#firsttimefriday Avengers: Endgame … Flawed, But Unforgettable

Has a mass-market blockbuster ever opened on such a downer as this one? Infinity War’s ending made anything else impossible, of course, but what one expects from such a major movie is not an hour or so of a whole set of characters learning to live with loss and grief. It’s to the movie’s immense credit that this is sustained for so long, and so well handled to the extent that the occasional flashes of Marvel humour in that segment of the film don’t seem out of place. Occasionally we pan out to the big picture and global scale of the loss. One character saying “I miss the Mets” brings you up short; so many have died that, even 5 years later, professional sports can not function. Another powerful moment is a scene that takes in a monument bearing the names of some of The Vanished – the monument seems endless.

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As well as this is handled, this wasn’t my major concern ahead of the film. That revolved around what Endgame was going to do about the overwhelming loss of Infinity War. Science-fiction/fantasy stories run in to trouble, stretching credibility even in terms of their own worlds (which is the only credibility that really matters), when they get out of a narrative tight spot or emotional downbeat by pressing some kind of metaphorical ‘reset button’; what happened didn’t really happen, or is just undone. I feared even further when the proposed solution in Endgame started to be unpacked. In a manner of speaking, I was right to worry about this. A metaphorical reset button is pressed, but it’s done in a deft way; the journey to that point is fraught with real loss that can’t be undone, not to mention a bravura trip back through various points in some of the movies that have bought to this point, with scenes replayed from new angles (to say much more would be to risk too much of a spoiler). Both of these choices are well handled; as ever, this series mostly manages the dance between humour and sadness with great dexterity.

The major loss of the film was genuinely moving; other losses, less so. When you have a series of films that has (so far) lasted 11 years and 21 films, and introduced (according to Wikipedia) 226 characters, there’s only so much attachment one can build up to many of them. Plus I’m old, and I forget things. This is especially so in one key plot strand that ends with 2 characters having to resolve which of them will sacrifice for the other. It’s a powerful moment, but to be honest I just didn’t care enough about them to really be moved by what could have been a landmark moment.

Much has been made in the last year or so of Marvel introducing its first film led by a black character (the excellent Black Panther) and a woman (the good but not outstanding Captain Marvel); these were indeed significant cultural moments. Endgame undercuts them somewhat by disappointingly sidelining them both for most of the film; admittedly, in the case of Captain Marvel at least, this may be as much to do with working out a reason for her immense powers not to be the solution to every problem. Even so, it doesn’t really work for me; in the movie’s defence in this regard, however, my 10-year old, previously superhero averse, daughter sat through it all without a toilet break or complaint not once, but twice, because “The girls kick butt!”; which is certainly true of some less central female characters.

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Two performances stand out for me: Josh Brolin as Thanos is brilliant, managing to imbue such a cosmic villain with pathos. Paul Rudd (Ant Man) is, for me, one of the least appreciated parts of the MCU, and his performance is superb here; great comic moments, and an occasional cypher for the more casual viewer who needs to be caught up to events. In addition, any moment in which Taika Waititi gets to give voice to his flawless comic timing as the voice of Korg is a good one; more of that, please.

It’s striking how little action there is for such a film; to be honest, this strained the running time for me. I think the middle third could have been contracted a little; it lagged at times. But I seem to be in a minority on that, as my daughter testifies above. For me it also suffers a little from ‘Return Of The King’ syndrome; there were several occasions when I thought it had finished (and wanted it to end), but another coda came along. Yes, there are a lot of character arcs to tie up; but this is a film where neither the big picture nor micro narrative arcs are entirely smooth or neat, and the last 30 minutes or so dragged. What should have been a touching final scene for one character (and indeed the film) felt like blessed relief; other narrative developments earlier in the film were all but accompanied with a knowing nod to camera. The latter would at least have felt more in tune with the series’ tone. The climactic battle isn’t handled brilliantly either; there’s too much going on with too many for me to really keep track of what’s happening; a common fault of superhero films (Black Panther being one of the notable exceptions). I’m thinking that in this regard the makers could have learned from the flawless execution of the massed battles in the Lord of The Rings films.

These are small complaints in context. We do need to take a moment to acknowledge the Marvel achievement here; when the first Iron Man movie kicked this all off 11 years ago, none of us really knew what would happen. None of us expected what has transpired; a multi-stranded, complex, overlapping set of blockbusters that (largely) standalone for the causal viewer, bring in new fans with no loyalty to the comic books (like me) and serve the hardcore fans also. To reach this point of the project and to do so as one of the biggest films of all time, with the confidence to inflict real loss on its characters and audience, is a unique cinematic achievement which, for all the faults in this film or any others in the series, is something likely to never be equalled. If anyone ever says again that modern attention spans are too short and people don’t really like complex stories any more, that conversation can be ended with the sample of the Marvel films (and Game of Thrones); all we need is characters we care about, and we remain capable of following even the most complex of plots. Remember these films are serious hits amongst people much younger than me, with a far greater grasp of the narrative complexities spread over all the films. In that respect little has changed since story-telling began.

There are themes and ideas to mine from this movies, and all that’s gone before. Some of them will sit long in the mind, some of them give merely a fleeting suggestion. In all honesty, to really mine and understand those I’ll need to revisit them all over a more condensed period of time; Endgame is certainly a film that you can enjoy with a relatively limited engagement of the preceding films, but the experience will be all the richer in relation to the viewer’s familiarity with the breadth of the context. For now, we come to an end that is also a rest, and a pause. We all need to take a breath.

Man Of Steel

Some people just don’t know when to stop. Zack Snyder, director of this new Superman movie, is one of those. With films like 300 and Watchmen in his past we can’t say we don’t know what to expect. A slightly surreal comic book aesthetic, stylised destruction and violence, a lack of humour and a very loud soundtrack with Wagnerian pretensions. I’ll be honest: I haven’t enjoyed his previous films. Hopes were higher here, though – not least because Christopher Nolan is the producer and co-writer. If anyone could reign Snyder’s excesses in, its the man who can handle huge budgets, gargantuan expectations and big stars and still produce something exciting, commercially successful and that’s still artistically and intellectually satisfying.

The result is Snyder’s best film. To put that in context, it’s possibly the worst film that Nolan has put his name to in any form. Granted, in this age of dark superhero reinventions, Superman was always going to present a challenge. He’s too easy to poke fun at – red underpants outside the trousers, flying and an enemy called Zod. Seriously.

Snyder deals with this by constantly cutting back to Superman’s back story. Whether it’s his origins on Krypton born to Russel Crowe or his Earth-bound childhood of self-discovery with his father Kevin Costner these scenes are handled well. Lois Lane is the reporter trying to unearth if the elusive rescuer of people in danger is an urban myth, a figment of her imagination or an alien. All of this works well – it’s exciting, occasionally moving, and well handled. Crowe and Costner are especially well cast.

Where the film strays is with a distinct lack of wit and the climactic, seemingly endless battle with Zod. The missing wit and humour is notable because of the two scenes where it actually exists: one brilliant visual gag after a narrowly avoided bar-fight when Superman is still trying to remain anonymous; the other when he teaches himself to fly   – a scene which pops with exhilaration, grins and joy. In the aftermath of those you realise you haven’t smiled at all otherwise, and probably won’t. Snyder, crashing orchestral soundtrack and buildings together, wants to ram the portentous events down our throats, to see profound parallels, to take it all Seriously. We can’t. Because it’s too much and too long. The supposedly serious parallels (puberty, religion, identity) are so po-faced they wash over us; the wit so minimal we never have the chance to have fun. Christopher Nolan showed in his Batman trilogy that you can do serious superhero movies and still have fun; if he tried to teach Snyder this, then he didn’t get his point across.

British unknown Henry Cavill does a decent job in the lead role; he certainly looks the part and manages to invest the character with a modicum of depth. It’s a shame, that for all the bombast and spectacle, that’s lacking in the rest of the movie. When an actor of Richard Schiff’s skill is reduced to a few scenes where he stands and gawps, you’ve missed an opportunity. It’s not a bad film; there is much to enjoy. It just would have been so much the better 45 minutes shorter and with a sense of control. Here’s hoping the inevitable sequel learns the a little less could leave us much more satisfied.

I rated this movie 3/5 on rottentomatoes.com and 6/10 on imdb.com

Iron Man 3

Super-heroes are by definition people who are a little different. Not just in the powers or abilities which set them apart from the rest of us, but in what has led to them this point. Often they have found life difficult, sometimes darkness has shaped them from their childhood. For Iron Man, he’d been captured in war, suffered a life-threatening injury and found a way to turn it all for good.

All the same, he was still irritating. The movies bearing his name have presented Tony Stark (Iron Man’s every day identity) as a super sucessful business-man who can have whoever and whatever he wants. He also happens to be able to put on a cool iron suit and save the world every now and then. The first film was a riotous joyride; the second fun with a over-blown ending. This third one still puts the accent very much on fun. Robert Downey Junior’s lead character is still fast-talking, wise-cracking, insufferable and irritating (in a good way for the audience, in a bad way for anyone who wants a relationship with him). Now there’s feet of clay, though. He’s beset by occasional panic attacks about which he lives in denial and covers over with arrogance, bravado and the trappings of success. His iron suit, we’re allowed to suspect, is as much a protection against himself as against whatever foes the world has to offer. This time that takes the form of an elusive and strange terrorist master-mind with very public designs on the life of the President. It’s a fun build-up; Gwyenth Paltrow is irritatingly under-used in an important role when we see an unnecessary amount of bit-part male supporting players. Such is the way of a mega-dollar, institutionally sexist industry.

The climax is slightly too long also, stretched just past the point of too many robots doing slightly too much hitting of each other. The 3D is pointless, as always. But it’s a good, fun entry in the expanding super-hero movie universe; a universe of flawed heroes finding identity in their scars. Not bad role models, it turns out.

I rated this movie 4/5 on rottentomatoes.com and 7/10 on imdb.com. I saw this movie in 3D IMAX format.

Watchmen

In director Zac Snyder’s head, this film is an epic superhero movie, part-Goodfellas or Godfather, part Shakespearean tragedy. Unfortunately that movie is still somewhere in his head.

Released in 2009, and recorded by myself nearly a year ago, I’ve finally summoned the will to watch the nearly 3 hours of this adaptation of one of the most revered graphic novels. I haven’t read it; I haven’t read any graphic novels. Not because I deem them unworthy of my attention – I’m just aware this a genre I’d need to get to grips with. That’s something I’ve never done.

The problem with adapting any loved source is the faithfulness/adaptation debate. This misses the point – it’s best to think of book and film is 2 separate incarnations of a third party – the story. Look at a film like Trainspotting to see it done to near perfection. The two media are different, and so should the interpretations of a story in those media. Zac Snyder’s film goes, I’m told for fidelity – trying to tell a story set inappropriate alternative 1985 where Nixon is still president, where superheroes are known to the public and where public opinion is on the turn. Then there’s some kind of murder story. And something to do with nuclear weapons. And, apparently, relationship stuff.

The plot doesn’t seem to flow; parts of the script would be returned to a high school film studies student to try harder. It a very, very long two and three quarter hours film.

It’s not all bad – some action scenes are ridiculous and aimless; some nicely handled and artfully directed. It’s at it’s best when it sticks to the detective story elements – sadly, that’s all too little, lost in all the apparently aimless meanderings.There’s probably a good film to be made from parts of this source; sadly, this one doesn’t make the appeal of the graphic novel apparent to anyone who’s not already on-side. A missed opportunity.

I rated this film 2/5 on rottentomatoes.com and 4/10 on imdb.com