I often speak of tension, or the lack thereof, when it comes to action cinema and how they execute its set pieces whether they be a fist-fight, a shoot-out, or a car chase. To me — it is far more important than spectacle. As much as bombast can be fun, it’s utterly meaningless without proper build-up and consequence while (even worse) rendering entire set pieces redundant. It’s why, as much as people gave it accolades, a film like The Raid: Redemption is dreadfully dull to me despite all the effort put in its martial arts choreography. It’s similar-looking fights in similar-looking apartments, one after another, with very little characterization thus we’re not adequately given any reason to care about those involved. It is a pure spectacle and I hated it.
Part of that is the protagonist rarely ever felt vulnerable and incapable of defeat. Sure, he’d get hurt, but it wasn’t dealt with the intensity of a combat wound — no fatigue to be seen — as if it were a scraped knee or bruised shin. It doesn’t impede them anymore or less, which makes their inevitable victory all the more obvious and boring. It’s amazing how Die Hard is considered one of the best action films of the 1980s (rightfully so) while current filmmakers nonetheless miss what made it work so well: John McClane got hurt. Really hurt. He had to run across broken glass barefoot to escape the gunfire, later shown to be pulling out the shards stuck in there before continuing on. It’s as painful to watch onscreen as it looks. But, then again, everything he deals within that movie is a struggle and — even better — you have distinguishable antagonists who’re an ever-present danger throughout (one of them even gets their own subplot!) than ineffectual, faceless canon-fodder.
The reason for bringing this up is because, as live-action adaptations of comicbook material, the movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe forget this and fall into the pitfall of rendering tension moot for the sake of spectacle. I’m not sure how I’m supposed to believe Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) are normal human beings, when their skills are no more different than the superhuman abilities of other characters — all while rarely ever getting hurt to a debilitating degree, despite the conflicts in which they become involved. Moreso when explicitly superhuman characters like Captain America (Chris Evans) actually show more vulnerability, to the point it is a defining character trait. Maybe one of the reasons I keep lavishing praise on shows like Daredevil (other than how much I like Vincent D’Onofrio as Wilson Fisk and, no, I’m never going to shut up about that)is because the titular protagonist (Charlie Cox) gets the utter shit kicked out of him. It has nothing to do with dislike and experiencing schadenfreude as much as the complete opposite — even when beaten and broken, the tenacity to persevere shines through and downright encouraging to witness. It’s far more admirable a quality than simply slaughtering one’s enemies en masse with little resistance or strain. It may be entertaining in a videogame, as part of an interactive power fantasy, but passive mediums — especially cinema — needs adversity whether physical or psychological to test the protagonists lest the fantasy of overcoming great odds ultimately becomes an empty experience.
Thankfully, like so much else in the film, Infinity War delivered on that in quite a few surprising ways…
A TALE OF TWO SHERLOCKS
My familiarity, until more recently, of Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) — commonly referred to simply as “Dr. Strange” — was a passing one. I noticed him, sure, but he never really intrigued me. Outside of him and Victor Von Doom being Best Frenemies Forever, an interesting relationship dynamic if there ever was one (probably why I liked Chadwick Boseman and Winston Duke’s interactions in Black Panther so much), I only recognized him as the most powerful wizard within the 616.
That changed with reading a large chunk of Jason Aaron and Chris Bachalo’s run with the character that’s a wonderful mix of Cronenbergian body horror coupled with aesthetics straight from Beetlejuice, portraying the Sorcerer Supreme as having the grossest diet imaginable — Lovecraftian monsters. Seriously, he chows down on tentacled horrors from beyond the veil of time and space (via mystical kitchen fridge). I also love how one of the primary antagonists resembles a Shoggoth with a death mask for a face, fueled by the pain and anguish from the protagonist’s usage of magic.
So, yeah, it was exactly my kind of thing…and don’t tell me the image of Benedict Wong shoving bits of Starspawn down Cumberbatch’s gullet isn’t the funniest thing ever. ’Cause I’m pretty sure it is and you’d be a total liar saying otherwise!
This was followed by what was easily my favorite scene in Ragnarok:
The solo feature, upon initial viewing, left me cold despite its many appealing aspects — a recurring issue I’ve had with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The characterization came off as inconsistent, of not knowing whether they wanted him as a prickly but compassionate medical practitioner (his bedside manner is terrible) who learns to be more open-minded and less egotistical or just Iron Man but with magic. It is only due to Infinity War, firmly establishing it is the earlier case, that’s made me retroactively like the film somewhat more than I had before (it’s got other problems). I’d go as far to say — out of all the protagonists featured — he’s as much my favorite as Ebony Maw (Tom Vaughn-Lawlor) was among the antagonists. Though sarcastic on occasions, he’s not prone to the same adolescent quips like others and earnest enough to treat a serious situation with a proper sense of gravity than smarmy frivolity. So very much unlike his new (also: armored) Best Frenemy Forever…
It’s unfortunate that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has effectively made me hate Tony Stark as a character. It has nothing to do with Robert Downey, Jr.’s performance — he’s perfect in the role, though Marvel’s films and series haven’t been badly cast overall — and I can’t help but respect the guy given the rock bottom he once hit ages ago then recover from it so well. He’s not the problem, at all, and I don’t want anyone to forget that when talking about Iron Man as a fictional character. The issue, per usual, is how he’s written but it’s also the studio’s tendency to never let him truly evolve as a person.
The studio entertains character development with interesting ideas — his alcoholism, post-traumatic stress disorder, inability to keep promises, an obsessiveness that ruins his closest relationships, incapable of properly grieving for his dead parents, or being stricken with eldritch knowledge — but these traits are not portrayed or dealt with consistently. They may matter within the film featured, only to be abandoned by the next, then reintroduced elsewhere down the line when it seems fitting. Iron Man 3 ends with Tony promising Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) to abandon his continual tinkering with power-armors and causing them to self-destruct to prove he will keep his promise. Age of Ultron, however, has him back in power-armor (and accompanied by autonomous look-a-like drones) without any mention to the events of IM3 or what happened between then and now. When Civil War came around, it appears that Pepper did take issue with breaking his promise and Tony is not on speaking terms with her. Finally, apparently happening between films and off-screen, Spider-Man: Homecoming reveals that Tony and Pepper are…back together again. Why? They just are. ’Cause reasons.
This would be excusable if we were dealing with pre-reboot James Bond, a walking vehicle to showcase exotic locations and get involved in conflicts that provide action set pieces with little to no personal arc attached, but the Marvel films keep showing an interest in Tony Stark’s psychology. Even the wretchedly half-assed IM2 made his self-destructive tendencies a central focus of the (otherwise unfocused) narrative. With Infinity War, he’s gone back to being who he exactly was at the end of the first IM, but — much like acknowledging Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) can be an insufferable, selfish man-child — the film treats Tony as someone who never stopped being a rich brat that needs a tough lesson in finally growing the fuck up. Who better to help than a wise mage who never suffers fools gladly?
Every interaction between Dr. Strange and Stark involves them butting heads, with the earlier frequently admonishing the latter’s showboating. There’s even a scene where Stark touches a valuable artifact, like a reckless child, that Dr. Strange responds to with a smack in the back of his head as if he were a schoolmarm. It’s not only a lot more enjoyable to watch than characters swapping similar bits of witticism but that those characters are a lot more interesting when strongly differentiated among one another. Comedy series like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia work as well as they do because everyone in the main cast has distinct personalities that often clash with one another. Deadpool and its sequel aren’t much different in that regard, as the titular character (Ryan Reynolds) is surrounded by a supporting cast who’re disparate in outlook and behavior, and a lot of the comedic value would be lost if everyone else was a deranged fourth wall-breaking assassin who treats murder like a punchline to a joke. The moralizing from Colossus (Stefan Kapičić) and cynical apathy from Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand), when contrasted with Wade Wilson’s incessant pop culture referencing and madcap antics, are absolutely beneficial to the narrative than a detriment to it. Making Dr. Strange into another Tony Stark did not work at all and I’d like to think it was (thankfully) obvious to both Taika Waititi and the Russos given their own background in comedy. Having Tony Stark into Dr. Strange’s heel (or vice versa depending on perspective) was easily the best decision they could make.
Stark does feel like he’s learning something, particularly when what remains of The Guardians of the Galaxy — Peter Quill, Drax (Dave Bautista), and Mantis (Pom Klementieff) — show up shooting first and asking questions later with him, Dr. Strange, and Spider-Man (Tom Holland…whose cheeks I just want to squeeze like an overly enthusiastic great aunt). Quill ends up being a mirror that Stark gazes into and comes to the depressing realization that, perhaps, he might actually hate himself. That all his vainglory was to cover up for how empty he felt following his parents’ passing unless he was either with Pepper Potts or as Iron Man. Much like how Quill stopped maturing entirely when cancer took his mother and abducted by Yondu (Michael Rooker)as an eight-year-old, Stark has been stuck at nineteen since a brainwashed Bucky (Sebastian Stan) assassinated Howard (John Slattery) and Maria (Hope Davis).
It comes to the point where Stark ends up having to parent Quill, belligerently dismissing all advice and demands superiority purely by ego (akin to Stark’s own behavior at the beginning of the film). It’s thematically apt given Thanos (Josh Brolin) is a malevolent god-like father figure but with the indication that Pepper is now pregnant with Stark’s child, or at least they’re trying to have one, that’s causing Tony to act more like a father as the film progresses. Even the callousness directed at Peter Parker in Homecoming (which was really confusing) has faded away and is more like heartfelt, albeit condescending, concern. He treats Quill like his least favorite and rebellious child, expected to hurt himself regardless of any attempt to dissuade him, while Parker is the loyal and favored son he actively protects from harm. Only to be (further) traumatized upon his slow death due to The Snap, holding him as he slowly disintegrates before his eyes. Exacerbated by the fact he reacts only as one whose life has gone largely unlived could and, even worse, it was Quill’s fault. Everyone else involved knew the stakes and approached it with bravery, almost succeeding thanks to Mantis’ hyper-empathic ability (giving her a great moment in the spotlight as opposed to being treated like garbage), while Quill’s tantrum sabotaged their efforts and partly why the universe is now half-empty. Stark failed as a surrogate parent and has to now live with both dying under his watch.
Though everyone acts as horrified by The Snap in some way, Dr. Strange handles it like a champ and it makes perfect sense: he already died. Not simply having seen it from delving into and observing possible future timelines in a prior scene but because, within his solo feature, he literally got killed several times over — if not hundreds or more — annoying a cross-dimensional entity into submission with a time-loop. Others have a difficult time comprehending their mortality, all slowly turning to ash that’s blown away by the wind with expressions of shock and despair, but not the Sorcerer Supreme for he has long ago conquered it by enduring it many times over and still alive despite it. As indicated with his torture by Ebony Maw, he is so dedicated to his cause and the lives it protects that the pain done unto his being is simply part of his duty. A trait he happens to share with a certain Norse god, you know the one!
THE FROG, THE RABBIT, & THE GIVING TREE
If one was to tell me my favorite plotline in the film would be Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Rocket Raccoon (Sean Gunn/Bradley Cooper), and Groot (Vin Diesel) attempting to forge a mythical battle ax — I’d accuse them of totally fucking with me and wouldn’t believe a single word. Yet, somehow, it is not a lie. It is the absolute truth and, by the gods, I couldn’t be happier overhow wrong I was.
It’s the least eventful narrative thread but there’s a greater sense of faith in itself, being character-driven without much action-based spectacle, and respectful of the audience who can appreciate it. With only one set piece — said forging of a mythical battle ax — and everything beforehand acting as build-up via interaction between the cast. Though “exciting” would be an odd descriptor to apply, it is the only one that aptly expresses my own experience. The Battle of Wakanda, wherein various superheroes mow down legions of alien monsters with a massive death wish, isn’t nearly as intriguing to watch — even with the epic scale and visual splendor — as Rocket going to sit down and sympathetically ask Thor questions about his state of mind. I’ve already seen these characters demolish faceless canon-fodder but it’s rare to see any interchange that managed to be earnest and saying a lot with so little, all while involving individuals as fantastical as a living Norse god and a gun-loving animal that talks. Even if you aren’t familiar with who either of them are, the scene I mentioned — with small but significant gestures — informs you that Rocket seeks connection, if only out of curiosity, but is very guarded about approaching others while Thor is an arrogant, perhaps naive in spite of his age of one-and-a-half millennia, yet well-meaning person. At no point is this brought up verbally by either like, well, so many other Marvel movies. I wish this subdued approach to characterization were more common than an exception to the (formulaic) rule.
A recurring gag throughout is that Thor refers to Rocket Raccoon erroneously as “Rabbit” (which, as none exist in Nordic nations, he’d make that mistake as a Nordic deity) that he tolerates uncharacteristically. He’s taken a great deal of offense from anyone who brings up the fact he’s an animal at all — moreso when it’s a pejorative like “pest” — but doesn’t display any with Thor and there’s a good reason for this: it’s wholly complimentary and never degrading. Even Peter Quill, supposedly his friend, treats Rocket like shit despite being well aware he’s likely a normal raccoon forcefully uplifted into sapience (not to mention all the augmentations that make him bipedal and presumably speak) that leaves him in an existential nightmare. Like, I can’t be the only person who notices that…right? When berated for his kleptomania, I was absolutely baffled — he’s a goddamn raccoon. They’re natural scavengers and the kleptomania is likely an extension of that, along with his intense curiosity and constant tinkering, yet everyone else keeps forgetting that. It’s treated like a personality flaw than a pathological condition as if he were Marie “Shut Up, Shut The Hell Up” Schrader from Breaking Bad. No wonder the only one he still tolerates is the tree with a five-word vocabulary…
Groot, currently in an adolescent form, is fairly apathetic for most of the run time — either fiddling with his handheld videogame or petulantly complaining (based on the responses towards him). He joins Thor and Rocket on a whim, having shown dissatisfaction with the other Guardians, but doesn’t seem to have much investment in their task either…but only at first. During the forging of Stormbreaker, the mechanism used to channel the heat from Nidavellir’s neutron star breaks and Thor proceeds to replace it with himself — which initially succeeds but leaves him charred to near death and the newly forged uber-ax accidentally split in two. When Eitri (Peter Dinklage) searches for a handle to combine the two parts in vain (um, the guy can’t even use his hands) and stating that, without the ax being fully formed, Thor will die. That is the moment Groot finally stops being apathetic and cares enough to use his own arm, then cut it off, to succeed in their quest.
This indicates in the previous scene, where Groot shows outright disdain for the other Guardians, that his behavior had less to do with being an asshole teenager than it is being greatly disappointed they were still thepricks he met in the first Guardians of the Galaxy. It made sense back then when their alliance was originally built on selfish goals, that soon becomes a friendship, leading Groot to sacrifice himself to keep others safe from harm. Though rendered as a merchandising opportunity in the next installment, an obnoxiously cutesy baby who doesn’t contribute as much as distract, it was nice to have the character I actually liked and wanted to see more of — not his nauseatingly infantile doppelganger — come back in such a magnificent fashion as he not only saved the life of a god but made himself part of the second most powerful weapon in the universe. Even all of them showing up at the Battle of Wakanda is my favorite part of that event, next to the entrance of Thanos and his subsequent Snap. A CGI clusterfuck battle can never be as enthralling or fulfilling the way subtle characterization and creating a situation that requires more than fisticuffs can be. I want more of that from these Marvel movies and, hopefully, this is a sign of good tidings in the future.
THE WEAKEST THERE IS…
If there’s any superhero (sometimes) whose gotten the worst treatment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s Bruce Banner — a.k.a. The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo…formerly Edward Norton). The Incredible Hulk is (for good reason) considered the weakest of the Phase One movies next to Thor and can’t say I disagree, even if I still liked it more than the ill-conceived Ang Lee film from 2003. As someone who is quite fond of the character in the comics, I take bigger issue with how mismanaged and underused he is than I do Natasha “Black Widow” Romanova. He’s always second or third fiddle to another character and it’s rarely ever dealing with Bruce Banner outside of being The Hulk as he wrecks shit. The moments he is given are usually as Stark’s put-upon science-bro who’s neurotically on edge every hour of the day and they’re wonderful, even if few and far inbetween, unlike the inane romance with Natasha. It made no sense nor had any precedence, save for a scene at the beginning of Age of Ultron, especially since their previous interactions involved Bruce either threatening her or trying to murder her as The Hulk. Maybe if it was to indicate they were now friends, there’d be no issue — but not as romantic partners.
I like Mark Ruffalo in the role and actually more than Edward Norton. You’d think to portray a children’s TV entertainer with anger issues in Death to Smoochy would make Norton perfect for the role, but he’s too confident and level-headed for a wimpy scientist who lives in constant dread of losing control and unleashing a bellicose ogre into the world. Ruffalo, on the other hand, really does come off like that ticking time bomb of a human being. You get this sense that The Hulk is almost as much a metamorphological defense mechanism as he is a dissociative identity — as much of a product of Bruce Banner’s physiology as his psychology. This has been lightly alluded to but never substantially explored, until Infinity War came around.
It’s quite amusing how the ad campaign purposefully trolled the audience into thinking we’d just get The Hulk again, shown running alongside the other heroes into battle, but that never happens. The Hulk’s actual screen presence is quite brief and mostly relegated to the opening scene, as Thanos whups his ass like a punching bag in a gym for hyperactive Muay Thai fighters. He’s bled before, sure, but no other enemy with the misfortune to cross his path could take him down with such swift grace. The scene is evocative of another at the end of The Avengers where Loki (Tom Hiddleston) — also a (frost) giant but the runt of the litter, I guess — is picked up and slammed into the floor over and over again like a ragdoll but reversed. While The Hulk approaches fighting like an aggressive toddler with no form or tact, Thanos is nothing but calculated with each move and finishes him off with one forceful suplex. Aside from being sent to earth via Heimdall’s (Idris Elba) Bifröst bridge, he only appears in a few more instances. “Instance” being the operative word here. It’s all about Bruce Banner from here on and it’s been something I’ve been dying to see for a while now.
The Hulk becomes eerily reticent likely because, considering the theme of parenthood in its many forms, Bruce Banner had a physically abusive father and suppressed all memory of it. The Hulk — after Banner was exposed to Gamma radiation — is simply those suppressed memories made emerald flesh. Problem is that The Hulk assumed he could never be hurt the way Banner’s father hurt him…until Thanos came along and proved otherwise. This isn’t wholly speculative on my part either, as it was integral to Peter David’s comicbook run of the character and it’s referenced here. Remember when this happened?
Well, that was also in the comics. Specifically The Incredible Hulk Vol. 1, issue #376 in December of 1990:
Bruce Banner seems to barely register to the other characters in the MCU or just seen as useless when compared to The Hulk. So many of the conflicts haven’t really required Banner’s scientific knowledge to deal with a problem as much as brute force, which his alter ego has in excess. Despite being away for two years and a dire warning that must be heeded, Tony Stark doesn’t act all that enthusiastic to see a close friend and dismisses the advice of putting aside his rivalry with Captain America — acting as if he can solve the entire situation by his lonesome. Natasha herself comes off as frigid when greeted by him later, accompanying James “War Machine” Rhodes (Don Cheadle). It’s as if they’re not responding to Bruce Banner himself but to The Hulk, who was in control when he (respectively) clobbered and unceremoniously dumped them, but they’re not bothering to differentiate between the two. Even Rhodes himself takes amusement in embarrassing the guy in front of T’Challa, tricking him into bowing when no one else does (’cause T’Challa is the most chill monarch ever — he doesn’t chide Banner for the mistake either!).
But to also be fair, the last example wasn’t malicious as it was a gentle ribbing while both Tony and Natasha actually begin to treat Banner with a bit more respect after their reunion. After pressuring Banner to summon The Hulk to no avail (“Dude, you’re embarrassing me in front of the wizards!”), Stark realizes he simply can’t no matter how hard he tries and proceeds to console him apologetically. After the initial awkwardness passed, Natasha and the others credulously seek Banner’s scientific expertise to help Vision (Paul Bettany) with the utmost interest. When it becomes clear that Shuri (Letitia Wright) is more qualified than Banner in such a task, he isn’t left on the sidelines and away from the action as he was by Wong (Benedict Wong) in the first act, he’s brought into the fray — given none other than the Hulkbuster power-armor (hey, actual irony!). Watching Banner trying it, especially when doing so with unexpected glee, was pure joy to my eyes and ears. The best part is when he clumsily trips over as Okoye (Danai Gurira) is passing by, making a priceless expression that could only be accompanied with a thought like “we’re bringing this goofy motherfucker along, are you shittin’ me?!” Yes, you are — and it is glorious.
I had mentioned previously that, despite my disappointment with the creative decision to kill off all the Children of Thanos, that did not apply to Obsidian Cull (Terry Notary…and, yes, I’m still calling the character that) because he provides Banner his ultimate victory not just in battle but as proof that he can protect himself without The Hulk. What makes the victory all the sweeter is that Obsidian Cull is practically a Hulk doppelganger, another big dumb monster that communicates purely in grunts and reckless violence, that Banner defeats not by combat prowess — which he severely lacks — but through ingenuity. It’s hard to not read this as symbolic of one shedding their codependency and finding self-confidence. He’s a bystander at first, a nuisance that got in the way, but soon becomes more of a participant to the point he’s fighting alongside teammates without being The Hulk. It’d be remiss to forget that this is only half of his arc, the other which I expect to make it come full circle in Endgame. If what I’ve written here tells you anything, I’m ecstatic to see — it feels great looking forward to a Marvel movie again!
A review of Endgame will be up soon enough (I promise this time, really!)…
[Originally posted on 5/8/19 @ Medium.com]