Sunday, May 21, 2017

The Collateral Cinematic Universe

Superhero films share many common themes: the tragic origin story gives the hero or heroine a motivation. Teamwork is an efficient way of saving the day. You can’t save everybody. Even jerks deserve redemption. However, the one that drives home in many of these movies is collateral damage. Ignoring that these are often big-budget spectacles, hence destroying stuff comes with the territory, the recurring motif of accountability has played a role in the disbanding of supers in The Incredibles and Batman’s driving ethos in The Dark Knight Trilogy.

However, the place where this theme gets brought up most is in the MCU. You’d think that after 9 years there’d be an attempt to sell-out on this front, but the MCU hasn’t lost sight of that quite yet. Which is good, because collateral damage and the accountability that comes from that has played a big role in at least 4 of the movies. So let’s see why that is. Be warned: spoilers ahead.

The first of the movies is The Avengers, a film that's about conquering Earth and the fight to defend it. But while accountability for damage is mentioned throughout the first two acts, it’s in the third-act that everything hits the fan. Buildings crumble, windows break, debris flies everywhere and people die. Yet even amidst the chaos, The Avengers try their best to keep the fighting contained to a small part of the city.

Early on, for example, Captain America co-ordinates with his teammates to limit the fighting to the immediate area. He also demands that the police, in a humorous moment, section off the nearby blocks. In addition, he even takes one for a group of civilians by blocking an exploding bomb with his shield. And, lest we forget, Iron Man drives a missile launched by SHIELD operatives into space to end the war, risking his life in the process. These are as much a part of the film as the fighting, and they’re one of the reasons The Avengers, despite its flaws, works so well.

The issue of collateral damage resurfaces in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. In the highway fight, Black Widow openly yells at civilians to “get out of the way” before she’s shot in the shoulder. It’d have been easy to “screw the civilians”, but Captain America and his team limit the number of deaths to approximately zero. This comes back in the climax when Captain America and The Falcon override Project Insight’s “kill a million to save a billion” programming. They succeed, and Project Insight crashes to the sea.

In The Avengers: Age of Ultron, collateral damage takes frontal stage. The opening scene has Iron Man keeping the casualties to an actual zero. He sends out The Iron Legion, aka an army of robotic peacekeepers, to make a barricade and keep civilians at bay. Said civilians aren’t happy by this, one even throws acid at the robots, but mission accomplished.

Where it becomes more complicated is in the Hulkbuster VS The Hulk fight. The objective is to subdue a brainwashed The Hulk long enough to get him out of harm’s way, but seeing as The Hulk is an invincible monster with rage issues it ends up being difficult. Iron Man tries to knock him out by repeatedly punching him at first, but that doesn’t work. He then tries to take him outside of town, but that doesn’t work either. Eventually, Iron Man has no choice but to plunge him into a semi-demolished building, creating a shockwave that hurts many civilians. The Hulk is finally subdued, but not before seeing the aftermath of their fight.

Fortunately, the final battle in Sokovia, against Ultron’s minions, fares better. Oh, there’s still a lot of destruction, don’t get me wrong, but up until Ultron’s final attempt at carnage, in which a few police officers, as well as Quicksilver, die, no one gets hurt. There are many fake-outs, including a woman nearly falling to her doom when her car skids off a cliff, but the objective of the fight is to minimize deaths. It proves successful, a stark contrast to the New York City battle of the first film.

The final example of collateral damage is in Captain America: Civil War. The entire film is the build-up of previous battles in the MCU, as shown through both the opening fight where Crossbones blows himself up in an attempt to get back at Captain America and the introduction of Sokovia Accords. In one of the early scenes, General Ross shows The Avengers clips of four of their major battles from an outsider’s perspective. In each one, said recorder either died or was badly wounded. Regardless of how The Avengers react, the situation is clear: how responsible are they for indirect casualties? Captain America argues that “you can’t save everyone”, but Iron Man’s concerns are indication that it’s not so simple.

The situation gets worse when, in an ironic twist, the building where the Sokovia Accords is signed gets blown up by an impersonator of The Winter Soldier. Said impersonator, Zemo, has a vendetta against The Avengers for “murdering his family” in Sokovia, and he’s using this as revenge. He hopes that the Sokovia Accords would split the team apart and force them to destroy one-another. He, ultimately, both succeeds and fails, as while he gets caught, the damage is done.

It also sets the stage for the big set piece, in which The Avengers duke it out in a vacated airport in Leipzig, Germany. It’s easy to call this fight inconsequential, seeing as Iron Patriot’s injuries are the worst of what happens, but that misses the point. The fight was never about killing anyone, it was about the clash of ideals. Both sides understood that civilian casualties were inevitable, but government chains versus complete freedom to do as they please was what was at stake. It’s a more personal conflict, essentially.

In the end, collateral damage being a running theme in the MCU is tackled with tact and maturity. True, collateral damage is also a theme in the DCEU, see Batman VS Superman: Dawn of Justice, but there it’s more of an afterthought. And this is why the MCU stands out so much. Because while you can argue technical prowess, this is one area where it really shines.

Also, it leads to some interesting discussion. But you can do that on your own.

Friday, May 12, 2017

The Avengers: Age of the Flummoxed

There’s a debate in Infinite Rainy Day's Discord chat over whether or not I actually like pure action films. The answer is "yes…but only when the characters are compelling enough to excuse or overlook lacklustre storytelling". There are three films that fit this criteria that I absolutely adore, and they comprise what I often call “The Holy Trio of Dessert Blockbusters”. In other words, much like desserts, I can pop them in occasionally and enjoy them despite not being meaty.

One of these movies is The Avengers, aka “The Orange Sherbet Blockbuster”. Unlike Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, “The Cherry Pie Blockbuster”, and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallow Part 2, “The Chocolate Cake Blockbuster”, The Avengers, despite correlating in my mind with my favourite dessert, is also the least-interesting character-wise. It’s fun to watch, don’t get me wrong, but like the MCU proper it’s got much of that corporate vibe that makes it less of an instant classic. There’s a lot about it that I love, the climax particularly, but the context leading up to it is equally as important to its enjoyment. In other words, I can’t fully enjoy it on its own terms because it screams “franchise film”.

But these semantics aren’t all that important. I simply needed context for the film’s direct sequel, The Avengers: Age of Ultron, and why it’s not as good. I actually re-watched the movie on Netflix for this piece as well. I initially dreaded doing so because my first impression was unenthusiastic, and I was worried that that’d hamper my enjoyment. Rewatching it ended up making me appreciate it more, so I’m happy for that, but its flaws are ever-present.

Before I elaborate about what did and didn’t work, I want to stress that my goal isn’t to say that you’re right or wrong for liking or disliking this film. I’m not gonna spend thousands of pages on that, as it’d be boring and disingenuous. I’m also not gonna play CinemaSins or channel Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, as both would be me shamelessly nitpicking a universe where a green monster lives in-tandem with a demigod and a super soldier. Rather, this is me giving my thoughts, what I liked and disliked, and whether or not it holds up two years later. And yes, there’ll be spoilers.

The premise here's a "saving the Earth story". In The Avengers, Loki, the adopted brother of Thor, uses a magical staff given to him by a warlord alien to open a portal to Earth so it can be conquered, and The Avengers fight to stop him. In this movie it’s a little more detailed: instead of an external force, the premise revolves around Tony Stark, aka Iron Man, creating an AI program to stop an apocalyptic vision. Said AI goes rogue and decides to wipe out humanity, so it’s up to the heroes to save the day. The stories of these films are really secondary to the action, but here it’s also needlessly complicated. In an attempt to make the premise bigger and more weighty, The Avengers: Age of Ultron has also made itself bloated. Factor in the set-ups to future films, and you have a movie that’s doing both too much and not enough.

Take, for example, the scene with Ultron and Ulysses Klaue. Klaue is a main antagonist to Black Panther. Except that Black Panther wasn’t introduced here, so his purpose is to act as a checkpoint for Ultron. Even the moment where his hand gets chopped off, a clear wink to comic fans, feels inconsequential because he feels inconsequential. I guess it’s an attempt to build a motivation for him come Black Panther, but given how the MCU’s rogues gallery is pretty one-dimensional…

Another example is Thor’s dip into a mysterious lake in the second-half of the film. This is now supposed to build on his vision of Asgard being destroyed in Thor Ragnarok, yet all it does is recap the grander plan of the MCU via a montage foreshadowing The Avengers: Infinity War. It’s a needlessly complicated Mystery Box moment, one that didn’t need to be there. And yet, because the movie is so heavily tied to the MCU, it also has to exist. This inherent contradiction is one of many that bog down the plot, making a movie that’s a few minutes shorter than its predecessor feel much longer.

Then there’s the controversial moment involving Black Widow and Bruce Banner/The Hulk. Ignoring how this movie introduces a romance that was never fully established prior, it also fleshes-out Black Widow by making her desperate for children. In theory, this idea isn’t an inherently bad one, and it can make for an interesting story with proper context. But this is the MCU, a universe where Drax called Gamora “a whore” as a joke, so I doubt that’ll happen. Black Widow has also never been consistent, so it reeks of sexism.

On the subject of bogged down, there’s also Tony Stark not learning from his Ultron fiasco when he attempts to download JARVIS into Ultron’s replacement body. I didn’t understand this the first time I saw it, and I don’t understand it now. The film made a huge deal of Ultron going rogue, so…why does the film then reward him for repeating that? Shouldn’t he have learned his mistake? I guess it’d negate the franchise’s running motif of how Tony Stark never learns anything, but it’s still a missed opportunity.

Speaking of which, Ultron. The MCU’s not known for compelling villains (Loki and Zemo are probably the only film exceptions,) and this was something Joss Whedon promised he’d try to address. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work. Oh sure, Ultron’s funny and charming, even having some great lines, but for the most part he’s yet another baddie for the heroes to take down. Plus, his characterization, basically a combination of Iron Man and 4chan, is wickedly inconsistent, with him switching from funny to threatening without much transition.

Finally, and this is through no fault of the film, The Avengers: Age of Ultron is guilty of collapsing under the weight of its own legacy. This wasn’t helped by both Joss Whedon frequently butting heads with Kevin Feige constantly and Marvel’s obnoxious hype train. Factor in that it was released during a period in the Jewish calendar where I couldn’t see films in theatres, and expectations were pumped too high. It’s a shame because there was no way this could’ve topped its predecessor even without its problems. The Avengers was far from perfect, Black Widow’s conversation with Loki proves that, but its streamlined storytelling and lack of expectations blew everyone’s minds in 2012. By the time The Avengers: Age of Ultron came out, the novelty had worn off. The film would’ve had to up the gambit qualitatively, and instead we got a 2.0 with even more story problems.

It’s a shame because the parts that work, i.e. when it’s focused, work as well, if not better, than its predecessor. There’s a scene involving The Avengers gathered around Thor’s hammer that’s as exciting as watching Iron Man and Thor duke it out in The Avengers. The Hulk VS. Hulkbuster fight is one of the highlights, even if we never find out what The Hulk’s seeing in his head. Getting more backstory on Hawkeye this time around, even remedying a plot-hole in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, is welcomed, giving us some needed downtime halfway through the film. And, lest we forget, the fight in Sokovia contains as many memorable moments, if not more, than the New York City fight in the first film.

One last detail that I have to mention is that, unlike the first movie, The Avengers: Age of Ultron also managed to get me to tear up. Not a lot, mind you, but seeing Quicksilver die to save an injured kid, as well as the muffled screams of his sister, was heartbreaking. I presume Quicksilver’s death was a workaround with 20th Century Fox so that they both could use the Maximoff twins (the X-Men movies killed off Scarlet Witch in X-Men: Apocalypse, after all,) but even with the internet having ruined that detail prior it still caught me off guard. That’s something Iron Man saving New York City and almost dying for it couldn’t do.

Would I still recommend The Avengers: Age of Ultron? I guess. It’s no sherbet, but even amidst its problems and disappointment there’s a lot that works. It’s amazing that, at least on the movie end, we’ve gotten this far into the MCU without a dud. But even outside of that, this movie delivers. It doesn’t overdeliver, mind you, but it delivers.

That said, that running joke involving profanity? It didn’t click.