Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)

Sometimes you find yourself in a dark, nearly empty theater screening the newest Star War on a Tuesday afternoon less than a week after its release and you find yourself asking Big Questions. Questions like: Will I never again pass through a calendar year without seeing one of these? Should I stop getting these giant blue raspberry slushes and a hot dog every time I come to the movies, knowing that I’ll spend the next 90-150 minutes regurgitating and swallowing that liquid and solid matter like a cow chewing cud? (I am a human garbage disposal, and like all disposals, sometimes things . . . splash around.) Was Thandie Newton paid as much for this film as Anthony Hopkins? Why aren’t there more people here? Would anyone have really noticed if I got nachos as well, or am I just being paranoid about people’s hatred of fat people like me? (See above, re: being a human garbage disposal.) How many hours long is this Venom trailer, anyway? Wait, there’s a new Jungle Book movie? Wasn’t there another one just, like, two years ago? (The answer to this one is easy: yes. There will be a mere 928 days between the respective premieres of Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book and Andy Serkis’s Mowgli.) Is that the voice of Phoebe Waller-Bridge, of Crashing fame and the creator of the recent smash hit Killing Eve, which everyone should be watching? But most importantly: Why does this exist? And, hey is that Warwick Davis? (It is!)

I don’t think anyone in the world was clamoring for this movie to be made. No one asked for Solo: A Star Wars Story, but it’s here now, and we all have to live with that fact, so get used to it.

Solo, naturally, follows the story of lovable (YMMV) rogue Han “I ain’t in this for your revolution” Solo (Alden Ehrenreich) as he escapes the hellhole slums of his homeworld, becoming separated from his childhood love Qi’ra (the Khaleesi herself Emilia Clarke) in the process by the cruel vicissitudes of fate, swearing he’ll return to save her one day. After a brief stint in the Imperial Forces, he joins a ragtag team of thieving scoundrels led by Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson), meets up with his future bromance partner Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), and has his first fateful meeting with galactic playboy Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) and Lando’s assistant/common law wife/sidekick L3-37 (Waller-Bridge). Along the way, he runs afoul of a gang of outlaws led by Enfys Nest, and is opposed by sophisticated crime boss Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany, taking over for Michael K. Williams). It’s got everything you ever wanted in a sequel that shouldn’t exist: battles atop trains that traverse icy wildernesses, betrayals, giant tentacled space monsters, sacrifices, Wookiees rarrarr-ing at each other, holograms, monochromatic 2-D displays, hover cars with impractical and impossible physics (when banking left, shouldn’t the vehicle tilt left instead of right, as if it had thrusters and not wheels?), and Paul Bettany somehow simultaneously phoning it in and chewing the scenery. Truly, he is one of the great living actors of our time. Also, hey look everybody, Clint Howard’s here!

It takes 45 minutes (aka “not quite enough time to sober up”) by bus to get from the bar nearest my office to the Galaxy Highland theater, but those 45 minutes were much better spent than the first three quarters of an hour of this movie. There are jokes in this movie that land and others that don’t, while some do nothing but induce pure cringe. The cringe-inducing ones are peppered throughout, but the bulk of them (the most notable–although not the worst–being how Han gets his surname) appear in these early scenes; there are terrible jokes that come later, of course, but by then they’re spread out enough that you don’t seem to mind. I joked about this on my Facebook, but Solo may be the only movie I’ve ever seen that got better as my sobriety increased, but I was coherent enough throughout to be able to tell that this was because the movie improved over time. After you get through the joyless opening chase scene, the melodramatic and treacly faux-Casablanca separation at the spaceport, and the out-of-place D-Day-esque battle wherein Han meets Beckett for the first time, Han and Chewbacca have their meet-cute and escape together and it’s all pretty fun from there, even if Donald Glover’s performance feels more like Troy Barnes is doing a (very funny) Lando impression than Glover is playing the character outright.

To sidetrack for a minute and revisit Star Wars history, lets talk about Phantom Menace. My issues with the film (and the guy who wrote “As for your issues with the prequels in general, I will let someone else address those because honestly, I don’t know where to begin” – I still think about you and want to know who hurt you, other than George Lucas while grooming you to accept shovelfuls of shit and call it ice cream) aside, there’s a moment in the 1999 film that I thought about a lot while watching The Last Jedi back in December. And no, it wasn’t Anakin’s “Now this is podracing!” line while Finn and Rose rode those stupid CGI chihuahua horses to freedom, although I also couldn’t stop thinking about that. No, it’s this scene, that comes at about hour 14 of Phantom Menace, right around the time you’ve stopped wishing you were dead and started to accept that you already are and that this is hell.

ANAKIN. I had a dream I was a Jedi. I came back here and freed all the slaves… have you come to free us?

QUI-GON : No, I’m afraid not.

And . . . that’s that.The scene moves on quickly to Qui-Gon blah-blah-blahing about Coruscant and trade agreements and then Jar Jar says “Wit no-nutten mula to trade” (no, really, see for yourself, in case you forgot–or are too blinded by the warmth of your childhood nostalgia to realize–that this movie is a crime against humanity). This is something that’s always been a problem with the Star Wars universe: no one really gives a damn about the existence of slavery. First of all, leaving aside the debatable sentience/sapience of droids and thus whether their servitude could be considered “slavery,” (which comes up in Solo and which I’ll get to later), the idea that anyone would be using organic life forms for manual labor when mechanical alternatives are so omnipresent, widespread, and affordable (even Luke’s aunt and uncle can afford one) is absurd. On the other hand, as long as there are backwater planets with little resources and abstinence-only sex education–as I assume Tattooine must, given that Shmi has a virgin birth and doesn’t seem awed by that fact at all (again, from the PM script: SHMI : There was no father, that I know of…I carried him, I gave him birth…I can’t explain what happened.)–there will always be mouths to feed, bills to pay, and Dickensian childhoods that can only be escaped by becoming a Storm Trooper.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “But the Rebellion/Resistance is fighting for freedom for all from the Empire/First Order!” you yell at your phone reading this on the toilet at work, frightening an accountant and generating a solid afternoon of work for poor, sweet-faced Devan in HR. Yeah, sure, but slavery was a fact of life on non-Senate worlds during the prequel trilogy, and we never hear bleeding heart Amidala or cartoon rabbit minstrel show Jar Jar arguing for the Senate to intervene on worlds like the one where Anakin was born, not with the carrot or stick, with neither olive branch or lightsaber. In the Orig Trig, perfectly constructed straightforward sci-fantasy that it is, none of that is important. But come The Last Jedi, the audience is expected to be thrilled that our heroes liberated a bunch of racing animals while also leaving behind a not-insignificant number of children, still in the “employ” of slave masters. This would be so easy to do.

ROSE: It’s a pity that our roles in the Resistance and the need to return to the fleet means we have to leave these children behind.

FINN: Every life is important. As soon as we get back to the ship, we’ll tell General Organa about this place, and we’ll rend the shackles from every child in this place.

(They could even disagree, with Rose noting that they have to get back to the ship while Finn, with his background of having been a child soldier, would be more resistant to the idea of leaving the kids behind. It would make for a stronger emotional beat than “That’s how we’re going to win. Not fighting what we hate, but saving what we love” anyway. Nobody in the Resistance ever even pays lip service to the idea that they have a moral responsibility to fight back against the First Order because slaves need to be liberated. But I digress.)

Solo finally does . . . something with this problem, even if it makes no real definitive statements or even takes a clear moral stance. Although I have no doubt that there will be many who disagree with me and take offense to everything that she says, L3-37 is one of the best characters that this franchise has produced, and she was the highlight of the film for me. We meet L3 for the first time in a wretched hive of scum and villainy (’cause it’s Star Wars) as she pleads with a couple of droids duking it out in a ring, Battle Bots style, to not let themselves be reduced to fighting like dogs for the entertainment of organic onlookers. In a later heist scene on Kessel, she helps create chaos by attempting to instigate a droid rebellion in the film’s best sequence. Waller-Bridge is one of the funniest people on Earth, and her timing and inflection are comedy gold; there’s one scene where she climbs into the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon and complains of the equivalent of joint pain and tells Lando he’ll “have to do that thing later” while Glover makes the perfect expression, and it’s simply fantastic. Often for better and at times for worse, this is a franchise that has encompassed some truly uncanny inhumanity (whether it be due to bad CGI, weird puppetry, or just wooden acting), and this earnestly human and relatable moment was the point where I thought, “Hey, this movie’s actually all right.” And that’s not even getting into the fact that someone finally remembered to give a shit about ethics with regards to forced servitude here, although I’m never quite sure if the text is mocking L3 just as much as it is agreeing with her.

Alden Ehrenreich, despite all bad press to the contrary, does a good job here. From the first moment I saw him in Hail, Caesar (other than in the Supernatural episode “Wendigo,” but that was a dark period in my life of which I dare not speak), I thought “This guy looks like a movie star.” And here he is, defying the odds (insert “never tell me the odds” joke here) to pull off one of the most well-known characters in the history of Western cinema. Opting to simply play “charming rogue” instead of aping Harrison Ford was a wise choice, which was counterbalanced by Glover’s more self-aware acting choices. Harrelson could have sleepwalked through this role given that it’s not very original, but he showed up, which is more than can be said of most people’s erstwhile father figures in the crime business.

That’s the good, but the bad . . . is bad. On an older Simpsons commentary (I want to say it was “Bart Gets Famous” but don’t quote me on that), the writers joked that they would know they would have gone to the well of ideas until it was dry if they ever did an origin story for Bart’s red hat. The idea is laughable, but that’s also kind of what’s happening here. We get an origin story/explanation for Chewbacca’s nickname, Han’s blaster, how Han was able to make “the Kessel run in 12 parsecs” despite that being a unit of distance and not time, and even Han’s last name. It’s embarrassing and drags the movie to a halt every time the film has to wait for the hypothetical shameless applauders in the audience to sit down and stop providing their children with therapy fodder for decades to come. This dependency upon references to past material (and presumably planting seeds to be reaped in future Star Wars stories, every year from now until you’re dead, so just shut up and give Disney your money already you pathetic fleck of lint) drags this movie down. Although it’s occasionally buoyed back up by strong performances and jokes that actually land, and it somehow manages to stick the landing, there’s just so much here that you’ll want to forget. There’s almost a good film in here, but there’s also definitely a pretty bad one. If you happen to miss the first thirty minutes, you’ll likely have a much better time, but there’s no guarantee.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X.: The Avengers (2012)

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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: The Avengers was always one of Kevin Feige’s goals. Audacious and ambitious, when Feige started conceptualizing the greater Marvel Cinematic Universe his intention was to create a crossover film that united characters originally featured in individual films, mirroring the character/team dichotomy that permeates superhero comics. As such, a great deal of the history of the Avengers film project is really the history of the MCU up to this point, which has been discussed in our previous posts.

Casting for the film began in 2010, with Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye being cast far enough in advance that Kenneth Branagh was able to insert an early cameo from him into Thor in 2011. Marvel’s official story is that they “declined” to have Ed Norton return as Bruce Banner, whereas Norton has claimed that he never intended to return to the role after the 2008 The Hulk flick, as he “wanted more diversity” in his career. His role was recast with Mark Ruffalo. The only other major addition to the ensemble was Cobie Smulders, who was cast in the role of Maria Hill. Hill is well-known to comic book fans as the sometime director of S.H.I.E.L.D., and she was a key player in Marvel’s then-recent Secret Invasion storyline. As a result, her casing fueled fan theory that her casting was an indication that the metamorphic Skrulls would be the primary antagonists in the film, especially when the Chitauri (who essentially stand in for the Skrulls under Marvel’s Ultimate imprint) were announced as well; ultimately, these theories were proven incorrect. Other than the six Avengers themselves, the film also featured the return of Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts and Paul Bettany’s Jarvis from the Iron Man flicks and Stellan Skarsgård’s Erik Selvig and Tom Hiddleston’s Loki from Thor. Clark Gregg also reprised his role as Agent Coulson, and Samuel L. Jackson is featured as Director Nick Fury.

Early story work was completed by Zak Penn, who also contributed to the story for the excellent X2 and co-wrote the screenplay for the abysmal X3; the script was rewritten by Joss Whedon when he was brought on board to direct. There’s no need to explain who Whedon is, right? There are probably sea mollusks out there that are sick of hearing about the Cancellation of Firefly like it was an actual battle that was lost. Still, Whedon’s experience as a director as well as a purveyor of superhero yarns (his run on Astonishing X-Men was particularly good, although I didn’t care for his work on Runaways) made him the perfect fit for bringing the Avengers to celluloid life. Composer Alan Silvestri so impressed Marvel Studios with his composition for Captain America that he was brought back to score this film as well.

But enough about the seeds of the franchise. Brandon, what did you think?

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Brandon: Finally, an MCU film I’ve actually seen before! When I went to the theater to see The Avengers in 2012 I was aware of its individual characters’ basic attributes, but a little lost as to what exactly was happening in the film plot-wise until about halfway into its massive runtime. The funny thing is that now that I’ve watched all five standalone films that have lead up to this crossover effort, I still found myself somewhat lost. The Avengers is the beginning of the MCU’s descent into full-blown Infinity Stone, MacGuffin-chasing nonsense. The film’s opening sequence feels like the ending of a nondescript action film that just happens to include a magic scepter and a “tesseract”. It’s a pretty clever idea to throw the film’s in-the-know audience into just as much of a confused state as those who just happened to wander into the universe for the first time, but the film’s central Infinity Stone caper is not nearly as much of a draw as the thrill of seeing six wildly varied superheroes share top billing in a single feature, so it feels a bit like wasted time. And once the film sets up its stolen tesseract conflict, it then takes way too much time to re-introduce each of the film’s disparate heroes & bring them together as a single unit. I had a lot of fun with going into an IMAX 3D screening of The Avengers completely blind of context in 2012, but returning to the film fully-informed (movie-wise, anyway) dampened my enthusiasm a good deal. It’s still a fun, crowd-pleasing action film, to be sure, but I think the effort required to get to its gang’s-all-here charm rolling reveals itself to be a little more labored on repeat viewings.

That being said, there are at least two scenes in The Avengers that rank among the best moments in superhero cinema of all time. I’m thinking, firstly, of the scene where the pissant god Loki’s evil scepter causes all six Avengers & (released from his post-credits stinger prison) Nick Fury to bicker in a slowly ratcheted moment of bitter discontent. It’s a well-played moment that sets up how a group of inflated superegos would have a near-impossible time working together as a unit. That scene functions as a set-up for the much more obvious centerpiece: the climactic battle with the alien robot army that destroys an entire metropolis. I don’t really have much to say about the film’s concluding action sequence other than it’s a grand spectacle of fist-pumping action that might be one of the single most fun to watch half hour stretches in the history of superheroes on film. I have no doubt that the reason I left the theater so satisfied in 2012 is that the spectacle of that Battle for the Fate of the Universe completely obliterated any concerns about the labor it took to get there. I was probably also less bored with the film’s individual introductions to the characters & the concept of Infinity Stones on that first go-round, since I feel now like I already put in that effort in the 10 hours of media leading up to that point. Still, I’m entirely grateful for the isolated moments of excellence that The Avengers delivers on its own time, not to mention some wonderful character beats for my favorite duo within the franchise so far (Black Widow & Captain America) and a fantastic revision of a character who simply did not work the first time around (The Hulk). I’ll just be more likely to return to those moments as isolated scenes in the future instead of watching the film as a whole, unless it’s as background noise. The Avengers is one of those movies I can see working best as something you can drift in and out of, maybe while channel surfing or housecleaning or something along those lines.

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Boomer: It’s been three-and-a-half years (and roughly 7,283 thinkpieces of varying insight and coherence about whether or not Joss Whedon’s body of work is sufficiently feminist or hopelessly static and outdated) since a group of friends and I went to see The Avengers after a long and trying semester. There was some concern that the film would be bloated or an overall mess. While there’s certainly a case to be made that Age of Ultron would realize those concerns three summers later, I find myself drawn in by Whedon’s first MCU outing every time I watch it, despite the number of times that I have seen it. Between the whip-smart dialogue, the extended but imaginative action set-pieces, and the undeniable cool of seeing super-powered characters come together and coalesce into a united, if volatile, front, there’s so much to enjoy about the film that even the most cantankerous of critics found it hard to commit to panning the movie.

The Avengers is a fun ride, and although the Battle of New York—as the final action sequence would come to be called in later MCU media—admittedly experienced a series of diminishing returns, most of the myriad of other high-octane set-pieces were genuinely thrilling and engaging. It was a smart move to start the film with an action sequence that was largely Avenger-free and which instead focused on Fury, Coulson, and Maria Hill before following that up with a series of smaller scenes that reintroduce each of the key players with varying degrees of bombasity. Other checkmarks in the “good idea” column include the decision to have characters express reluctance and hesitance to commit to the idea of a full-on superhero team, and to introduce the seeds of discord early on. As a result, when the temporary falling out occurs at the end of Act Two, it feels properly earned and not as forced as it so easily could have.

As a writer, Whedon has always had a talent for drafting dialogue and characterization that is at once clever, observational, and occasionally devastating. Jeremy Renner isn’t given much to do in this first flick as he spends most of the film under the brainwashed control of Loki’s staff, but the other Avengers work well here. In particular, Tony Stark improves a great deal as a character under the direction of Whedon, as his dialogue, while still pompous, is less obnoxious in all its crackling Buffy-esque witticism than when other writers have put words in his mouth. Chris Hemsworth’s Thor gets in some good lines as well (the reference to the bilgesnipe is a favorite of mine despite its brevity, as it’s totally wacky while remaining oddly conversational), and Evans gets to show more dimensions to Cap, now a man out of time. Evans’s performance is particularly strong, but, for my money, Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha is the MVP here, not that it should be any surprise that Whedon would expand her role significantly from her previous appearance in Iron Man 2.

Throughout the film, Romanoff is surrounded by men who project assumptions onto her: the Russians she is “interrogating” in her first scene see her only as an object of sexual scorn, using derogatory and charged language; Banner initially underestimates her strength and resolve; Loki spits insults at her, concluding that her investment in saving her friend is purely the result of pathetic romantic attachment. In every instance, these assumptions are false, and Black Widow uses these misogynistic and presumptive attitudes against the antagonists at every turn. Despite some well-choreographed ass-kicking in her last appearance, Natasha was still mostly played for the male gaze (potentially an inevitable consequence of appearing in an Iron Man film); here, she’s an extremely competent agent who is so skilled that she doesn’t seem out of place as a team-member alongside supersoldiers and literal gods. And, like Buffy before her, Nat is not an “strong female character” in the sense that she is an emotionless and implacable badass–she gets hurt, experiences doubt, mourns her comrades, and is forced to fight her closest friend. She doesn’t have to be coded as a male character, and it’s just grand.

Overall, The Avengers is an ambitious but well-suited capstone to the first phase of the MCU. It expands a lot from here, as Phase Two would include not only six films but two network television series (it’s not clear where Daredevil and Jessica Jones fit into the “phase” structure, if they fit in at all) over the following three years. It’s big fun that’s mostly (but not wholly) a surface-deep spectacle.

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Boomer: Not only did my friends and I go see this film in costume, but we caught it in 3D as well, as we had with Thor. For those so inclined, I daresay that Chris Evan’s punching bag scene towards the beginning of the film may well justify the extra dollars spent on the post-conversion.

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(image courtesy of user thecaptainrogers of rebloggy)

With regards to the larger MCU, the events of the Battle of New York will come up again and again, especially in regards to how the public and governments will respond to the team. The death of Phil Coulson is cheapened by the knowledge that his character returned a mere three months later when Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. debuted; the reason for his sudden and unexpected resurrection was one of the ongoing mysteries of that show’s lukewarm first season (arguably the weakest). My original theory at the time was that his mind would be used to create the personality imprint for Vision when that character eventually appeared in the MCU, standing in for Wonder Man, although the MCU obviously went in a different direction.

Brandon: The feeling I got while watching The Avengers‘ 2015 followup, Age of Ultron, was that the MCU was stretching itself a little thin trying to include both barely-interested newcomers & deeply invested comic book supernerds in the same audience. Now that the novelty of meeting the MCU’s characters for the first time in the first Avengers film has worn off a bit for me, I feel that strained divide might’ve begun as soon as 2012. As a compromise between pleasing both the well-informed and the completely contextless, The Avengers is a massively impressive balancing act. However, I think that these crossover films might be better served as standalone works of art if they left newcomers behind completely & just focused on serving the audience who’ve already put in the effort to get there. And I’m saying that as a recent convert who’s just barely keeping up as is.

Combined S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. Rating for The Avengers (2012)

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fourstar

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