Ant-Man and the Wasp: I hope this ends here

I don’t know what it is with Ant-Man movies. They are simply not great.

This movie is less dumb than its prequel, and has some genuinely enjoyable sequences. But ultimately, the movie is just lukewarm. I don’t think it’s because Ant-Man isn’t a serious superhero. I mean, the Guardians of the Galaxy films are light and fun, but never venture into the territory of silliness. The movies are pretty intense, all things considered, and the stakes are sky-high (literally :P). The problem with Ant-Man, in my opinion, is that in trying to make the films light and cool, they fail to make them memorable. I think that is because of two reasons. First, in order for a film to be memorable, it should succeed in engaging the audience. This will happen only if the viewer is as concerned about the stakes in the story as the characters. Second, since this is a superhero movie, the tech/powers that are integral to the movie need to be understandable and believable for the audience. Ant-Man fails on both these counts.

Let us first look at the stakes in Ant-Man and the Wasp. Hank Pym, the physicist who invented the Ant-Man suit wants to go into the quantum realm to find his wife who got lost there many years ago. Keep in mind, this is the twentieth film in the MCU. By now I am used to the fate of the universe being at stake. This film turns that trope around by making the stakes the lives of two women – Pym’s wife in the quantum realm and Ava Starr/Ghost, the daughter of a former associate of Pym’s whose body is disintegrating due to quantum phasing (there is a lot of ‘quantum’ in this film that I will discuss in the next part of the review). So far so good. Not every superhero film needs to be about saving the galaxy from supervillains. But they do need situations and characters the audience can care about. Good movies in the MCU have done that by having the antagonists pose moral quandaries in addition to physical challenges for the protagonists.

In this case, the two antagonists – Sonny, a black-market tech-dealer, and Ghost didn’t do anything of the sort. Instead, the challenge they presented was entirely in the form of chase and action sequences. Ghost had started to make herself credible by stating that her condition was as a result of her father being discredited by Pym, but rather than explore that threat, the film quickly resolved it by establishing her father as a liar and a thief. Even the one person who was helping her, another pissed-off former associate of Pym’s (the guy managed to piss off every single person he interacted with), abruptly changed his tune and began supporting Pym’s mission to find his wife instead of his own goal of harnessing Van Dyne’s energy from the quantum realm to cure Ghost of her affliction. Even Ghost’s affliction loses its seriousness towards the end of the film, when a newly returned Van Dyne can cure her simply by touching her and passing on the quantum energy she supposedly absorbed over the years.

This brings me to my second point. This film explores the quantum realm, an area where physics changes character completely. The problem is that the film overuses the concept and spews out ideas that must impress the audience simply because they have the word ‘quantum’ before them. The film acknowledges this by having Ant-Man say, “Do you guys just put the word ‘quantum’ in front of everything?” Far-fetched quantum mechanics is supposed to explain everything – how Van Dyne managed to survive for years in the quantum realm, how she managed to make an antenna, meet with and plug it on to Ant-Man when he entered the quantum realm, understand that there is healing energy in the quantum realm, harness that energy in her own body… All of this is simply too far-fetched, even for a universe that tells us stories about adventures in outer space.

So, if you’re still wondering why Ant-Man wasn’t called to be a part of the Avengers in Infinity War, you know that the silliness of the series probably had more than a small part to play in it.

Pacing and editing in Infinity War

I can’t believe I am nearing the end of my Marvel journey. Although I am ready for more diversity in the movies I watch, my little project of watching and reviewing Marvel movies has been such fun. I didn’t immediately review a few movies towards the end and wasn’t very good about posting all reviews before Endgame released. And while I wish I had been better about that, distance from this project has made me better at understanding the nature of Marvel movies. A number of film nerds, particularly those who have read comic books, don’t like the formulaic nature of Marvel movies. I didn’t really mind that, especially because I was trying to understand the genre and dissect different elements in the movie. But now (after 23 movies!) I appreciate a movie like Infinity War much more for breaking the formula and giving the viewer a roller coaster ride.

Writing a film with over twenty protagonists is no easy task. Don’t expect to understand all or even a few of them by the end of this film if you are not familiar with the Marvel universe already. Infinity War is one of two Marvel movies that doesn’t work as a standalone film. I hadn’t watched Guardians of the Galaxy when I first saw Infinity War. I doubt I had watched Ragnarok. And I remember not enjoying the movie and wondering what the hype was all about. Oh, how wrong I was! Once I was familiar with the characters, the movie kept me on the edge of my seat throughout its run time.

What struck me most about Infinity War (other than the ability to weave multiple stories into one mega-narrative) was the pacing of this film. Infinity War starts with full force. There is no time to get settled in and take stock of what is happening either for the audience or for our protagonists. This conveys a sense of urgency that lingers for the entirety of the film. Everyone just has to react to the situation in front of them. In this fast-paced movie our favourite superheroes seem to be in a constant state of struggle, with their heads just above the water. As a viewer, I have seen them struggle in previous films but they have always come out on top. This time, their victories are small, and come with a sense of desperation. As if there is another fire just waiting to be put out. For instance, we see Ironman, Spider-Man and Doctor Strange struggling to protect the Time Stone aboard Maw’s spaceship. While together they are able to match up to the far more powerful Maw, there is no time to relax or take a breath. The film cuts to Scotland where Vision is attacked and it is up to Wanda – and later, Cap, Falcon and Black Widow – to protect him. The audience is now exposed to another action sequence within minutes of the first. The non-stop action distinguishes Infinity War from the films that have come before it.

This kind of pacing – short, intense action sequences ending in small victories before moving on to the next challenge – is also instrumental in subverting audience expectations and making the film’s climax shocking. This is because, after a while I got used to the fast pace and small victories in the film. Furthermore, the superheroes, though down on their luck, don’t seem defeated. I mean, Thor took the power of a star to make Stormbreaker, arrived in Wakanda like an absolute badass and struck Thanos in the heart. So, when Thanos snaps his fingers and wipes out half the population of the universe, with the superheroes scattered and defeated in different parts of the universe, I was left more than a little stunned. This is the first time that the heroes have failed in their mission.

Apart from the pacing, film is made so that the sense of shock lingers on right until the post-credit scene. Thanos’ snap doesn’t cut to a black screen followed by credits. We see our favourite superheroes turn to dust. We see Ironman’s horrified expression (and we share that horror) when we hear Spidey say, “Mr. Stark, I don’t feel so good… I don’t want to die.” We see resignation on the faces of the survivors when they realise they have failed, and that their failure has wiped out half of all life in the universe. They, along with everyone else, have lost people they loved. This is further compounded by the next scene, wherein we see Thanos retire like he said he would. We see him alone, calm, walking through empty green fields, believing he did the right thing and that the universe was grateful to him. That genocide was his mercy to the universe. That wordless scene, seemingly calm in its setting, makes the end even more eerie. Furthermore, I think the credits make it such that we cannot snap out of that feeling soon. So far, MCU movies have half the credits shown in a stylised manner with fun music to accompany it. Not this film. The film’s grim tone is carried forward through the design of its credits – a black screen with formal font. The film manages to show what Doctor Strange says after handing over the Time Stone to Thanos, namely, “we’re in the endgame now.”

To me, the form of the film is what made Infinity War special. It helped me understand how constructing a scene and editing can help steer the viewer’s emotions and expectations. Most of my reviews so far have been focused on writing and character development. Perhaps because I am only beginning to understand filmmaking as an art. I think this film is my cue to pay closer attention to editing and understanding the elements that go into constructing a scene.

Before I sign off, I must make a note about Thor’s character in this film. I think it is safe to say that of all the superheroes, Thor gets the strongest part in the film. A lot of that, I think, is owing to how the character was written in Ragnarok. At the beginning of this film, we have a character who has found himself but lost everything of worth to him. Thanos kills all the Asgardians aboard the spaceship along with his best friend, Heimdall and his brother, Loki. The Russo brothers do a fantastic job in using Thor’s arc in Ragnarok as a base and taking the character forward. He is still funny in this movie. But we can see that it is more to cover up his pain than anything. The scene between Thor and Rocket on the way to Nidavellir conveys this perfectly. Thor jokes about losing every person he ever loved. The scene is funny but also horrifying. With a realisation of his power, and nothing to live for except revenge, Thor comes the closest to defeating Thanos. The viewer, in turn, wants to see Thor come out on top as the towering hero. His entry in Wakanda is epic. But it isn’t only because of the stylised entry and his blow with the Stormbreaker. It is because of a close understanding of character and careful writing to carry him forward.

Before Endgame, Infinity War was probably the boldest movie in the MCU. It is no easy task to write a coherent, compelling story that follows narratives and characters across 18 movies and then present that story convincingly to a hungry audience. But Infinity War manages to deliver an entertainer that turns the Marvel formula on its head without relying on clichés (perhaps because it doesn’t rely on clichés). So, do yourself a favour, and watch this movie (or watch it again). Ponder on the journey it takes you through. You will not be disappointed.

Thor: Ragnarok – Giving Thor a movie he deserves

Okay, this movie is a little different. Unlike the previous Thor movies that were grim in their tone, Thor: Ragnarok is an out and out comedy and a full-blown entertainer. From the very outset, the film demands that the viewer buy into this premise to fully immerse himself/herself into the film. This took me a while to get used to. For instance, in my first two viewings of the film, I couldn’t quite get used to Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song in the background during the first and final battle scenes. Battles, after all, are supposed to be serious affairs with a few light moments peppered in to ease the audience. The MCU has established that. Ragnarok breaks this mould. And once you buy into its tone, you really appreciate the difference. You even enjoy Immigrant Song and play it on a loop for days after the fact. Ragnarok is supposed to be the end of worlds. But there is no time for doom and gloom here. The movie leaves you feeling satisfied. A large part of this has to do with the development of the two central characters in the movie – Thor and Loki.

Let us start by analysing Thor. Until this movie we have seen him transform from a brutish fighter who would punch his way into and out of dangerous situations to a man who understands the purpose of governance, understands that he isn’t interested in taking on that responsibility and continuing to work as a soldier for the nine realms. But so far, we don’t really understand who Thor is. In trying to write this review, I was struggling to write about his journey. I kept taking breaks, disappointed that I hadn’t completely understood my favourite superhero. In one of those breaks I happened to watch a YouTube video about the movie. It made me realise that Thor doesn’t really have an arc so far. Ragnarok tries to remedy that by stripping the character of his paraphernalia – the throne of Asgard, Jane, his hammer – and exploring the man underneath. In an interview, director Taika Waititi said that he saw the story of Ragnarok as that of a man trying to find his way home. That man just happens to be a demi-god trying to stop the Goddess of Death from taking over his country. In the process, he discovers who he is and what it is that he values.

The first thing we notice in Ragnarok is that Thor seems much more human this time around. He no longer speaks in an archaic manner like a king from the past. He is funny, a bit stupid at times and sees himself as part of a social group outside of the palace (Remember when he calls the Hulk a “friend from work”)? Thor’s interactions with the Avengers have humanised him over the years, and the changes in his personality aren’t out of place. As the film goes on, we understand this character more. Unlike when the character was first introduced, Thor doesn’t seek out conflict. But he is essentially a fighter. Even without Mjolnir to help him, Thor is determined to break out of Sakaar and return to Asgard to try and save his home. This is perhaps best exemplified in the battle between Thor and the Hulk in Sakaar. When he realises that Banner isn’t going to recognise him and his only way out is to fight the Hulk, Thor puts up an impressive fight for his life and for the chance to leave the planet. This is also the scene gives a new layer to Thor the superhero.  When he shoots lightning at the Hulk, we see a new version of Thor who is ready to kick ass. But the audience and the character don’t realise the significance of this moment until much later in the film. Only after receiving counsel from his father (and losing an eye) does he realise that he is the God of Thunder, and as the God of Thunder he can harness lightning. He doesn’t need Mjolnir or anything else to defend himself and Asgard. This is a pivotal moment in the character’s arc. From being a warrior prince who chose Mjolnir as his coronation present and didn’t seem to amount to much without the hammer to a fighter who realises who he truly is, Thor has finally come a long way.

Furthermore, the film explores the meaning of home and nation in a much more significant way than any of the MCU films before it have done. The movie begins with Thor trying to stop Ragnarok. According to Norse mythology, Ragnarok is the end of everything. It is when entire worlds are destroyed and the gods are killed. At the beginning of the movie, Thor believes he can stop Ragnarok, and the audience believes him. But when the Goddess of Death seems unstoppable even after Thor realises his might, Thor’s character takes yet another turn. First, he is confronted with his limits despite his significant powers. He realises that he cant defeat Hela. And the only way to do so would be to destroy his beloved Asgard along with Hela by causing Ragnarok. Second, he realises that the essence of Asgard was never the planet, but the people who live on it. If Asgardians live anywhere in the universe, he will have saved Asgard. At this point, Thor has learnt much about governance. He has stopped seeking out war (unlike Odin in his early years, whose actions ultimately cause Ragnarok.) He is powerful enough to protect the universe from threats. And he understands what his kingdom really is. When he takes his place as king – in the Grand Master’s spaceship with a rotating chair as his throne – we know he is worthy.

Let us now look at Loki. Unlike Thor, Loki has had a pretty well-defined character arc. In the first Thor movie, he realises that he has been raised by his father not as the prince of Asgard but as a pawn for political gains. His resentment for his father and brother comes to the forefront in The Avengers when he tries to take over the Earth by force. In Thor: The Dark World we that he became the trickster after his mother took him under her wing to teach him tricks so that he can stand up to Thor and his peers, who are physically stronger than him. We see him consumed by revenge after he breaks down when his mother dies (he unintentionally aids the murder of his mother.) He is easily one of the most interesting Marvel villains (really, one of two great Marvel movie villains – the other one being Thanos). He has certainly been one of my absolute favourite characters in the MCU. And it is not hard to see why. He is such a well-written, layered character. We feel his pain and want desperately for him to abandon his villainous pursuits, and every time he does just enough to keep us rooting for him, but also just enough to squarely place him in the villain category. I think the discrepancy between writing Thor and Loki comes from the original source of this material – Norse mythology. After watching the movie, I ended up reading Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman. It is a collection of fables in Norse mythology and it tells us the stories of the Aesirs (gods and goddesses), frost giants, elves, dwarves and Asgard. It focuses primarily on the stories in the court of Asgard – stories of Odin, Thor and Loki. It is certainly an interesting read. Even in those stories, Loki is featured far more prominently than possibly any other character. His actions are described in great detail, as is his impact on Asgard. Loki is even painted in a somewhat sympathetic light where Thor is portrayed as boorish and thick. Even in the Thor movies, where he is the supporting character, Loki has a far superior arc to Thor. His story in Thor: The Dark World and the chemistry between Thor and Loki is perhaps the only reason I like that movie.

In Ragnarok we see yet another layer to this character which helps us understand him further. Unlike Thor, when Loki lands on Sakaar, he doesn’t try to fight his situation. Instead, he wins over the Grand Master and starts building a life there. Even when he goes to see Thor when the latter is captured, he describes to him a plan where the two brothers could take over the position of the Grand Master in time. We see that while Thor is a fighter, Loki is a survivor. Loki’s fraught relationship with his father coupled with the sense that he didn’t quite belong in the land he previously called home (the previous films show Loki as standing apart from Thor’s peer group) left him with little attachment for Asgard. Since his emotional needs were left unfulfilled, Loki uses his charm and cunning to keep afloat (albeit comfortably) rather than fight to get back what he lost. It is only when Thor tells him that he thought the world of him and that he imagined them fighting side by side does he feel the need to go back and fight for Asgard, and ultimately to join Thor on the spaceship to create a new Asgard.

Thor films have always been about excess. This film is no exception. But this is excess done right. Ragnarok develops what is integral to the Thor movies – a family saga – by helping the two central characters in the movie shine. Thor helps us understand the political responsibilities of the family, while Loki (over three films) showcases the family’s dysfunctional dynamic. But the film doesn’t stop there. It adds excellent supporting characters in the Hulk, Valkyrie and the Grand Master who take away from the grimness of a Shakespearean-style drama. Granted, Hela’s character could have been better developed. She was also a victim of Odin’s awful parenting, and could have been developed into a good villain like Loki. But honestly, I am satisfied enough with Thor, Loki and the absolute madness of the film to let this bit go.

I am so happy that Ragnarok turned out the way it did. Thor is my favourite superhero, and so far, he was left stagnating in the MCU. This film brings him into the forefront as a cool superhero, something the Russo brothers take forward in Infinity War. But more on that later. Right now, I am just going to sign off, satisfied knowing that my two favourite characters got a movie they always deserved.

 

 

Guardians of the Galaxy 1&2: Creating the ultimate fun fantasy

Hello. I know it has been a while. But life (and exams) got in the way. I know Avengers: Endgame is already out. I have already seen it too (thrice). But I believe these are just fun movies to watch and talk about at any time of the year, not just as countdowns to a particular movie. So I am going to continue posting reviews. Without further ado, here goes. Guardians of the Galaxy 1&2… I have reviewed them together because they are similar in style in many ways.

Of all Marvel movies, I have been most sceptical about this one. Before its release, the Guardians were a relatively lesser known group of the Marvel Universe. Not having been a superhero fan until recently, I didn’t know anything about it other than what the thumbnail on Netflix chose to show me. When I first saw Guardians characters in Avengers: Infinity War, I wasn’t thrilled. They were too unfamiliar, and with everything going on in the movie, the writers spent little time introducing each character (Infinity War is the one movie that Marvel didn’t even pretend could work as a stand-alone film.) When Guardians came up on my list, I was prepared to be bored and uncomfortable. And the movie is anything but that.

Guardians of the Galaxy is funny, engaging and imaginative. It has some really trippy visuals. There are two things, however, that make this movie special. First, the concept. The protagonists in the movie all different creatures belonging to different planets. For me, just the thought that there could be a group of people (and a genetically enhanced racoon and a humanoid tree) who are touring through outer space and having crazy adventures blows my mind. It is the ultimate fantasy – a group of outsiders getting front row seat to the secrets of the universe. And props to the makers for taking this concept and using it to tell interesting stories.

The second thing that is special about Guardians is the use of music. The film features an awesome mix of tracks by different artists (all compiled into a cassette appropriately labelled ‘Awesome Mix Vol. 1’ and ‘Awesome Mix Vol. 2). And the tracks are used to carry the narrative forward by managing the viewers’ emotional responses to the scenes on screen. For instance, in Guardians Vol. 2, the opening credits are set to Mr. Blue Sky by Electric Light Orchestra. The opening credits features the Guardians defeating a giant space monster. Since the film is just starting out, however, the makers don’t want the audience to feel any tension from the action. The scene serves to establish the next few scenes in the movie, remind us who the characters are and start a little bit of the action off. But the addition of the song brings levity to the scene. Similarly, the first few action sequences are also set to songs. We still get to enjoy all of the action in a traditional Marvel movie but its funnier and lighter. Once the principal conflict of the film has been established, however, the songs begin to fade away. Action sequences towards the end are almost always about struggling to survive and save the world (in this case, the universe), and the viewer needs to feel the characters’ adrenaline. Chase sequences (that were similar to the ones in the beginning) suddenly appear grittier. Guardians is perhaps the only movie to have used music so strategically. The only other film I can think of that did this is Thor: The Dark World, where music intensifies the emotions in the scene following Frigga’s death.

And there you have it. My complete 180 on Guardians of the Galaxy. And after watching Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, I can’t wait to see these characters return in Infinity War and Endgame.

 

Observing the use of music was a new exercise for me. Going forward, I want to pay closer attention to this aspect of films.

Hera Pheri: A win for writing

I want to talk about Hera Pheri. Unlike most films I review, Hera Pheri is certainly not new to me. Like me, some of you must have grown up watching and loving it. I would rank it as one of the best Indian comedy films. It has all the makings of a masala potboiler film – comedy, action and drama. Yet it feels fresh and real, rather than cringe and contrived as comedy films often become. And I would attribute that to one thing – superb writing. The writing deliberately uses the tropes of comedy, action and drama to control the tempo of the film and make it all work together, and it works perfectly. Action, drama and comedy work themselves through the writing with the help of two emotions – empathy and tension. These emotions reel us in and keep us engrossed throughout the movie.

Hera Pheri is essentially a story about poor people. The principal characters – Raju (played by Akshay Kumar), Shyam (played by Suneil Shetty), Babu bhaiyya/Baburao Ganpatrao Apte (played by Paresh Rawal) and Anuradha (played by Tabu) all drowning in debt and barely making ends meet. The writers use this as the first ploy to generate empathy among the viewers. Additionally, it is also used for the characters to bond with each other and empathise with each other, even as they make dubious choices. The poverty in the film is so organic to the film’s fabric that it isn’t a big deal at all. The doesn’t try to make a forced point about the characters’ situations.

Additionally, the film generates empathy using the tropes of comedy and drama, often in conjunction, to help the viewer become engrossed in the story and carry the narrative forward. For instance, when Khadak Singh (played by Om Puri), comes into town to claim the money Shyam owes him, the scene is a charged with emotion because of how much the former needs the money for his sister’s wedding. But the writers combine the drama with comedy seamlessly. The writers also use these emotions to raise the empathy between characters. Despite the quarrel between Shyam and Khadak Singh, at the end of the film, the latter (with a truckload of angry Sikhs) charges into the fight sequence where goons are beating up Shyam, Raju and Baburao because he cannot see his friend getting beaten. The scene is hilarious. As a viewer, the scene is very easy for me to watch, it keeps me entertained, and it makes me accept the story because I understand the characters and their motivations.

In addition to empathy, the film uses tension to keep the viewer hooked to the film. Tension first makes an appearance right as the second half of the film begins. The first half of the film ends with a happy dream sequence, lulling the viewer into a false sense of security. This sets the scene for the shock to follow and intensifies the tension as we learn that the granddaughter of a famous fisheries magnate is kidnapped and needs rescuing. Largely, the film plays with tension through the use of action. The action sequences in Hera Pheri are long and the director, Priyadarshan, is in no hurry to resolve the tension. In the first half of the film, action is largely comedic, a way for the principal characters to fight, but ultimately harmless. It is a way for the principal characters to interact and for the viewers to become used to thinking of these characters as a trio. In the latter half of the film, the action gets a lot more serious, and the tension more palpable. For instance, when and the lead trio come in to rescue the kidnapped girl while pocketing half the ransom money, their plans are botched with the arrival of the police. What follows is a long escape scene that had me clenching my fists with in excitement even though I had seen the scene numerous times before. The trio, trying to run from the police, join a large group of cyclists. While the scene has a few funny moments, the nearly 4-minute-long scene is an action-packed chase sequence. For those four minutes, I was completely engrossed in the narrative, feeling the thrill of the chase.

As I think about why Hera Pheri continues to remain fresh, I think the writers, Siddique, Lal, Neeraj Vora and Anand Vardhan, deserve some serious credit. Combining three popular genres and not letting go of the viewers’ attentions while doing so will land you a classic, and Hera Pheri is just that.

Before I end this post, I also want to talk about the music of Hera Pheri. I know, I know… WHAT?! But hear me out; within the context of the film, the songs just work. Don’t get me wrong, the songs are objectively terrible. But they don’t seem too bad when seen in conjunction with the movie. Also, props to the director for shooting each song and dream sequence in the style of the dreamer. Raju considers himself a hero, so his dream sequence (the song Jab Bhi Koi Haseena) is like that of a typical hero in a 1990s-2000 mainstream Hindi movie. Baburao still likes luxury, but he isn’t much of a hero. His dream (the song Dene Wala Jab Bhi Deta) is much kitschier compared to Raju’s but still very filmy. Shyam is the most grounded of the lot and his song (Humba Leela) is shot in the same manner as the rest of the film. No luxurious dream there. Even Tabu’s dream sequence (Main Ladki Pon Pon) shows her as uncomfortable with the role of a typical heroine in the song because she is a realistic, practical woman in the film devoid of any airs. Tun Tunak Tun is easily the worst song in the film. But even that makes you empathise with the dancer when the film reveals that she’s also very poor and in desperate need of shows. Rather than show her as just another item girl, I appreciated that the writers tried to humanise her.

So there goes. If you are in the mood to watch something light hearted but well-written, you know where to look.