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.

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.

 

 

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.

 

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.

Captain America: The Winter Solider – Exploring the Limits of Neorealism

This Captain America movie? So much better than the one before it. Captain America’s character is written so that it fits in with the Idea of America. But in this film, rather than being self-righteous, America is being self-critical and cautious. This prevents the character from becoming a stereotype, and makes him rounded. As a result, he responds much more organically to the story which is what makes the film memorable. Captain America is working for SHIELD now, an international security organisation. When SHIELD is compromised, its Director, Nick Fury, approaches the Captain to help save the organisation’s secrets and thwart any attempt at mischief. The rest of the movie is about the Captain assembling a team to uncover the traitors within SHIELD.

I guess the only infuriating thing about the film was that Captain America didn’t take the one order Fury gave him, and what circumstances suggested he follow – don’t trust anyone. Instead he proceeds to form a team with Black Widow, Falcon and Agent Maria Hill in order to save the Earth. However, I think it would have been nearly impossible to have a Captain America movie otherwise. After all, the Captain does need an army he can lead. But this film went beyond the image of Captain America and explored the person behind the costume. Captain America was designed to fight the battles of the state without question. Steve Rogers, on the other hand, can ask tough questions (even to those in power). In addition to demonstrating that he’s more than a pawn, Captain America exposes the problem with a purely neorealist understanding of security.

Neorealism, in the most reductive sense, suggests that the natural order of the world is anarchy. And power is the currency of international relations. States, in order to survive, must strive to procure as much power as possible. Power, in the case, is measured by military superiority. So, the most powerful state in the international system is one with the most powerful military capability.

How does this relate to Captain America, you ask? Well, as Secretary of State, Alexander Pierce admits that he and Fury share a realist understanding of the world. That it is necessary to remain ready to fight at all times, even if that means pre-emptively striking potential enemy targets. In this case, the struggle for power is only not between states but against alien threats as well. To that effect, Fury commissioned three helicarriers with hundreds of jets capable of striking hostile forces. A neorealist understanding of international relations would laud such policy. But the Captain recognises this policy for what it is – the powerful holding a gun to everyone’s heads and calling it security.

Amassing weapons indiscriminately, ironically, can have adverse implications for security, as the film goes on to show. HYDRA, previously the deep science division of the Nazis, which later morphed into a worldwide terrorist organisation, had infiltrated SHIELD, and planned to use the weapons to kill millions of people and restore order to what they considered anarchy. Captain America’s solution was not only to foil HYDRA’s plans, but to dismantle the structures (albeit to a small extent) that subscribe to neorealist understandings of power. He calls for the dismantling of SHIELD to increase transparency and reduce temptation to develop advanced weapons programmes.

Captain America’s image promotes a much more positive Idea of America. This America is interested in cooperation and transparency, rather than amassing power. It stands against any party using power to bully the rest of the world, even in face of unimaginable threats. That endears the audience to the character and what he represents. Add to that a well-written story, and you’ve got yourself a thoroughly enjoyable film.