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.

Advertisements

Iron Man 3: Meh!

Day 7, dud 2. Iron Man 3 was such a disappointment. I wish I wasn’t saying this because I was so excited about it when the film started. But it got me thinking, ‘Why didn’t this movie work? What makes a good Iron Man movie?’ Here’s what I didn’t like about this movie: The film was extremely dull because none of it is believable. This sucked the joy out of the film. It may have even been a halfway decent movie, but after The Avengers, it came up short.

Before we get into the specifics of this movie, let us turn to the first question. What makes a good Iron Man movie? Iron Man is a superhero who is a product of his suit that gives him the information he needs to stay on top of his enemies during battles, ability to survive any and all circumstances (even going to outer space through a wormhole) and the ability to fight even the toughest enemies. The suit is best suited to fight enemies with powers to match: people with enhanced abilities or advanced technology. But the films are also a product of the man behind the suits. Its Tony Stark that leads Iron Man into conflict. So, the movie must also be sufficiently challenging for Stark.

On paper, this movie has all these elements. The film challenges Tony Stark by separating him (albeit briefly) from his suit. It challenges Iron Man by making his suit vulnerable to the powers of the antagonists – extreme heat that can penetrate the suit. The antagonist is formidable because he creates an army of people who can generate extreme heat. What it lacks, which is perhaps the most crucial element in an Iron Man story, is a cohesive, engaging story to tie these elements together. This is because of a dearth of a fresh plot and well written characters, and because of the way in which the conflicts in the film are resolved.

In the end, the film is about saving the US from terrorist attacks and rescuing the President and Stark’s girlfriend, Pepper Potts, from captivity. The stakes are high, but the bar for stakes has raised even higher by the last few films. Think about it. At this point we have seen two intergalactic conflicts and battles over an energy source that can create a wormhole to the other end of space. Compared to that, these stakes look stale. Regardless, this could have been a good film had it not been for poor execution.  Rather using action sequences to let the tension linger and engage audiences, the film tried too hard to tie up all loose ends. For instance, when the President is attacked on Air Force One, the plane has been damaged and people are falling to their deaths. This was a moment of high tension, but the director chose to resolve it quickly by having Iron Man catch all of them mid-air by forming a human pyramid. This had me rolling my eyes as far back as I could. Similarly, the final action sequence Stark summoned an army of robotised suits back him up. This came out of nowhere and made me wonder why he didn’t do so before when he needed a suit desperately.

Additionally, the characters in the film lacked conviction about what they were doing. This is most apparent with Maya Hansen, Stark’s ex-girlfriend. The film starts to establish her as one of the antagonists before abruptly giving her a change of heart. Similarly, the film goes to great lengths to establish a terrorist organisation and its head, ‘the Mandarin,’ but later shows the audience that the organisation is a farce, a coverup for the real antagonist. But what this person’s motivations are, what he plans to do with his power, are all questions that remain underexplored. Because of poorly written characters, the film is held weakly together by the power of Iron Man’s suits.

I wish the third instalment in the series had tried to build on everything the universe had established and tried to take it a step further. Or in the very least been a well-written standalone film. Anyhoo. Tomorrow is another day.

The Avengers: A Lesson in Continuity

Unlike most superhero movies, The Avengers is one of two movies I seen twice before. The previous two viewings had been when I hadn’t watched the preceding Marvel movies. I had watched it as a standalone film and I had liked it. After re-watching the movie now, however, I understood the movie much better. What’s the verdict on this movie now, you ask? Up until the very end the film is fun and believable. The climax showing Iron Man carrying a missile with a nuclear warhead into outer space through a wormhole and making it back alive? Not so much. Regardless, what I really admired about the movie was its ability to take a story that weaves through different films and tie it all together without alienating any audiences. Basically, if you like me watched the movie as a standalone film with no prior knowledge of the universe, you would still be able to understand and enjoy it.

The director, Joss Whedon, did a great job recapping the five previous movies into one film. The way he does that is by not rushing to make the viewer comfortable right away, but by taking his time to firmly establish the plot of this movie before filling us in on details. For more than an hour into the movie, the film provides references to recap the stories of each of the superheroes through dialogue and flashbacks. Furthermore, the interactions between the characters also help the viewer understand their essential nature and therefore engage with the film. Thus, rather than a mishmash of different people with cool powers, the film becomes cohesive – one of a team banding their forces together to serve as the protagonists against a group of powerful antagonists.

Let us first look at how the film fills the viewer in on the backstory. The Avengers’ challenge is that the story of the film deals with the Tesseract, an energy source that has been important in previous movies. A large chunk of the audience is also familiar with the stories of four out of the six Avengers in the movie as well as their relations with other characters in the film. But placed together, the events and timelines can be confusing. Before the film takes off, it needs to jog everyone’s memory. Since the Avengers don’t know each other, the film uses introductions and initial interactions as a way to sneak in the story line thus far. For instance, we learn about the conditions that transform Bruce Banner into the Hulk – high-pressure environments and pressurised containers like aircrafts and submarines are triggers that can unleash the Hulk – when Banner is trying to explain to SHIELD why he shouldn’t be on the team. We also learn that the Hulk cannot be controlled or killed. This information is important for the viewer to understand what a character (in this case the Hulk) can do. Similarly, we learn about the Tesseract (which was introduced in Thor and was explored further in Captain America) when Natasha Romanoff tries to explain it to Banner. The uninitiated audience gets a sense of what this object is, why so many parties are interested in it and why they need a team with a specific skillset to get it back since it’s been stolen. In doing so, the audience gets a sense of what the catalyst in this intergalactic conflict is. Using characters to introduce themselves, their stories and their interests gives the audience context about the story that is unfolding.

What I admired about the movie (and about Marvel as a whole) is that it didn’t stop at recapping the stories of characters and giving us a glimpse of their powers. It tells us about the nature of these characters. Marvel takes character profiles very seriously. A character’s actions are motivated by his/her personality. So, an action-packed superhero movie is not just a bunch of characters performing antics. The films tell a cohesive story whose dynamics are shared by the personalities of the characters, not just by their powers. And as the films progress, their personalities also evolve. This means Tony Stark is still an arrogant prick, especially when he condescendingly tells Thor that he has a ‘mean swing’. But the death of a beloved SHIELD agent compels him to put his ego aside and work with the other Avengers. Similarly, Thor isn’t just an alien who can swing a powerful hammer. In the previous film we saw him transform from a brute to a king. Here the trajectory continues with him wanting to use his strength to ensure good governance on Earth. But he actually takes it a step further, by realising that he needs allies in his quest and working together as an equal with other heroes on his mission. The Thor from the previous film wold have led his friends into battle or taken on the enemy alone. Working with others is new for the character.

Regularly recapping the story and focusing on the nature and personalities of the characters lend continuity to The Avengers. Without them, the film could have quickly descended into mindless action that would leave the viewers dissatisfied and confused (like Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald did. But that rant can wait).

Before I end, I express a few thoughts on Captain America’s espousal of the Idea of America. Given as this movie is about an intergalactic war that is not being fought by the American state, the writers try to steer the Captain away from engaging in any explicit propaganda about the US. Much of his old-fashioned behaviour is explained away by reminding the audience that he was asleep for 70 years and hasn’t been in keeping with the times (like when he dismisses Thor as being a God – even though he’s a Norse God – by saying that “there is only one God, and I am pretty sure he doesn’t dress like that.”) Even so, he is America. This means that when Thor and Iron Man are fighting, he is the voice of reason that tells them to cut it out. And when the Avengers assemble for their final fight of the movie, it is he who calls the shots. But I guess that is just who the character is, and writing him any differently would do him disservice.

Lastly, a couple random thoughts. First, how great is Loki? He’s good looking, sassy, formidable, and in Iron Man’s words, a “full-tilt diva”. He commands the screen and owns the narrative like no one else. Second, how great was the action scene in Germany set to wester classical music? Who knew fighting and Franz Schubert went so well together? And lastly, I’m so glad the film introduced Black Widow and Hawkeye and I cannot wait for these characters to get their own individual films.

There you have it, the end of Phase I. Now on to Phase II.

Iron Man 2: Solving the Villain Problem

Day 3, Iron Man 2. Overall, a fun, slightly cheesy movie. Honestly, all I could think of while watching this film was how they had managed to solve the villain problem from the first film. From the very outset, the villain, Ivan Vanko (played by Mickey Rourke), is introduced as formidable and having a stake in dethroning Iron Man. He understands the Stark Industries’ arc reactor and has the knowledge to make the miniaturised version that Iron Man uses to power his suit. More importantly, he has nothing to lose. This makes for a gripping story, but the writers, director and editor have gone a step further to also make it a good cinematic experience.

They have done this in two ways. First, the writing has made sure that the antagonist is the protagonist’s equal. If Stark developed the miniaturised arc reactor while in captivity in Afghanistan, Vanko did so while living in poverty in Russia. Stark may have a suit, but Vanko wreaked havoc on Iron Man even without one. Both Stark and Vanko inherited the knowledge required to build the arc reactor from their fathers (who worked together on the project). Stark has a legacy to protect. His motivations are driven by what has name represents. While Vanko isn’t acting out of the desire to protect the Vanko name, he too wants to honour his father’s legacy by taking forward the work he did. Vanko’s vitriolic hatred for Stark translates into him developing sophisticated technology that can challenge the latter. The film couples that with shattering the myth of invincibility around Iron Man. Iron Man has a powerful suit that can help him fly around the world and dodge attacks from powerful weapons. But the suit can’t prevent palladium poisoning and unless Iron Man can replace palladium in the arc reactor keeping him alive with another metal (hello Vibranium), he is going to die. This raises the challenge for the protagonist and keeps the audience from getting comfortable in the movie.

The second device the director and editor use to engage the audience is to intersperse the protagonist’s and antagonist’s actions. So, as we are watching Iron Man indulge in silly antics or worry about palladium poisoning, we see Vanko becoming stronger. Unlike in Iron Man, the antagonist’s gradually increasing power and Iron Man’s vulnerability reach a crescendo. Now the protagonist can only win if rises to the antagonist’s challenge. Iron Man proves himself to the audience which keeps them invested in him as the film ends. Even though Iron Man 2 isn’t as highly rated as the first part in the series, I personally enjoyed it more because of these storytelling techniques.

Aside from techniques, what also impressed me about Iron Man 2 was that it gave Stark’s character more layers. In the first film, Stark was arrogant, pompous and erratic. You don’t learn anything more about the character. In this film, confronted with the enormity of his creation and his own impending mortality, we see the character have questions about his work, where he is heading and what he wants. His descent into debauchery is out of frustration at not arriving at straightforward conclusions to existential questions rather than carelessness. Even though I still find Stark’s character insufferable, I understand him a bit better and have more empathy for him.  This makes the character richer, more relatable and sets him up for the role he will play in subsequent movies. And that is a real win for writing.

Here goes Day 3. Tomorrow it’s time for Thor, a film that has been on my list for weeks. I cannot wait!

Iron Man’s Villain Problem

Like so many others, I am beyond excited for Avengers: Endgame. However, I am not a traditional superhero fan. I became interested in the genre only recently and I haven’t seen all the movies in the MCU. As a result, I don’t know everything I there is to know about the Avengers. I plan to remedy that before the release of Avengers: Endgame. Between now and then, I am going to watch and review every movie in the MCU. If anyone wants to gush about the Avengers, I am available in the comments! So here goes, the first movie of MCU Phase 1 – Iron Man

Iron Man (2008) is largely a very fun movie. It is exciting to see a man build a suit out of the limited materials he has at hand in a cave to make an escape from his kidnappers. The action sequences with Iron Man are genuinely enjoyable. I did find the character of Tony Stark (played by Robert Downey Jr.) insufferable, but it wasn’t anything I couldn’t overlook (with the occasional eye roll, of course). Overall Iron Man is a great movie to start us off. It is well-written story with good action sequences and a decent plot – a weapons’ manufacturer trying to undo his legacy of war and destruction by becoming a superhero. The problem with Iron Man, is that this genius hero doesn’t have a comparable villain to go up against.

So that makes the principal antagonist of the film, Obadiah Stane/Iron Monger (played by Jeff Bridges), a poor villain? First, at the very outset, Stark is portrayed to be superior than Stane. In the second scene of the film, we see that at 21, Stark becomes the CEO of Stark Industries brushing Stane aside. Right away, Stark is better than his antagonist. Second, the villain isn’t able to develop his own powers. Stane steals scraps of Iron Man’s initial suit to make his own. He can’t even develop the Miniaturised Arc Reactor by himself; he steals it from the protagonist. This further perpetuates the idea that the Stane is no match for Iron Man. This is before the any direct fighting between Iron Man and Iron Monger. When the action begins, it fails to create the tension required to engage the viewer in the film. As the viewer, I already know that Iron Man can defeat Iron Monger because the film has told me so.

In addition to being perceived as less formidable, Iron Man has almost no comparable opponent for more than half the movie. At the beginning of the movie, Stark’s main opponent is his kidnapper, Raza. The playing field here is levelled because although Stark is very capable, he is trying to create something amazing in a cave in rural Afghanistan with whatever materials are available to him there. He is also in captivity making him vulnerable to his opponent. This makes the film interesting and makes Iron Man’s escape all the more impressive.

But Raza isn’t the principle antagonist of the film. He is being used by Stane in the latter’s quest for dominance. But rather than building up the character of the villain along with the hero so that the viewer doesn’t take Iron Man for granted and becomes invested in the conflict in the movie, the director Jon Fraveau only allows the viewer to see the already formidable Tony Stark transform into an almost indomitable Iron Man. At the point the viewer’s perceptions about the hero have already been developed, and the film doesn’t make an effort to subvert them. This reduces the impact of the antagonist.

About one hour into the movie, long after Iron Man’s character has been established, the movie finally reveals that the antagonist will use the scraps from Iron Man’s suit as the basis for his/her armour. The armour of the antagonist is not discussed again until 2/3rds of the movie is over. Furthermore, Stane isn’t revealed to be the bad guy until more than halfway through the movie. Even then, he is shown to be opposing Tony Stark in business, not as a supervillain. It is only in the last 25 minutes of the film (including 10 minutes of credits) that the main conflict of the movie emerges, and the antagonist challenges the protagonist. Couple that with his perception as an inferior fighter and you have the villain problem in the film.

Despite a major problem, Iron Man is a fun watch because his powers are super cool. They are tested in multiple situations throughout the film (his big escape from captivity, his encounter with militants in Gulmira, getting chased by the US government, and his final battle with Iron Monger). As a viewer this made me want to root for Iron Man. That being said, I hope Iron Man 2 offers our hero more of a challenge.