Captain Marvel (2019)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Glass (2019)

M. Night Shyamalan films typically don’t have the best reputation, and for the life of me, I just can’t understand why. Who doesn’t love a beautifully shot mainstream thriller that is guaranteed to have at least one major plot twist? I’ve seen the majority of Shyamalan’s films in theaters (I even saw Lady in the Water five days in a row) because they’re always a treat and well worth the money. Recently, I headed to theaters to see his latest masterpiece, Glass, and it was exactly as amazing as I expected it to be.

Shyamalan’s Unbreakable and Split come together in Glass to complete the trilogy we didn’t know we were already watching until recently. Only the Master of Surprise would take a film from 2000 (Unbreakable), throw in pieces of it at the end of a 2017 film (Split), and combine the two into a concluding film in 2019 (Glass). Personally, I love what he’s done. This surprise trilogy has given me hope that the end of all my favorite movies may not truly be the end. There’s always hope!

David Dunn aka The Overseer (Bruce Willis) and his adult son, Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark), both characters from Unbreakable, work in a home security store while secretly teaming together to bring some vigilante justice to the streets of Philadelphia. Joseph does all the research and tech stuff while David uses his super-human gifts to take down criminals. The duo is set on finding the location of four missing teenage girls, who happen to be kept prisoner by Kevin Wendell Crumb, a.k.a. The Horde (James McAvoy), the main character from Split. The Overseer ends up locating the girls and has a classic superhero versus supervillain showdown with The Horde very early on in the film. Once the fight really starts to heat up, authorities catch them both. After being captured, they are taken to a psychiatric facility to be studied alongside Elijah Price, a.k.a. Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson) from Unbreakable. Mr. Glass is probably my favorite character in Glass. He’s this insane master manipulator wearing a suit comparable to Prince’s in Purple Rain, and he made me laugh way more than I expected to. Once this trio is brought together, the plot becomes absolutely insane and unpredictable. You just have to see it to believe it.

Glass is a strange combination of a superhero movie and psychological thriller. Unlike the average superhero movie, there’s not really a distinct villain. Sure, The Horde and Mr. Glass do some pretty evil shit, but they both don’t really fit into the “bad guy” mold. It’s like Shyamalan leaves that up to us to decide. I will definitely need to see this at least one more time to wrap my head around everything, and I’m more than willing to do so. I enjoyed the complex stories within stories in Glass, but unfortunately, that’s not something everyone appreciates (hence the horrible reviews).

-Britnee Lombas

RoboCop (2014)

One of the stranger trends to emerge from major studios scrambling to remake every past success has been the push to re-imagine Paul Verhoeven films as PG-13 commodities. The recent announcement of an upcoming Starship Troopers re-imagining makes three Verhoeven remakes in the past few years that seemingly are determined to strip the iconic director’s work of all the satirical cruelty that made it successful in the first place. Did the world really need a version of Total Recall with no Schwarzenegger and no trips to Mars? It’s doubtful. I can’t imagine a modern version of Starship Troopers’s war propaganda satire will fare much better and it’s starting to feel like only a matter of time before we get an updated version of Verhoeven’s Showgirls with all of the camp and the nudity surgically removed. The biggest disappointment in this trend so far, though, might just be the 2014 remake of Verhoeven’s privatized police force satire RoboCop, arguably one of the greatest films ever made. The PG-13 RoboCop reboot is especially frustrating in the context of modern, sanitized Verhoeven remakes because it threatens to actually be a decent film with its own interesting ideas for its opening half hour. No other Verhoeven bastardization so far has ever had a chance of being half as interesting as the recent Robo-reboot did, which makes it all the more tragic that the film crashes and burns in such a dull, uninspired manner.

I’d forgive anyone for being fooled that the 2010 RoboCop “gets it” based on its opening sequence. Samuel L. Jackson kicks off the film as the host of a primetime news shoe that’s half CNN, half Dianetics DVD. There are no comedy sketches interrupting this opener as “commercial breaks” like in the Verhoeven film, but the satire in the sequence is still palpable. Jackson’s fake news show profiles a private American company that makes billions of dollars selling weaponry to the military. In demonstration of the power & efficiency of the company’s military-grade robots, which include past RoboCop villain ED-209 working in tandem with Star Wars prequel-type droids, a Middle Eastern terrorist cell is dismantled by American troops. The raid bleakly concludes with the execution of a child, a detail the news program conveniently cuts from its live feed. Jackson’s host then asks his audience why a “robo-phobic” America is so cautious about bringing these private sector androids into urban law enforcement, needling, “What’s more important than the safety of the American people?” This opening efficiently conjures modern concerns of trading freedom for safety, the morality of drone warfare & the surveillance state, and the terrifying business practices of privatized military & police forces, all while maintaining at least some of the sly humor of Verhoeven’s source material. Unfortunately, its minor successes are short-lived. There’s a national debate about the ethics of a roboticized police force that, of course, eventually leads to the titular cyborg solution of a half-man/half-machine (all cop) compromise. The movie remains mildly interesting as RoboCop is built by a futuristic prosthetics company and adjusts to his new Robo-body, but immediately crashes into a wall of modern PG-13 action tedium as soon as he blossoms onto his complete Robo-self. It never recovers.

The hard-R violence of the 1980’s RoboCop feature meant that each bullet, every blow delivered by RoboCop or his supercriminal enemies were significantly brutal. In the remake, the violence is much less impactful, much easier to shake off. The film’s CGI-aided fantasy violence doesn’t help that point much either. RoboCop leaps weightlessly like a superhero in this version, sharply contrasted with the limited mobility in his heavy hydraulic systems of the past. Outside of a couple production details like RoboCop having one human hand and one Robo-hand to accentuate his dual, self-conflicted nature, the film more or less runs out of ideas as soon as its titular hero is actualized. It’s an aggressively conventional work that fully loses track of why it even exists, to the point where callbacks to the Verhoeven classic in lines like “I wouldn’t buy that for a dollar,” feel absurdly out of place. With the violence muted and the satire almost completely drained, this RoboCop rehash feels entirely devoid of a sense of purpose, as if it were a down-the-line sequel of a Jason Statham or JCVD property that surfaced on VOD long after its origins had been forgotten. You can feel it reaching to reclaim its opening spark in its political mockery, which posits old-timey Republicans as the opposition to the RoboCop initiative and forward thinking leftists, including Michael Keaton in full Steve Jobs mode, as the ones pushing for the innovation. By the time Sam Jackson’s news anchor returns to usher in the end credits, though, the game had already been lost and nearly everything in-between feels like a generic 2010s shoot-em-up. Something about that wasted potential feels even more dispiriting than it would if the movie were just bland from the very beginning.

RoboCop is one of those remakes where you could change just the title and a couple minor plot details and avoid purchasing the rights to the intellectual property altogether. That, of course, would have hurt ticket sales, but it would also have lowered expectations of the quality comparisons to the original Verhoeven film, which it seems disinterested in matching in tone or content. The worst part about RoboCop is that the idea it initially presents it is interested in continuing & adopting Verhoeven’s weird vision to a modern context. Ultimately, though, I’m not sure it was interested in saying anything in particular at all, a distressing attribute seemingly shared by all of these unimaginative “re-imaginings” of this great director’s greatest hits.

-Brandon Ledet

Kong: Skull Island (2017)

The big risk in me venturing out to see the latest King Kong reboot was that my love for loud & dumb movies about giant monsters might be crushed by my ever-growing boredom with war narratives. Kong: Skull Island made no secret of its Vietnam War cinema aesthetic in its advertising, promising to be something like an Apocalypse Now With Kaiju Primates genre mashup. The actual film is something more like Platoon With Kaiju Primates, but the effect is still the same. Skull Island‘s main hook is that it uses the traditional King Kong narrative as a thin metaphor for U.S. involvement in Vietnam (and other unwinnable, imperialistic conflicts of world-policing), declaring things like “Sometimes the enemy doesn’t exist until you’re looking for them.” It’s the same exact themes that are hammered to death across nearly all Vietnam War movies with the exact same Love The Smell of Napalm imagery (ever seen an explosion reflected in aviator sunglasses before?) and more or less the same needle drops (don’t worry if they don’t immediately play CCR; it’ll eventually happen twice). As an audience, I’m missing an essential Dad Gene that enables people to care about a very specific end of Macho Genre Cinema (including war films, submarine pictures, Westerns, and, oddly enough, the James Bond franchise). If there’s anyone out there with that Dad Gene who still enjoys the occasional Vietnam War film, they’d likely have a lot more fun with Kong: Skull Island than I did. For me, it was like someone mixed jelly into my peanut butter jar because they didn’t bother cleaning their spoon.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment about Kong: Skull Island is that it amounts to less than the sum of its parts. The cast alone is a testament to a staggering waste of potential: Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, Tom Hiddleston, recent Oscar-winner Brie Larson, all wasted. The movie is stacked with onscreen talent, but just about the only memorable performances delivered are from a fully committed Shea Whigham & John C. Reilly, who both pull off a tragic/comic balance in their respective roles as shell-shocked war veterans. Reilly is (rightly) getting a lot of attention in this film as a shipwrecked soldier who’s been stranded on Skull Island since WWII and is deliriously relieved to see people who share his language & culture for the first time in decades. The biggest laugh I got out of the film, though, was in watching Whigham chow down on a can of beans and casually describe his first battle with a skyscraper-sized ape as “an unconventional encounter.” The sense of wasted potential extends far beyond the immense talent of its dispassionate cast, however. Even its central hook of attempting a Vietnam Movie With A Giant Ape seems like it was handled in the blandest, least interesting way possible. Instead of writing a revisionist history where Kong is transported to Vietnam and intermingles with the soldiers on the ground, the soldiers are transported to his home, the titular Skull Island. This sets up an echo of the exact same narrative we’ve seen in nearly every version of a Kong picture. Peter Jackson’s (infinitely more passionate) version of King Kong was released just a little over a decade ago. All this one does to update it is toss in some helicopters & flamethrowers and increase the size of the titular ape.

I’m not sure a full plot description is necessary here, so I’ll try to make it quick. The day after the U.S. declares its withdrawal from Vietnam in 1973, a military troop is ordered to secretly escort a geological mission to survey the once mythical Skull Island. [Scene missing: soldiers complaining that they’re being deployed instead of going home.] There’s a lengthy assembling-the-team sequence where everyone’s various motives & vulnerabilities are revealed for future significance, but no one character gets enough screentime to make any of it count for anything. Do we really need to know Brie Larson’s background as a hippie anti-war photographer to watch her blankly stare at monsters & the Northern Lights for the next 90min? Doubtful. The “geological” expedition, of course, is a betrayal, a cover-up for finding proof of a two-fold conspiracy theory: that the Earth is hollow and that giant monsters live inside it. Once discovered, King Kong is initially seen as a threat, as he attacks the military crew that bombs his home in an attempt to prove those (correct) theories. Eventually, however, it’s revealed that the gigantic ape is the protector of the island and, by extension, the world at large. He fights off & keeps at bay the other monsters that threaten to crawl out of the hollow Earth to terrorize mankind: giant spiders, squids, something John C. Reilly’s freaked out war vet calls “skull crawlers,” etc. This dynamic of Kong as a protector doesn’t really do much for the film’s central Vietnam War metaphor. It mostly just hangs in the air as a naked setup for a M.U.T.O. (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism, no C.H.U.D. that) cinematic universe, which is eventually supposed to link up with the most recent American Godzilla property (as opposed to the far superior Japanese one) for a pre-planned crossover film. And there you have yet another passionless blockbuster that’s a mere placeholder for a future film franchise payoff.

If I haven’t talked enough about Kong himself so far, it’s because the movie doesn’t give me much to work with. There isn’t too much new or different about the infamous beast in his most recent form. The quality of the CGI hasn’t advanced all that significantly since Jackson last tackled the property in ’05, which is kind of a big deal in the King Kong genre, going all the way back to its stop-motion animation roots in the 1930s. The ape’s gotten a lot bigger in scale (likely in preparation for his upcoming kaiju battles) and modern 3D made for an occasional moment of action cinema eye candy, but I couldn’t work up much awe or horror for the misunderstood monster, which is a problem. His inner anguish is always secondary to the soldiers’, never being afforded much of an onscreen emotional narrative outside John C. Reilly plainly informing us that he’s the last of his kind. Sacrificing the ape’s inner life for some killer kaiju battles might’ve made that thin emotional groundwork forgivable, but the giant monster violence of Kong: Skull Island is also a little lacking. In old school kaiju movies (and in more faithful throwbacks like Pacific Rim) the monsters would fight for minutes at a time, establishing pro wrestling-style narratives through the physical language of their battle sequences. Here, the fights only last for seconds at a time as we follow the human characters who navigate their paths of their destruction. Again, my disinterest with that end of the dynamic might have a lot to do with my general boredom with war movie plotting, so mileage may vary on that point. It just feels strange to me that a movie that boasts Kong’s name in the title would be so disinterested in the ape himself.

None of this is to say that Kong: Skull Island is a total disaster and an entirely joyless affair. There are some moments of monster movie mayhem that work well enough as eye candy and both John C. Reilly & Shea Whigham do their best to boost the spirit of the proceedings with some much-needed levity & camp. (I think my ideal, streamlined version of the film just be those two characters alone in a Swiss Army Man-style romance adventure on the same kaiju-infested island.) Overall, though, the movie feels like a well-funded version of a SyFy Channel mockbuster that can afford to hire legitimate actors instead of Ian Ziering or Steve Guttenberg or whoever’s up for it that particular weekend. Unlike the recent genre film rehash Death Race 2050, which applies that SyFy style of direct-to-VOD CG cheapie energy to something uniquely bizarre, Kong: Skull Island lacks any distinguishing sense of passion. I guess you could point to a smash-cut of Kong eating a human to a human eating a sandwich or the basic novelty of a giant ape fighting a giant squid as holding some kind of camp value, but that’s a bit of a stretch, given how much the movie focuses on its stale Vietnam War themes. The silliest Skull Island film gets in its basic DNA (outside Reilly & Whigham’s respective quirks) is in its shameless shots of muscular Kong ass, but even that line of putting-it-all-out-there ape anatomy could’ve been more over the top, #GiveKongADong2017. Maybe audiences more in tune with the basic thrills of war movies as a genre will feel differently, but I struggled to find anything in the film worth holding onto. Its stray stabs at silliness didn’t push hard enough to save it from self-serious tedium and its Vietnam War metaphor wasn’t strong enough to support that tonal gravity. Everything else in-between was passable as a passive form of entertainment, but nothing worth getting excited over, much less building a franchise on.

-Brandon Ledet

I Am Not Your Negro (2017)

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fourstar

“The story of the negro in America is the story of America. It is not a pretty story.”

It would be an easy feat to find a better-realized or more academically thorough documentary than I Am Not Your Negro among recent releases, given the medium’s current creativity boom, but it’d be unlikely to find one more philosophically resonant in today’s political climate. In its better moments, this critical essay by late author & political thinker James Baldwin (directed by Raoul Peck & narrated by an unusually restrained Samuel L. Jackson) feels downright necessary. It seems inevitable that I Am Not Your Negro will be employed as a classroom tool to convey the political climate of the radicalized, Civil Rights-minded 1960s, but the form-defiant documentary is something much stranger than that future purpose would imply. Through Baldwin’s intimate, loosely structured essay, the film attempts to pinpoint the exact nature of the US’s inherent racism, particularly its roots in xenophobic Fear of the Other and in the ways it unintentionally expresses itself through pop culture media. These are not easily defined topics with clear, linear narratives and your appreciation of I Am Not Your Negro might largely depend upon how much you enjoy watching the film reach, not upon what it can firmly grasp. As the film contextualizes its questions & arguments in a 2010s setting by incorporating Ferguson protest footage & surveillance videos of recent police abuses in contemporary black communities, it makes this line of philosophical probing feel essential for modern survival, even if the individual results can be frustratingly incomplete.

The incomplete, scattered nature of I Am Not Your Negro is, in many ways, unavoidable. Peck constructs this documentary around an unfinished manuscript Baldwin did not see to completion before his death in the 1980s. The initial concept of the manuscript sounds fairly straightforward: a portrait of the Civil Rights 60s told through a triptych of profiles on Baldwin’s personal and professional acquaintances Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr, and Medgar Evers. I’ll admit up front that I’m barely, if at all familiar with Evers as a public figure and the movie does little to profile him in any significant way other than to point out that he was the first of the three men to be assassinated by angered white segregationists. Baldwin himself largely becomes the third corner of this triptych as he reflects on his own political positions of the time, mostly in how he was a perpetual outsider. Trying to find a personal balance between the indignant radicalization of Malcolm X and the measured reason of Dr. King, Baldwin would ultimately feel little more than isolation & deep resentment for the world at large. He felt alienated both by the NAACP and the Black Panthers; he recalls Malcolm X calling Dr. King an Uncle Tom on national television long before the two found their own ideological middle ground; he explores conflicted urges to both move far away from America and to maintain a connection with his community. In many ways I Am Not Your Negro stops being about King, X, and Evers at all, instead focusing entirely on Baldwin’s inner psyche (like the way Heart of a Dog is more about Laurie Anderson than it is about dogs). He recounts his lifelong troubled relationship with America by reflecting on the way its racism bubbles to the surface in its advertising, its cinema, its televised broadcasts. Baldwin himself frequently appears on television and in filmed college lectures, reaching to express something intangible, but deeply grotesque about modern race relations. He draws a line between active racism & uncaring ignorance, making a case that both are cancerous to the nation’s spiritual health. None of this is allowed to play out onscreen in a strictly historical context, despite the manuscript’s original intent. The issue is explained to be as relevant & distressing now as it’s ever been, a problem without a solution.

If I Am Not Your Negro has an Achilles heel, it’s that its subject is often more fascinating than its form. A couple cheesy Chicago blues soundtrack choices, some cheap-looking typewriter text, and Jackson’s overly gritty narration can occasionally distract from the film’s main attraction: Baldwin’s personal philosophies & political ideology. Baldwin expresses disgust & exhaustion with American racism in a deeply personal mode of cultural criticism that somehow cuts to the heart of the problem in a way that an academic history lesson on Civil Rights protest & educational desegregation never could. Peck has some interesting ideas of his own that support these explorations through post-modern montage. Images of the Space Race, Black Lives Matter protests, 1930s cinema, reality television, and Martin Luther King Jr bobbleheads all mix together in a disorienting gestalt that matches the uncertain, incomplete nature of Baldwin’s central text. Not every gamble pays off, but the documentary is often fascinating in its looseness and its attempts to reach beyond its means. If no other good came from I Am Not Your Negro than raising the public profile of someone who was obviously an immensely talented writer & profound political thinker, then the film would still be a worthwhile effort. It’s in reaching beyond that basic, biographic artist profile formula to apply James Baldwin’s theories & anxieties to a modern context where the documentary becomes something more, something truly special. It’s a work that tries to make sense of the modern world by looking back to the criticism of the past, only to take disgust in the realization that not much has changed in the decades since. It’s not a pretty story or even a complete one, but it’s one that needs to be told.

-Brandon Ledet

xXx: Return of Xander Cage (2017)

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three star

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Grab your cargo shorts and flash art tattoos, folks. Nu metal cinema is back in a big, dumb way. Vin Diesel has briefly stepped away from his long-time role as a Corona-swilling patriarch in the Fast & Furious franchise to resurrect his other embarrassingly dated late 90s action vehicle, xXx. Diesel selflessly returns to his role as Xander Cage, “the rebel the world doesn’t know it needs,” to save the human race with such heroic acts as collecting high-fives while skateboarding downhill, gliding across jungle dirt on snow skis, and bravely bedding entire rooms full of Nameless Babes so that he can turn to the camera and mumble, “The things I do for my country,” like a pilled-out Bugs Bunny. xXx: Return of Xander Cage may not feature a Rammstein concert like its first installment or Family Values Tour ’98 vet Ice Cube like its second, but it is comfortably seated in that same X-treme Attitude nu metal cradle. It’s as if the film acknowledges its status as a far-too-late action sequel by dialing the culture clock all the way back to the early 2000s to accommodate its own wallet chain macho inanity. The results are oddly endearing, even if persistently ugly. Its soundtrack may have been swapped out for dubstep, but Return of Xander Cage still shines as a small scale nu metal miracle, an abrasive rap rock nightmare preserved in the foulest amber.

Does it matter exactly why Xander Cage returned to the international spy game? Actual-talent Toni Collette chews scenery as a menacing G-man/humanoid IKEA monkey who drags Cage back into action by informing him that his former mentor (played by Samuel L. Jackson, naturally) has been murdered via espionage technology that can strategically down orbiting satellites. Cage reluctantly agrees to retrieve this nefarious device, but refuses to do so with the team of untrustworthy supersoldiers Collette’s Evil Bitch government stooge assembles for him. When Cage grills the G.I. Joes about their experiences with X-Treme sports like base-jumping & snowboarding, they retort “We’re soldiers, not slackers.” Wrong response. He nukes the team in what plays like a sincere version of a MacGruber spoof, but decides to forego his past life as a lone wolf, instead borrowing some of his Daddy Dom character’s obsession with “family” in the Fast & Furious franchise to build his own X-treme, rag tag crew of crazed stunt men, EDM DJs, computer geek Millennials, and lesbian snipers. Everything that follows is a loud, dumb blur of shoot-em-up action cinema inanity, with occasional touches like dirt bike/jet ski hybrids and Godsmack-reminiscent nipple tats distinguishing it from any other borderline competent example of its genre. They get the device. They save the day. They put the government in its place and walk away with their collective rebel status intact. There’s even a ludicrous last minute cameo that makes the whole thing feel like a real movie instead of a hazy, bullet-ridden nu metal daydream. It’s all in good fun.

As much as Return of Xander Cage likes to pretend that its team-building exercise is actually important to the plot, the movie is still largely just a loving prayer at the altar of Xander Cage (and, by extension, Vin Diesel himself). It’s right there in the title. No one else truly matters. Entire villages cheer his presence. Little kids look up to him in awe. He delivers every one-liner with a JCVD-style lethargic drawl, as if he’s so pleasantly relaxed in the role that he’s half asleep. When someone hands him a bomb he mumbles, “Oh boy, here we go again,” rising to twirl in a lazy circle while firing a machine gun, yawning, and literally checking his watch. His entire crew is qualified to save the day, but they’re asked to hang back as his cover. Everyone is visibly horny, but only Xander Cage gets to fuck. It’s super cool and totally worth mentioning that this dumb, spiritually-backwards action film has a mostly POC cast (including an over-qualified Donnie Yen among its ranks) and the only scene dominated by white male faces involves an evil boardroom of business pricks threatening to tear the world down. It’s just also funny that the diversity in the crew is mostly for naught, as they’re ultimately no more significant than any one of Xander Cage’s many Tough Guy clip art tattoos.

It may sound like I’m being a little tough on Return of Xander Cage, but it’s a tough customer; it can take the pressure. This is actually a pretty fun version of what it is: mindless shoot-em-up action cinema with a fetish for X-Games style stunts. It’s just impossible not to poke fun at every leering shot of tight leather mini-skirts, every dumb objective like “Get there fast and take this guy down,” and every stupid one-liner like “It’s like finding a needle in a stack of needles.” At this point in modern taste & decency, X-treme action cinema has no comfortable, legitimate home and the xXx franchise addresses that concern by bullheadedly avoiding giving a shit about taste or decency. It’s a nu metal hangover stuck so far out of time that it had to abandon its angst rock roots for an EDM soundtrack that’s also hopelessly outdated, just by a narrower margin. It’s in this overgrown bro cultural faux pas that Return of Xander Cage emerges as cute & oddly quaint in its ironically mild brand of “X-treme” entertainments.

-Brandon Ledet

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016)

fourstar

I’ll admit up front that I’m a little more positive on Tim Burton’s post-Sleepy Hollow career than most, finding at least one enjoyable film from the director’s late-career releases (Big Fish, Corpse Bride, Big Eyes, Sweeney Todd, Frankenweenie) for every insufferable, uninspired one (Alice in Wonderland, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Dark Shadows, Planet of the Apes). Burton was on an incredible hot streak in his 80s & 90s run, delivering one incredible work after another, so there’s a lot of pressure on his 00s & 2010s output that makes it suffer under scrutiny. However, divorced from the context of his earlier work, this second phase of his career is at least at a 50/50 average for me, which isn’t so bad considering the careers of other big budget Hollywood directors on his name recognition level. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children isn’t likely to win over anyone who’s chosen to write off Burton’s post-90s work completely (his recent, aggressively tone deaf comments on racial representation in Hollywood casting aren’t likely to help either), but it is a damn good spooky children’s movie, joining the likes of Goosebumps & ParaNorman as great starter packs for kids who need an intro to a lifelong horror fandom. It’s a genuinely macabre affair that might be better accomplished in terms of visual craft than it is with emotional deft, but still stands as Burton’s best work since at least Sweeney Todd. Of course, I’m a little more forgiving than some on the current Burton aesthetic, so mileage may vary there, but if any other director’s name were attached to this film I suspect it would’ve been praised with far less scrutiny. The expectations resonating from Burton’s early work simply have way too much impact on the reception of his more current releases.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children & its YA source material are, essentially, goth X-Men for kids. Instead of mutant abilities, the kids have “peculiarities,” also contained in their genes, which more or less give them . . . mutant abilities. I guess the main difference there is that their peculiarities all have a sort of horrific sideshow quality to them: reanimating corpses, hidden jaws packed with sharp teeth, bodies full of bees, etc. It’s easy to see how Burton could want to merely luxuriate in this mansion full of little weirdos instead of chasing a plot, but Peculiar Children actually has a lot going on in its story structure. Cyclical time travel, intergenerational romance, mental disorder, alternative Holocaust narratives, and secret societies of shapeshifting demons who want to eat peculiar children’s eyeballs all swirl together to create one overwhelming kids-against-the-world conflict that admittedly trades in emotional resonance for large, complex ideas & haunted house imagery. Like with last year’s Crimson Peak, however, I was more than okay with swapping out emotional deft for visual craft here, especially since the visuals were so distinctly . . . peculiar. Samuel L. Jackson’s villain looks like a hybrid version of Don King & Nosferatu. A pair of masked twins recall antique photographs of 1900s Halloween costumes. A Harryhausen skeleton army wreaks havoc on a dayglow carnival funhouse. Stop motion monsters cobbled together out of babydoll parts & preserved animal corpses engage in a tabletop knife fight. A coven of dapper adults & long-limbed reptilian monsters devour piles upon piles of children’s eyeballs. Tim Burton may not be interested in self-reinvention with the imagery he delivers in Peculiar Children; he still delights in clashing a clean cut, sunlit suburbia with haunted house goth monstrosities. However, this film proves he’s still got the goods in terms of the strength & potency of the imagery he can deliver and any other shortcomings there might be in Peculiar Children comfortably rest on those laurels.

The more the scope of Tim Burton’s career becomes clear to me the more apparent it is that he’s almost exclusively a children’s filmmaker. Titles like Ed Wood & Sleepy Hollow are the outliers. Peculiar Children fits right in with Burton’s typical, imaginative creepshow for children aesthetic and I could very easily see a child growing up loving this movie the way I grew up loving Beetlejuice or Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure. Kids have an easy time mentally luxuriating in fantasy spaces in a way adults don’t. Returning to Beetlejuice as an adult, the pace feels a lot more rapid than it did to me in the 90s and the movie flies by  in a whir, whereas in my childhood it felt like an eternity. Peculiar Children will likely have the same effect on younger viewers. It delivers enough striking imagery & memorable set design that kids could mentally return to & stretch out its individual scenes in a way its two hour runtime couldn’t afford. A better, more deliberately paced version of this story might have stretched out over a franchise or a television series, but limiting it to a single film was a smart choice, one that will have implications on how children interact with it both onscreen & in their imaginations in the years to come. Even in its limited time span and overstuffed plot, Burton still finds the time to work in the doomed wartime narrative of The Devil’s Backbone and the places-as-ghosts concepts of a Toni Morrison novel, all while somehow maintaining the film’s firm footing as children’s media. If any other director had delivered Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, it’s likely it’d be held in a much higher regard as an ambitious work of high-concept time travel sci-fi horror for children. However, only Burton could balance all of that overreaching narrative with such specific, effective imagery & maintain its for-kids tone. This film stands as yet another reminder that its director may to be delivering at 100% at this point in his career, but he’s still capable of making some truly great films in-between the duds. 

-Brandon Ledet

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

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Superhero Watching: Alternating Marvel Perspectives, Fresh and Longterm, Ignoring X-Men, or S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X., is a feature in which Boomer (who reads superhero comics & is well versed in the MCU) & Brandon (who reads alternative comics & had, at the start of this project, seen less than 25% of the MCU’s output) revisit the films that make up the Marvel Cinematic Universe from the perspective of someone who knows what they’re talking about & someone who doesn’t have the slightest clue.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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threehalfstar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

fourhalfstar

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

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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threehalfstar
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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fivestar

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.

Barely Lethal (2015)

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twohalfstar

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Sometimes the most frustrating films aren’t the ones that fail outright, but rather the ones that show a great deal of promise but still fall short of success. I really wanted to enjoy the teen-girl-assassins action comedy Barely Lethal despite the mountain of negative reviews warning that I wouldn’t, but the movie at no point makes an effort to distinguish itself as a unique property worthy of praise. Even though I’ve never seen D.E.B.S. (I should fix that soon), I recognize that Barely Lethal has distinct origins in that film’s premise. It wants to be the next link in the Heathers-Clueless-Mean Girls high school clique comedy chain, but even The DUFF from earlier this year is more deserving of that honor. As far as being a female-led spoof of the superspy genre goes, Spy is a much better example from 2015. Hell, it’s not even the worst film featuring Thomas Mann from 2015 thanks to Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl (alternate title Me, Me, Me, and Me). Even the pun in the film’s title (a winkingly violent play on the porny idiom “barely legal”) falls short of establishing any kind of significance as it ends up meaning that the the girls are incompetent as killer spies, which was not at all the intended effect. Similarly, the film itself is barely lethal in its compromised tone, which is unfortunate given the possibilities in its killer teen girls premise.

Early in the proceedings I was willing to buck consensus on this one. The film begins by profiling a “top-secret, government-run school that turns little girls into killing machines”. Samuel L. Jackson (once again proving that he will star in anything) is fairly amusing as the top instructor at this trained killer production facility. His darkly comic commands that toddler age girls (or “Double 0 7-year olds”, if you will) operate machine guns & flamethrowers and to remember that while stabbing combatants”It’s all about putting holes in the subject. Ladies, spring some leaks!” are pretty damn amusing, but the feeling is fairly short-lived. The film mostly follows the story of one trainee instead of the institution as a whole, detailing the life of a teen assassin’s decision to fake her own death & attempt to lead a normal life as an American high school student. There is a lot of promise in this set-up, touched on just a tad when the protagonist complains that the cruelty of high school teens is far worse than being beaten or drowned, but it’s mostly wasted. Because she uses past high school clique comedies teen gossip rags as “intel” for “Mission: High School” (ugh) the film devolves into mostly empty, self-conscious references to films like 10 Things I Hate About You, The Breakfast Club, and (duh) Mean Girls. Even worse, it wastes a vicious rivalry between two teen girl assassins – a concept that should register as a super cool take on the genre – on a climactic catfight over a boy.

Like I said, the worst part about Barely Lethal is that it’s barely unenjoyable. I liked that it worked within the traditional high school rom com plot structure – in this case staging both a Big Party and a Big Dance climax – but it rarely took the opportunity to show its teeth within that frame. The exchange “I’m viral?” (referring to Internet fame, of course) “Like HPV”, a montage of two teens girling  out over guns instead of a traditional dress-up sequence, and a conversation about how they “want the first time [they kill a man] to be special” are all a great start for a first draft, but they’re isolated moments in a film mired in wasted opportunities. Barely Lethal mostly felt like an underutilized cast (including Rob Huebel, Jessica Alba, Sophie Turner, and Rachel Harris) aching for a better movie to emerge in the editing room. With an R-rating instead of PG-13 & a harder edged re-write I could see Barely Lethal enduring as a cult classic As is, I’d suggest that you ‘d skip this one & watch D.E.B.S. instead. And again, just to be clear, I’ve never seen D.E.B.S..

-Brandon Ledet