Avengers Endgame: Coming to an Epic Close

So, this is it. The culmination of stories spread across 21 movies. The Endgame. If someone had told me six months ago that I would be this excited for a superhero movie, I would’ve laughed. Six months later, I’m just so glad I got into the genre. The journey has opened up a new universe (literally) for me. Celebrating the end of this journey was a completely different ballgame. I couldn’t get the tickets to an IMAX 3D show on the opening weekend, and I was naturally upset. Of course, this meant that I was watching the movie twice. At least.

That being said, let’s talk Endgame. There is a lot to say here. The movie left me with many questions and many, many feelings. Let us first get the negatives out of the way. The movie is not perfect. The pacing and narrative are a little choppy which makes the film seem slow in the first half. The first half of the film is largely about getting the avengers to assemble and figure out their plan. It tells a number of emotional stories of how each of the Avengers are dealing with the loss of half the universe. A universe that they vowed to protect. In the end, Tony Stark and Bruce Banner are the only people who have accepted this new reality (sort of). Starks relationship with his daughter is particularly endearing (“I love you 3000”? Come on!) Thor’s self-destructive behaviour, a radical departure from his usual macho self is a welcome turn. It makes the movie feel much more realistic and relatable. These stories were great and made me invested in the characters all over again. The build-up was essential for a movie this intense and emotional. But it made the first half feel slow. It is not boring, but I kept thinking to myself, when is a big action sequence coming up? And this is coming from someone who doesn’t think of herself as a fan of action movies (at least so far).

The other problem with Endgame is that for a large chunk of the movie, the Avengers aren’t dealing with an antagonist. Thanos realises that the Avengers are going to use the infinity stones to derail his plan of mass genocide a good few minutes into the movie. The Avengers don’t face off with him until later. This means the Avengers, already set up to be the “Earth’s mightiest heroes,” are not being challenged by an external antagonist as they do their jobs. The heroes barely display their powers. While there is a lot of emotion, we don’t see much avenging for a long time.

There are also a couple unanswered questions in the movie. For one, time travel. I hate when films use time travel because the physics of it cannot be soundly explained and it leaves me with more questions than I know what to do with. What happens to the alternate timelines created by the Avengers’ actions when they go back in time. What does Cap’s decision to life his life with Peggy mean for the universe? Furthermore, when and how did Cap become worthy to lift Mjolnir?

Lastly, I didn’t quite like the treatment of Black Widow and Hawkeye. I love both of these characters, and while they are integral to this film, their arc doesn’t feel as complete as that of the others. Black Widow’s big scene was in Vormir, when she sacrifices herself so Hawkeye could get the Soul Stone. One of the highlights of Infinity War was the scene where Thanos sacrifices Gamora to get the soul stone. It was deeply emotional and helped demonstrate the significance of the stone. When this scene was recreated in Endgame, the bar was set very high. Unfortunately, the scene missed the same emotional intensity. Black Widow’s death was incredibly sad, but treated better, it could have been one of the best scenes in the movie. Similarly, Hawkeye’s turn for the unhinged was a bit of a downer. Like Thor, Hawkeye cannot come to terms with his new reality and changes radically. Only in his case, the change feels much less organic. I cant understand this new Hawkeye, because I don’t know what he is feeling. True, Hawkeye is a doer, but I wish the film would’ve given the audience more of an insight into his mind and heart.

I know I am being nit-picky. I wish the emotional scenes had action and the action scenes more emotion. But Endgame isn’t just any old movie, is it? It represents the end of an era for true fans, and the directors, Anthony and Joe Russo, have made it suitably grand. There are more than a few great shots and scenes. The shots of outer space, for instance, filled me with awe. The fight between Captain America and his older self from 2012 is awesome. The shot where they clash shields is one of my favourites from the MCU. Of course, when Cap yells, “Avengers, assemble!” a big smile swept across my face. And of course, there is the big action sequence towards the end of the film. Whatever misgivings I had about the paucity of action in the movie simply disappeared as soon as that scene began. It is grand and nostalgic and features every character from the MCU. Some characters get more attention than the others, but I guess in a film this big that comes with the territory. These scenes and shots, however, are simply embellishments on what is a solid movie. The film’s real strength comes from getting the audience invested in the characters. It is so easy to focus on the powers the characters possess rather than the people they are. Endgame avoids that trap by a mile. Instead it presents us with three-dimensional characters who have grown, both since their first films in the MCU and within the movie itself. Since it is impossible to do this for all the characters in a three-hour long movie, the film chooses to focus on the three main Avengers – Thor, Captain America and Iron Man.

Take the case of Iron Man. I never much liked his character (I know, I know, it’s an unpopular opinion). I thought he was too arrogant and quippy. After the first Iron Man movie, when he reveals to the world that he is Iron Man, it is largely another feather in his cap. He is not just a genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist, but also a literal superhero. Over the years, he understands the responsibility he has on his shoulders because of his suit both towards his fellow Avengers and to the people affected by his actions. Thor transforms from a brutish fighter to a protector of nine realms to realising the magnitude of his own power to languishing in despair when he finds that his power isn’t enough. Over the years, Captain America sheds some of his old fashioned, military man personality and begins to question authority. He goes from being just a supersoldier to becoming an Avenger who keeps the interests of the universe at heart. These are changes that the Avengers and other MCU movies have showed us over the years.

Endgame completes the arcs for these characters. It does so by making these characters dig deep into their feelings. Additionally, Banner finally reconciles with the Hulk and the characters work together to become mutually beneficial to each other. Thor and Stark get to reconnect with their (dead) parents. Iron Man – or shall we say Howard Potts – who had always been distant from his father gets a chance to spend some time with him and learn how much he is loved. Frigga’s counsel helps Thor accept his failure and move on from it. The drunk and sloppy Thor returns from Asgard as the God of Thunder with his beloved Mjolnir. Cap gets to see Peggy again and gets glimpse of the life he lost. These backstories are important because they dictate the course of the characters’ actions for the remainder of the movie. Thor sheds his sloppy avatar and returns to battle as the fighter he is. Cap understands the magnitude of his sacrifices over the years and accepts that he needs to live for himself, and not just for his duties as Captain America. That explains his decision to live his life with Peggy as Steve Rogers and pass on the mantle of Captain America to Falcon. Stark realises that his father loved him very much, but he had to do the work he was supposed to. When it comes time to sacrifice himself, Stark – initially reluctant to re-join the Avengers for the fear of losing his own family – then fully accepts the responsibilities that come with his suit and comes through for the Avengers and the universe. After all, he is Iron Man. Despite the paucity of action in the first half of the movie and the disappointing character arcs of Black Widow and Hawkeye, Endgame’s ability to make me care about the characters the way it did left me feeling a multitude of emotions at the end of the movie.

I think I can safely say that Avengers: Endgame was exactly the sort of ending that this phase of the MCU needed. And what a ride it has been! When else have you seen twenty-one inter-connected stories come together in one great movie? Starting to follow these movies has given me one more thing to love and be excited by. And that is absolutely wonderful. I can wait to see what Phase 4 has to offer.

 

 

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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.

Avengers: Age of Ultron – Lessons in Empathy

It’s the Age of Ultron. The second instalment in the Avengers series currently the least popular. And I don’t think it’s because it’s a bad film. But compared to the other two movies, the film has some weak links. Here is what worked and what didn’t for this movie.

First, what a start! No set up, but diving straight into action. The Avengers are looking for Loki’s sceptre from the previous film and encounter plans to create an army of enhanced beings. This is a relatively small threat compared to the Avengers’ (specifically Iron Man’s) solution to this problem. Use AI to stop any threats to the earth. This is not a new plot. Captain America: The Winter Soldier has explored the idea of boosting security measures to the extent of starting a pre-emptive war before. That movie did it through conventional weapons, this one through AI. I give full credit to this film for treating the subject very differently. That is what made the film enjoyable and helped take the series forward. After seeing this movie – which shows the addition of two new characters (Vision and Wanda) and the return of War Machine and Falcon – I particularly appreciate the vision the makers had for this series. The group is in constant need of new challenges in order to remain interesting. And those new challenges need to be faced differently. Hence, new characters with different skills. This is very cool, and I can’t wait to see what they can achieve together.

The principal problem with the movie is that it fails to generate empathy with the viewer about the character of its principal conflict. Stark tries to create a programme that would ensure world peace, and instead creates one that believes peace can only be achieved through a complete destruction of life on earth. Unlike in Winter Soldier where the Captain and his friends were trying to clean up SHIELD’s mess, Age of Ultron has the Avengers creating the mess they must deal with. And while knowing that the Avengers are still humans (and a demi-God) who make can make mistakes makes the film realistic, it calls into question whether these are the ‘earth’s mightiest heroes.’ That does not bode well for the Avengers. The secondary problem in this film is that while Natasha Romanoff gets a chance to shine, Black Widow’s character is underwritten. Compared to her peers, her contribution is tiny in action sequences. Her weapon of choice is a pair of Glock-26s for most of the film (save for the last sequence). They are no match against Ultron’s powers. The Avengers had done a brilliant job of making sure that all characters play an equal role in vanquishing the enemy. This film fails Black Widow in that sense.

Where the film does shine is in the area of character development. It’s easy for a film like the Avengers, particularly with a lot more superheroes this time around to be a purely action film. Director Joss Whedon doesn’t give in to that temptation. Instead he spends time exploring who the characters are in order to provide a reasoning for the decisions they take. And this is done primarily through one beautifully written, directed and edited scene. It is the scene where the Avengers, after being forced to flee following a freak accident, take shelter in Clint Barton’s house. I had read somewhere that director Joss Whedon insisted upon keeping this nearly 15-minute long scene in the movie because he believed it gave the characters some much needed depth. I couldn’t agree more. The scene is all about characters conversing with each other to understand what they feel and what they must do going forward.

This scene helps the viewer understand what each character feels about his/her power. Banner and Romanoff are burdened by their abilities. The other Avengers view their powers as means to help them fight evil. But for these two characters, their powers are a curse. While they can fight tough when needed, they would rather not be a part of the war at all. Stark and Cap can’t imagine living without their suits (for all of Iron Man’s rhetoric that he wants to end the fight). They both think that their power gives them responsibility to protect those around them. Consequently, they do everything in their capacity to do so. And sometimes (as in the case of Stark), that can create monsters like Ultron. In between all these characters with loaded pasts, the film reminds us why the team needs a Hawkeye. Hawkeye is the only character whose mind Wanda can’t mess with. It shows that while all other Avengers’ decisions were based on deep personal musings, which threaten to derail their missions, here is a character who is a doer. He doesn’t have grand visions about the world or himself. He only sees and executes his missions. And the film gives him plenty of chances to shine while doing so. (Like when he tells Wanda during the final action scene, “The city is flying, we are fighting an army of robots and I have a bow and arrow. None of this makes sense. But I am going back out there because it is my job.”)

Before I sign off, I have two random musings. First, I only just realised why action movies are so enjoyable. I guess there is a deep-seated desire within us to watch the world descend into chaos and rebuild itself. Second, when I started the movie, it suddenly hit me what these movies are all about. Characters with insane abilities trying to solve problems. And we are hooked to that because we wish this world was real. Both of these things were probably common sense to a lot of you. But I only just realised it and it blew my mind.