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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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“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).

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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.

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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]

Pop Culture Heresy: Marvel Studios Is Awful, Part 1 — An Introduction

Several weekends back, I had the displeasure of watching The Defenders from Marvel Studios on Netflix. It had been a while since I watched a TV show or streaming series that left me furious due to its lack of quality. The writing, acting, lighting, cinematography, and fight choreography are so bad that it’s offensive to all the senses. But, to be honest, it wasn’t surprising it turned out terribly. Not just because of the travesties that were Daredevil’s second season (or at least the non-Punisher half) or Iron Fist — Marvel Studios has been awful for a while now.

Let me repeat that: Marvel Studios is awful. They have been for a long time already.

Online film reviewer Confused Matthew once had a video that, save for some particularly mean barbs directed at director James Gunn, was spot-on when it came to a lot of their dubious creative decisions and behind-the-scenes behavior. Unfortunately, he later took it down. Why? He hopped aboard the same bustling bandwagon that continues to beat the putrid, decaying dead horse that is Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. Even as the flesh has fallen off the bone, almost threadbare at this point, after being angrily pummeled with a truncheon one too many times.

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Yep, looks about right…

I agree it’s not a good movie in the least — far, far from it — but part of me wants to be contrarian and defend it or the somewhat entertaining but still awful Suicide Squad. They’re not just failures that future filmmakers can learn from, but they’re memorable as failures. Marvel Studios’ overall output is both obsessively formulaic and so easily digestible that the films are becoming interchangeable with one another — they will not stand the test of time. To me, that’s worse than being bad. Mediocrity never warrants a second thought the way something truly amazing or haphazard does.

One might make the assumption that I must not like the comicbooks or had a hatred of Marvel Studios from the get-go, based on my current distaste with them. Well, you know what happens when you assume? It makes an ass out of you and me (but mostly you). I’m quite fond of the comics though I don’t follow them religiously like others do — I tend to prefer the non-superhero work you see from publishers like Image (seriously, read East of West or Black Science) or Oni Press (seriously, read The Sixth Gun or Letter 44)— and I love cinema even more. Having a father who worked in the film and television industry, reared on the stuff since I was born, has made me far more partial to that medium and the format that has been used for decades already. I’m always excited to see something new or interesting, something that hasn’t been done before, something that may make movies better as a medium both technically and creatively. If anything, I was ecstatic to see these comicbook characters come to life — the storytelling potential, making such material live-action, was unimaginable.

Thing is, though, Marvel Studios couldn’t give less of a shit about creative integrity or has any interest in evolving cinematic storytelling. Its interests are the same as every other creatively bankrupt, vapid studio executive in Hollywood: more money to line their already overflowing pockets and justify another unsustainably large budget for the next over-bloated, homogenized piece of fluff that no one will remember a decade or two from now. They’re continuing the worst kind of practices in the industry and, yet again, almost no one seems to notice this as they wear the rose-colored shades sold to them.

It isn’t just Confused Matthew, several others critics whose work I’ve enjoyed immensely over the years — that include Robert Chipman and the guys at RedLetterMedia — seem to soft-ball these Marvel movies than give the acerbic criticism that came with the aforementioned BvS or Suicide Squad or, well, any other movie. It’s as if their critical faculties had been overpowered by some form of powerful hypnotism, to become as gullible and rabidly consumeristic as gamers drunk on hype after another masturbatory E3 convention (but aren’t they all?). Like the AAA videogame industry and its underhanded methods, Marvel Studios knows how to condition an audience to become addicted in order to fork over money for each and every installment of theirs’ — no matter how middling or subpar it actually is — convinced that they want or even need it. This isn’t a revolutionary change in narrative structure, as wonderful as that’d be, but a modernized version of selling snake-oil. Do you know why con-men are called “con-men”? It’s because they make you feel confident enough to let your guard down and fall for their bullshit…

If you think that sounds far-fetched, I have some unfortunate news: you are already under the sway of advertising and may not even realize it.

We like to think advertisements don’t affect us, that having some product pushed onto us with a TV spot or internet pop-up or billboard is something we’re immune to, yet being inundated with enough ads still make people buy products they don’t want or need but nonetheless feel they should purchase anyway. What makes advertising so insidious is being ostensibly innocuous — all while planting seeds of interest into your subconscious. Maybe, after some time, you’ll have the sudden urge to eventually buy those products and not quite sure why you did. If you’re perceptive enough, you’ll recognize those ads had an effect and kick yourself a few times over it. Others lacking such observational skills, on the other hand, will convince themselves they “chose” to buy those products of their own “volition.” Much like a puppet who simply ignores the strings attached to them, avoiding the sad realization their individuality is just an illusion within this capitalistic society…

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“There are no strings on me!”

As Mad Men had pointed out several times, advertising firms have a keen eye for small details and their effectiveness along with an understanding of social psychology. They know what sells a product isn’t the product itself — it’s the sense of personal validation that comes from buying that product. Advertisements are meticulously crafted to invoke a sense of want or need, with use of certain imagery or subtle musical cues that make you feel all warm and fuzzy on the inside when thinking about that product. If not that? They’ll make you feel like a pathetic piece of shit for not having already bought it.

This That Mitchell and Webb Look sketch, from years back, summarizes it pretty well too:

That’s what makes me hate Marvel Studios: their films aren’t really films, not anymore anyway — they’re in-house ads that sell their next product under the ever-thinning veil of being entertainment. Much in the same way almost every U.S. military film, as once stated by David Sirota in Back to Our Future, effectively functions as pro-military propaganda in order for a production to be given any kind of consultation or support. It took me a while to notice because, like so many others, I wore those rose-colored shades. I fell head over heels for the hype. I chased that carrot dangling at the end of the stick and, at this point, it’s made me weary. I gave Marvel Studios the benefit of the doubt for years, I continued to give them leeway under the promise they’d take chances and yet they never have despite having every opportunity to do so. They have grown so successful that taking risks would still yield some kind of return, and would be somewhat refreshing, but they are far too craven to give up their method of endless iteration.

But that’s just the tip of this sordid iceberg!

I found it impossible to explain everything I find wrong with Marvel Studios within a single essay — the issues attached to them go beyond simply being avaricious or creatively lazy. Were those my only issues, I may as well talk about Michael Bay’s Transformers series but even those movies seem inconsequential compared to the damage Marvel Studios has done and still doing. It contributes to the lowering of standards for quality narrative and corroding the concept of self-contained storytelling.

Over the next few weeks (or months) — I will write one essay apiece detailing, convincingly I hope, a specific problem with Marvel Studios as an entity. While most will deal with their creative decisions, which can be downright stupefying, I will occasionally delve into the behind-the-scenes tomfoolery they’ve done that (for example) left us without an Edgar Wright-directed and -written Ant-Man. Much of which, to my dismay, I’ve barely heard from anyone else of note. Maybe they were too busy creaming their pants over Scarlett Johansson’s ass in skin-tight leather or something.

Next time? I’m talking about Luke Cage

[Originally posted on 10/28/17 @ Medium.com]

A Non-Fan Review: Doom (2016)

The original Doom, released at the end of 1993, is the first-person shooter. At this point it is a classic staple of the medium and there’s not much I can say about it that others have said better. What I can tell you about is my ambivalence towards it, why that is, and my opinion of its reboot/remake/whatever.

My Highway to Hell

I wasn’t even in my preteens at the time but ultraviolent material wasn’t unfamiliar for me (I loved watching Aliens as a young’un — even got the action figures!) and I did play videogames. Problem is that, overall, I’m not that fond of first-person shooters. Most are amusing but in a fleeting way and few of them — for example, the first installment of the F.E.A.R. series — ever become truly memorable enough to warrant a revisit. It could be argued the devil is in the details, but how many times can you really make shooting a gun from that limited perspective work without getting tiring in some way? At least Portal has puzzle-platforming elements and, though I have yet to play any of it (perhaps in the future!), the Thief series’ emphasis on stealth over combat is far more enticing to me as gameplay.

That is not to say I hated Doom ‘93 — only that I did not share the same enthusiasm as others. I absolutely get why so many like it and would not fault them for it, being a child of the 90’s myself. It was a singular vision by a tight-knit group of friends with highly focused shooting mechanics as well as level design that allowed a wide berth of modification. A cultural product that almost perfectly represented the 90’s attitude of the United States; still reveling in 80’s-style excess and gaudy aesthetics while scoffing at the moralistic hysteria of that decade, often in the form of metal bands ironically embracing Satanism and determined to offend fragile religious sensibilities with lots of demonic imagery and cartoonish viscera, but others tried pushing the envelope whether stand-up comedians or filmmakers in their own way. Along with influence from Dungeons & Dragons as well as Aliens (there it is again!), John Carmack and company at id Software managed to do that with gaming and its legacy remains. Other popular titles at the time either failed to remain relevant, especially Duke Nukem (evidenced by Forever’s abysmal reception from just about everyone), or simply faded from memory save for a niche…

Death By Swirly

Perhaps I was too young, but there wasn’t any forbidden fruit appeal for me either. Quake, on the other hand, was more enjoyable as a personal experience. That, however, was due to Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor composing darkly atmospheric music for the game more than anything else. I even preferred the original Duke Nukem and I’m honestly embarrassed for having liked that for all the wrong reasons (i.e. sexual titillation). Ultimately, my reasons for liking them had less to do with them as games than having a prominent element that resonated enough with me whether it was musical bliss or perverse indulgence.

All that said: how was the Doom of 2016 (which I shall dub New Doom from here on) as far as the single-player campaign went? It was certainly never as boring as many supposedly realistic, military-themed titles of the same genre have been recently. At least, initially…

Better to Reign Than to Serve

Having fast-paced arena combat over the cover-based kind with old school-style health pick-ups and ammo drops is refreshing, greatly helped by the variety of enemy A.I. and their phenomenal art direction. They aren’t just 3D renditions of their original 2D sprites but revamped with modern tech while still maintaining the feel of being in an interactive death metal concept album of yesteryear. While it would be odd to describe them as “beautiful” — given the malformed and grotesque visages — but are so deeply detailed and textured that it’s hard to think of a better word. The developers could’ve easily fallen into the trap of over-designing them, much in the same way so many latter-day Final Fantasy characters are perplexingly garbed with innumerable belts or Michael Jacksonesque zippers that only makes them harder to tell apart. Every mutated human and unholy abomination is distinct enough that assure these frantic battles never becoming visually confusing. A quick glance is enough to tell you who is who and how to blow them to smithereens.

NOM NOM NOM NOM NOM

Even the flimsy plotline has this strange charm, as if it were a somewhat revised schlocky 1950’s B-movie script that managed to attain the high production values of a Hollywood blockbuster. New Doom’s ridiculous story is done in an ostensibly straight-faced manner, but there is a darkly humorous undercurrent when juxtaposed with such over-the-top imagery to the point of being cartoony. It’s hilarious that data files you pick up on Mancubi and the Cyberdemon are dryly-written, stern scientific reports or that the audio logs describing the Doom Slayer’s legendary status among demonkind may as well be from a Todd McFarlane or Rob Liefeld comicbook. It doesn’t break the forth wall constantly, winking and nudging the audience to oblivion, to remind you of how funny it supposedly is even though it only grates. The closest thing to outright self-awareness is how the Doom Slayer’s behavior resembles the mindset of the game’s targeted audience; his only desire to obliterate every monster he crosses, to put an end to this Hellish plague in whatever way possible, and he hates being interrupted from it.

Unfortunately there is the needlessly layered upgrade system so many action games seem to have (perhaps due to some bizarre contractual obligations) but they manage to ease the frustration with some simple solutions. The level design does not waste anyone’s time with each area’s layout magnificently structured — horizontally and vertically — using physical space efficiently for both combat and exploration. You don’t have to search a seemingly endless series of copy-pasted corridors and identical footlockers for items like the haphazardly constructed Shadow Warrior reboot of 2013, thanks to the chainsaw turning enemies into bullet fountains and “glory kills” allowing for regeneration. It helps that one of the special abilities gained indicates all collectibles on the map that — outside of increasing health, armor, and ammo capacity — makes it one of the more useful upgrades available. Not to say those upgrades don’t add variety but, akin to Doom ‘93, each gun (save for the incredibly vestigial pistol) functions normally well enough without any alternate firing modes attached. Such additions come as trying to fix what isn’t broke. Worse, it ends up making the game too easy.

But my favorite feature is the musical soundtrack eerily reflecting the action taking place on-screen. It is clever sound engineering that adds a lot more to the experience than you’d expect but makes perfect sense, as I’ve previously described the game as an interactive death metal concept album of yesteryear. The gunfire and explosions fugue seamlessly with guitar riffs and percussion that make the music more than just being atmospheric — it is the atmosphere. Of all the elements of this reboot, though as modernized as everything else, the soundtrack is the most spiritually faithful to Doom ‘93. They’re a far cry from the midi proxies of Metallica and Slayer songs but it’s not hard to imagine (given Quake) id Software doing similar if they had the resources back then.

Damned to Disappoint…

This is your brain on guns. Big fucking guns.

Now, with all these compliments, one would assume my overall experience was a positive one and changed my sentiment on the series as a whole — but you’d be wrong. As time went on and I reached the end of the single-player campaign, I found myself becoming slowly soured on the whole thing and wondering when it’d finally be over. Reaching the campaign’s conclusion, with its meaningless sequel-hook, did not carry the same sense of elation and fulfillment that came with (say) Metal Gear Solid 3 and its dénouement. Even attempting to replay a level to attain missed collectables was downright painful.

Maybe it’s because, like the majority of first-person shooters, the endless cacophony of bullets being fired and explosions going off become a repetitive chore as the body-count rises with playtime. No matter how refined the mechanics and graphics, or managing to keep the action fast-paced with little dead air inbetween, it needs an element like the aforementioned Portal’s platform-based wormhole puzzles or F.E.A.R.’s intimidating A.I. hostiles. However the Doom Slayer, unlike Chell, is more cumbersome than agile and demonkind far less terrifying than a legion of psychic clones in SWAT gear.

GET THAT LIGHTSABER AWAY FROM ME, OPTIMUS PRIME!!!

Its God of War-style QTEs are repeated so often that, especially for larger enemies, it feels a bit too effortless and that there’s no serious threat. It lacks tension once one is well-acquainted with the control scheme, supplemented by all the upgrades given, and the whole thing ends up becoming even easier than it already was before. Maybe this is “fun” by those who are who don’t mind endlessly blasting through hell-beasts non-stop but I just find it unengaging without something more. Action without further context or contrast is dull, because spectacle can only go so far before the excitement dissipates and loses all meaning. Without that something — whatever it is — it’s just bells and whistles. It’s a distracting noise that, with enough time, you’ll completely forget after a while.

I suppose it doesn’t help, partly from fatigue and desperation, there’s been a lot of hyperbolic praise attached to the title due to the overexposure and the diminishing returns of series like Call of Duty and Battlefield. It’s understandable to feel such exhaustion given I had it as well — I was already sick to death of all things World War 2, videogames included, before that. The problem, however, comes from people treating the game less like a throwback with a new coat of paint — which is perfectly fine by itself — than it is some kind of innovative entry that redefines the genre when it isn’t that whatsoever. It’s bad enough when the game is at the top of various “best of 2016” lists, which only proves how disappointing 2016 was for videogames, but worse when certain internet personalities make an absurd claim as it being “revolutionary” because of things such as…the variety of QTE animations. Like, really? Have we come to the point where that is considered “revolutionary”? Are our standards so low now that a regression in form is erroneously viewed as progression for such a superficial element? Perhaps I’d be less annoyed if that person, despite rightfully admonishing the company’s odious policy of denying early review copies, didn’t sound as if Bethesda Softworks paid him to give such accolades and promised to be quoted on the the “Game of the Year” edition box art.

To clarify, lest I be misunderstood: New Doom is not a badly-made game whatsoever. On a purely technical level, it is indeed marvelous and one should give credit where it is due. The polish that went into this game’s graphics, controls, and level design are sublime and that’s not surprising with id Software’s history — that is why I started off as complimentary. But, at the same time, functionality and optimal craft alone should not be the criteria as to what makes a gaming experience worth of one’s time and attention overall. If videogames are going to be considered a legitimate form of Art, as I would like them to, then the quality of a game needs to be more than the sum of its most mechanistic parts.

Gotta collect ’em all! $99.99 each!!!

When people defend an otherwise terrible film like, for example, James Cameron’s Avatar by claiming the special effects are impressive — it’s utterly meaningless and beside the point. The elaborate computer-generated imagery does not make up for the complete lack of originality, poor characterization and dialogue, or Cameron’s disingenuously heavy-handed environmentalism (the “noble savage” bullshit wasn’t much better). Perhaps none of that will register upon a first viewing — but it sure will when watching it again or at least thinking about it enough afterwards. That’s not to say New Doom has the same problems as that film (thankfully), just that it’s incredibly overrated and (like my fondness of the original Duke Nukem) for all the wrong reasons.

[Originally posted on 8/7/17 @ Medium.com]