Childhood’s ENDGAME: An In-Depth Review (w/spoilers)

I’d listen to the words he’d say
But in his voice, I heard decay
The plastic face forced to portray
All the insides, left cold and gray
There is a place that still remains
It eats the fear, it eats the pain
The sweetest price he’ll have to pay

If Infinity War is The Empire Strikes Back of Marvel Movies, then Endgame is Return of the Jedi. This is not meant as a complaint, at least entirely. Like RotJ, Endgame has a strong start where the previous installment’s climax carries over but, as it goes on, it starts to drift back into bad habits from the other movies before Infinity War.

It never veers into territory where merchandising drives the creative decisions like with the Ewoks (who, to be honest, I like…because they eat people) or unwilling to kill off a primary member of the main cast (Harrison Ford hated Han Solo and wanted it to happen), but instead lays on the cheap humor a bit thick in parts to where it got grating as it has before due to how inappropriate and eager-to-please it can be. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) becoming a fat drunkard is, while amusing at first, something that remains throughout and became distracting with the obviousness of the fat suit. The worst part being when he summons his armor and his gut looks as if they stuffed some pillows under his shirt. Oh, and did I mention that five years of sedentary gluttony doesn’t affect his combat prowess much? ’Cause it doesn’t. Somehow. I could go on for days about the pointlessly mean-spirited remarks made in Scott “Ant-Man” Lang’s (Paul Rudd) direction too…

The difference is RotJ’s issues affect integral narrative beats that render the stakes tensionless (Stormtroopers being defeated by Ewoks with silly traps is hilariously bad) and the resolution feeling less earned by the protagonists than it should — Endgame’s problems are mostly tangential and make it better overall, but not by much. Though more structurally sound in storytelling, unlike RotJ, those tangential problems start to build up to the point it — like Hemsworth’s prosthetic beer belly — becomes a distraction.

Image for post
“I’m a big Trent Reznor fan too.”

Since I keep comparing the Marvel Cinematic Universe to Star Wars, I’ll make one more statement: the film didn’t disappoint me as much as The Last Jedi, with its implied intention to cause a paradigm shift in the conflict, only to revert back to the status quo by the end. A decision made purely for fan service (which further weaponizes a consumeristic audience to everyone’s, especially critics, detriment) and maintain recognizable branding for merchandise. Endgame at least keeps some of its promises, giving a sense of finality and permanence in certain regards, that indicates possible good tidings in the future. The ultimate problem is that leaves a good deal of other promises unfulfilled and myself once again cautious of the franchise’s future. Though I’m still looking forward to Spider-Man: Far From Home while having absolutely no interest in The Rise of Skywalker (easily one of the worst subtitles ever — it makes “Attack of the Clones” sound clever). At least the Marvel movies, unlike Star Wars, have a chance at being interesting.

THE BEST (AND WORST) OF BOTH WORLDS

When the film does keep its promises, they’re still handicapped in execution, and — as the title of the section references this — Bruce “The Hulk” Banner (Mark Ruffalo) makes for an illustrative example. He’s my favorite character in the film partly because we’re given pay-off to his arc in the previous one…yet we don’t see it. We’re told it with exposition. The five year time jump was an idea I really liked, as we get to see this half-empty world (reminding me of all those empty city streets in Neon Genesis Evangelion) and how the characters handle the situation for good or ill, so I’d understand why the Russos were hesitant to use a flashback but it means an important character moment happened off-screen (again). It’s explained to us, sure, but it’s dull for Bruce to do so purely through dialogue than with some kind of visualization — perhaps the moment he was finally able to reconcile both halves of himself, to become “the best of both worlds.” There’s no reason to keep it a mystery either, so why not show it? Given the film is already a minute over three hours, I’d be willing to have another (at most) 30 seconds to get that visual along with the explanation. That means you get to see that moment as the audience while the other characters, unaware of such, have it explained to them. It is, however, the least problematic example.

The most problematic one comes in the form of Natasha “Black Widow” Romanova (Scarlett Johansson) and Clint “Hawkeye/Ronin” Barton (Jeremy Renner). I must ask: outside of an attachment to these characters’ comicbook counterparts or the actors playing them, how do these movies try to connect the audience to them as people? Even as someone who’s read the comics, I still try approaching these movies from the mindset of someone who may’ve only had a passing understanding of them via cultural osmosis. Telling me a film is “for the fans” is utterly meaningless as a defense because Art is for everyone. These films — which is what they are in form, not simply live-action comicbooks — should still be judged on their own qualities within the medium rather than what studio press releases tell you to think (it’s astonishing how many people mistake such as their own opinion) or to confirm the biases of obsessives as if obliged. My point is that I could tell you why I like Natasha in the comics at length, but I couldn’t do the same for Johansson’s cinematic portrayal. I don’t dislike the latter because I liked the earlier either — a habit that others who both read the comics and watch the movies have, but which I find incomprehensible.

Image for post
HULK THE SMARTEST THERE IS!

When it comes to Natasha’s comicbook incarnation, she is a vivacious adrenaline junkie that’s slammed ass with almost every eligible bachelor in the 616. She doesn’t do it due to past trauma of lost childhood and forced sterilization (easily one of the most grossly sexist creative decisions made in any of the Marvel movies), but because she enjoys it and lacks any interest in motherhood as it’d get in the way of her lifestyle. Y’know, like a real woman would be — with a semblance of personality. Johansson has been in so many of these movies and, outside of what I referenced (both from the god-awful Age of Ultron), I couldn’t really tell you anything else about her other than she’s a typical action movie hero. Endgame doesn’t bother to shed any light on her background further than her father’s name was “Ivan.” That’s pretty much it and…who gives a shit?

An apologist could bring up the smaller character moments but, similarly to Tony “Iron Man” Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) and his portrayal across all these movies, they’re so inconsistent that they feel random or forced. She’s still stoic 90 percent of the time, with the other 10 percent often coming off as contrived than an organic progression of characterization. It should’ve been the other way around — she starts off as cold and distant, but becomes more open and friendly with each appearance. Hawkeye is even worse since, like her, he’s a typical action movie hero but the only difference is he has a family who’d been taken away in The Snap. We’re introduced to this notion, during the time jump, he’s gone off the deep end as he travels from one nation to the next wantonly slaughtering criminals with no rhyme or reason. My interest was piqued there, for a second, making me think we’d get someone as mentally unstable and desperate as Thanos (Josh Brolin) himself became as one of the protagonists. Except he doesn’t act that way at all — he’s the same stern action movie hero as before. As much as I found Thor looking like The Dude (but even more disheveled) from Big Lebowski annoying, Hemsworth really does a great job of getting across how broken he is as a person and has become avoidant of everything else in his life. There was an opportunity here for Renner to give a new spin with the character, but it’s one that goes untaken.

It makes the scene where Natasha and Clint are fighting one another over who gets to sacrifice themselves for the Soul Stone, a fantastic premise for an action set piece, kind of empty simply due to their involvement. Part of me couldn’t help but think, originally, it was going to be Steve “Captain America” Rogers (Chris Evans) who would sacrifice himself and Stark would attempt to stop him in vain. The reason I make this suggestion is that, given the ending, this would’ve made for fantastic foreshadowing. Instead, we have two characters who — purely in the context of these movies and not elsewhere — haven’t been properly developed enough to make the emotional impact of the scene effective. You really only care if you’re projecting the comicbook version onto the cinematic one or just like ScarJo who, though very attractive, isn’t an expressive enough actress that her crying feels as convincing as crocodile tears. It is, in my opinion, the worst part of the film not due to what it represents in the plot but because of how it was done.

MÖEBIUS SLIP

I usually hate time travel in cinema. Very rarely am I ever that impressed by such stories and, when I am, it’s more a case of presentation than a tightly-written script like 12 Monkeys, Looper,or Donnie Darko with one exception to that rule being Timecrimes. Others can be a fleeting amusement but it’s not a storytelling genre I’m all that keen on — which is made all the more strange by my fondness of alternate realities.

Image for post
Seriously, go watch TIMECRIMES. Now.

Endgame is now one of these movies…and, goddamn, does it never shut up about it. It’s enjoyable when the characters speak of paradoxes, chronal self-correction, and tangent timelines — all an effort to figure out how to do an awesomely high-concept jewel heist with precision — but gets bogged down when characters start name-dropping other films with time travel. If they just began and ended with Back to the Future as their point of reference, then it’d of been a lot less cringey, but they can’t keep themselves from also bringing up TerminatorBill & Ted, and Time After Time to hit you over the head harder than they already did. Yes, we get it, you’re talking about time travel and thus bring up a movie with time travel, over and over again — rein it in, guys.

It’s certainly not as funny as when they’re testing out their time travel tech, causing Ant-Man to come back as a geriatric and then as a baby, because at least it’s moving the plot forward. It gives you an idea of how important it is to get the technical kinks worked out before doing their continuum-invading caper. Even the scene where The Hulk confronts The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) is a lot more interesting than having one character commenting on another’s ass like they’re on some wacky videogame side-quest. Can’t they just take this shit a bit more seriously? I’m pretty sure they’re trying to bring back half the universe yet the only person — other than Nebula (Karen Gillan) and Rocket Raccoon (Sean Gunn/Bradley Cooper) — approaching it with a proper sense of gravity is The Hulk. Also, unlike his cohorts, he doesn’t screw up his task and requires a risky (as well as contrived) detour.

Thor and Rocket’s segment was probably the worst of the bunch next to the one with Action Hero Man and Action Hero Lady, made depressing by the fact their plotline during Infinity War was one of my favorite things about it. Thor’s heart-to-heart with his mother, Frigga (Rene Russo…who looks damn good for her age), as much as I liked it initially doesn’t ever lead to that moment where he cuts his hair, trims his beard, and burns all fat off his body by bench pressing submarines like a Nordic (but untattooed) Jason Mamoa. Yet another part of me couldn’t help but wonder why Thor, an emotionally and physically unfit mess, was brought along at all other than to talk to his (not yet) dead (hot) mom. There’s also something uncomfortable about Rocket assaulting Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) with a weirdly phallic object to get the Reality Stone…out of her body. How? They never explain nor show it in use but, since it may well’ve been a prop from Dead Ringers, it’s probably creepy as shit.

Now that I think about it, the detour Stark has to make in the 1970s to retrieve the Space Stone just feels like an excuse for him to talk to his (not yet) dead father, Howard (John Slattery). Well, that and Steve Rogers to stare at Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) through the shades of a glass panel like some lovesick stalker. It occurred to me that so many of these creative decisions weren’t made with narrative structure and themes in mind but for the sake of cheap sentimentality or laughs and fan service. Much like how it didn’t make sense for Thor to go back to Asgard given it might, y’know, trigger him due to his poor mental state — there was no reason for Steve to go back to the events of The Avengers except so there’d be a fight where he literally fights himself (and then ogles his own ass ’cause yuk-yuks). Oddly enough, that fight in of itself showed that which characters went where/when wasn’t thought about much if at all. You’d think Ant-Man would’ve tagged along with Black Widow and Hawkeye since, well, they’re the type of people perfect for a covert ops scenario like that. In fact, wouldn’t it make more sense to have it be characters who weren’t already at Stark Tower to stick out less? So, if not Natasha and Clint, you could have James “War Machine” Rhodes (Don Cheadle) and Okoye (Danai Gurira…more on her character and others, in a bit) go to decrease the risk even further.

Image for post
This is America (Chavez)’s ass!

Since I mentioned her before (and want this part of the review to end on a good note…kinda), my other favorite part from all the time traveling is where Nebula retrieves the Power Stone during the opening of the first Guardians of the Galaxy. There a great bit of anti-fan service that portrays Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) dancing to Redbone’s (utterly irresistible) “Come and Get Your Love,” if done diegetically, makes him look like a jackass but that they also knock him the fuck out. I also love the Terminator 2 moment when the covering of Nebula’s arm melts away and reveals a robotic skeletal frame beneath. It’s the only part of the heist where time travel concepts are explored further. Nebula’s younger self ends up having her future self’s memories, as they both exist at the same time, that causes a paradox and their minds to fracture as a result — just like Roland Deschain and Jake Chambers in Stephen King’s The Waste Land.

Even better, Future Nebula is captured by Past Nebula and — though dead in Future Nebula’s timeline — a still very much alive Thanos, as well as his other Children, that made me ecstatic about what would happen next. The problem with getting your hopes up too high about something is, when ending in disappointment, it makes that lack of fulfillment feel worse

COMFORTABLY NUMB & PERFORMATIVELY WOKE

The biggest problem with this movie? Carol “Captain Marvel” Danvers (Brie Larson). No, not Larson herself nor the character (she’s just been introduced), but the fact that — given both Infinity War’s post-credit sequence as well as her solo film preceding Endgame — you’d assume her participation in the plot to be major, right? You don’t do that much build-up without proper pay-off yet her role here is basically a glorified cameo. The most time she spends on-screen is within the first act and only appears two more times briefly after that.

Um, so…what was the point? Why make such a big deal about a character who’s tertiary at best? Was it just to stave off all the nay-sayers (e.g. me) who wondered why — with the existence of Haywire (criminally underrated), Atomic Blonde (fantastically shot and choreographed), and Red Sparrow (Oscar Bait dreck wasting a potentially interesting premise)— Disney/Marvel still hadn’t made a Black Widow movie yet while Warner Bros./DC actually released Wonder Woman? Okay, yes, I’m glad we got a Captain Marvel movie and that their cinematic iteration is a lesbian (how many kids would refer to their mom’s best friend as “auntie”? Especially back in the U.S. during the 90s? Nota lot!) but that lack of implied pay-off just makes it retroactively hollow as a result. Adding injury to insult, she’s not the only one either.

Image for post
“Iron Throne ain’t shit! Don’t got a sweet-ass view like this…”

Since Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and his sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) ended up victim to The Snap, leaving both Okoye and M’Baku (Winston Duke) alive, one might imagine those characters may’ve had a bigger part in Endgame but they don’t. Along with Carol, they are kept out of the plot with a couple of throwaway lines to try justifying it — they’re maintaining order in a now half-empty but chaotic world — but that instantly falls apart when Rocket and Nebula, both doing the same thing as them, are brought along on the time heist. Two of them would obviously be motivated to bring back the Wakandans, their warrior-king included, who disappeared in The Snap and the other simply due to being aware of how much damage it caused across the universe (Carol even states such outright to Black Widow). Why would they not take the opportunity to reverse all of that, if told about such a possibility? I’d of liked to have seen them taking part in the time heist since we’d get to know them a bit more as people and it’d make the events more intriguing having these fairly new players around. I’ve been dying to see more of Winston Duke as M’Baku, as I found him underused even within Black Panther (he had some of the best scenes), but now they’ve relegated him to being a non-speaking background character. Much in the same way that Captain Marvel, despite Disney/Marvel’s hype machine saying otherwise, has been greatly reduced in their ostensible importance.

As I said in my reviews of Luke Cage and Black Panther, Disney/Marvel only care about racial and gender diversity insofar as it can make them money. This is reflected in their tendency to pull their punches when it comes to the politics of those characters and I should’ve noticed that in Captain Marvel with its unwillingness to openly admit that Carol Danvers was a gay woman. I assumed it was an attempt at subtlety and that others could pick up on such obvious hints made about it but, after people started ‘shipping her and Thor together because of a single staredown (’cause game recognize game!), it then occurred to me the omission may’ve had to do more with not alienating part of the audience who are homophobic or petulant man-babies who complain about Art “pushing an agenda” (newsflash, you fucking assholes: they all do). The fact they’re willing to make such concessions on their behalf, despite not deserving such consideration, is both troubling and a sign the companies’ progressive cred is purely a PR tactic.

Yes, I know, they all participate in the interminable climactic battle but that was a case of “too little, too late.” Like everyone else in that sequence — they blend into the deluge of fan service-fueled visual clutter.

THIS’LL BE A BEAUTIFUL DEATH…

As much as I disliked the Battle of Wakanda during Infinity War, at least it made sense both in narrative and execution as the armies used actual tactics and one could follow what was happening. The climactic battle in the third act of Endgame, however, lacks both and functions as indulgent spectacle. It’s all quantity over quality.

When I spoke with a friend about the scene, he told me he liked it because he got to see all these different characters on-screen. Y’know what? That’s a perfectly legitimate reason to like it — I’m fond of mix-and-matched team-ups and it’s one reason I enjoyed Infinity War as much as I did. The issue for me (as usual) is there needs to be some kind of meaning behind it to justify their presence. Simply having the characters appear amongst others does not mean anything, when they aren’t significantly contributing to whatever is occurring within the plot. We did agree on one thing though: the bit where all the female characters gather together to do a woefully disingenuous “I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar” shtick was the cringiest thing ever (yet more performative wokeness from Disney/Marvel).

Image for post
Pictured: an actual “strong female character.”

Almost proving my point, they show Mantis (Pom Klementieff) among them and she looks as confused as I was about her being there. All these other female characters are being defined wholly by their fighting prowess (since no one has yet to figure out the “strong” in “strong female characters” isn’t necessarily physical strength as it is how complex/complicated they are as people…) and she disappears once the combat starts. It all feels like a big step back from the Battle of Titan, which only involved six superheroes taking on a single supervillain, where she actually did something of import and being sabotaged by a fellow teammate was tragic — she could’ve had her moment of glory, pretty much saving the day, but kept from such due to a childish tantrum. Thanos was also more interesting as an adversary there, as he now lacks the Infinity Gauntlet and the heroes just keep hitting him in some way or another. It’s rather boring after seeing him throw a small black hole at Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) or using chunks of a moon to crush Tony Stark as he flies about while Spider-Man (Tom Holland…who is just kawaii) swings around to keep others from harm.

Y’know what I’d of preferred? If Thanos didn’t fight them. At all.

There’s a throwaway line (a lot of them are in this movie) where he admits, upon seeing his potential future and unhappy with the results, he was wrong and would rather make the universe “abundant with life.” Prior to Captain America, Iron Man, and Thor showing up he sits contemplatively on a rock that suggests a lack of bellicosity (doesn’t explain why he blew up Avengers HQ though) and, given how much I liked Talos (Ben Mendelsohn) in Captain Marvel, revealing himself to be a now-reluctant antagonist would’ve been neat follow-up in Endgame. Yet Thanos pulls a Kylo Ren (hey, there’s Star Wars again!) where he thinks the best way to do that is to…deconstruct the universe.

One would think, with everything that’s been revealed to him, he’d know that would be impossible to do — his alternate future self makes it clear even destroying the Infinity Stones almost killed him (not to mention his arm being burnt to a crisp making half of all life in the universe disappear). I suppose one could argue that, at that point, he’s so far gone that he’s prone to causing destruction regardless of the reason. Except, to me, that’s a half-assed excuse to make him another bland bad guy who does bad things ’cause reasons at the very last minute. There was obviously more going on with him during Infinity War, beyond causing destruction for destruction’s sake — but that’d apparently get in the way of all the obnoxiously overblown action, the kind fanboys ruin their pants over with a copious amount of watery ejaculate.

Image for post
I’ll never get sick of this guy, like, ever.

If there had to be some climactic battle to end all climactic battles, I’d rather it involve the Children of Thanos — Ebony Maw (Tom Vaughn-Lawlor), Obsidian Cull (Terry Notary), Proxima Midnight (Monique Ganderton/Carrie Coon), and Corvus Glaive (Michael James Shaw) — betraying their adoptive father due to his change of heart, then fight the heroes before unleashing their respective armies. They do appear in the final battle but, much like Mantis, you might not notice them under the avalanche of CGI monsters and pacing so fast the whiplash would cause decapitation. Ebony Maw is probably the only one you’ll recognize because he actually gets some lines in a previous scene and shown more prominently on-screen, unlike his other siblings, as the fighting rages on and when it finally ends.

There are a couple of things I liked, however: Spider-Man — living up to his “friendly” reputation — trying to introduce himself to Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) among the chaos, as if it weren’t happening, and Tony Stark’s death. I’m not being smarmy on the second point whatsoever. If you’re going to give a character a fitting and heroic end, that was the way to do it. It wasn’t just Dr. Strange reminding him wordlessly of his prediction with a single index finger, but that Stark has been defined by his selfishness as a character and — now being a father — does the most selfless thing ever in his life (“I am Iron Man!” are also great last words as any). Alongside a bittersweet epilogue of his funeral and Steve Rogers retiring as Captain America, it’s like watching the end of Logan all over again and I’m grateful for that alone.

It was a creative decision I was not expecting and was genuinely (as well as thankfully) surprised. I can only hope Spider-Man: Far From Home manages to do such as well but, since this started with an apropos song, I may as well end it with another from Nine Inch Nails off the same album…

Tried to save a place
From the cuts and the scratches
Tried to overcome
The complications and the catches
Nothing ever grows
And the sun doesn’t shine all day
Tried to save myself
But myself keeps slipping away

[Originally posted on 5/14/19 @ Medium.com]

Staring Into INFINITY WAR, Part 1: Sympathy For The Devil (w/spoilers)

I know what it’s like to lose. To feel so desperately that you’re right, yet to fail nonetheless. It’s frightening. Turns the legs to jelly. I ask you: to what end? Dread it. Run from it. Destiny arrives all the same.

Now, you might be wondering (probably not) why this isn’t part of my “Pop Culture Heresy: Marvel Studios is Awful” series.

I’m done with it. It was the wrong way to frame my analyses of these movies, TV shows, and who makes them — to alter my approach of Art criticism a bit and see how it goes. I’ll keep my previous entries up for both the sake of transparency as well as to remember what not to do in the future. However, that is not due to having some newfound love for the studio and its practices (which I absolutely don’t — I’ll deal with that elsewhere — though I apply more blame to Disney nowadays), but rather the fact they’re taking the creative risks I’ve been dying to see forever now. It should not have taken this long but, given the short-sighted entertainment industry avarice, we’ve been given nothing but an elongated set-up to something that should’ve started far sooner.

I don’t know how much sooner exactly — but, again, it should not have taken slightly less than a decade. Perhaps, given the set-up at the end of The Avengers, it’d of been soon after that film. Here’s the thing though: you don’t need to watch any of the other movies beforehand. It’d almost be a disservice to just how well this film understands self-contained storytelling. If you want to go see them, you can — there are plenty of things to like within each (like the always magical Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie in Ragnarok) — but one can simply read the plot synopses on Wikipedia to fill in some of the blanks. I’d still highly recommend Captain America: Winter Soldier as I have before, but that has less to do with lore-building than just as a damn good movie by itself. It expands on the previous installment and many of its themes while dealing with contemporary socio-political issues (as best as one could with an expensive blockbuster, anyway — still an admirable feat compared to most) more evocative of 1970’s conspiracy thriller and less like a superhero film. Funny, considering the Russo Bros. also directed that one…

Image for post
“You want the moon? I’ll give you the fuckin’ moon!”

With Infinity War? Just reading about it wouldn’t work as almost everything that is said and done in this movie is shown, with as little exposition as necessary. But even then, they still use such for further characterization than simply getting information across. The film is what I’ve wanted to see more of from this franchise since Winter Soldier because, along with those elements, it subverts all expectations that’ve come from the continual iteration as well as an over-budgeted and bizarrely aggressive marketing campaign that weaponizes its fandom. More importantly, so many plot points within it recontextualize certain aspects from those other movies to the point they practically feel ret-conned. As if to make up for lost time…and I love it.

DESTROYER OF WORLDS

Anyone who knows me well enough should be aware of my sentiments on the villains of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with the obvious exception of Loki (Tom Hiddleston). There’s always this great storytelling potential with each one, especially if allowed to stay alive, but they’re often reduced to one-dimensional baddies who “need” to die as if we’ve never moved on past action movie tropes of the 1980’s. They’re occasionally given legitimate grievances or personal issues to deal with — whether it’s Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth), Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), Hela (Cate Blanchett), or Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) — but end up getting swept under the rug in order for them to be demonized and defeated gloriously by the hero, in a half-baked and tensionless action sequence that may as well’ve been from G.I. Joe.

Erik Killmonger is particularly egregious because, as someone who was both witness and victim to anti-black discrimination in the United States and rightfully aggrieved that Wakanda’s isolationist policies allowed it to continue, he still “needs” to be some woman-hating gangbanger prick to make his death (at the hands of his cousin nonetheless) seem justified. Keep in mind that T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) not only forgave the man he thought killed his father and their accomplice, but saved the life of the man who did kill his father — yet it’s not considered that he allow Killmonger to live and make amends with him as family. Even James Wan’s recent Aquaman acknowledges that as an option within its main conflict.

None of them can really live up to Vincent D’Onofrio as Wilson “The Kingpin” Fisk in Daredevil nor able to, what with the difference in format, but that doesn’t mean they’re incapable of being more layered as characters within a feature-length film (plus some) as Loki is highly indicative of that.

But now? I have Thanos (Josh Brolin) along with his Children…

Image for post
The Family That Slays Together, Stays Together

Thanos — unlike Killmonger — is not right. He is most definitely wrong. A person who thinks that mass genocide across planets is “saving” them from a painful existence simply cannot be correct, when such situations are far more complicated and need nuanced answers to be resolved. Yet, at the same time, I think Thanos knows this and still does it regardless. Unlike so many other Marvel movie villains — neither he nor anyone else ever state such outright. It’s all implied through cryptic lines that could mean many different things depending on how one wishes to interpret them (I’d call him “The Dark Souls of Marvel Movie Villains” if that phrase wasn’t so obnoxiously, and erroneously, overused).

As far as my interpretation of the character goes? He wants to die.

He lived through seeing his civilization and people become extinguished before his very eyes, to be the only one left of his kind, and it broke him so much that — upon observing so many other civilizations were in the same state — he just couldn’t let it happen again. It’s difficult to not think, on some level, he wanted people to fight back and be victorious in order to prove him wrong and finally put out of his misery. Throughout the film, he’s partial to those who challenge him — even as he torments and tortures them — as if to act as an obstacle for them to overcome. The best evidence I can give for this is a single line, near the very end of the film, where Thor (Chris Hemsworth) decides to pull an Oberyn Martell (hey, Peter Dinklage is here too!) and Thanos responds:

You should’ve gone for the head…

He doesn’t gloat of his superiority or personally belittle the hero who struck a blow against him, but instead pointing to his failure to finish the job properly and make him remember what to do next time they met in battle.

Thanos isn’t just an oddly religious alien warlord. He’s a force of nature. He’s an atom bomb with arms and legs. He is a Hindu god.

I don’t make that last comparison lightly but instead of using the terribly translated and outdated version that asshole J. Robert Oppenheimer quoted, I’ll go for a better-written and more recent variant (emphasis mine) by Paramahamsa Sri Swami Vishwananda:

I am death, the mighty destroyer of the world, out to destroy. Even without your participation all the warriors standing arrayed in the opposing armies shall cease to exist. I am Time, the mighty force which destroys everything, fully Manifesting Myself, I am here engaged in destroying the worlds. Even without you, none of the warriors arrayed in the enemy ranks shall survive.”

Image for post
Thor and Thanos. Kinda (but not really).

Thanos is something else and it’s perhaps more integral to the film’s plot — a trait he shares with the legendary Darth Vader of Star Wars fame: he’s a father, though not a very kind one, of course…

THE PRODIGAL DAUGHTER

One of the (many) things that made the Guardians of the Galaxy films incredibly disappointing for me — despite James Gunn’s skill as a director and writer (prior to being erroneously fired by Disney over an obviously manufactured controversy but has since been rehired, hopefully because Disney was shamed into submission) as well as a top-notch cast and soundtrack that almost rivals the musical selections in a Edgar “He Should’ve Written & Directed Ant-Man Goddammit” Wright film (“The Chain” is my favorite Fleetwood Mac song…)— was how the relationship between Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillan) felt like all tell and no show.

When first introduced, they both verbally remind each other that they are sisters, which is odd given most siblings (whether they’re biological or adoptive) don’t need to do such as they’re already quite aware of this fact. Despite the second film’s pretense of supposedly being about “family,” it doesn’t actually bother to explore Nebula’s stated grievances and why she’s so fratricidal towards a sibling she seemed to get along with otherwise. I mean, sure, she has an expository monologue — all of which would’ve been more interesting to see as a flashback — that’s about as natural as a botox injection and little more than set-up for a lame punchline. In the end it was all just an excuse for an action scene to keep things “exciting,” much like the other subplots that only make the whole film a less cohesive piece. It’s hard to really care about events when they’re so dissonant to one another and characters have to tell you, the audience, how to feel as opposed to getting it across with more subtlety either in the visuals or writing.

As I said before, Infinity War does a commendable job recontextualizing and certainly does so with this relationship by finally giving us both a glimpse at Thanos’ relationship to both Gamora and Nebula along with better idea of them as rival siblings.

Despite initially coming off as another generic “strong (but still sexually objectifiable) female character” these movies keep on using — with exceptions like Shuri (Letitia Wright) or Okoye (Danai Gurira), who are actually strong female characters — this film informs us that she is instead little more than a spoiled kid who ran away from home to make her Daddy mad. She and the other Guardians ride around like a mercenary Scooby Gang who don’t take anything seriously and, even when coming across a scene of wanton slaughter, can’t keep from thinking about how they’ll enrich themselves from it. I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising given they’re all lead by a pop culture-obsessed man-child who’s first shown kicking animals, none of which endangered him or even impeded his movement, for fun while dancing to music on a Walkman (how charming! Well, not really…especially if you replaced them with puppies).

Image for post
The Guardians of the Galaxy. Kinda (but not really).

Though ostensibly a villain, no thanks to a visage that exudes malevolence (which is surprising given it’s Amy frickin’ Pond with her beautiful red hair and lovely Scottish accent — like Kelly MacDonald before her…), I can’t help but think Nebula was the true hero and we were manipulated into thinking otherwise due to a skewed perspective of these events. Both she and Gamora were plotting an insurrection as seen in the first GotG installment and eventual assassination of their adoptive father, but only Nebula stuck to the plan — changing it when need be — simply to fail in the end…all because her sister, either out of cowardice or indecisiveness or (in my opinion) still being emotionally co-dependent on Thanos. Gamora just went A.W.O.L. and off to play with her new group of opportunistic drinking buddies (Groot (Vin Diesel) being the exception — he’s pure, like Spider-Man (Tom Holland) — but Rocket (Sean Gunn/Bradley Cooper) is getting better about it…) until Pops got sick of waiting for her to make a check-in call before the clock hit 12:00 A.M.

But Nebula? She continued on, despite all the strain she went through to accomplish what would ultimately be a botched job, only to be tortured and implied to have been sexually assaulted (Thanos’ torture chamber attendant seemed rather…handsy, like some Japanese chikan). Yet, unlike her other siblings, she is a survivor. She’s one of the few left in an otherwise half-empty universe and given the tenacity she has shown through all the turbulence that has befallen her, I doubt she’ll stop moving until she’s dead…while still on her feet.

Perhaps she’s more like her father than her other brothers and sisters — especially Gamora — could ever be.

Though it would be remiss to not bring up how, on some level, there is something bittersweet about Thanos and Gamora’s relationship when — in a rare instance — a brief flashback sequence, rather than an expository monologue, tells of how they first met:

The subsequent scene wherein they have a heart-to-heart, much of which hit rather close to home given my own parental experiences (“I never taught you to lie…that’s why you’re so bad at it!”), reveals that — even with all her belligerence and the inconvenience it has caused him — she is definitely his favorite child and whom he wishes to carry on his legacy once passed on (all despite being one of the youngest and most rebellious). She yells and screams about how much she hates him and what he represents, as Thanos sighs with great restraint, before responding with the reminder that she could’ve easily absconded and never come back before, but nonetheless did, only to support his omni-genocidal galactic crusade upon return for two decades. Eventually this interaction devolves into an act of abuse that — though physical for Nebula, all too familiar with it — tortures Gamora psychologically enough to break down what little resistance (if there was really any to begin with, as much as avoidance) she had left in her being.

It occurred to me during these scenes that — though played by actors largely in their 30’s and 40’s — Gamora acts more like a girl than she does a woman and this applies to many other characters including fellow Guardians Drax (Dave Bautista) and Mantis (Pom Klementieff) as well as Thor, Loki, Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) — whether or not he is The Hulk — and Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr). They’re all children in the bodies of adults. Even Gamora’s “will-they-or-won’t-they?” shtick with the unflatteringly aforementioned Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) comes off less like two platonic grown-ups dealing with sexual tension now than curious children about to lose their innocence, both on the verge of full-blown puberty and trying to process all these weird new feelings they’re unfamiliar with. Thanos himself practically symbolizes adulthood, as it comes relentlessly out of nowhere and one is given little breathing room for recovery, to render unto them all the rudest of awakenings. It won’t be pretty — it never is, but perhaps should be.

INTO THE SOUL OF DARKNESS

“I am Time[…]fully Manifesting Myself

Earlier within this piece, as an aside, I mentioned being loathe to describe Thanos as “The Dark Souls of Marvel Movie Villains” and that wasn’t as frivolous a statement as it may’ve seemed. To briefly clarify, for any unfamiliar with the phrase or its origins, before going further…

Dark Souls is a videogame series made by Japanese developer FromSoftware that gained what you’d call a “cult following” due to its oppressive atmosphere, punishing gameplay difficulty, and purposefully opaque storytelling. “The Dark Souls of [X],” when not simply observing similarities between it and another title (such as The SurgeandNioh), almost always references the second of those three aspects as its most defining quality — of being the most harsh or challenging, regardless of the activity or medium involved — with the other two seen as “optional” by many despite being integral to the experience. All of which I find completely wrong-headed.

I’d not only apply all those qualities to Thanos as a character but to Infinity War itself as a film. Their tone, even with those moments of light-hearted relief, is overwhelmingly grim. Both challenge the protagonists — emotionally, existentially, and physically — in ways they have not before and even questions their competency as heroes. Neither will bore you with an abundance of minute details espoused at length, the basic essentials kept succinct, but rather make inferences and leave others pondering what may be going on inbetween the lines.

It was rather surprising for any of this to be the case in my experience watching the film. Expectations were set low and my dwindling interest in the Marvel Cinematic Universe were part of that — to expect great disappointment and end up unexpectedly ecstatic— and then there’s this visual clusterfuck:

Image for post

It looks like a toy box violently puked action figures onto a pile of neon signs, causing a migraine in the process, and represented my worst fears about the movie. A bloated, indulgent mess full of bells and whistles with nothing else rattling around in its skull regardless of whatever pretenses are made. Another exercise in empty spectacle, which we have an overwhelming surplus of already.

But…it’s all misdirection. A red herring. A sleight of hand. This poster, however, is better representative of the subject material and tone of the film:

Image for post

Infinity War isn’t just any horror film — it’s a cosmic horror film.

I’ve already spoken of Thanos at length as well as Loki, Gamora, and Nebula to a lesser extent but have yet to speak of his other Children that’ve gone unnamed so far. They are Ebony Maw (Tom Vaughn-Lawlor), Proxima Midnight (Monique Ganderton/Carrie Coon), Corvus Glaive (Michael James Shaw), and Cull Obsidian (Terry Notary…I also prefer to call them “Obsidian Cull” ‘cause it sounds better). Very much unlike their younger siblings, each acts as an extension of their father’s will to some degree or another — almost like avatars for a Hindu god, actually!

As someone who cared little for Thanos’ comicbook counterpart (‘cause why do you need him when you have Darkseid?) I wasn’t aware of the Black Order, whom the Children of Thanos are based upon. Viewing Infinity War, it was refreshing to find villains who I knew so little about but managed to be intriguing — especially due to their excellent visual designs — and wanted to know them more as people…though they aren’t really people, when you think about. They’re humanoid in form and inexplicably speak English, yes, but they’re still extraterrestrials. The way they perceive the material world may not coincide with the way we, as homo sapiens of planet earth, do and makes it practically impossible to fully comprehend them as beings.

The true Marvel Souls starts here…

You know less about them than Thanos but, as inferred by Gamora’s backstory, it’s easy to deduce they’re each from a world he had conquered while culling half of the sapient population. Proxima and Crovus only have about six lines between them while Obsidian Cull (I told you it sounded better!) is reduced to unintelligible grunts, but— given his namesake — Ebony Maw is the most talkative of the four. He is both Thanos’ herald and (presumably) eldest Child, the film itself opening as he gracefully steps around corpses while evangelizing his adoptive father’s morbid spiritual philosophy with the calm of a Buddhist monk and eloquence of William F. Buckley. His appearance, though off-putting, is nowhere near as intimidating as his siblings coupled with a lack of signature weaponry in hand. That’s because Ebony Maw doesn’t need one as he is the weapon. Telekinesis, when used elsewhere, is often amusing or goofy but rarely is it ever as fucking terrifying the way Ebony Maw applies it during Infinity War next to the way Rainmaker does in Looper. It goes beyond making objects float in midair or pushing things out of the way — with an eerily acute perception of his immediate surroundings, he uses the very environment against the protagonists. He doesn’t just shove glass filaments into Dr. Strange’s (Benedict Cumberbatch) face, but makes a wall swallow him while upside down. Then there’s turning rubble into flying spikes of death, causing a fire hydrant to burst open and temporarily incapacitate Wong (Benedict Wong), or chopping a car in twain a half second before it hits him. Made all the more unsettling by how slight and effortless his gestures are to make any of this happen, when it’d be portrayed with heavy-handed dramatics like arms flailing about or intense bodily tremors elsewhere.

In case it wasn’t already obvious (which it should be), I find the character absolutely delightful. Vaughn-Lawlor’s every utterance is pure gold and, next to Thanos himself, is what I wish more of in Marvel villains. At least, insofar as making them viable as threats rather than coming off as performative and largely ineffectual. Unfortunately, much like an ouroboros, this circles back to an issue stated earlier on in this piece…

FALLEN ANGELS

It is bad enough when the film kills off some of the most interesting, imposing antagonists within the setting — but it’s worse when their deaths are treated as part of a joke or simply rote in execution. Especially when, purely out of convenience, these indomitable warriors from space who’ve likely slain thousands (if not more) by hand and able to fight superhumans to a standstill suddenly lose their competency. All of this is done in order to give one of the many heroes an easy “win” that, with everything else suggesting their only victory would be a Pyrrhic one, feel unearned and only means there are now three less villains to use within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I generally despise resurrecting characters as a rule (comics are terrible about it) but this is one of the exceptions where I wouldn’t mind it.

Notice how I said “three” and not “four”? That’s because, given his personal arc within the film (which I shall explore next time!), I didn’t mind that Bruce Banner defeated Obsidian Cull by flinging him into a force field and getting disintegrated in the process. He’s a big, dumb lizard man who only makes guttural noises and whose entire existence is to get embarrassingly beaten up by the heroes with no semblance of personality as the other Children. His loss is not one that leaves an intense absence. I could even get past how his death was downright slapstick, but it’s tough to tolerate when Proxima being flung into a War Wheel by an ill-defined, inconsistently-powered character (I hate Wanda so much) is equally comedic.

Good riddance to reptilian rubbish!

Keep in mind that, in their previous encounter, Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) was retreating most of the time and easily overpowered when dealing with Proxima directly. She could’ve been killed were it not for the intervention of Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson…and why do these movies keep forgetting she’s just a normal — albeit highly trained — human?), and Falcon (Anthony Mackie…who at least has a rocket-launching jetpack with metal wings) but, now, the cosmic Amazonian mass murderer of planets is careless enough to be defeated with…whatever Scarlet Witch’s powers are supposed to be. It doesn’t matter since her abilities are derived from how convenient it is for the plot at that very moment, like an anthropomorphic Sonic Screwdriver, than based on any kind of internal logic presented by the narrative (because there is none) just like they were in the comics.

Similarly, Ebony Maw’s death functions as the punchline to a joke set up by Peter Parker referencing Aliens as a “really old movie” (okay, that was hilarious, I’ll admit) — getting vacuumed into the celestial abyss after the most obvious of tricks, becoming an oversized popsicle. Which, just like Proxima, doesn’t make sense given his prowess as displayed in prior scenes. It’s just there to make Parker and Stark look all the more amusing, as if that was really necessary (it wasn’t). Corvus Glaive’s death may’ve been forgivable, given the injury sustained in a previous battle acted as potential foreshadowing, were it not for it being so bland as getting stabbed from behind by another character off-screen as if it was a surprise (it wasn’t). Only made nonsensical by Vision (Paul Bettany) being broken to the point he’s barely functional, though he could’ve as easily distracted Corvus enough for him to be injured once more and fall back to fight another day in Endgame.

I’d ask “why?” if the answer wasn’t so obvious: there is none, save for habit and expectation via well-worn fictional tropes. To stick to a formula that has only wasted further potential under the fallacious notion that “the bad guy must die because the bad guy must die.” It’s not a rule set in stone, just like the insertion of useless love interests, but they keep doing it despite the lack of demand or obligation for it. I’m not saying these characters should never die (as that’d be awfully boring) but this is ending something as it is just beginning. Superheroes are often defined by their nemeses, to force scenarios that put their skills or abilities or own morality to the test, making this dismissive expendability detrimental to storytelling possibilities as time goes on and the roster shortens with each insipid death.

Hell, Mystery Men made that point back in 1999 — almost nine years before Phase One of the Marvel Cinematic Universe occurred. Wish that lesson was taken to heart…

That is not to say, as much as I still take issue, this is a deal-breaker of any kind nor is it the only problem I have. Yet none of them have ruined my fondness of Infinity War even with subsequent viewings — a great deal unlike most other Marvel films. Thanos and his Children aren’t my favorite thing about the movie, they’re just one of my favorite things about it. I mentioned Bruce Banner’s arc before and there’s plenty more. That is, for next time…

[Originally posted on 3/25/19 @ Medium.com]