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.

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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.

Black Panther: An Absolute Delight

I must admit, I cannot call myself a true superhero fan. I became interested in the genre only a few months ago, and I have primarily watched movies from the MCU. But I want to go on a limb to say Black Panther is one of the best superhero movies out there. Granted it cashes in on an important social conversation of our time, but the story is so well written that the conversation about race appears organic and not forced. The music is beautiful and the film looks great. Overall, it’s an absolute delight to watch.

Black Panther is set in the fictional kingdom of Wakanda in Africa. Home to the world’s only stores of Vibranium, the strongest metal in the universe, Wakanda has become technologically advanced and prosperous. The erstwhile king of Wakanda, T’chaka died in an explosion in Vienna (shown in detail in Captain America: Civil War) and his son T’challa is set to become the new king and will be bestowed with superpowers to protect the tribes living in Wakanda as Black Panther. That is until his cousin, Killmonger, comes to lay claim to the throne. T’challa needs to prove his worth as Black Panther and make an important decision to open up Wakanda (wrongly believed to be one of the poorest nations on earth) to the world.

The writing is a real win for Black Panther. It makes the utopian idea of an advanced and prosperous society without want seem believable. The characters are endearing, particularly the women. T’Challa’s sisters, Okaye and Shuri, and his girlfriend are all shown as strong, capable and independent women. They are not just shown in relation to T’challa but as their own people, making significant contributions to the world around them. T’Challa is strong and deserves to be king, but when he doesn’t have the superhuman strength of the Black Panther, he isn’t invincible. He is empathetic to the conditions Killmonger grew up in and transformed him into what he ultimately became. Which brings me to Killmonger. I found his character underwritten. I wish the writers and director had taken the time to show the conditions he grew up in rather than assuming knowledge about black people’s experiences growing up in America, particularly because Marvel has an international fan base. That being said, Jordan has an impressive screen presence and makes for a formidable villain in the movie.

The movie is made even more engaging by the superb use of music. After watching the film, I heard its soundtrack again and I was amazed by the variations in the songs. From the intense car chase in Busan to the powerful scenes of the Jabari tribe to the emotional scene accompanying Killmonger’s death, my emotions were heightened by the music. Furthermore, the production design and cinematography were instrumental in creating the world of Wakanda and giving me a view of just how majestic a technologically advanced, prosperous world can look like. Add to that the costumes and the film is an overall visual treat.

Marvel Studios is making its mark by churning out good film after good film. Black Panther is a gem in Marvel’s productions, not least because it became the first superhero film to receive a nomination for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. If you are even vaguely interested in superhero films or just want to watch a good movie, Black Panther your film.

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.

 

 

Spider-Man: Homecoming – A Good Balancing Act

This is the first standalone Spider-Man film in the MCU. Spider-Man was previously introduced in Captain America: Civil War where he fought alongside the other Avengers. Before that he was simply a local crimefighter whose superpowers were spider-like abilities to crawl walls, superhuman agility and enhanced mobilities and the ability to shoot high-tensile strength spiderwebs at his enemies. In Civil War, his abilities are further enhanced with the help of a brand-new high-tech suit by Tony Stark. This Spidey film explores the character following his adventures with the Avengers. The film must now contend with two challenges. First, it must prevent Spider-Man from becoming a gimmick. With many of his advanced capabilities coming from Stark’s technology, it is easy for the character to over-rely on technological features and lose his essence. Second, previous movies have seen set the precedent for conflicts that involved saving the universe. A movie that is setting up the “friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man” cannot possibly have stakes that high. At the same time, this film needs to be interesting enough to hold up after a number of awesome films.

Spider-Man: Homecoming is able to overcome both these challenges. Even though Parker has the new and improved Spider-Man suit he got from Tony Stark, the film isn’t about the suit. Despite having every advantage, for instance, Spider-Man’s able to survive and defeat his enemies because of who he is as a fighter on the inside, and not what the suit provides him. He almost drowns in his high-tech gear, but successfully beats Chitauri technology in an old pair of red tights.  Furthermore, it manages to keep the film interesting by using the technologies that have come from the Chitauri in the aftermath of the first Avengers’ movie. The challenges are still formidable – after all, it had taken a team of six Avengers, much older and much more established than Spider-Man to defeat them the last time. But the context is much more local. The film basically uses what is exciting about villains from outer space without having to involve them at all. So, Parker can be the “friendly, neighbourhood Spider-Man” and still be a total bad-ass about it.

There were two other note-worthy things about the form of the film. First, since our protagonist is only 15 years-old, the film needs to feel young. Tom Holland certainly does his part by playing the role to perfection. But beyond that, the film conveys levity and freshness through the use of music. Particularly in the first half of the film, when Spider-Man is established as a superhero, the accompanying music shows that this development is light and fun, rather than serious or epic. But the music doesn’t try to occupy centre-stage like it did in Guardians of the Galaxy (that film did it perfectly, but we don’t want that to become a hack, do we?) It is much subtler, and complements the developments on screen rather than highjacks them.

Second, the film made me think about how movies use flashback. In the scene when Spider-Man has almost been defeated by Vulture, and he must find the strength to get back up and fight, Parker stares at his reflection in a puddle of water that showed his mask as being only a part of his face. As a viewer, I can see that Parker’s dilemma in that moment is about whether he can do what is right when he doesn’t have his suit. This visual is also accompanied by Parker remembering Stark’s words, “If you are nothing without the suit, then you don’t deserve the suit.” In my opinion, this made an otherwise powerful scene too loud. I don’t understand why directors and editors choose to insert scenes or lines we may have previously heard/seen in the film as flashbacks in later scenes. If the film is engaging enough, the audience is already clued in to its tone. Adding extra dialogue is simply unnecessary and leads me to believe that the director considers his/her audience stupid.

In conclusion, Spider-Man: Homecoming can retain all of the charms of being a teenage superhero film while still holding up against the weight of the movies that have preceded this one.

 

 

Doctor Average

Doctor Strange has got a lot working for it. It’s the first sorcerer story in the MCU. The special effects are mostly visually stunning. The titular character is played by the beautiful Benedict Cumberbatch. It features another infinity stone. Music is used very well. And the plot is actually quite decent. But the promise of this film is left unfulfilled by poor writing. The writers have paid much attention to developing the character of Doctor Stephen Strange. Unfortunately, other parts of the story do not get a similar treatment. The movie is not as dumb as Ant-Man, but it gets close in parts.

Doctor Strange has a strange villain problem (#pungamestrong #Sorrynotsorry). It has two villains, and neither of them do justice to the film. From the very beginning of the film, we know Kaecilius is formidable. He also has a reasonably well-defined agenda. The problem is that he just lacks any personality or charisma. I couldn’t seem to care about him at all. The other antagonist is the Dark Lord Dormamu who wants to take over the Earth. I actively hated Dormammu. He is a piece of bad CGI and has no explicit motivation in his desire for the Earth. The conflict in this case relies exclusively on action in order to shine. To be fair, the special effects used are somewhat palliative in this case. It is a lot of fun to see different tricks being employed during action sequences. But I kept thinking how much better it would have been with a villain who made his presence felt or at least gave a damn. I also found Tilda Swinton’s character underwritten. I love Swinton’s presence in the movie, but her character also left me with more questions than answers. For instance, why did she have to draw power from the Dark Dimension? What did she do with those powers? Since the Dark Dimension is such a crucial part of the film, these questions definitely needed answering.

Now that I’ve finished hating on the movie, let me tell you what I absolutely loved – Benedict Cumberbatch shines in the movie. His character is extremely well written, and he essays the role perfectly. From the arrogant, almost insufferable doctor at the beginning of the movie, to a dedicated student of magic, to understanding that his gifts are not for his sake, but they are his to give to the world, Strange has a strong character arc. His evolution is what makes this film feel delightful when it does. It I also nice, I must say, to see an infinity stone being used strategically rather than being feared or weaponised. It shows that the infinity stones can be used in specific ways. Their power does not lie only in blowing things up (as shown in other movies).

Beyond this, I don’t have a lot to say for this movie. It’s a mid-range film through and through.

 

Captain America: Civil War – Characters and Scenes

I must admit something. In trying to write this review, I have now ended up seeing Captain America: Civil War four times. Before I started my fourth viewing, I was wondering if my liking for superheroes was a phase (gulp!) I haven’t watched a superhero movie in a while and haven’t been able to post on the blog for a long time too. So upon the fourth viewing, I thought, surely all the action and the characters would be old by now.  I was also getting tired of my writing on this blog. There wasn’t anything different that I was really bringing to the table. I was dreading the movie and what came next – concocting some banal observations into a post for the blog. And then I watched Civil War

Turns out, I was wrong on both counts. Civil War is a good film, and most of it feels good even after a fourth viewing. And thankfully, I do have something to say at the end of it. After watching the movie, I went on to YouTube (as one does when one wants to procrastinate) and amid browsing I saw a video by Nerdwriter1 about comic books and their similarities to Greek mythology. As an aside, if you haven’t already seen his channel, I highly recommend checking it out. He makes really engaging videos about pop culture, art, filmmaking and more. Anyhoo. After watching that video, I watched two more videos about superheroes on his channel. One about the importance of constructing action sequences well and one about the importance of constructing full scenes rather than trying to build up to big moments in a film. Granted, these last two videos are critiques of the DCEU, but I believe his observations across all three videos when taken together can give us a pretty decent sense for why Civil War works the way it does.

The first of the aforementioned three essays asserts that comic books and Greek mythology are similar not just because of the supernatural powers possessed by the characters, but that across different stories, both of them can present fuller, richer narratives of characters and stories than any individual story can hope to accomplish. I am not an expert on Greek mythology, so I certainly won’t talk about that. And although I have mentioned character growth across films on the blog before, I think it bears mentioning here. This film is essentially a tussle between Captain America and Iron Man. Following the battle in Age of Ultron, and the death and destruction that followed, nations across the world want the Avengers to operate under the oversight of the UN. Captain America is deeply distrustful of working according to agendas set by other people, while Iron Man believes that the Avengers are overreaching and must be kept in check. This premise serves as a launch pad to analyse how these characters.

Let us consider Captain America. From being a propaganda poster in his first film to questioning authority and realising that his responsibility is to the world, not to any institution, this character has come a long way. How then can this character grow? Civil War confronts Cap – and the audience – with his limits. For a long time, Cap has been presented as a grown up in the room. The man who was always worthy to lift Mjolnir (Age of Ultron party scene) but didn’t out of respect for Thor. The soldier who never wavers in his duty. But when his best friend Bucky is framed for bombing the UN, Cap goes against the other Avengers and rushes to his rescue. He wants to protect Bucky from the authorities, and consequently the other Avengers who have agreed to work with them, not simply because he believes his friend is innocent. He knows that as the Winter Soldier, Bucky killed Stark’s parents. Cap keeps this information from Stark to protect himself and Bucky. In doing so, he tears the Avengers apart. In other words, he acts in self-interest and ends up hurting friend and the group he worked with. Captain America may be better than a lot of the people in power, but he is not immune to agendas other than altruism.

Let us look at Iron Man. For a long time, I detested Iron Man’s character. He was arrogant and condescending and all the tech in the world couldn’t make up for that. But we see that as the stories progress, Stark realises the responsibility that comes along with having the suit. In Age of Ultron, for instance, we see that one of Stark’s biggest fears is being unable to protect the other Avengers. In this film we see that when confronted with the death of an innocent boy in the battle of Sokovia, Stark realises that there need to be limits to how the Avengers operate. This is a big leap for a man whose ego is as high as Stark Tower. It would have been nearly impossible to imagine Iron Man take this step after his first two solo movies, or even after the first Avengers. The film also picks away at the “genius-billionaire-playboy-philanthropist” image of Iron Man and shows us a lonely man who is lamenting he loss of his parents and his break-up with Pepper Potts. Add betrayal from Cap to this, and it’s not a stretch to see him fight Cap and Bucky.

Now as you probably know, having a good antagonist is really important to me. I have ranted and raved about weak villains who manage to ruin a story. After all there is no point in showing a superhero with awesome powers if he/she doesn’t have a challenge of commensurate magnitude for him/her to overcome using those powers. Many of the films in the MCU have fallen prey to what I call the ‘villain problem’. The villain problem is where the antagonist isn’t as well-developed as the protagonist. He/she is either uncharismatic, doesn’t match up to the protagonist or doesn’t have significant motivators to justify his/her actions. A number of MCU movies have that issue. But not this one. Zemo is a villain without any superpowers or significant resources. Yet he is the only villain aside from Thanos in Infinity War who manages to achieve his goal. I love how Civil War uses the Avengers’ powers against each other in big action sequences of the movie. These are powers that we know and love. The protagonists also have strong character motivations on both sides that are believable precisely because we have seen them grow across different movies in the MCU. And all in all, by using the antagonist as a catalyst and keeping the fight between the Avengers, the movie manages to create two of the most memorable action scenes in the MCU (the almost iconic airport scene and the fight between Cap, Bucky and Iron Man at the end of the movie).

This brings us to the next two Nerdwriter videos I was talking about. First, the importance of constructing an action sequence well. According to Nerdwriter a good action sequence is constructed when the superheroes use their powers creatively, the physics makes sense on an intuitive level and use the moments between the action to further character growth. Nerdwriter has also used clips from Civil War (and other Marvel movies) to illustrate this. Second, he talks about the need to construct scenes as propelling the narrative forward, rather than have it build up to a moment that is supposed to convey some sort of awe-inspiring message. To illustrate how Civil War manages to succeed on both these counts, I will talk about the final action sequence in the movie – the fight between Cap, Bucky and Iron Man.

This scene very well illustrates the powers of each superhero – Cap’s vibranium shield, Iron Man’s cool tech and Bucky’s metal arm. Each are powerful in their own ways, but the scene lets us see them all in action. Cap’s shield can cut through the restraints that Iron Man’s suit throws at him. Bucky’s arm overpowered Iron Man in hand-to-hand combat and almost succeeds in pulling out his arc reactor. And Iron Man’s arc reactor manages to blow Bucky’s metal arm apart. His suit, even when damaged by Cap’s shield, is still capable of flight. There is still a lot of punching and hitting, but that is made memorable by the creative use of each person’s powers. And even though this scene doesn’t use pauses to make quippy remarks or little jokes like most action sequences in the MCU, it still manages carry the narrative forward. This scene is all about completing Iron Man’s character arc for the movie. The pauses between the action scenes are all used to illustrate his rage at the injustice he has suffered. Take the rage with which he says, “I don’t care, he killed my mom,” or the determination of “Let’s kick his ass.” He doesn’t care about victory in battle anymore, only about avenging his parents’ deaths.

Furthermore, while the scene gives us the awesome shot of Cap’s shield resisting Iron Man’s power, it isn’t building up to that shot. The scene is wholly committed to carrying forward the narrative and everything is in service of that goal. The music conveys the desperation of the scene but it is in no way overpowering. It is subtle and quietly enhances our viewing experience. Same with the visual effects. Sure, there are some slow-motion shots that are used to illustrate Zemo’s victory over the Avengers, but they exist in harmony with the rest of the scene, not in service to it. Even though this is the end, and fans are horrified at seeing Cap fighting Iron Man, no single element of the fight is used to convey that horror. Rather the scene harmoniously conveys horror and rage and desperation. And that’s what makes it great.

 

There you have it. A film with rich characters and well constructed scenes. Thanks to Nerdwriter1 you get a long, long post on why Civil War is a movie well worth your time.