, taking over his ship and freeing Nebula, who goes after Gamora in pursuit of revenge. Rocket, Groot, and Yondu must then attempt escape, with a little help from everybody’s favorite Stars Hollow weirdo (Sean Gunn, whose character’s name is irrelevant, and we all know it).

There’s no Infinity Stone MacGuffin here, and it’s a real break from the MCU’s usual storytelling machine that the narrative of GotG 2 isn’t motivated by set pieces, action sequences, or even plot, but by character. The only real example of this in the franchise thus far has been Winter Soldier, which was motivated by Cap’s desires to save one friend and avenge another, but even that film was organized around the plot of a conspiracy thriller as much as (if not more than) character motivation. Here, however, every choice and conflict is about character. The conflict between Peter and Rocket centers around Rocket’s insecurities about whether or not he deserves to be part of a family, even if that family is a group of outlaws who found each other. The violence Nebula seeks against Gamora comes from an obsession with besting her sister out of misplaced jealousy and rage, without realizing that they are both survivors of the same abuse but who have allowed that past to push them in different directions. The interaction between Peter and his father gives rise to the film’s climax (although it feels the weakest to me, despite being the primary conflict). Yondu’s desire to right the moral failings of his past give him the longest character arc of the film, and even the comedy bits between Mantis and Drax, both fish out of water but from very different worlds, is display of character, rather than the needs of pushing the narrative forward.

This is an elegantly constructed movie, and it moves with such precision and humor that you’ll never feel bored. Still, it is odd that this is a movie with a protagonist character who readily admits to a lust not only for violence, but specifically of killing others, and he’s never really called out on it. I’m not necessarily opposed to the whimsical way one particular scene of what’s essentially a mass murder is treated, since this is a James Gunn movie that we’re talking about, but it feels odd, if not exactly wrong. The fact that this sequence follows another that has a distinct Looney Tunes feel to the violence simply makes it feel like something is out of place.

I’ll save my thoughts on the more spoilery content and the way that this film interacts with the rest of the MCU for our Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. review, but Guardians 2 gets an endorsement from me. It’s still the weird sci-fi comedy that you can recommend to your friend who doesn’t like superheroes. Also, be on the lookout for a cameo from Ben Browder, who portrayed the protagonist of Farscape (which was mentioned as a spiritual predecessor of Guardians in our Agents review), playing a member of the Sovereign and using his best Peacekeeper voice.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Doctor Strange (2016)

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twohalfstar

Earlier this year Boomer wrote a wonderfully incisive piece on the political reasons he’d be abstaining from watching Doctor Strange until he could conveniently view it for free, thus decidedly not contributing to its already massive profits. So much ink has already been spilled here & elsewhere on the myriad of ways the film fumbled the issue of racial representation in its casting, particularly in the controversy of awarding Tilda Swinton the role The Ancient One, a character that traditionally would be played by an Asian man. Director Scott Derrickson has since admitted in interviews that in trying to avoid the “Fu Manchu” stereotype pitfalls of that character’s source material he had made an even bigger mistake in whitewashing the role, a transgression that many Hollywood productions have been indulging in lately. As Boomer & many others have already covered in their thoughts on Doctor Strange‘s insensitivity to whitewashing & cultural appropriation (not to mention its intenional omission of references to Tibet), including Derrickson himself, it’s no surprise that the film had several glaring problems in the cultural mindfulness department. What has been surprising, though, is that Doctor Strange has been earning very high critical marks outside of that controversy context. Some have even called it one of the best films of the MCU, comparing its wide appeal to the first Avengers film & Guardians of the Galaxy. I personally don’t understand the praise, as its storytelling structure dialed the franchise all the way back to the first Iron Man, with almost a decade of MCU creativity & innovation lost in the process.

The one thing that really worked for me in Doctor Strange was the exact selling point that put my butt in the seat in the first place: the visuals. The film has a kaleidoscopic, Inception-inspired way of folding space & time in on itself to create a psychedelic viewing experience unrivaled in most straightforward action adventures of its ilk. Even within Marvel’s own ranks only the microscopic & subatomic shenanigans of Ant-Man come close. Entire cities geometrically fold over like complicated origami. Galaxies expand, contract, and implode as characters’ astral projections tunnel through them. Time inverts, changes direction, and ties itself in knots as both complications and solutions to the Good vs Evil plot. And yet, for all of Doctor Strange‘s mind-bending, gorgeous, playfully surreal visual treats, the story they support is one of the laziest, most simplistic stabs at hacky comedy & unearned redemption narratives since the lifestyle porn beginnings of this franchise in Jon Favreau’s original Iron Man feature. It’s a dispiriting backslide into the worst corner of the MCU, where an egomaniacal monster is celebrated for his immense skill & wit instead of being shamed as the villainous shit that he so obviously is. I don’t regret catching this film in its IMAX 3D format while it’s still screening at every conceivable cineplex, as it gave me the best possible shot at enjoying what was truly a beautiful application of CG psychedelia. I just left the theater feeling more than a little let down by the story that technology was wasted on.

Heartless ass Stephen Strange is the Western world’s foremost neurosurgeon, a fame-obsessed brute who plays pop music trivia during intense surgical procedures, lives in a fabulously expensive apartment the audience is meant to envy, and scoffs at any philosophical ideas that cannot be explained through logic & modern science. His hubris is temporarily put in check after a violent car wreck destroys his most precious assets: his hands. It’s a classic tale of ironic tragedy that dates back to horror cinema as old as The Monster Maker & The Hands of Orlac, if not further, and Strange intends to right this universal wrong by traveling to Nepal and getting himself some of that good old-fashioned Far East mysticism. He’s shamed & trained into momentary submission by the aforementioned Ancient One, who, while dressed in the garb of a Tibetan monk, is actually a centuries-old Celtic woman, for what little it’s worth. We’re then bombarded with a whole lotta Marvel bloat: two(!) new-to-the-franchise villains, a loyal crew of underserved sidekicks, astral projections, alternate dimensions, space-time continuums, all kinds of nonsense. Before you know it, two post-credits stingers later, the whole thing has blown over without leaving much of anything in its wake.

At the center of all this and, apparently, all things in the Universe is the film’s main problem, Stephen Strange himself. The movie asks, “Who are you in this vast multiverse, Mr. Strange?” with the intent to humble him, but the answer the story gives is that he is Everything. No other character is afforded a second of importance that isn’t in some way tied to Strange’s magnificence. His unconvincing turnaround from badboy heel to crowd favorite babyface is made more important than the potential collapse of the Universe. He immediately masters an ancient art others have been steadily studying for decades, yet his rich white man in the East vacation is supposed to be a humbling spiritual journey. Much like with the irredeemable blowhard cad Tony Stark, the audience is asked to sympathize & laugh along with a jokester bully here, buying into a reformed badboy storyline at a moment’s notice, with no significant behavioral or personality change and a very brief loss of wealth & social status. In my recent dive into the entirety of the MCU, I’ve found that I connect with truly good, sincere superhero archetypes like Captain America much more easily than I do with sarcastic anti-hero villains in superheroes’ clothing like Stark, so my distaste for Dr. Strange as a character is certainly the result of a personal bias. I enjoyed this film well enough on a purely sensory level, but was overall soured by its narrative return to an Iron Man aesthetic. Given the immense popularity of the Iron Man franchise & this film’s early critical praise, I expect to be in the minority on that point, but I’m okay with that.

It’s easy to see on a strategic, Kevin Feige level why Marvel felt the need to bring in Dr. Strange as connective tissue in its ever-expanding universe (well, “multiverse” now, I guess). The psychedelia, witchcraft, and real world magic Strange brings to the table easily makes room for Feige & company to tie in the outer space reaches of Thor, Thanos, and the Guardians with the Earthbound characters of the Avengers and the inner space microverse Ant-Man antics. Why tie all of that narrative glue to a character who both closely resembles a protagonist you’ve already built your franchise around and whose origins are so hopelessly backwards in their racist depictions of Eastern stereotypes that you have to rewrite & whitewash them into a barely more acceptable compromise? There are more Marvel characters than I could ever care to count and surely somewhere in there one of them could’ve been a less problematic and more narratively distinct franchise-unifier. Off the top of my head, my two favorite characters in the Marvel pantheon could’ve easily done the job: Howard the Duck & The Son of Satan. I’d understand how past financial performance would set a bad precedent for Howard’s inclusion (despite his outer space origins & the casual disruption of the rules of reality in his often magical villains), but The Son of Satan could surely carry all of Strange’s multiverse-spanning psychedelia without any of the cultural baggage inherent to his origin story. And these are just two characters I know about, not being at all well-read in the vastness of Marvel folklore.

The point is that if Doctor Strange was such a difficult work to adapt with a culturally sensitive eye, there’s really no reason that it should‘ve been adapted at all. There must have been other, better options. This feels especially true once the cookie cutter mediocrity of the story sinks in. For all of the film’s reality-shifting visual creativity, it winds up feeling like so many Marvel origin stories we’ve already seen in the past, never justifying a necessity for its existence as an isolated property instead of as a connective piece for a franchise, which is a total shame & one of Marvel’s most frequent blunders. Maybe if I had any particular affinity for (the eternally forgettable charisma void) Benedict Cumberbatch as an actor I might be singing a different tune, but even my beloved Tilda Swinton couldn’t save this film from banality and she was backed by some of the most beautifully disorienting imagery I’ve ever seen put to use in action cinema. Doctor Strange is a feast for the eyes, but fails to nourish on any comedic, narrative, spiritual, philosophical, or emotional level. For a work that’s inspired over a year of think piece controversy and a few weeks of hyperbolic Best of the MCU praise, it mostly exists as a flashy, but disappointing hunk of Nothing Special.

-Brandon Ledet

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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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!

EPSON MFP image

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.