X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)

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I’ve only enjoyed 1 out of 4 of the major superhero releases that have hit theaters so far this year. Well, 2 out of 5 if the new Ninja Turtles movie counts (I am silly & weak). Either way, those are not great numbers & I’m starting to wonder if I’m the problem, not the films themselves. X-Men: Apocalypse, Batman v. Superman, and Deadpool all have their rabid defenders (especially that last one, unfortunately), but they each gave me a distinct “What am I even doing here?” anxiety while watching them in the theater, as if I had accidentally stumbled into the wrong prayer service at a funeral home. I was hoping that Apocalypse was going to be a repeat of the Days of Future Past scenario where critical consensus was  little harsh on what was mostly a decent, ambitious-but-messy superhero plot. Instead I found myself scratching my head for the entirety of its massive 147 min runtime, questioning why I left the house in the first place & silently wishing the apocalypse promised in the title would actually end this franchise for good. Of course, producers don’t think that way & Apocalypse wound up functioning as not one, but two franchise reboots for a property that’s already hit the reset button twice in the last five years.

The worst thing about that reset button is that it frames X-Men in a world without consequence. It’s fairly common for a superhero movie to have a seemingly insurmountable Big Bad threaten to End It All for vaguely hateful personal reasons that apparently call for the destruction of all life. Apocalypse‘s titular Big Bad even conforms to the recently omnipresent trope of the supervillain threatening to end humanity in order to “save the world” or whatever. As we saw at the end of Days of Future Past, though, this is a series where the slate can be wiped clean with the mere wave of a hand, so that threat is thoroughly empty. New, hip teens can be brought in to replace the aging X-Men of yesteryear with essentially no notice or pretense. If Apocalypse destroys Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters or the entire planet that hosts it, it’s no matter. A couple CGI-aided actors in leather jumpsuits can stand around in an empty field and put it all back together using only their minds & magic fingertips. So many tiny parts are interchangeable in the X-Men series that the big picture never changes at all. A character’s sibling can die in an explosion, leading to single moment of solemn reflection, but then be forgotten forever because nothing truly matters. Another character may have gotten not one, but two origin stories before in the very same franchise, but why not toss out a third for the sake of a violent comedy bit? Who gives a shit? Wipe away a memory, create an alternate universe, regress a character’s age & allegiance until they look like a Hot Topic/Disney’s Descendants knockoff of their former selves: there’s a million ways to erase history for in-the-moment convenience & X-Men: Apocalypse‘s single spark of ambition is the way it’s hellbent on exploiting them all.

Apocalypse frames its story around some Gods of Egypt-type nonsense in its early machinations, but its true gimmick/reason for existing is to make a superhero version of VH1’s I Love the 80s. How do we know it’s the 80s? In case the Cold War communism & Hot Tub Time Machine-style “Look at these goofy clothes!” visual cues aren’t enough, a character helpfully declares, “Welcome to the 80s,” a line that’s so amusingly mishandled that it recalls a moment in Tremors 4: The Legend Begins where a character anachronistically explains, “Well, this is The Old West . . .” 2011’s X-Men: First Class was an actually-refreshing mashing of the reset button, revitalizing an exhausted franchise by giving it some 60s mod spy media swank & a few fresh faces. Days of Future Past brought in some 70s political intrigue & sci-fi wankery that managed to keep the period piece angle fresh. I’m not sure what, if anything, the 80s setting brings to the table in Apocalypse: Cyclops wearing Ray-Bans? A trip to the mall? The film even missed an opportunity to include “Walk Like an Egyptian” on the soundtrack, which seems like a huge oversight considering the its dual timelines. The temporal setting plays like a vague afterthought handled mostly by the costuming department instead of directly influencing the plot or form. I’m interested to see how the 90s nostalgia is handled in the next installment’s natural progression, but Apocalypse‘s That’s So 80s stylization leaves little room for a promising future (past) there.

With the plot of Apocalypse not worth much thought or examination (a mean baddie from ancient times fails to destroy the world in the 80s & Wolverine pops in for brief contract-fulfillment), it’s probably best to discuss the film in terms of how it handles its many rebooted, retweaked characters. Honestly, though, there’s not a whole lot going on there either. Jennifer Lawrence looks downright miserable as Mystique, grimly going through the motions in the guise of a disaffected 80s punk. Newcomers Sophie Turner & Tye Sheridan are disappointingly dull in their respective roles as Jean Grey & Cyclops, especially considering the promise of their just-getting-revved-up careers, but at least that’s somewhat faithful to the charisma vacuum established by Famke Janssen & James Marsden in past entries? Wolverine is thankfully relegated to a cameo role here after getting more than his share of screen time in past entries, but since that role once again returns to his Origins it plays disappointingly like a Groundhog Day purgatory of a mutant/actor who can’t escape his past. Quicksilver’s literal show-stopping gag from the last film is repeated here as a special effects centerpiece, but I have a hard time caring about it much either, given the character’s winking-at-the-camera “Ain’t I a stinker?” PG Deadpool humor. The immensely talented Rose Byrne also returns only to be a continual butt of a joke that’s never quite funny. Only Michael Fassbender’s turn as Magneto registers as exceptional in any way, but the emotional severity of his work feels like it’s in an entirely different movie than the grey mush that surrounds him, so when he yells, “Is this what you want from me?! Is this what I am?!” at an indifferent god, it plays as overwrought & entirely out of place.

That leaves the conundrum of Oscar Isaac’s villainous performance as Apocalypse, which, while not necessarily great, stands out as the film’s sole source of entertainment value for me. Guardians of the Galaxy had a weird way of stealing Lee Pace’s sex appeal by turning him blue & covering up his luscious eyebrows. Apocalypse does one better and blues/obscures Oscar Isaac’s entire beautiful face, even accentuating his nose with a phallic cleft that recalls Dan Aykroyd’s prosthetic dick nose in the cinematic abomination Nothing But Trouble. Isaac’s performance is even stranger than his make-up, though. I swear he’s doing a dead-on, goth-bent impersonation of Tony Shalhoub throughout the film as he continually breaks the fourth wall & delivers Anonymous/Redditor-type monologues that would make Ben Kingsley’s Iron Man 3 baddie The Mandarin blush at their inanity. Isaac & Apocalypse are underutilized & more silly than threatening, but they’re easily the most entertaining aspect of a film that’s largely a pleasureless void. This may go down in history in Isaac’s worst performance in a so-far phenomenal career, but I gotta admit it was a lot of fun to watch.

I may have missed a few details here or there while periodically rolling my eyes during X-Men: Apocalypse, but I saw enough of the film’s zany 80s wardrobe, seriously questionable CGI, and wildly out-of-place body horror (don’t worry; there’s no permanent consequences for physical dismemberment here either) to get the gist. The movie sucks. Worse yet, it knows it sucks, as evidenced by Jean Grey’s admission after a screening of Return of the Jedi, “At least we can all agree the third one is always the worst.” Not only is that statement oddly anachronistic (the endless sequel cycle was not quite solid yet in 1983 outside Jaws & Star Wars), it also draws attention to the mess X-Men has made of itself at large. Is this the third entry in the franchise (starting, presumably, with First Class)? Feels more like the ninth for me, considering everything that’s branched off from Bryan Singer’s original adaptation in 2000. In the 16 years that have followed, the series has seen some highs & lows of note (those two Wolverine standalones being especially rough), but I don’t know if it’s ever felt this lifeless or devoid of purpose. What are we still doing here? What’s the point of any of this if it all can be fixed & rebuilt with the light shake of a CG Etch-A-Sketch? Why was the series’s eternally malleable gene mutation theme not put to any metaphorical use here, despite it being the one thing that distinguishes it from the rest of the superhero pack?  Without that metaphorical distinction, what reason does the audience have to show up in the first place? I don’t have the answers & it doesn’t seem that Bryan Singer does either.

At best X-Men: Apocalypse feels like it’s treading water until it can deliver a Totally 90s nostalgia trip in its upcoming sequel. And it knows that it’s delivering a mediocre product in the mean time, as evidenced by statements before & after the screening noting that the movie’s production created thousands of jobs for hardworking folks who are just doing their best, as if buying a theater ticket for yet another drab superhero disaster is somehow an act of charity & not a total waste of hard-earned money. I remain dubious to that point.

-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!

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

fourhalfstar

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

 

Episode #7 of The Swampflix Podcast: Daredevil Cinema & Possession (1981)

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Welcome to Episode #7 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our seventh episode, James & Brandon discuss the Marvel character Daredevil’s humble beginnings on the silver screen in the early 2000s with illustrator Jon Marquez. Also, Brandon & James discuss the art house romance horror masterpiece Possession. Enjoy!

Production note: The musical “bumps” between segments were provided by the long-defunct band Trash Trash Trash.

-Brandon Ledet & James Cohn

Do as Peggy Says: Saying Goodbye to the MCU’s Best Hero

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The greatest Marvel Cinematic Universe character passed away last week. Margaret “Peggy” Carter, a founder of S.H.I.E.L.D. and all-around onscreen delight, was shown to have gone to her rest with the release of Captain America: Civil War last week. The film’s release was followed up by the announcement that ABC would not be renewing Agent Carter for a third season, leaving the show on a cliffhanger and disappointing hundreds of fans. When Brandon asked me if I wanted to take a minute to talk about what Peggy meant to me, I jumped at the call. Please, allow me this moment to eulogize one of the greats.

Who was Peggy Carter? The character first appeared in the MCU in a supporting role in Captain America: The First Avenger. As revealed in the second season of Agent Carter, Peggy had grown up a tomboy before ultimately giving in to the expectations of femininity that were thrust upon her and enforced by her mother. She joined the war effort, initially as a code-breaker, and was ultimately recruited to join the Special Operations Executive organization, which led to her meeting with Steve “Captain America” Rogers. Following Cap’s disappearance, he was considered missing in action, and Peggy joined the Strategic Scientific Reserve, the precursor to S.H.I.E.L.D. In this position, Peggy helped thwart an attempted Hydra takeover and foiled the assassination attempts of a graduate of the Black Widow program. She later participated in overthrowing a corrupt cabal of powerful men on the East Coast. Forty years later, she was still an active part of S.H.I.E.L.D. and serving on its board, as shown in the opening scene of last summer’s Ant-Man. When Cap finally re-emerged in the modern world, Peggy was his last remaining connection to his old life, and we had the pleasure of seeing him visit her bedside in Winter Soldier.

All of that, is, however, just fact. Or, “fact,” rather, given that we’re talking about a fictional character. Who was Peggy Carter, really, though? 2015 saw the release of an astonishing three American television shows that revolved around women from the comics: Agent Carter, Supergirl, and Jessica Jones. Despite the more obvious familiarity with the Supergirl character and the surprise success of the Netflix interpretation of Jessica Jones, Peggy Carter’s stories stood out just as strongly as those of the other series. Although it was a network show and therefore would never be able to address the lie of a enviable past with the same depth as, say, Mad Men, Agent Carter still put a woman in an important role in a spy agency in the late forties and was as honest as it could be about how she and her sisters would be treated. In one of the first season’s greatest speeches, Peggy is confronted by her chief and two male co-workers, who are incredulous that she could have spent the whole season performing an independent in-depth exploration of evidence under their noses. “I conducted my own investigation because no one listens to me,” she says. “I got away with it because no one looks at me. Because, unless I have your reports, your coffee, or your lunch, I’m invisible.” And, unfortunately, it looks like Agent Carter itself wasn’t visible enough to warrant further investigation.

But that does not mean that we can’t adore the episodes that we were blessed with until the dark night consumes us all. We can always look back fondly at a program that featured women who loved to eat (and even secreted away gravy compartments in their handbags to allow for dining after hours), women who protected each other, and women who saw the opportunity for jealousy and instead took the road of affection. It’ll be a darker world without her, but we’ll make it through. As for me, in the meantime, I’ll keep on doing as Peggy says.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Captain America: Civil War (2016)

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fourhalfstar

Captain America: Civil War was a lot of fun! I went into the film expecting it to be a bit of a letdown after how much I loved Winter Soldier, and while it’s not as good as the last Cap flick, it’s certainly worthy of the positive critical reception that it has been garnering. I expected that there would be more of a backlash against it given that the negative reception of Batman v Superman was characterized by proponents of that film as being the result of a pro-Marvel bias among the blogosphere. Instead, the film’s 90% positive professional critic score and 92% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes reflects a generally positive reaction, and the film deserves it. While there are some detractors who are critical of the film, citing the distinct division between plot lines (one focused on the titular conflict between the different members of the Avengers and one which is devoted to following up on the plotline surrounding the Winter Soldier and his past), I’m in agreement with the general public in that I found this film a worthy successor and a great introduction to the new direction of the MCU as Phase Three revs its engine.

I’ll be saving my comparisons to other films and my discussion of the spoilery elements of the film for our Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. dual review, but I’ll talk about my favorite elements here. Unlike Age of Ultron, which likewise had a large number of characters and introduced new ones, this film felt neither overstuffed nor imbalanced. There’s more of Cap than anyone else, but that’s to be expected, and every other character gets at least a few minutes of screentime that develops them as individuals and reveals something about their personal philosophy. Notable among these is Scarlet Witch, who is basically filling the Kitty Pryde role on this team as the youngest member/trainee, getting tips on superheroing from Cap and Black Widow in the field. Elizabeth Olsen plays the hell out of Wanda’s insecurities and independence, and it’s a testament to her strength as an actress that the audience fully understands her character after just a couple of films in which she plays a role that doesn’t get a lot of screen time. Although Scarlett Johannson’s role here is much more brief than her meatier presence in Winter Soldier, the Russo brothers effectively understand that her relationship with Steve would be strained by their placement on opposite sides of the Sokovia Accord issue; I won’t get into detail here, but she gets a few scenes that allow the actress to play this conflict, and ScarJo nails it despite being arguably underused. Vision also feels a lot more like Vision this time around: a weird android whose utter incomprehensibility of human social norms is both charming and unnerving at the same time. The movie also gets a lot of subtle comedy out of the character’s uncanniness; there’s something utterly surreal about a blockbuster comic book movie featuring a character whose unusual body shape is covered by the kind of sweater that your grandmother orders out of a J. Crew catalog.

I also really enjoyed that, for the first time in the MCU, we got to see a team fight another group.In most of the films, the final confrontation boils down to a one-on- one fight (Iron Man, Captain America, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, Ant-Man), the protagonist and maybe a sidekick facing off against a single villain and his attendant faceless horde (IM2, IM3, Thor 2), or a group facing off against a single villain and his attendant faceless horde (Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy, Avengers 2). It’s not surprising that the only film from Phases One and Two that doesn’t fit into one of these boxes is Winter Soldier, which sees the individual members of Cap’s team in different places and fulfilling the roles that were best suited to each. This did mean that we didn’t get to see, for instance, a moment of pure four-color glory like Cap using his shield as a refractor for Iron Man’s blasts like in Avengers; what it does accomplish is raising the emotional stakes when the villains are well-developed and individual rather than being mass market Chitauri, Dark Elves, Ultron bodies, or the Sting-Winger things from Guardians. Here, it’s a full team against a full team, using their powers in new and inventive ways and showing how these personalities play off of each other, especially with regards to the more mature members of each team and their more green teammates. Ant-Man is a particular delight (despite some questionable CGI in a few scenes), with Paul Rudd effectively playing up Scott Lang’s awe at meeting Captain America; the serious affectation he puts into the line “Here’s your shield, Captain America” got the film’s biggest chuckle out of me, although Spider-Man’s sincere fascination with Bucky’s metal arm was great as well.

The fight scenes are frenetic in the best way, and they all push the plot forward rather than simply occurring at the anticipated intervals in which we’ve been conditioned to expect them. That’s not to say that this is a fun movie throughout, however. The length of the scenes featuring Holland’s precocious, quipping Spider-Man are balanced out by a conspiracy plot that reflects the darker elements of Winter Soldier. These revisitations don’t resonate as strongly this time around, but the revelations about the Winter Soldier program and one character’s motivations for wanting to bring this information to light are effective in their Manchurian qualities. This actually leads into the question that the marketing for the film has played up, one that was much more straightforward in the source material (which we’ll talk about in the Agents review): whose side are you on?

Where do I stand? There’s a great underlying throughline in this film that shows that, in a way, Tony Stark is right. It’s almost easy to write off Steve’s motivations as being too personal and lacking in professional distance; his desire to not only save but redeem Bucky may be the most ethical motivation in play, but it’s undeniable that this morality isn’t what motivates Cap. Steve Rogers’s desperate desire not to lose one of the last tenuous connections that he has to a home that no longer exists is understandable. On the other hand, it’s not hypocrisy on Cap’s part that he does not want to defer to the potentially unethical whims of a questionably impartial caucus while engaging in ambiguously unlawful activity himself to defend Bucky. It’s totally in line with what he claims is his goal: assuming personal responsibility. It’s also understandable that Tony would be the person most in favor of the accords: his ego and compulsion to take personal responsibility for protecting the entire earth led to the creation of Ultron. Of course Tony feels more of a need for oversight than Cap, who had heretofore never been on the wrong side of any moral conflict. In the end, however, the stakes become as personal for Tony as they are for Steve, leading him to act out violently using his technological advantage. Further, this conflict comes as a result of manipulation by a basic human for whom the stakes are also too personal. Supersoldier, genius inventor, and haunted family man: all give in to their worst instincts, tearing down empires and threatening worldwide political ramifications of the future because of the limited horizons of their own pain. This movie is both an embodiment of the need for accountability as made manifest in the lives of three different men, but also a demonstration of the infeasibility of the accords themselves.

Some situations require action faster than a committee can authorize it. This is a world where an alien portal can open up over New York or interdimensional monsters could appear in London and end life as we know it while some U.N. page is just trying to get enough people together to make a motion to deploy the Avengers. What if everyone was at lunch? And then, boom, humanity is enslaved to the Skrulls or consumed by Galactus because all they had to do was attack during everyone’s smoke break or a particularly nasty flu season. There really is no side that’s entirely right or wrong, which is the film’s greatest strength. There are a lot of people making comparisons to Batman v Superman and with good reason, considering that there is a weird overlap in some of the plot elements, but what really stands out to me is that BvS has what is essentially a sitcom stock plot where Character A and Character B are in conflict because they don’t communicate with each other. Then things get blown further and further out of proportion while shenanigans ensue, until they realize that, hey, being honest is important and everyone learns a lesson about teamwork and friendship. In Civil War, the conflicts are ideological and thus more rooted in the humanity of its characters. That’s the core of what makes this film work, and it’s a great start for the next wave of Marvel’s flicks.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X.: Ant-Man (2015)

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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: Ant-Man came very close to being the second Marvel feature, as a script was shopped around to different studios just a few years after the release of George Lucas’s Howard the Duck. In 1989, Stan Lee presented a basic script treatment to New World Entertainment, of which Marvel Comics was a subsidiary at the time (if you’re wondering about how the film corp that gifted us such cult classics as Rock ‘n’ Roll High School and The Slumber Party Massacre came to own the House of Ideas, I recommend checking out Chuck Sonnenberg’s “The Rise and Fall of the Comic Empire”). Ultimately, production began but was never completed because Disney was working on Honey, I Shrunk the Kids at the time. Depending upon conflicting reports, New World either didn’t want to put out a film that would have similar concepts as the much higher-budgeted Disney film, or they didn’t want to be perceived as copycatting the more successful studio; whatever the reason, the movie was not meant to be. Over a decade later in 2000, after the surprising success of Private Parts, shock DJ extraordinaire Howard Stern attempted to purchase the rights to make an Ant-Man film, but this concept never came to fruition either.

In 2003, a couple of years after the end of his successful British comedy series Spaced (starring frequent collaborators Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, as well as Jessica Hynes nee Stephenson, who won a best newcomer award for her performance on the program) but a year before the release of surprise cult hit Shaun of the Dead, writer/director Edgar Wright and his writing partner generated a treatment for Ant-Man. There are still large parts of Cornish/Wright’s ideas present in the final film despite the number of cooks who had a hand in the broth, like the idea that Scott Lang is a burglar, but Wright himself has said he doesn’t think the script ever made it very high up the chain at Artisan, where it was being pitched. Wright also cited influence from the novels of Elmore Leonard, author of Rum Punch (i.e., the source material for Jackie Brown) and Get Shorty, but was advised to make the script more family friendly, which he did before pitching a new script to Kevin Feige in 2004. This script had even more conceits that filtered into the 2015 film, like the inclusion of both Lang and original Ant-Man Hank Pym, and that the plot point that the two would become reluctant partners. Feige loved the concept, and when the first partnerships that would eventually bring the MCU into being were being forged in 2006, Marvel officially hired Wright to handle the Ant-Man film.

The development of the film from there was slow. Wright made occasional announcements about the film over the next five years; as Ant-Man was not a flagship character like Captain America who could carry a tentpole feature, production on the film was a fairly low priority, with Wright and Feige working on refining the script over the course of a few years. As a result, the MCU took off and gained popularity while Wright’s script kept being polished; by 2010, Wright had announced at SDCC that the film would not line up with The Avengers (putting to bed rumors that Ant-Man would be a founding Avenger, as he was in the comics). This further fueled speculation that Ant-Man wouldn’t be anchored in the greater narrative of the MCU at all, as Wright said his origin story didn’t quite fit. This, too, became a part of the final film, as the origin story for the original Ant-Man takes place in a time period not previously seen in the MCU, with Hank Pym acting as a secret hero during the Vietnam War. Finally, in 2013, Feige announced that Ant-Man would be produced as part of Marvel’s Phase Three, although the film would ultimately end up closing out Phase Two instead.

In March of 2014, rumors began to swirl that Wright might be leaving the picture. By this time, Michael Douglas and Paul Rudd had both been cast in their roles as Pym and Lang respectively, and Evangeline Lilly had just joined the film as Hope van Dyne. The film was on either its fifth or sixth draft, and Wright seemed to be increasingly frustrated with Marvel’s attempts to cram in as many connections to the rest of the franchise as possible, which Wright felt cheapened his vision. Two months later, Wright and Marvel announced that he had left production, and it was unclear what would happen to the project; Variety suggested that Cornish could take over, but Marvel chose not to go that way. Director Adam McKay, who was best known for his collaborations with SNL alum Will Ferrell (including Anchorman, Talladega Nights, Stepbrothers, and The Other Guys), was tapped as a potential new director, but his campaign for the role ended after a single day. McKay was kept on to rework the script (along with Rudd), and Peyton Reed (who had helmed Bring It On as well as a few episodes of the last season of Mr. Show, including the acclaimed finale) was brought on to direct. Although there was some concern that the shake-up would lead to a lack of success for the film, it garnered a decent enough box office return to secure a sequel.

Brandon, what did you think of Ant-Man?

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threehalfstar

Brandon: When trying to piece together exactly where Ant-Man fits in with the rest of the MCU, it seems that Guardians of the Galaxy is the only viable comparison point. Both properties exist almost in total isolation from the rest of the franchise (so far), tenuously connected only through a brief cameo from lower-tier characters like Falcon or Thanos or S.H.I.E.L.D.. More importantly, though, due to this isolation they’re both the only MCU properties allowed a certain amount of freedom in straying from Marvel’s so-called “house style”. In Guardians of the Galaxy, director James Gunn’s usual madman sadism was tempered somewhat by the PG-13 mold Marvel has aimed for in each of its individual properties, but the compromise between the two extremes wound up producing one of the best, most crowd-pleasing works in the franchise to date. Ant-Man is less of a success story in the tiny auteur vs. gigantic corporation divide. Edgar Wright has a very strong comedic voice that carries across as distinctly his own in films like Shaun of the Dead & Hot Fuzz and it’s that very voice that made the idea of him directing Paul Rudd in a movie about an ant-sized superhero super exciting. (I’m currently going through the same excitement phase with Taika Waititi’s upcoming Thor sequel.) Wright was ultimately less able to compromise with Marvel than Gunn over how much creative control he was willing to cede and the movie suffers somewhat from him having been pulled from the project before completion. Bring It On‘s Peyton Reed was a serviceable replacement & there’s still tons of Wright’s personality lurking under the surface here, but it’s difficult to watch Ant-Man without wistfully imagining the film that could’ve been with Wright fully at the helm.

Whether or not the final product is somewhat compromised by the behind-the-scenes shenanigans, Ant-Man is still remarkably charming as is. There’s honestly too much going in the film’s favor for it not to be. I mean, Paul Rudd is cute & all, but a miniature Paul Rudd? Who could resist that? I have, as I’m sure many people do, a bad habit of geeking out over how cute miniature models are, so whenever they pop up in a film like Beetlejuice or Pee-wee’s Big Holiday much of my critical eye goes completely blind & I’m enraptured. For instance, while recently watching the animated Batman movie Mask of the Phantasm I was fascinated by the climactic brawl with the Joker inside his Gotham miniature and it ended up being my favorite hand to hand combat scene in any Batman film. Ant-Man features a somewhat similar climactic battle involving a child’s train set that’s likely to be the closest we’ll ever come to seeing a live action version of that altercation in a superhero film. That’s not the only aspect of the film that checked off my particular boxes either. I went on a huge kick of watching films about giant ant attacks last year (there’s more than you’d think!) that put in me in the exact right frame of mind for this movie’s insectoid thrills. The innerspace visuals of microscopic shrinking-down touched on my affinity for cosmic psychedelia. The classic comedy structure of the film’s plot was a perfect primer for the silliness of its premise (where a Nolan-level of seriousness would’ve failed miserably). On paper Ant-Man does everything exactly right, if not exactly Wright.

So much of Ant-Man is endearing merely by default that it’s almost disappointing that it’s a really good film instead of a stunningly great one. As a self-contained episode within a franchise that has to bend over backwards to include all of its moving parts in films like Age of  Ultron it’s  a a nice break from the norm. There’s no true way to tell if the film could’ve been more than that if Wright had stayed in the driver’s seat, but that nagging question will always remain. I guess we’ll have to see how the promised sequel, Ant-Man and the Wasp, does without his guidance entirely.

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fourhalfstar

Boomer: My review of Ant-Man was the first thing I wrote for Swampflix, and after re-watching it, I stand by my high score of it and my appreciation for its themes, scope, imagery, and ideas. The sight of tiny Scott Lang running around in ant tunnels and riding a flying insect like a mighty steed is perfection, and I wouldn’t have wanted anything other that what we have here.

On the other hand, it would have been a lot of fun to see how the film would have been composed if Wright had been kept on to complete production. Shaun of the Dead might be his most popular original film, but I have the softest of spots in my heart for Hot Fuzz; when I’m having a bad day and need to laugh a lot, Hot Fuzz is the movie I turn to in order to lift my spirits. It’s a comedy that parodies over-the-top buddy cop flicks, but the best thing about it is that it doesn’t sacrifice a good mystery plot in order to focus on references and allusions. The film presents you with enough hints that you can solve the mystery alongside Pegg’s Sergeant Angel, but when he reveals his solution to the crime he’s wrong, despite all of his logic being completely sound and his assumptions being consistent with all available clues. That’s a stroke of brilliance that most best-selling mystery peddlers can’t pull off, and Wright managed to do it in a film that was first and foremost a pastiche comedy. As good as Ant-Man was, I can only assume that most of its best moments came from Wright, and I wish I could see the film as he wanted it to be seen.

I’ll also reiterate how much better this film is than Age of Ultron. When I first saw Ant-Man, it had been a few months since I saw the Avengers sequel, and I had only seen both films once. Although my opinion of Ultron has actually gone up in the intervening time, as I mentioned in our Agents review of that film, Ant-Man still stands head and shoulders above that film in regards to characterization and fun. The bedroom-based fight between Lang and Yellowjacket, for instance, is more dynamic and exciting than ten overlong Sikovian slow-mo panorama fights, no matter how much we were being directed to find those sequences epic. I’ll admit it: Thomas the Tank Engine being thrown through the air and bursting out of Paxton’s house was more exciting than watching a knock-off CGI-garbage Transformer make a city fly off from its moorings. I can’t say enough good things about Ant-Man, except to say that if you’re reading this and you miss the days when “nerd humor” was actually nerdy and not regurgitated trash like The Big Bang Theory, you should really check out Spaced.

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Lagniappe

Brandon: Paul Rudd is very funny in this film & deserves all the attention he gets in the starring role, but Michael Peña steals the show for me. He nails the film’s oddball humor with every line-reading afforded him, which is no surprise given Peña’s history in excelling in comedic scumbag roles. What did surprise me, though, is that the actor more or less resurrected his exact character from the underappreciated Jody Hill black comedy Observe & Report here. Both Peña roles are a wonderfully absurd collection of self-contradictions & pitch-perfect deadpan and if you love what Peña delivers in Ant-Man I highly recommend giving Observe & Report a gander, since his gives his particular weirdness a little more room to breathe.

Boomer: So, where does this film fit into the larger MCU? Well, we get another look at the new Avengers facility after the team relocated to an abandoned Stark production plant following the realization that putting their headquarters in the middle of New York was a horrible idea (I will miss the tower, though). We also get to see Anthony Mackie again, which is always a lot of fun, and the scene between Falcon and Ant-Man (while probably the kind of thing that Wright was looking to avoid) was a good way to connect this film to the larger universe without making room for more heroes. The plot also has Lang ask why the Avengers shouldn’t be called in to help out in this situation (a question that a lot of viewers have, although this has never been something that mattered to me), and we get the legitimate answer that not a lot of people have faith in them, which will tie into the plot of the upcoming Civil War. And I personally can never get enough of best-MCU- character Peggy Carter, so getting to see her as an older S.H.I.E.L.D. leader was delightful.

This may also be the last time that Hydra plays a significant role in the MCU as (spoilers for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), this week’s episode “Singularity” saw Coulson and Agent May watching as the evil organization’s remaining bases of operation were wiped off the map. This comes on the heels of a season and a half of plots that mostly focused on the rise of the Inhumans, and recently tied the two together with the revelation that pre-Nazi Hydra was a cult devoted to worshipping an ancient Inhuman that was banished to a distant planet. It was a bit of an (intentionally) anticlimactic end to an organization that went from being a relatively character-specific antagonistic force to the unified faction of evil that permeated many of the films (and programs) that followed, but I’m looking forward to an MCU that doesn’t feel the need to tie all of its antagonists back to Hydra in some way. This was another one of Ant-Man’s strengths, insofar as Yellowjacket’s plans to sell the suit prototype to Hydra was a matter of irresponsible capitalism (the greatest of evils) and not a devotion to their questionable ideals. Given that Marvel has withdrawn the upcoming Inhumans film from its production schedule, it looks like there may be even more divergence between the film and TV franchises in the future.

As a comic book reader, the thing that I liked least about the way that the MCU has adapted different plotlines is that Scott Lang’s inclusion in this film meant that the Scott-Luke-Jessica love triangle that was so well handled in Brian Michael Bendis’s Alias (the inspiration for Netflix’s Jessica Jones) couldn’t end up on the JJ show. I was always a fan of how Jessica’s relationship with the two different men and their respective worlds (with Scott as a member of the Avengers and Luke as a man who was more on Jessica’s level) said a lot about Jessica as a person and the things that were important to her. Still, Jessica Jones was a great show and definitely worth the minimal time investment it asks of you.

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Combined S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. Rating for Ant-Man (2015)

fourstar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X.: Avengers – Age of Ultron (2015)

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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: Do you need a history of the Avengers sequel here? The first movie cast such a shadow that it was impossible to escape this film, even if you wanted to (and most people didn’t). Even when it was unclear whether or not director Joss Whedon would return to helm the second film, there were no other potential directors announced before he eventually acquiesced. By the time this movie came out, virtually every blog that is created and consumed by humans had talked about the upcoming film in extreme detail. Next time, when we talk about Ant-Man, there’ll be a lot of production history to discuss, as that film had a long and troubled road from inception to release, but not Age of Ultron. Let’s just get to it, shall we?

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threehalfstar

Brandon: When I first reviewed Age of Ultron last summer I had kinda marked it off as a breaking point for the MCU. I enjoyed the film very much as a loud, chaotic action film, but felt like it was stretching itself a little thin trying to please both people like me who (at the time) only casually checked in on the Marvel films every now & then and hardcore fans who had consumed all ten films, three television shows, several DVD-exclusive shorts, and untold amount of tie-in comic books worth of content that preceded it. Age of Ultron was enjoyable to an outsider, but it had to labor fairly heavily to get there & I felt like at some point the franchise would have to leave me behind if it wanted to keep already-established fans engaged in future films. In the past year I’ve since caught up with all of the preceding MCU films & a few of the comic books and it turns out Age of Ultron still feels a little overstuffed & compromised now that I’m somewhat in the know. It’s a sluggish, sprawling mess of an action film that stresses itself out trying to provide significant character beats for each of its many larger than life heroes while also juggling with the introduction of several new supervillains for them to thwart. In a lot of ways Age of Ultron repeats a lot of the highlights and downfalls of the first Avengers films. It’s fun & inspired in moments both big (a stunning slug-it-out fight between Iron Man & The Hulk) & small (the repeated gag with who can/cannot lift Thor’s hammer), but also labored in a way that’s impossible to ignore, especially in its overlong, stop & start exposition.

However, there is a new spark of inspiration at work in Age of Ultron that gives me great hope for where the MCU is headed as a franchise. Now that the individual introductions & character quirks for each Avenger member are out of the way, the series has made a little room for itself to go into unexplored territory beyond the basic novelty of seeing all of these superheroes function as a unit. This development comes twofold. The first & flashiest change afoot here is the breathing space the film allows for its eccentric villainy. James Spader is a total hoot as the titular Ultron, just devouring the scenery at every opportunity he gets (even as soon as his introduction as a disembodied voice). The second development is the very nature of Ultron as a form of artificial intelligence. Thus far, MCU movies have centered on very traditional superhero plots: origin stories, tales of revenge, moral crises over the very nature of heroism, etc. Captain America: The Winter Soldier & Thor 2: The Dark World both promised new lines of narrative with their respective experiments in political thriller & space epic plot lines, but Age of Ultron takes this adventurous genre play a step further. The film’s pedigree as modern A.I. sci-fi makes it surprisingly satisfying & unique as a modern superhero work (and as a result it ranked fairly high on our recent list of the best A.I. sci-fi titles of the 2010s). Age of Ultron may be a little messy in its attempts to juggle so many varied larger-than-life personalities & sidebar plot lines, but James Spader’s over-the-top performance as the central villain & the resulting A.I. sci-fi plot that surrounds him make the film at the very least an interesting, entertaining mess. It’s at least as good as the first Avengers film & promises that there’s even better work to come in the near future (I’m starting to get really stoked about Captain America: Civil War‘s imminent release, as I’m sure most people are).

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three star

Boomer: I’m never really sure where to start when talking about this one. Age of Ultron isn’t a bad movie. In actuality, it’s a pretty decent outing for a group of characters that people were losing their minds over the first time we saw them unite. I’d dare say it’s good, if not great. The cinematography is clean, the pacing moves swiftly and cleanly, and the likable characters are terribly likable while the unlikable characters are not.

Buuuuuuuut…. this movie bores me? Maybe “bores” is the wrong word; it’s more that the film just fails to really grab me? Although there are some tonal inconsistencies and narrative problems throughout, the same could be said of Avengers, and I still found that movie enjoyable in spite of its flaws. I’d even go so far as to say that this film might be technically better, but I don’t get the same thrill from it that I still get from the first one. Admittedly, it would have been virtually impossible to capture a second lightning bolt in this particular Marvel-shaped bottle regardless, but I still feel underwhelmed with each viewing. This was my third watch of the film (after seeing it in theatres and then again at Christmas), and this was probably the most rewarding watching experience, but does an Avengers flick need to be the kind of movie that takes multiple rewatches to be fully enjoyed? This isn’t Jacob’s Ladder or Primer that I’m talking about; it’s the eleventh movie in a franchise that walks the thin line between “media made for children” and “media aimed at adults,” a direct sequel to a movie that was so much fun we all willingly ignored the fact that its plot is pretty threadbare and that the villain’s motivations were utterly inexplicable. So how did a follow-up with more explicit character motivation and expanded personal stories for many of the heroes end up being so… blasé?

When Whedon finally announced that he would return to direct Age of Ultron, he said that it was because he “actually started to consider it [and] it became so clear that [he] desperately wanted to say more about these characters.” This is most evident in Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye, which is ironic given that the actor couldn’t stop putting his foot in his mouth during the press tour. Overall, the film garnered a mixed response among new media outlets: many people interpreted Black Widow’s line about being a monster, a declaration that came on the heels of the revelation that she was sterilized as part of her espionage training, to mean that she considered herself less than a woman because she could not have children (I don’t personally subscribe to this inference, but the placement of that line is unquestionably insensitive and poorly timed). And it’s no real surprise that Whedon got burnt out from working on the film, considering that he was trying to grow the mythology while also being beholden to the Marvel franchise at large. This was a pretty big contributing factor to his eventual departure from social media, which was solidified when people reacted angrily to his accusation that Chris Pratt’s character in the then-upcoming Jurassic World smacked of “seventies-era sexism” (an observation that turned out to be absolutely correct, for anyone keeping score at home).

But those are all things that aren’t specific to the film itself; so, what about the movie? Well… clocking in at 2.5 hours, there are still too many stories that feel unresolved. In my review of Batman v Superman, I mentioned the scene wherein Lois Lane has to retrieve a Kryptonite spear from a flooded building after throwing the damn thing into the water in the first place; both I and the friend with whom I saw the movie immediately referred to this as the “Riker Fights a Monster” moment, referencing RedLetterMedia’s Plinkett Review of Star Trek: Nemesis. In that film, there is a scene in which Jonathan Frakes’s character goes down into the bowels of the ship to fight Ron Perlman’s Nosferatu-esque Reman character for no other reason than to give Riker an irrelevant plot point; as “Harry Plinkett” points out, making a main character run off to engage in hand to hand combat with a monster simply to give that character something to do is a demonstration of utter failure to properly craft a story. The same thing happens here with Thor, who takes off from the Barton farm halfway through the movie to go submerge himself in some magic waters and have a mystical vision, for the sole purpose of getting him out of the way for a little while and providing Thor with the information needed to provide exposition about how the MacGuffins of the MCU are interconnected, even though we kind of already got that explanation from The Collector in Guardians. Because the film has to introduce three new Avengers but Thor is still on the team, he has to be sent off on an irrelevant side quest just to give him something to do.

I didn’t read any books written by men in 2015. The biggest reason for this is that, while I was reading Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe last January, I realized I was reading the fifth novel in a row that was about a relationship between fathers and sons, specifically one that was estranged. Like a lot of writers, I also have a strained relationship with my Pops, but I’m sick to death of having to see that narrative device in every piece of media that I consume. It’s been a central thematic element of most of the Marvel films, with Stark having to face off against his surrogate father in Iron Man and Iron Man 2 revolving around him having to finish his father’s work (with bonus daddy issues coming from a parallel story about Whiplash’s own dead father). Thor could have been subtitled “Odin is kind of a bad dad,” and the plot of Thor 2 is basically “Loki has daddy issues some more, and also there are evil elves.” Guardians of the Galaxy has both Nebula and Gamora rebelling against their “father” Thanos, and Star Lord’s father is mentioned several times, setting up more dad-focused shenanigans further down the line. The Incredible Hulk didn’t focus on the patriarch of the Banner family (although Ang Lee’s non-MCU Hulk certainly did), but it did milk drama from the relationship between Betty and General Ross. Even Ant-Man, which I really enjoyed, wrung most of its pathos from the parallel father-daughter relationships between the two Ant-Men and their respective offspring. The only movies that don’t have bad father-child relationships as a central element were the Captain America films. And, hey, I get that, I really do. Assuming that your parents were present in your life, the relationship that you have with them is the first and most formative relationship that you have; further, especially in God-haunted America, the relationship between fatherhood and the divine takes on such familial and social importance that one’s father is often one’s model for how they conceive God. I’m just saying that this is a metaphorical well that has been visited by storytellers so often that they’re hauling up buckets of dust at this point and trying to get us to drink it.

Age of Ultron takes this idea and cranks it up as high as it will go. Wanda and Pietro turned to Baron von Strucker and his experiments as a way of getting back at Stark for the death of their parents. The Barton family farm gives every character the opportunity to reflect on their own place in the world and whether or not that precludes them from starting families of their own: Banner and Widow have a heart-to-heart about how neither of them is biologically capable of starting a family (the idea of adopting, as is so often the case, never crosses anyone’s mind); Stark talks about building Pepper a farm, implying that he is thinking about continuing the Stark lineage (legitimately). Cap’s is a little more subtle, as we see him dreaming about the end of the war and being able to finally dance (and, by implication, settle down) with Peggy, a dream that can never be realized. Even Thor becomes a kind of father by the end, as his lightning gives life to Vision. But, of course, all of this pales in comparison to Ultron and his hatred for his “father,” Tony Stark. It’s thematically connected but ultimately feels hollow.

Where do I even begin with Ultron? For one thing, his design is terrible. The effects team did some excellent work making him look as good as he does, but he still doesn’t quite fit. The Iron Man suits are almost always CGI, but they work for me because they don’t have as many distracting details on them and they aren’t required to imitate real facial expressions; Ultron, on the other hand, has a stupid cartoon face that laughs and speaks and looks absurd. Combined with James Spader’s disarmingly likeable dialogue, this doesn’t work for me at all. I understand that Ultron wants to become more human (even if the film fails to properly explain why this is a goal for him), but he would have been more unsettling if his jokes and attempts to seem more affable had come from a less expressive face. When Ultron first interrupts the after-party at Avengers tower and gives his “I’m alive, father” speech to the gang while inhabiting a broken Iron Legion bot, he’s much more menacing in that moment than he is at any point later in the film, and that’s a problem; a villain should become more frightening as he goes from party-crasher to world-destroyer, but Ultron gets less creepy as the film goes on. If they weren’t going to keep him in a broken robot suit the whole time, the least that could be done would have been to make his face immobile to ramp up the uncanny valley factor.

On top of that, the film sells itself short by having Ultron move into full-blown extinction-event villainy almost immediately. Remember the scene from The Fifth Element in which Leeloo discovers the concept of “War” and briefly has a psychic break before returning to her mission with a renewed vigor? Age of Ultron would have benefited from downplaying Ultron’s maliciousness at the outset. For instance, he could have worked alongside Jarvis for a scene or two, maybe even helping to design the anti-Hulk “Veronica” system, which would have foreshadowed that Ultron would eventually work against the team. Then have him come to the conclusion (after having a Leeloo-like epiphany but with the opposite result) that the world would be better off without humans in general and the Avengers specifically, so that he goes rogue, kills Jarvis, and sets out on his own to unmake life as we know it. This would raise the emotional and thematic stakes without changing the plot all that much, while also making Stark look less foolish by having his “son” turn to evil eventually rather than instantaneously.

All that having been said, do I hate this movie? Not really. I actually enjoyed its mindless summer action flick elements, and I continued to laud the fact that the MCU heroes really are heroic in that they focus their attentions on saving people as much as they do on defeating villains. Compared to the mindless ultraviolence of, for instance, Man of Steel (and the petulantly sarcastic “good thing this island we’re utterly destroying is uninhabited” violence of follow-up BvS), Age of Ultron truly reflects the superheroic ideal in a way that other franchises fail to understand. The trailer for Civil War even shows that there were fewer than 200 casualties in this film, which is mind-boggling, given that an entire city is obliterated in the climax. The action scenes are fun, even if there are so many that the excitement is diluted and diminished (the Iron Man versus Hulk fight is narratively justified but could have been excised with few changes). I also like that the film takes the time to remind us that Tony Stark is a real asshole, and that the character growth he’s experienced over the course of the franchise hasn’t absolved him of the guilt of his past (as evidenced by his recognition of a notable black market arms dealer and the fact that the Maximoffs were orphaned as a result of his company’s war profiteering) or of his pathological egomania (as seen in his accidental creation of what is essentially Skynet and his willful refusal to destroy the experiment that would become Vision, despite all available evidence at the time indicating that this was the best course of action).

Still, the spectacle doesn’t make up for the looseness of the plot this time around, and the film’s thematic focus on progeny and responsibility is neither as strong nor as clever as it tries to be. It’s the quintessential example of a sequel that reduces its narrative world rather than enriches it. It’s a recommended watch, but not a required one.

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Lagniappe

Brandon: I’m giving a lot of credit to the character of Ultron here for what makes this film so entertaining as a work of superhero-themed A.I. sci-fi, but Ultron’s philosophical counterpoint Vision is just as fascinating. I know both Ultron & Vision are both inorganic lifeforms entirely dedicated to their respective good & evil plots to “save” the world (Ultron’s Murder Everyone policy is particularly inventive in that regard), but what strikes me most about these two characters is their off-putting sexuality. James Spader has always been something of a creepy sex symbol throughout his career & even though he appears here mostly as a voice, his work as Ultron is no different, so no surprise there, really. What’s really off-putting is the sex vibes I get from his heroic opposite Vision. Vision is creepily sexual in a way that a subtly flirtatious yoga instructor or an enigmatic cult leader would be and it makes me simultaneously super fascinated & super uncomfortable watching him at work. It’s highly probable that this is all in my head, but I still think it was a reaction worth mentioning.

Boomer: As much as I cited the problematic over reliance upon father-child relationship clichés, it is worth pointing out that this is, to my knowledge, the first and only time that anything created by Joss Whedon has a good father archetype. From Buffy (in which literally every single character’s father was either not present, abusive, or both) to Toy Story (in which Andy’s father is notably absent), Joss Whedon has a the same hard-on for bad fathers that Jonathan Safran Foer has for fatherhood in general. Arguably, Fred’s dad on Angel was decent, but Hawkeye is the first good, relevant father that we have ever had in a Whedonverse product.

On a more random note, non-comics character Helen Cho feels like an attempt to fix the comics-to-screen adaptation of Kavita Rao, who was created by Whedon during his Astonishing X-Men run and who was unfortunately ruined by her appearance in Fox’s X-Men: The Last Stand.

I’d also like to point out that I really like Vision. He’s a favorite character of mine from the comics because he’s just such a total weirdo. For those who don’t read the comics, Vision’s neural patterns were based on those of fellow Avenger Wonder Man (who has no analog in the MCU, possibly because he was excised from The Ultimates); when Coulson was killed in the first Avengers film, my theory was that they would bring him back by using his mind as the basis for Vision. I’m not saying that my idea was better, but… okay, I am saying that. Still, I appreciate that the MCU has brought on such a bizarre comic character and I have to admit that I’m really looking forward to seeing what they do with him. I also like that they slyly alluded to his comic-book relationship with Scarlet Witch, with Ultron saying early in the film that she needs something different from/more than a man, and with Elizabeth Olson’s reaction to seeing Vision for the first time (her face basically says “Oh, my, yes”).

Of course, even more than Vision, I love Wanda. She’s a notoriously difficult character to get right, and even though the movie makes some changes for the worse (divesting both Pietro and Wanda of their Roma heritage and instead making them generically Eastern European is unnecessary and insulting, especially considering that you can count the number of Roma comics characters on one hand), her characterization is pretty neat. The Ultimates version of the twins was awful, and the dumbed-down nature of X-Men Evolution meant that she was turned into a pretty generic goth girl with issues, a la Nancy in The Craft. My favorite non-comics version of her is probably from the all-too-brief Wolverine and the X-Men cartoon from five or so years ago; pairing her off on adventures with Nightcrawler made sense thematically (given both character’s connections to the Roma) and making her an ambassador for Genosha allowed her to be involved without making her a part of the team.

As for how this film fits into the wider MCU, we haven’t quite gotten to see the ramifications of these events inform the growth of the franchise in quite the same way as, for instance, the events of Winter Soldier did. When that film was released, it had an immediate and apparent impact on other films, taking away the S.H.I.E.L.D. support system that the characters and the audience had come to rely upon and making Hydra a real threat in the present. This had an obvious and instantaneous effect on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., finally refining that program into something worth watching. How does Ultron tie into the program this time around? An off-the-books project is referenced many times throughout the second season, a project so secret that it causes dissension in the ranks (when Ming Na’s Agent May finds out what it is, a few weeks before the audience does, she seems pretty pissed). The big surprise is that this secret project is actually the new helicarrier that is used to rescue the fleeing Sokovians at the end of Ultron, which doesn’t make sense given what Agents showed us and is completely irrelevant to viewers who only follow the films and don’t care about the shows. Ignoring that, it looks like the events of this film will be important in the upcoming Civil War, so that’s something to look forward to. And, of course, we can expect to see more of Andy Serkis’s character when the Black Panther finally gets involved.

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 Combined S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. Rating for Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

three star

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

Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X.: Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

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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: There was a great deal of consternation in the nerd and mainstream communities when Guardians of the Galaxy was first announced. Eagle-eyed viewers (and readers of Wizard) had already spotted an appearance by the Infinity Gauntlet in Odin’s weapons locker in Thor, and many had correctly guessed that the Tesseract that appeared in Captain America was one of the Infinity Gems, meaning that an adaptation or re-imagining of Marvel’s Infinity War storyline would eventually be on its way. With that in mind, there had to be a way to incorporate more of Marvel’s cosmic mythology into the MCU, but no one was certain which form this would take. Within the comics, space-based plotlines generally revolved around either the Shi’ar Empire or the Kree-Skrull War; neither of these two elements lent themselves to the MCU, however, because of the rights issues surrounding each. The Shi’ar are mostly linked to the mythology of the Phoenix Force (and thus the X-Men) and the Skrulls were a longtime recurring enemy of the Fantastic Four; with the film rights for both of those teams tied up at Twentieth Century Fox, there was much debate as to how the MCU would be able to address interstellar plots. Notably, Avengers had taken the Skrull stand-ins from the Ultimate books, the Chitauri, and made them the alien invaders in that film. Ultimately (no pun intended), the Kree play a role in this film, although the Skrulls go unmentioned.

Kevin Feige hinted in 2010 that a film bearing this title could be on its way, and confirmed in 2012 that the film was in production. Initial announcements named Peyton Reed as the director, although at that point his biggest successes were over ten years behind him, having helmed a few episodes of the last season of HBO’s terrific Mr. Show with Bob and David and 2000’s underrated Bring It On. Writing/Directing duo Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden (the team behind Ryan Gosling vehicle Half Nelson) were also in talks to create the film and its world, but the project eventually found its way into the capable hands of James Gunn. Gunn only had two features under his belt as director, horror satire Slither and Rainn Wilson’s superhero pastiche dramedy Super, but the majority of his work was in writing, including the 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake. Joss Whedon, director of The Avengers, was kept on by Marvel as a consultant for the films leading up to the (then untitled) sequel to the team-up film, and he was vocal in his excitement about Gunn’s hiring, citing the director’s enthusiasm and cinematic eye.

A virtual unknown, Nicole Perlman, was later announced as the film’s screenwriter. She had previously acted as an uncredited script doctor on a draft of Thor, and she was given free reign to choose which Marvel property she wanted to draft a script for, choosing Guardians because of her fondness for space opera. Although Disney’s screenwriting program no longer exists, Perlman was one of the last to graduate from it, and her script for Guardians was the only reason the film ended up being made, according to Variety in 2012; Senior Editor Marc Graser wrote at the time that Marvel “was high on” her initial script treatment. Since then, Perlman has admitted that she’s also written a draft of a potential Black Widow script that has yet to see the light of day, and she has also been announced as the screenwriter for the upcoming Captain Marvel film due out in 2019. Perlman’s name is also frequently banded about as the potential writer of a rumored reboot of Jim Henson cult classic Labyrinth (although talk of a reboot has largely died down in the wake of David Bowie’s recent passing). In the meantime, however, she has not one single IMDb entry that does not relate to the MCU, which is heartening considering what a boys club the franchise can seem to be at times.

Casting for the film’s default lead, Star Lord, began in September 2012, with a laundry list of people who tested or read for the role: Eddie Redmayne, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Joel Edgerton, Jack Huston, Michael Rosenbaum, and many, many others. Lee Pace also auditioned for the role, ending up instead slotted into the role of Ronan, the film’s main antagonist. Five months later, Marvel finally announced that they had found their man in Chris Pratt. Jason Momoa auditioned for the role of Drax, but he was passed over in favor of Dave Bautista (Momoa, of course, is slated to appear as Aquaman in DC’s upcoming attempted franchise). The nature of this new film meant that none of the MCU’s previously appearing characters could not reasonably make cameos in this film, although Buffyverse alum Alexis Denisof reprised his role as The Other, Thanos’s emissary who gave Loki his marching orders in Avengers. There was little publication surrounding other roles and testing for them, but the film’s cast was finalized by mid-2013 (minus Vin Diesel, whose vocal acting for Groot was only confirmed after the end of principal photography), and filming began in July of that year.

For those of you who have forgotten everything about the film except for a wisecracking raccoon and freshly-buff Chris Pratt being hosed down while flouncing about in underwear, a quick refresher: Young Peter Quill fled the hospital where his mother was dying in 1988 and was picked up by an alien ship. Years later, Quill (Pratt) acts as a scavenger in a fleet led by Yondu (Michael Rooker), a blue alien with an inexplicable Southern accent; he finds and takes a valuable item from a space tomb and ends up on the run from Kree radical Ronan (Pace). Multiple bounty hunters are sent to apprehend Quill, including Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and his partner Groot (Diesel) and assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana), who was kidnapped from her home by intergalactic warlord Thanos (Josh Brolin) and trained as a killer. These four untethered people are eventually captured and detained in a space prison; when they escape, they are joined by fellow inmate Drax (Bautista), who has his own axe to grind with Ronan and Thanos. They are opposed by Ronan and Gamora’s warrior “sister” Nebula (Karen Gillan) and the police-like Nova Corps, led by Nova Prime (Glenn Close). These decidedly-not-team-players reluctantly accept that no one else is in a position to save the galaxy from total annihilation and rise to the challenge.

Brandon, what did you think about Guardians of the Galaxy? If I remember correctly, this was one of the MCU flicks that you had seen before starting this project; does it fare better or worse now with more of a background in this world? Or, given that this film that lies outside of the MCU’s reach for the most part, does that context change your opinion at all?

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Brandon: I’m starting to feel extremely foolish about how I received Guardians of the Galaxy at the time of its release a couple years ago. I liked the film well enough as a loud, vibrant action comedy that provided a much-deserved starring role for America’s affable older brother (or boy toy sex symbol, depending who you are) Chris Pratt. However, I remember buying into the idea that the Marvel “house style” had significantly put a damper on the over-the-top exuberance of madman schlock director James Gunn. Gunn was familiar to me as the dark soul behind depraved camp titles like Slither and Tromeo & Juliet, so it was weird to see his style somewhat homogenized into a Luc Besson-style space epic. The truth is, though, that Gunn’s version of an uninhibited MCU entry probably would’ve turned out more like the grotesquely asinine Deadpool film I’ve spent the last month brooding over. In fact, Gunn already directed a nastily misanthropic superhero film, simply titled Super, that I generally enjoyed, but also found difficult to stomach at times due to the lighthearted way it depicts sexual assault. I don’t know if this is me getting increasingly sensitive with age, but another The Fifth Element, Star Wars-style space epic with Kevin Feige & company keeping Gunn’s sadistic id in check actually sounds preferable now to what might’ve been delivered otherwise. It might also be the case that the act of catching up with the rest of the MCU’s output in recent months has helped me realize just how unique Guardians is as a modern superhero popcorn flick & just how much of Gunn’s personality is noticeably present on the screen.

In any case, returning to Guardians of the Galaxy with fresh eyes was a revelation. This is a fantastic work of crowd-pleasing action cinema, the exact kind of delirious spectacle I look for in blockbusters. In that respect, the only film that might‘ve topped it in the year or so since its release is Mad Max: Fury Road & I mean that with full sincerity. The film’s detailed, lived-in version of space opera is literally worlds away from the rest of the MCU. Its superheroes aren’t truly heroic or even all that super. They’re mostly thieves, murderers, aliens, and the bi-products of cruel science experiments. Something that largely got by me the first time I watched Guardians of the Galaxy was just how emotionally damaged its central crew of space pirates are. Their families are dead. They’ve never known true friendship. They’re sometimes prone to drunkenly curse their own very existence. The film’s tendency for 80s nostalgia & crowd-pleasing action set pieces are really fun in an overwhelming way that I think often distract from just how devastatingly sad its emotional core can be. I never knew an anthropomorphic raccoon grimly complaining, “I didn’t ask to get made!” could make me so teary-eyed, but Guardians has a way of making the emotional pain of its damaged, nonhuman non-heroes feel just as real as the physical space they populate looks. That’s no small feat.

That’s obviously not to say that all of Guardians is deep-seated emotional pain. The film is mostly a riotously fun action comedy with broken hearts & bruised egos only peppering its blockbuster thrills. I love how inane its outer space worldbuilding is. Blue people, green people, purple people, and purple people eaters all roam about as if they are on a silly 60s sci-fi television show. Villains are known to say absurd things like “Nebula, go to Xandar and get me the Orb.” The MCU’s ultimate MacGuffin, the Infinity Stones, actually feel at home in this kind of space age gobbledy gook. It’s also fun to watch this atmosphere clash with Pratt’s womanizing bro humor as Star Lord, as I feel like I’ve lived in this kind of space adventure before, but I’ve never met anyone I could describe as a “space bro” as comfortably as Star Lord. I particularly enjoyed the line when describing the filth of his space ship/bachelor pad he confesses, “If I had a black light these walls would look like a Jackson Pollock painting.” The kicker is that Guardians not only has the most successful humor of the MCU’s output so far; it also has some of the most exhilarating action sequences in the franchise. The Kyln prison break in particular is a beaut & watching Rocket Raccoon operate his homemade weaponry gives me the same thrill I caught watching primates operate automatic machine guns in 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

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I could probably prattle on about how my favorite two MCU entries so far, Guardians of the Galaxy & Captain America: The First Avenger, thrive on their own strengths by distancing themselves from the rest of the franchise, but I don’t believe that best captures what makes Guardians so special. Honestly, the film’s own mixtape gimmick is a better access point to understanding its wide appeal. A mix of crowd-pleasing songs like “I Want You Back” & Escape (The Piña Colada Song)” and offbeat essentials like “Cherry Bomb” & “Moonage Daydream“, the film’s mixtape soundtrack mirrors its larger mashup of action comedy marketability & cult film tendencies. In retrospect the marriage of James Gunn’s mean nerd exuberance & the MCU’s action comedy accessibility is a match made in blockbuster heaven. It delights me to no end that you can actually purchase a copy of Star Lord’s beloved mixtape cassette. That piece of comic book movie ephemera actually seems more to the heart of the film’s appeal than a Rocket Raccoon figurine or even a Blu-ray copy of the film could ever be.

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Boomer: Last time we were here, I mentioned how much Captain America: Winter Soldier reminded me of Star Trek VI and how that only made me love the former all the more. I have to admit that I was one of the naysayers with little hope for Guardians. By the time it came out, I was sick to death of the endless stream of advertisements for the movie; in every commercial break and before every YouTube there was a clip of Chris Pratt slowly flipping off John C. Reilly. But what I found when I saw the film was that I actually loved it, but mostly because it was the closest I felt we would ever come to having a Farscape feature.

The parallels don’t track perfectly, but they are obvious. We have the wise-cracking American thrust into an interstellar society made up of various societies and factions (Peter Quill/John Crichton), who has a relationship with a woman who was taken at birth and trained to be a deadly soldier and assassin (Gamora/Aeryn Sun). They’re joined by a large warrior with ritual scarrification and tattoos (Drax/D’Argo), a pint-sized wiseass (Rocket Racoon/Rygel), and a living plant (Groot/Zhaan). Farscape’s premiere episode even involves a prison break in which many of the main characters escape captivity, and both ragtag crews eventually find themselves drawn into the greater war going on around them in spite of their individual desires to simply overcome the traumas of their past. Both Drax and D’Argo have lost their wife and child (although D’Argo’s son is still alive, albeit enslaved), and both Gamora and Aeryn slowly warm to the human crewmate that helps them feel closer to their (in)humanity. The sequence in which the titular Guardians visit a mining colony inside of a once-living giant is even reminiscent of the episode in which the crew of Moya find a mining colony inside of the budong, an ancient spacefaring being of humongous proportions.

For the most part, the similarities end there, however. Although Groot and Zhaan are both plant people, the former lacks the metaphysical wisdom and spirituality of the latter. Although Rocket is full of himself, he lacks the imperial pomposity of the dethroned Rygel. Still, once can’t help but feel that Guardians is a spiritual sequel to Farscape, and that greatly contributes to my enjoyment of the film. I have to admit, however, that this rewatch wasn’t the thrill ride that I remembered fro my first few viewings. Guardians is undoubtedly the coolest of the MCU flicks so far, but the repetition of the jokes from the film in the real world has stolen some of the luster from their enjoyment. There’s still a lot to enjoy here, but Guardians doesn’t hold the endless rewatchability for me that Winter Soldier does, despite being much more fun than the comparably dour Captain America sequel. It was a smart move on Marvel’s part to follow up a somber MCU installment with a film that was exhilarating in a different way and for different reasons, but Guardians has a problem that the other films don’t have.Whereas the previous ensemble in The Avengers had the luxury of multiple individual films to flesh out the members of the team (minus the characters who were supporting players in previous installments, with Hawkeye never being fully realized as a character until Age of Ultron), Guardians has the unenviable task of introducing all five of its mains as well as their world and the ramifications thereof in a very short amount of time. The script is excellent in that the film doesn’t feel overloaded, but reflection upon the movie does lead to some questions that feel unanswered. We know that the Kree and the Xandarians have recently reached a peace accord, but what was their relationship beforehand? Are many of the Kree fanatics like Ronan, or is he an outlier, and, if so, why does Nova Prime have such difficulty getting the Kree ambassador(?) that she contacts late in the film to make a political statement decrying Ronan? And why wouldn’t the Kree condemn a terrorist anyway? This scene and others blow past so quickly that viewers may not realize just how much information is needed, but scenes like this have a way of niggling the subconscious.

Still, Guardians is a lot of fun. When I first saw it in theatres, I would have given it five stars, but time and distance have made me a bit more critical of it. Maybe I just wasn’t in the right frame of mind this time around, but the film just doesn’t have the magic for me that it did in 2014.

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Brandon: It’s impossible to talk about Guardians‘ likability without addressing the absurd strength of its cast. Besides the appeal of Chris Pratt’s affable bro humor & “pelvic sorcery”, watching James Gunn regulars like Michael Rooker & Lloyd Kaufman appear among Hollywood heavyweights like Benicio Del Toro & Josh Brolin is a strange delight. Goofball comedic actor John C. Reilly interacting with Glenn Close is equally enjoyable as novelty. Bradley Cooper appears as a CG raccoon wearing people clothes. Vin Diesel outs himself as a huge D&D-oriented nerd as a talking tree. Bautista & the much-hated (among cinephiles, anyway) comic book prankster Howard the Duck both make a massive impact, which combine to make it feel as if this film were aimed to please my own particular nerdy obsessions: bad movies & pro wrestling.

The only complaint I might have about Guardians‘ insanely stacked cast of always welcome faces is the way it largely wastes the eternally-underutilized Lee Pace. I enjoyed Pace’s turn as impossibly cruel Ronan the Accuser more than I did the first time around but I do still think it was a huge mistake to cover up his luscious eyebrows with the alien makeup. Those might be the most handsome eyebrows in Hollywood. They deserve to run free.

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Boomer: For anyone reading this who is still mourning the loss of Farscape, I recommend current sci-fi series Dark Matter. It has fewer obvious commonalities with Farscape than Guardians, but its tone is the closest thing to Farscape’s that I’ve been able to find in a long time, even if it lacks the older series’s humor.

When joking in our earlier review about the fact that the Ninth Doctor appeared in Thor 2 and that the Tenth Doctor had played the villain of Jessica Jones, I had completely forgotten about the fact that Karen Gillam, who played the Eleventh Doctor’s companion Amy Pond, played Nebula in this film. There’s also the fact that Tobey Jones, who portrayed a nightmare version of the Doctor a few years back in “Amy’s Choice,” portrayed the evil Doctor Zola in both Cap flicks. Were it not that Jenna Coleman (who portrayed Clara Oswald, companion to the Eleventh and Twelfth Doctors) played a minor role in Captain America, all the Doctor Who alums who have thus far appeared in the MCU would have portrayed villains.

Regarding how the film plays into the larger mythos of the franchise, the plot elements from Guardians have largely only been important in how they affect Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Just as one of the main characters on the program was revealed to be a Hydra mole near the end of the first season, the second season featured major developments in the form of the revelation of the existence of the Inhumans and that another member of the squad was one such being. The Inhumans, for those who understandably gave up on Agents early on, are a subspecies of humanity who possess abnormal physiological traits as the result of a Kree genetic engineering campaign in Earth’s distant past. It’s also an easy way for the MCU to introduce large numbers of super-powered individuals despite not having the right to use the term “mutant,” what with the rights to the X-Men franchise still tied up at Fox. For those of you playing along at home, there is also a planned Inhumans film slated for release in 2019.

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Combined S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. Rating for Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

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

Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X.: Captain America 2 – The Winter Soldier (2014)

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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: Captain America: The Winter Soldier was very nearly a different kind of movie. Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely announced before the premier of the first Cap that they had already been hired to draft the sequel’s script, and there were three choices for direction: George Nolfi, F. Gary Gray, and sibling directorial team Anthony and Joseph Russo. Gray would certainly have been the most interesting choice, as he would have been the first person of color to helm an MCU film and have helped with Marvel’s ongoing diversity problem (as demonstrated just in the past week by the announcement that Danny Rand would be portrayed in the upcoming Netflix Iron Fist series by white Game of Thrones alum Finn Jones). To date, only two films based on Marvel properties have been directed by non-white directors, Hulk (Ang Lee) and Blade II (Guillermo del Toro), and only one has been directed by a woman, Lexi Alexander’s Punisher: War Zone. At present, Black Panther is set to break this white streak with director Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed), although the revolving door of directors (with Selma’s Ava Duvernay and Gray himself having been attached to production at different points) makes one wonder if there will be any more upsets between now and when production actually begins. Ultimately, Gray passed on the project in order to direct last year’s Straight Outta Compton, and the reins to the film were handed over to the Russo brothers, best known for their work on the early (good) years of NBC’s Community.

Those who are only familiar with the movies may be unaware, but S.H.I.E.L.D.’s contribution to the primary Marvel Comic universe took place largely outside of the context of superheroics. In fact, one could read comic books for several years without ever finding out that such an organization exists within that world; I certainly did. When interest in strong men and Amazons waned in the mid-Twentieth Century while the popularity of western, detective, and horror comics grew, S.H.I.E.L.D. took on prominence as a vehicle for telling stories about war and espionage, with books like Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos. The idea that S.H.I.E.L.D. should play a role in the founding of a superhero team is taken wholly from the Ultimate Marvel comics, a sub-imprint launched in the early 2000s to provide an entry into the comics world for new readers whose interest in the medium came as the result of the success of the Spider-Man and X-Men films. Forsaking the moniker “Avengers,” the equivalent team in the Ultimate books was known as “The Ultimates,” featuring a line-up of heroes that were brought together by Ultimate Nick Fury, who was consciously drawn to resemble Samuel L. Jackson in the hopes that he would be interested in the role should a film adaptation ever come to fruition. Many of the ideas that made their way into the MCU found their origins in the Ultimate imprint, with some scenes in the films even shot to be evocative of similar scenes in the comics (Thor’s visit from Loki, who lies that Odin has died in the first Thor film, is probably the most direct lift). The MCU has so far managed to mix stories from both the main books and the Ultimate line with new ideas to make sure that even comic book readers can never quite predict what twists the narrative will take. For instance, in the Ultimate Universe, Black Widow is revealed to be a double agent who turns on the rest of the team; non-readers who see Winter Soldier won’t have this knowledge and thus don’t know whether Natasha can be trusted, while readers who love the MCU Romanoff will constantly be anxious, wondering if she’ll follow in her ink counterpart’s footsteps, adding an edge to the movie.

Writing duo Markus & McFeely initially wanted to do an adaptation of Ed Brubaker’s Winter Soldier storyline (from the mainstream Marvel books) but were hesitant to commit to that idea, unsure if they would be able to make the story fit into the MCU while also doing it justice. Ultimately, with encouragement from MCU coordinator Kevin Feige, the two drafted the script as a political conspiracy thriller that incorporated elements of that plot but that also included S.H.I.E.L.D. in a larger role than in Brubaker’s story, given the greater prominence of the agency in the film franchise. Feige was quoted as saying that stories about Cap dealing with the fearmongering and political unrest of the seventies and eighties was “a hell of a journey” for the character. Although they couldn’t do stories set in that time period due to the fact that this version of Cap was frozen during that era, they “wanted to force him to confront that kind of moral conundrum, something with that ’70s flavor.” As such, the script was written with the intention of incorporating elements from political conspiracy thrillers of that era, like Three Days of the Condor and All the President’s Men.

To cement that connection, Robert Redford, who had appeared in both of those films, was cast to portray Alexander Pierce, the man to whom Nick Fury reports. Another new face in the cast was Anthony Mackie, who plays Sam Wilson, a character from the comics codenamed the Falcon. Cap and Falcon have had a long working relationship in the comics, with the Captain America comic even being retitled Captain America and the Falcon for 88 issues from 1971 to 1978, as the two duplicated the two-buddies-travel-the-world-and-have-different-social-perspectives narrative of the groundbreaking 1970-1972 Green Lantern/Green Arrow books. Emily van Camp was eventually cast as Agent 13, a longtime Cap love interest from the comics (originally introduced as Peggy Carter’s younger sister then later retconned as her niece given the nature of comic books’ static timelines) after beating out Alison Brie, Emilia Clarke, and Imogen Poots (among others) for the role. The film also introduced Crossbones in his civilian identity as a S.H.I.E.L.D. footsoldier revealed as a Hydra interloper; in the film, he is portrayed by Frank Grillo.

The nature of the time jump at the end of Captain America meant that most of Cap’s supporting cast would not be able to reappear in this film, although there is a heartbreaking cameo by Hayley Atwell as a very old Peggy Carter, and Sebastian Stan’s Bucky Barnes plays a prominent role. Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson, and Cobie Smulders reprise their roles from other MCU features as Black Widow, Nick Fury, and Maria Hill respectively. Maximiliano Hernández, who had previously appeared as S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Jasper Sitwell in Thor, The Avengers, and ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., also appears in the film as a turncoat, as does Garry Shandling’s senator character from Iron Man 2 (it’s a good thing that Stark managed to keep the senator’s hands off the Iron Man suit, then). Toby Jones also reprised his role as Hydra scientist Arnim Zola, both in flashback and as an electronic ghost.

So, what did you think, Brandon? Captain America got high praise from you; how does this one fare?

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Brandon: I was head over heels for the first Captain America film, which played like a retroactively-perfected version of The Rocketeer. Captain Steve Rogers’ bully-hating, Nazi-punching earnestness was a much welcome antidote to the sarcastic, megalomaniacs like Deadpool & Iron Man who often test my completist patience. I was, of course, stoked to catch up with the second installment in the Captain America series not only because I found the found The First Avenger so perfectly sincere, but also because ever since this project began The Winter Soldier has been sold to me as the height of what the MCU has to offer. I don’t want to say that I was exactly disappointed by the film that was delivered after all that hype, but I will say that the burden of expectation definitely colored my experience in a negative way. From the outside looking in, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a fine action film, a perfectly entertaining superhero movie that does a great job of tying the Marvel mythology in with real-life political intrigue. However, I think the film stands as a dividing line between the franchise’s die hard fans who greedily eat up the ins & outs of the Marvel lore (particularly the narrative arc of S.H.I.E.L.D.) and the more casual observers such as myself who are mostly looking for an escapist spectacle with a cool hero in a kooky costume (which is more in line with what The First Avenger delivered). Fans who love the MCU enough to devotedly follow all of its short film bonus material & televised spin-offs are likely to love The WInter Soldier. The more detached devotees will enjoy the film’s action sequences & cool cat protagonists, but perhaps with less hyperbolic rapture.

Freshly unfrozen in the modern world, Captain Steve Rogers is simultaneously dealing with the post-Battle of NYC PTSD issues that Tony Stark wrestled with in Iron Man 3 & the same kind of fish out of water awkwardness as his Norse god buddy/fellow beefcake model Thor eternally suffers. Besides having to catch up with cultural markers like Marvin Gaye & Star Wars that he missed while taking an extensive nap on ice, Rogers also has to deal with the fact that his one true love (and ABC star) Peggy Carter lived a full life without him & is now spending her last days alone in a hospital bed. Friends & colleagues pressure Rogers to ask someone less geriatric for a date, but he refuses to move on. Of course, these small personal concerns are dwarfed by an evil world domination scheme Rogers has to put to a swift end. The Nazi offshoot Hydra from the first Captain America film is apparently alive & thriving, having successfully infiltrated S.H.I.E.L.D. & subtly influenced all of the world’s war & unrest from behind the scenes in the decades since the second World War. Can Rogers stop the Hydra from hijacking an advanced weapons system & using a sinister algorithm to destroy every one of its potential enemies in one fell swoop before it’s too late? Of course he can. He is The Greatest Soldier in History, after all (having now graduated from comic book hero status to living museum exhibit in his own lifetime).

What’s most interesting about The Winter Soldier is the way it complicates who & what is Captain America’s enemy. Rogers joined S.H.I.E.L.D. because it was partly founded by his one true love & he finds great value in reliving his wartime specialty: rescue missions. S.H.I.E.L.D. is too powerful to trust, however, especially since its participation in a worldwide (& maybe even intergalactic) arms race is what provides the weapon that Hydra intends to use the wipe out its enemies wholesale. By showing the faults of our modern day surveillance state by attaching a gun to each camera, The Winter Soldier approaches the most biting political commentary the MCU has offered yet, especially when Rogers criticizes his S.H.I.E.L.D. overlords for “holding a gun to everyone in the world & calling it protection” (a theme that will later be repeated in Age of Ultron). I don’t think the film’s political themes are ever explored any deeper or more thoroughly than they’d be in any other high budget, explosion-heavy action film, though. For MCU die hards who’ve been following every Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. episode & tangentially-related S.H.I.E.L.D. mythology-related media, the film’s big reveal that the organization has been hijacked by Hydra might’ve landed with massive impact, but the betrayal never feels too significant from an outsider perspective. It’s mostly a political thriller springboard for a cool action movie with a lovable hero & some of the best fight choreography in the MCU outside the Avengers films (including increasingly inventive uses of Captain’s shield in its hand-to0-hand brutality).

It feels almost like a betrayal to nerdom at large to say I really liked this movie but didn’t love it, but that kinda points to the way Marvel Studios have spread their properties so, so very thin. In the greater, 10,000+ hour span of MCU content, The Winter Soldier is a major turning point & a fulfilling payoff for irons that have been in the fire for years. As a standalone property surviving on its on isolated merits, its a very solid picture, but far from the pinnacle of any of its various genres: political thrillers, action flicks, superhero media, etc.

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Boomer: I love this movie. It’s the MCU picture that I’ve watched and rewatched the most and the one that I find the most enduring, thoughtful, and well-paced; for my money, it’s the best of them all. It’s a testament to Winter Soldier’s excellence that, despite the fact that I got dumped two hours after I walked out the theatre on that 2014 afternoon, it wasn’t ruined for me (like so, so many things were in the wake of that breakup). I can look back on that day and say, “Hey, that was one of the worst days of my life, but I also saw Winter Soldier.”

I’m not ever sure where to start with all the things that make this film work for me. I’m a sucker for a good conspiracy flick (and even some bad ones), and the tonal similarities between Winter Soldier and things like Enemy of the State, The Manchurian Candidate, and most obviously (and explicitly) Three Days of the Condor hit all the right buttons for me. It brings Black Widow into the foreground in a way that the previous films attempted with mixed success and introduces a great new hero character to the mythos in Falcon, and both Johannson and Mackie bring a lot of energy into the mix that harmonizes well with Evans’s leading man charisma. Redford is perfect in his role as the turncoat leader of the World Security Council, and the film puts a lot of work into including and subtly commenting on contemporary issues of security, privacy, and systemic violence. Evans was serviceable in his previous appearances as Cap, but he clearly understands the role better here than in the earlier outings: Cap is a man who fought a brutal war that history has painted as a righteous one, and as such is best suited to remind those around him when they are repeating the mistakes of the past.

The film draws a clear line between itself and other films of the same genre that came before, both within the text (most notably with Natasha quoting War Games) and metatextually, especially with the casting of Redford. Although his most notable contributions to political thrillers were his roles in All the President’s Men and Three Days of the Condor, I also have a fondness for Sneakers, which shares plot elements like computer algorithms and heisty shenanigans with Winter Soldier. Of course, the movie to which I feel this film is most tonally similar isn’t your standard contemporary political thriller like your Sneakers or even your classics like The Parallax View: it’s Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.

I’ll keep this as brief as I possibly can, given that I have a (deserved) reputation of making everything about Star Trek, despite any obstacles. The Star Trek franchise was always about creating the rhetorical space that science fiction inhabits when it’s at its best: commenting upon contemporary social mores through a lens that provides the viewer or reader with enough metaphorical distance that he or she can see the absurdity and beauty of the human experience. (Last year’s Hugo Awards were undermined by a small group of rabid people who fail to realize that this is and always has been the purpose of the genre.) As such, the classic 1960s series created by Gene Roddenberry featured groundbreaking elements like people of color and women being treated as colleagues and equals by their white and male crewmen while also exploring the relationship between different earth cultures by projecting them onto extraterrestrial confederations.

Most notably, this was demonstrated by the way in which the Klingon Empire was a clear stand-in for the Soviet Union, and this was made all the more textual in The Undiscovered Country, which opened with a Chernobyl-esque disaster that places the Federation (the society in which Kirk and Spock abide) in a position to finally hammer their swords into plowshares… or bring their enemies to their knees. In the midst of all this is Kirk, who has fought the Klingons all his life and even lost his son to them; still, the Federation believes that, just as only Nixon could go to China, only Kirk can present the Klingons with a metaphorical olive branch. Unfortunately, Kirk ends up being framed for the assassination of the Klingon Chancellor and is assigned to a Siberia-esque gulag, while Spock works out the mystery. Working from opposite ends toward the middle, the two find a peace-endangering conspiracy that has wound its way around the heart of the seemingly-utopian Federation, fueled by long-stewing grudges, cultural fascism, and speciesist (read: racist) attitudes.

The Undiscovered Country is a fantastic movie, and although it’s not the best entry in the film franchise (Wrath of Khan is the undisputed champion), it’s a viable contender for runner-up. The Winter Soldier plays out similarly with its revelation that Hydra was never destroyed, but that it was instead reborn by planting its monstrous seeds within S.H.I.E.L.D. from its conception. Like ST6, this film also features the great and historical hero who finds himself framed and caught up in political machinations, dealing with strategic espionage maneuvering which is far outside of his control but in which he has a vested personal stake. Both films take the tropes and traits of the conspiracy narrative and add them to their respective genres, elevating both films to increased notability outside of their franchises.

And Natasha! Romanoff is back, baby, taking on heavier narrative lifting here than ever before and not only rising to the challenge, but killing it. Natasha never comes off as a sidekick here, instead acting as the perfect foil to Rogers. He’s the perfect soldier, and she’s the perfect spy: the focus on the ways that their respective skills and worldviews inscribe, complement, and conflict contributes to the film’s constant momentum. Johannson nails the small moments of vulnerability and the fact that Widow is always a few steps ahead of everyone else, like she’s accustomed to always being the smartest person in the room. This is just as much a story about her as it is about Cap, despite how much of the plot is devoted to his feelings of having failed Bucky. The film also does a better job of displaying professional respect and friendship between the two than most films are able to with a male-female friendship, and their emotional arc is perfect, forsaking the easy road of creating a romantic relationship between the two.

If anything, the titular Winter Soldier is the weakest link for me here. Part of that may be that his true identity as a brainwashed Bucky is no secret to comic fans (and it kind of surprises me that it was a shock to film-goers, given how recognizable Stan’s face is even with a mask on). It provides a counterpart to Cap’s friendship with Natasha, but it’s not as emotionally satisfying to me. Cap and Bucky’s friendship was built up in the first film, but it never quite clicked for me; I’m not as invested in the two of them as the franchise wants me to be, mostly because we actually see the two of them interact with each other much less than we see Cap interact with Natasha or even Tommy Lee Jones’s General in the first film. His involvement raises the stakes for Cap personally, but not for me.

That doesn’t make me any less invested in loving this movie, however. It hits the sweet spot for many in virtually every way, and I can hardly thing of a disparaging thing to say about it. Every few months, we see a new thinkpiece being published that asks if this genre is on its way out. Although I haven’t really seen any signs of slowing or stopping at this point, I’d wager that Winter Soldier will long outlive its peers in the public consciousness even if the MCU draws to a close.

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Lagniappe

Brandon: One thing that has been super impressive over the last few MCU features is how they’ve turned around my frustration with one-line cameos & half-assed tie-ins. I think that The Avengers, while not the height of the franchise, was an entirely necessary step in bringing this whole mess of a universe into an increasingly sharp focus & The Winter Soldier in particular is a great collaborative effort that directly reflects that shift. It’s doubtful that Nick Fury or Black Widow will ever star in their own standalone vehicles, but they’re both given way more to do in The Winter Soldier than ever before. Black Widow has already had ample time to show off her badassery in previous pictures, but her extended presence is always a welcome asset. This is really Nick Fury’s big break as a major player, though, and it’s fantastic to see him elevated form a walk-through cameo in a stinger to a fully-realized character. It’s also incredible how characters like Falcon & Bucky are shoehorned in there (even if I spoiled their individual reveals for myself by watching MCU content out of order) without ever cluttering up the film’s proceedings. Again, The Winter Soldier is a well made political thriller-leaning action flick that covers a lot of ground in its massive 2 1/2 hour runtime. I’m not sure that each of its characters & themes are given enough room to properly breathe & resonate, but there’s an impressive juggling act in how many personalities & plotlines get involved in the first place and the film delivers a wealth of entertainment in its genre-based treats alone.

Boomer: The furthest-reaching repercussions of this film on the franchise is the revelation that S.H.I.E.L.D. has been infected by Hydra from its very inception. For me personally, S.H.I.E.L.D. has always been a non-essential element of the MCU; sure, most of the stories would be different without their involvement, but not by much and not necessarily detrimentally. This reveal did end up creating more plotlines for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., with that series finally developing into something worth following in the wake of Winter Soldier, but it also annoys me. The rest of the MCU must now pay lip service to this development constantly, with references to Hydra showing up in shows and films that don’t really relate to S.H.I.E.L.D., if as nothing more than a bogeyman. Other than films where it wouldn’t make sense (such as Guardians of the Galaxy), all the villains relate back to Hydra now, if only tangentially. It makes me like past, unrelated villains like Jeff Bridges’s Obadiah Stane more in retrospect, since they weren’t required to tie in as heavily. It’s not that I feel the franchise is hamstrung by this revelation, but I find it weakens a plot when everything has to tie back into one evil mastermind or organization, limiting storytelling possibilities.

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Combined S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. Rating for Captain America 2 – The Winter Soldier (2013)

fourhalfstar

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