Black Panther (2018)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

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

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

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

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

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Doomed!: The Untold Story of Roger Corman’s Fantastic 4 (2016)

“How many movies did Roger Corman make that never got released? One.”

When the last failed attempt to competently adapt the Fantastic 4 comic book series for the big screen hit theaters in 2015, I foolishly decided to give all past attempts a chance and watched all four craptastic Fantastic 4 features that have been produced since the 1990s. The only film of the batch that was at all enjoyable happened to also be the only one that never saw an official release. The notoriously campy, 1994 Roger Corman-produced Fantastic 4 film is rumored to have been made solely so that co-producer Bernd Eichinger could retain the film rights to the intellectual property he later leveraged for a much larger paycheck with the 20th Century Fox Fantastic 4 production in 2005. Although Corman’s goofy $1 million Fantastic 4 production was shot, edited, and printed into a final, marketable product ready to be shipped to movie theaters across the world, it never saw an official commercial release. The details of these backroom shenanigans have always been a little murky, as the Corman film was intended to be dumped quietly into the void by folks behind the scenes, which is a total shame given that it’s a much more enjoyable work than the major studio Fantastic 4 travesties that have been released in its wake. Now, the documentary Doomed!: The Untold Story of Roger Corman’s Fantastic 4 has arrived to promote the very existence of this lost VHS gem and to shed some light on the mysterious forces that sabotaged its would-be theatrical release.

As an informational experience, Doomed! doesn’t accomplish anything that couldn’t be achieved through a longform “oral history” article on a well-funded film blog. It’s more of a Wikipedia-in-motion style of post mortem on a superhero film that never officially saw the light of day than it is a Tickled-style exposé on the dark forces that greenlit the production just to sabotage its release. The interview pull quotes that appear as onscreen text and act as chapter breaks between talking heads awkwardly call into question why this even had to be a movie at all, instead of a series of print interviews & YouTube clips. It’d be foolish to expect anything more than that from a crowd funded documentary about a film only available on VHS bootlegs & less-than-legal YouTube uploads, but keeping those limitations in mind definitely helps soften any major criticism that could be lobbed at Doomed!. Stories about how the movie was fast-tracked into production, passed on by Lloyd Kaufman, filmed at a studio warehouse condemned by the fire marshal, and advertised in theaters with a legitimate trailer despite the apparent conspiracy to never release it all make for interesting anecdotes, but do little to distinguish the documentary as its own work of art. What makes Doomed! worthwhile instead is the pathos it manages to mine from the cast & crew who worked on the film, people who sank immeasurable time, passion, and money into an effort that was conspired to become a meaningless waste by design behind their backs.

In the early 90s most superhero media was considered to be kids’ stuff, with most Marvel films in particular, including early attempts to bring Spider-Man & Captain America to life, not really providing much hope that the landscape would change into the comic book-dominated nerd future we live in today. The success of Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman film changed that perception, however. Although folks working on the 1994 Fantastic 4 might have had reasons to be concerned about the limitations of working within Roger Corman’s direct-to-VHS era, with his quick-paced production schedule & indie-level scale of budget, they also had enough encouragement from the cultural zeitgeist at large that the film might be a huge financial success. A project hundreds of Hollywood nobodies sank all of their hope into as their big break into major A-list success, one that had explicit verbal assurance that it would reach a wide theatrical distribution and a trailer that screened before other major action films, never saw the light of day until it was bootlegged & ridiculed years down the line. The first sign the cast & crew had that the powers that be behind 1994’s Fantastic 4 might not have had total faith in their work was when Marvel legend Stan Lee publicly trashed the film at that year’s Comic-Con before production even wrapped. Everything from that point on is hurt feelings & dashed dreams. Doomed! is most essential as a document when it captures that sense if betrayal from those most hurt by the film’s cancellation. Like with a lot of movies sets, the crew had developed a tight-knit, familial sense of camaraderie during production and it’s a little sad to see them all look back bitterly on sinking together with a ship that was doomed before it even left the port.

If you want to see a great document of the cheap, wild production style of Roger Corman filmmaking, I recommend checking out Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel instead. If you want to see a great documentary about a passion project that becomes unruly during production and is sabotaged out of existence by sinister film industry types, check out Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau instead. Already-established fans of the Roger Corman Fantastic 4 movie (like myself) are likely to seek out Doomed! for its cool tidbits about how The Thing’s animatronic facial expressions were achieved or how, exactly, copies of the film were ever leaked out. Then again, those fans were likely to be the exact people who funded this documentary on Indigogo in the first place. If you’re already on the hook for Fantastic 4, this film works well enough in tandem with that would-be cult classic as supplementary material. Doomed! aims to achieve more than that, nakedly calling out for an official, decades-late commercial release for Fantastic 4 as a kind of victory for the folks who were wronged in the conspiracy of its initial non-release. Only time will tell if it’s successful in that respect. In the meantime, folks who aren’t already onboard with 1994’s “lost” Fantastic 4 can only look to Doomed! for a small, quietly sad story about a group of hopeful up-and-comers having their dreams built up and immediately crushed by a shared project that’s just beyond their control. Even if just for that one aspect, though, it’s still worth a recommendation.

-Brandon Ledet

Logan (2017)

I don’t like Wolverine.

This has been a topic of much contention with my fellow comic book nerds for a long time, but there are a host of reasons why he doesn’t appeal to me as a character. First, it’s never made much sense to me that Professor X has a spot on his peace-oriented team for a man whose powers and enhancements make him a perfect assassin or soldier. I’ve also never seen myself reflected in Wolverine the way that I see aspects of myself in Kitty Pryde, Emma Frost (under Joss Whedon’s pen), and (especially) Beast; nor do I see something I could aspire to be in Wolverine the way that I did and do in Storm’s serenity or Nightcrawler’s happiness in spite of a lifetime of abuse. I certainly understand the allure of a character without a past and the desire for redemption (although the importance of this desire was intermittent), but Wolverine never worked for me as a character.

I think that this is mostly because, despite his meager origins, the character of Wolverine evolved into a straight white male power fantasy, especially among the more self-pitying members of the nerd subculture of the eighties and nineties. Macho Wolverine gets the girl, takes no shit, and leaves his enemies shredded to ribbons: he’s the ultimate enviable hero of the platonic nineties nerd before Hollywood came along and turned comic books and superheroes into the hottest trends on Earth. Following this popularity explosion, the character was inescapable, which is probably my foremost issue with him. Don’t like Angel, or Jean Grey, or Psylocke? No problem: there are plenty of Marvel comics without them, including long periods of time in many X-books. Don’t like Wolverine? You’re out of luck, bub: try to find an X-Men comic from 1985 to 2014 where he’s not a presence (give or take an Excalibur here or there), and if you turn to another Marvel book for a Wolverine-free reading experience, you better not want to check out Avengers, or New Avengers, or even Power Pack. It’s essentially the same reason that, despite my long and storied love of Star Trek, I don’t like Data (a crucifiable offense in many circles): both he and Wolverine are such pets of vocal fans and some creators that they become the entire focus of what is supposedly an ensemble, to the detriment and derision of other characters*. You can even see this in the way that he was not only the de facto star of the X-Men films in which he appeared, but also got his own film franchise.

That franchise reaches what claims to be its final film in the recently released Logan, a gritty neo-western masquerading as a superhero film. The plot finds the titular Logan (Hugh Jackman) caring for an aging and increasingly senile Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) with the help of Caliban (Stephen Merchant) in the Mexican desert in 2029. The combination of a cataclysmic event and genetic suppression has rendered them among the last mutants on Earth, until Logan is drawn back into the world of heroism by Gabriella (Orange is the New Black‘s Elizabeth Rodriguez), a woman who begs him to help save a child named Laura (Dafne Keen) from Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook), a cybernetically enhanced mercenary. Their redemptive road trip also features appearances from Eriq La Salle and Elise Neal as world-weary farmers who provide shelter for the group.

My apathy and weariness about Wolverine aside, this is a good movie. Sure, it makes no logical sense within the confines of the different timelines that the other films in this franchise have provided without a conspiracy theory board of newspaper clippings, post-it notes, and red string, but 20th Century Fox doesn’t care anymore, so why should you? The one problem I’ve never had with the film version of Wolverine is Hugh Jackman’s consistently strong performance regardless of the variable quality of the material available, and this is his best work as the character to date. This is despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that, for once, we’re not reflecting back on his mysterious past as we have in literally every movie in which he appeared in this franchise and are instead seeing a man at the end of his career and, perhaps, his life. Logan deals with the more mundane aspects of growing old, like obsolescence in a changing world, the dementia of an elderly father (figure), and the betrayal of his own aging body and the disease thereof, despite his much-touted healing factor. This is not a character who is obsessed with learning about (or altering) his past, but one for whom the past is prologue to a slow, painful existence in an all-too-real dystopian future.

This is not the Sentinel-ruled technicolor hell of Days of Future Past, nor is it the candy-coated “corrected” timeline in which Jean, Scott, and Hank are alive: this is a dusty, economically depressed future in which life is cheap, crossing the border into Mexico is an ordeal, and Canada provides asylum to those on the run from an authoritarian government that hates them because they are different, all while said government not only condones but supports the imprisonment of and experimentation on children of color and treats Mexico like its dumping ground. This film has been in development for a while and takes a great deal of inspiration from graphic novel Old Man Logan, but it is particularly fascinating that the first X-film released following the election paints such a realistic picture of a dark future in comparison to the optimistic ending of Days of Future Past, which was released solidly in the middle of Obama’s second term, when the tide of freedom and progress seemed to flow ever-forward.

Logan never becomes explicitly political, however, instead allowing this interpretation to emerge from its subtext. This is, first and foremost, a story about a retired, past-his- prime gunbladeslinger who has long since lost what little place he had in the world before being brought back in for one last stand. You’ve seen this movie before, but dressing it up in these clothes puts a spin on the material that is fresher than I expected, in the same way that Winter Soldier was reinvigorating as both a government conspiracy thriller and a superhero flick. I’d love to see more movies like this, to be honest: James T. Kirk and Company as the Magnificent Seven/Seven Samurai, Black Widow having to Die Hard her way out of a building, or, hell, even Steve Rogers trying to save the old community center from being torn down to make way for those awful condominium/shopping center hybrid abominations.

Where the film doesn’t work for me is in its insistence on defining Logan’s little group as a family. The discovery of the genetic connection between Logan and Laura and the latter’s decision to help her does not necessarily an intimate connection make, and Xavier’s “This is what life looks like” moment rings falsely sentimental for the character, given all that we’ve seen him do and accomplish over the course of these films. For such a bloody and violent flick (which, make no mistake, Logan is), a fair amount of the emotional resonance that the film seeks to create works, but the occasional references to Laura and Xavier as Logan’s family work better when they’re subtle (like when he passes them off as his father and daughter) than they do when characters explicitly state that they are family. That aside, however, this serves as a fitting swan song for Hugh Jackman’s contribution to the franchise, especially if you’re  willing to forgive stilted dialogue and the occasionally unearned moments of pathos.

*Here’s the part where I admit that I love the Wolverine and the X-Men animated series, despite my general apathy towards the character; although Wolverine is the title character, WatX was much more of an ensemble piece that gave every character plenty of development and attention. He’s also cast in an unusual role as the reluctant leader with the atypically angsty Cyclops serving as the team’s loner. The show also has one of the darkest storylines ever constructed for what is ostensibly a show for children; it’s definitely worth checking out.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Doctor Strange (2016)

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Brandon Ledet

Howard the Duck (1986)

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“In a land of a lot of flops, it’s kind of awesome to be in a really famous flop. [Laughs.] I mean, it’s kind of a poster child for flops. A lot of iconoclasts really love that movie. They love to love something that everyone hates. And those are my kind of folks. I’m happy to be part of that club of people who don’t want to be told what’s horrible and just want to enjoy it anyway. Howard the Duck has a lot of fans, and usually when they come up to me, I just think they’re the coolest. Because it takes a lot of strength, a lot of perseverance to love Howard the Duck. [Laughs.]” – Lea Thompson, star of Howard the Duck

There are a lot of great reasons to love a movie, any movie, that have nothing to do with establishing yourself as an iconoclast or Lea Thompson thinking you’re “the coolest” (not that those aren’t great consolation prizes). Ebert’s musings on cinema as a “machine that generates empathy” is a great go-to quote for starters, but I don’t think it exactly covers all of what makes a great film great art. For instance, I don’t necessarily love Howard the Duck because it makes me empathize with a cigar-chomping, beer-swilling duck from outer space or the human woman who wants to fuck him. Instead, I believe the infamous George Lucas-produced flop touches on one of cinema’s other distinguishing qualities as a unique art form: improbability. There’s an almost transgressive absurdity to the idea that this film reached theaters in the form that it did. So many collaborators touched this expensive, unlikely work and it took on a weird energy all of its own in the process. Howard the Duck isn’t Guernica or the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, but it is a visually distinct, almost hauntingly memorable mess of artistic expression, at the very least notable for the specificity of its improbable ineptitude. Lea Thompson may have been a little off the mark in the above quote by suggesting the movie deserves love merely to buck its criticism or to establish contrarian cool points, but I do believe she’s right that it takes a certain strength & perseverance to hold onto that love in the face of its overwhelmingly negative reputation. I also believe that loving certain catastrophic missteps like these (and I mean genuine love, not its ironic cousin), films like 1993’s Super Mario Bros & Michael Bay’s Ninja Turtles franchise, means loving something essential about film as an artistic medium. The worst thing a movie can be is unmemorable. Howard the Duck typifies a type of “bad movie” that’s anything but unmemorable, an outlier of improbable absurdity that only the film industry could deem worthy for public display in thousands of movie theaters (the most modern of art galleries) across the world.

Part of the reason Howard the Duck is such a great exemplifier of the “bad” movie as modern art is that so much of its DNA matches its cultural reputation. Both the film & its Marvel Comics source material depict an anthropomorphic duck transported from an alternate dimension against his will to a world that’s less than hospitable to him as an obvious outsider who’ll never quite fit in. In the comics’ words, he “trapped in a world he never made.” This is partly why he finds a kindred spirit with Beverly, played by Lea Thompson in the movie, who is socially & financially unable to find her place in a heartless patriarchy that only values her . . . assets as an art school model (or, in the film, a rock star babe) and not her talents or personality. The movie itself has become an out of place outcast in a hostile world and its slow-growing cult audience has become a sort of real-world surrogate for Bev in the way it finds love for something everyone else seems to hate. Howard’s comic book creator, Steve Gerber, used the duck’s misfit existential crisis as a device for griping about a modern world the artist found distasteful, critiquing social ills like a corrupt political system or violent children’s entertainment and filtering those critiques through outlandish comic book villains like Pro-Rata, the cosmic accountant, who lives in an enormous tower made of credit cards. Although the movie does feature a similar over the top villain in The Dark Overlord of the Universe, it also softens the property’s tendencies towards biting social satire in favor of some bullshit Marty McFly 80s cool & George Lucas-specific action “comedy,” the exact kind of Poochie-flavored marketing Howard would’ve despised in the comics. However, the film does maintain a critical eye against unwarranted hostility in the modern world in a way that feels very true to its source material and it’s amusingly appropriate that the citizens of Earth have treated Howard the Duck the movie with just as much of that vitriol as the way they treated Howard the Duck the character in the comics.

A large part of what people tend to hate about Howard the Duck is its inconsistent tone, which is a problem apparent as soon as its opening four minutes spent on Howard’s home planet, Duckworld. This movie was a produced in the early, lawless, Wild West days of the PG rating, which allows for a surprising amount of sexual content to seep into its childlike humor. In the first few minutes we spend getting accustomed to Duckworld’s anthropomorphic duck citizens (before the opening credits, mind you), we’re treated to two (!!!) shots of topless duck women’s exaggerated humanoid breasts (once in a bathtub and once in a Playduck Magazine centerfold). The clash of adult sensibility with kids’ movie visuals continues later when Lea Thompson infamously climbs into bed with Howard wearing only lingerie and a hungry smile, threatening to instigate the world’s most uncomfortable love scene (although I could argue that her character in Back to the Future’s seductive threat is even worse) as well as a moment where she finds a tiny, duck-sized condom in his wallet. (Thankfully, no mention is made of how terrifying real life duck dicks are.) In the comics Howard & Bev’s romance is played as odd, but harmless. Faced with the realities of its imagery in the movie is a different matter entirely. It’s hilariously wrong at best, an effect the film’s writer-directors Willard Huyk & Gloria Katz entirely intended, according to their interviews on the “A Look Back” featurette included on the film’s first DVD release in 2008. Howard the Duck looks & feels like a kids’ picture, but its hero is a sexual being whose appetite knows no special bounds. He’s also an animatronic puppet who will humorously hit hicks with cream pies in one scene & threaten to stab record company creeps in the face with an ice pick in the next, a wide range of tones that makes for a singularly memorable, terrifying experience, especially if you catch it at a formative age.

In the fool’s mission of trying to make sense of Howard the Duck’s tonal mishmash, it’s easy to lose track of exactly how striking its visual palette can be. Try for a second not to get hung up on the idea that this talking duck children’s film features a biker gang called “Satan’s Sluts,” a hedonistic bathhouse orgy, and a hideous space demon with a Doom monster torso & a scorpion’s lower body (more on that in a moment) and you just might find some interesting production design in those details. The violent new wave punks’ wardrobe features some incredible touches, like a leather jacket adorned with plastic babydoll faces. The aforementioned bathhouse is lit like an early Bava or Argento giallo picture. The scorpion demon from outer space is a perfect marriage of classic Ray Harryhausen stop motion technique with some nightmarish HR Giger flourish. Howard himself, although disturbingly uncanny, is a feat of practical effects animatronics. As a historical object of cinematic past, I’d argue that his design is actually quite beautiful. Jeffrey Jones’s Dark Overlord of the Universe, an all-powerful demon from beyond the planets who eventually turns into the aforementioned scorpion beast & is undoubtedly the film’s most overlooked secret weapon, is a masterclass in cinematic villainy, running the full gamut from Star Wars Empower Force-lightning to Cronenbergian body horror to self-conflicted Golem psychosis. There’s even some early-in-the-runtime outer space mysticism, which I’m always a sucker for in any film, regardless of quality. The only time Howard the Duck becomes genuinely boring is when it abandons its typical Reagan-era grit – with its drugs, punks, violence, and homelessness – for George Lucas’s usual mode of 30s & 40s action “comedy” chases which are just about as lifeless as they are in Spielberg’s 1941. At the very least, though, those scenes serve to contrast & heighten the absurd unlikelihood of the film’s very existence as a completed product and even in the worst of the film’s third act doldrums it’s difficult to take your eye off Howard’s unthinkable face, which has a Max Headroom kind of unnerving quality to it, one that makes you just as horrified by the duck’s presence as the fictionalized citizens of Earth who reject him at every turn.

Thirty years after Howard the Duck’s release it’s difficult to find much praise for what the film accomplishes. It’s occasionally covered by schlock cinema critical outlets like My Year of Flops or How Did this Get Made?, but without any hint of adoration or fanfare, if not with an open, unapologetic hostility. Even the film’s initial DVD release, supposedly willed into existence by a growing cult fanbase, could only muster the faint praise that it’s “one of the most talked about movies of all time” in its jacket copy. The only instance I can think of where Howard receives any kind of reverence or adoration is an post-credits gag in Guardians of the Galaxy where the character appears (in a much less visually interesting CG rendering) solely to troll the audience with the mere idea of his return to the big screen. Despite being the very first Marvel property to earn a feature film adaptation (and a surprisingly faithful one at that, lifting some dialogue directly from the page), Howard the Duck holds a lowly 15% score on the Tomatometer & is widely considered to be “one of the worst films of all time.” If it has a wide cult following its devotees are just about as silent as fans of pro wrestling or Nickelback. As strangely misshapen as the film can be, I believe it deserves better than that and its best chance for a path to a better reputation would be for more people to respect it for its basic improbability. This film was initially pitched as an animated feature, but was instead rushed into production due to studio pressure & morphed into a live action film where little person actors man animatronic duck puppets. It opens with a duck traveling through outer space against philosophical musings about infinite dimensions where “all is real and all is illusion,” yet ends in the same generic industrial space that concludes all 80s action plots. It indulges in generic 80s garbage pop, but finds unlikely collaborators in respected musicians Thomas Dolby & George Clinton. The dialogue is sublimely corny, with its references to “space rabies” & Quack-Fu, but is sold competently by in-on-the-joke actors like an incredibly game Jeffrey Jones (who really does put on one of his most memorable performances here) and future Oscar winner Tim Robbins, (who, appropriately enough, is dressed like Thomas Dolby in the film).

Much like its self-loathing “wisequacker” protagonist, Howard the Duck is a “strange fowl in an even stranger land.” Its mere existence points to a cinema-specific ability to bring strange, improbable art to a mass audience, whether or not that audience appreciates it. In fact, its complete lack of a positive reception only adds to its idiosyncratic charm in the way it mirrors the mallard-out-of-water hostility of the source material’s narrative. The film has objective faults, sure. It could have been shorter, better paced, more tonally consistent, etc. What’s more interesting to me are the ways its stands out from other films with the same problems. Its practical effects techniques, however dated, carve out their own, unforgettably bizarre space of visual distinction. Its duck/human sexual tension is a brilliantly uncomfortable mode of (again, intentional) audience trolling. Its attempts to shoehorn in George Lucas’s aggressively wholesome aesthetic of radio serial adventure epics into its modern era cynicism is beyond bizarre. Its space demon villain is a genuinely breathtaking work of movie magic evil in a film generally considered to be technically inept. This movie should likely not exist in its completed form and it’s that exact, eccentric crime against good taste & basic logic that makes it such a memorable oddity, a quality often overlooked in a quest to catalog its many, improbable faults. There’s never been a better time to reconsider Hoard the Duck’s charms a go-for-broke cinematic misstep. On its thirty year anniversary, the film is benefiting from some fine wine time capsule qualities that can only come with age. Its comic book source material is currently experience one of its all-time best runs with Chip Zdarsky’s neo noir take on the property over at Marvel. There’s always a chance that Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn will continue to Trojan horse the wisequacker into future MCU properties, so it’s probably best to be aware of his cinematic past. Besides, falling in love with Howard the Duck will have Lea Thompson thinking you’re “the coolest.” And if none of that is enough to convince you that the film is at the very least interesting as a cultural relic, if not lovable as a cinematic outlier, then I believe Thompson’s Bev put it best: “Howard may be a duck, but you people are animals!”

-Brandon Ledet

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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Lagniappe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

fourhalfstar

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