Avengers: Endgame

Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle, Paul Rudd, Brie Larson, Karen Gillan, Bradley Cooper, Gwyneth Paltrow, Josh Brolin

Directors: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo

Writers: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely


We know for a fact that Avengers: Endgame will not be the last movie in the MCU. Even if the trailer for Spider-Man: Far From Home hadn’t already hit theatres by the time of the film’s release or that most of the stars in this film weren’t already contracted to appear in future instalments, it doesn’t take a genius to understand that Marvel and Disney are in no hurry to end their multi-platform, billion dollar franchise. One of the most notable things about Endgame though is how much it feels like a definitive conclusion to the story the MCU has told over the course of the 22 films they’ve released in the last 11 years. This is of course partly to do with the understanding that some of the film’s biggest stars, including Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans, would be retiring their characters with this movie. From a storytelling perspective, there is a definite sense of finality surrounding Endgame as it promises to deliver a conclusion to the stories of the characters who originally helped launch the series. It feels like a certain era has come to an end and the time has come for the old hands to step down and pass the torch over to the younger, fresher, and more diverse line-up slated to take their place. Understanding this, Endgame presents itself as the final chapter of an epic saga with all the grandeur, gravity and magnitude such a coda demands.

Endgame picks up immediately following the events of Infinity War, an epic earth shattering crossover event that ended with Thanos (Josh Brolin) collecting the six infinity stones and wiping out half of the universe with a snap of his fingers. Previously when the Marvel cinematic universe had seen a dramatic shift in the status quo, whether it be a change in the Avenger line-up, the disbandment of SHIELD, or half of Earth’s mightiest heroes becoming fugitives, the shift doesn’t tend to feel as momentous as it should since the filmic format favoured by the MCU is unsuited for the task of conveying long-term consequences. When Age of Ultron concluded with a new team of Avengers, we only get to see them do one mission together before the whole Avengers Initiative was terminated in Civil War. Even then, the reality of a world without the Avengers never got much time to sink in because as soon as Thanos came knocking in Infinity War, the team was back together again. This is why it’s so striking to see Endgame devote so much of its time towards depicting the tragic outcome of a post-Thanos world. Instead of immediately retconning the ending of the last film so that the Avengers might get back to business as quickly as possible, most of this film is actively focused on exploring and understanding the emotional toil of the surviving characters.

Those who survived the last film include Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), and Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson). Each is severely affected by their failure to stop Thanos and, even with the help of the newly arrived Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), all efforts to undo the damage prove futile. The only thing left for them is to live on in this new world and achieve what sense of normalcy they can. A significant amount of the film plays out not unlike a blockbuster remake of HBO’s The Leftovers as we’re treated to surprisingly profound explorations of grief. The characters who’ve been left behind following this galactic genocide have to deal with such feelings as personal loss, survivor’s guilt, dejection, disillusionment, helplessness and the crushing weight of failure and defeat. For those wondering why this chapter of the Marvel saga demands a three-hour runtime, this is it. In order for us to appreciate the desperation of the Avengers’ effort to fix the world that Thanos broke, we first must appreciate what it is they’ve all lost and what it is they’re each fighting for. Thus when Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) returns from his ill-timed trip to the Quantum Realm in Ant-Man and the Wasp and presents the Avengers with a possible solution, we’re ready to root for them all the harder.

Even then, however, the film doesn’t leap straight into the action. Endgame is a film about reflection and, given the impossibility of what they have to achieve compared with how much they’ve already lost and what little they’ve managed to hold on to, the film allows room for the characters to decide how much more they’re willing to sacrifice and how much further they’re willing to go. Given the stakes that have been set up, it’s not much of a stretch to consider that this may well be a one-way trip for some of the team, which by this point includes Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner), James Rhodes (Don Cheadle), Nebula (Karen Gillan) and Rocket (Bradley Cooper). Where Infinity War struggled to accommodate each major character and share out whatever amount of screen-time they could spare, Endgame benefits enormously from having a smaller cast to work with and it is here that the long-form storytelling and character development starts to pay off. Inevitably it’s the main characters who experience the most meaningful changes while the side characters more or less fulfil their usual roles (with the exception of Nebula, who is given an extraordinary arc). Thus Captain America’s sense of duty compounded with his mourning for the life he had to give up to become a hero, Iron Man’s eternal struggle between his conceited ego and sincere desire to help and protect others, and Thor’s repressed traumas and insecurities versus the burden of his responsibility to his people; all these arcs are concluded in ways that, by the end of the film, feel fitting and earned.

The way the rest of the story plays out is a little disjointed. Characters are split up as they chase different objectives and encounter varying obstacles in ways that can feel divergent at times. Endgame plays out a lot like a Christopher Nolan movie with a dozen intricate parts all moving at the same, but without the clear sense of direction and cohesion that make his films feel so substantial. If this had been a standalone film with original character, it would have been all but incomprehensible for the viewer for all of its tangents and self-indulgence. But that’s not what Endgame is; this is a film that’s building off 21 movies worth of storytelling, characterisation and world building and that’s why its convoluted approach works. When the film seems to diverge, it’s because the characters in question need to end up in certain places at certain times in order for their arcs to be fulfilled. This is a movie that was designed to deliver pay-offs for anything and everything that long-time Marvel fans have invested themselves in from long term character journeys to tiny in-jokes carried over from previous Marvel films. The format is such that the film can structure itself around all the callbacks and references it can dream up, allowing fans to appreciate all the further how much change and growth has taken place, both in the fictional world and the real, since that moment 11 years ago when Tony Stark stood on a pedestal and announced to the whole world “I am Iron Man”.

The catharsis that Endgame offers to viewers who have followed them in their decade-long cinematic experiment and have grown to love the universe they’ve created and the characters who inhabit it is such that I can hardly bring myself to fault the film even as it missteps in the handling of certain characters’ stories (including a major death that I found deeply unsatisfying) and indulges in some of the habits and trends that I tend to dislike in their films. The action as directed by the Russo Brothers is typical of Marvel in that there are few visual flourishes and little technical inventiveness to enrich what is otherwise blandly competent, and yet the individual moments that occur, especially in the film’s colossal final hour, are so enjoyable and satisfying (outside of one rather patronising moment) that it’s a little difficult for me to care. This is a movie that was made to fulfil a very specific purpose for a specific kind of viewer and it succeeds so remarkably well both on an emotional and stimulating level that it seems almost churlish to demand more. The film doesn’t even attempt to appeal itself towards those who haven’t already been converted because it has absolutely nothing to offer them, which is a feature, not a bug. Avengers: Endgame is a singular cinematic event of unprecedented proportions and that it ended up being as great as it was is quite simply a miracle.

★★★★★

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Arrival

Cast: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Tzi Ma

Director: Denis Villeneuve

Writer: Eric Heisserer


One of the lesser cinematic experiences I had this year came from watching Independence Day: Resurgence, a shameless crash grab that was stupid, dull and nonsensical. Now, as we approach the end of 2016, comes the movie’s perfect antithesis. Arrival, also a movie about aliens coming to Earth (whether or not it’s an invasion is unclear), is everything that Resurgence is not. I don’t only mean this in terms of quality, although it is to be sure a superior movie in every way. I also mean this in how the film chooses to approach its subject. While Resurgence follows the typical Hollywood formula of casting the aliens as generic, faceless baddies who are defeated in the end through force and might, Arrival is a film that celebrates reason, thought and empathy. Rather than having the American military leading the charge and saving the day, the solution is instead found in science and communication and is implemented through the careful and challenging process of collaboration. This is a great film with a great message and I am so glad it came out this year.

When twelve extra-terrestrial spacecrafts appear all around Earth, Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), one of the Earth’s foremost experts in linguistics, is enlisted by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) to help the US military. Working with Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a theoretical physicist, she must establish a system of communication with the aliens and find out who they are, where they come from, and why they are here. When they enter the craft they are greeted by two squid-like aliens whom they christen Abbott and Costello (whose most famous sketch is appropriately about a linguistic miscommunication). Banks discovers that the aliens have a written language in the form of circular symbols and uses them to establish a basic vocabulary. As she becomes more versed in the language Banks starts having vivid dreams, most of them about her daughter whose tragic death is a source of great pain and sorrow. As the perception of the alien threat grows and draws humanity closer to declaring an all-out war, Banks and her team must take a desperate chance in order to find the answers that they seek.

Arrival is a thinking man’s sci-fi that stimulates and astounds as it challenges its viewers with deep and thought-provoking questions. We are invited to consider the psychology of thought, reason and morality, the philosophy of faith, knowledge and meaning, and the very natures of time, language and the human mind. It approaches its story with the utmost sophistication as the characters set out to meet this ambiguous presence with logic and caution. While the apprehensive Agent Halpern (Michael Stuhlbarg) would prefer to know straight up who these aliens are and what they want, Banks explains that such questions are useless without an understanding of how these beings think. Do they have a concept of purpose and intent? Do they consider themselves as individuals or as a collective? Do they even understand what a question is? Such questions are paramount when the risk of even the slightest miscommunication could have disastrous global consequences.

In this role Adams continues to prove why she is one of the best actresses in Hollywood today. In Banks she conveys a quiet yet strong sense of fascination and determination that becomes more potent as her search for knowledge and understanding intensifies. The more she learns about the alien language, the more it affects her way of thinking and perception of reality. There is also an affective emotional core tying her to this task as her work evokes tragic memories of her daughter. Villeneuve does a particularly good job of representing the distortive state of Banks’ mind as her present, memories and dreams all seem to blend into one another. His use of CGI is modest, allowing the film to feel all the more authentic, and his handling of the suspense is expert (with one particularly explosive scene that no doubt would have impressed Hitchcock).

Arrival is a smart, layered and moving film with echoes of Contact and Close Encounters of the Third Kind that thrills, stimulates and inspires. It is a subdued and contemplative form of science-fiction of a calibre that we only get to see one or two times per year (Midnight Special is the other one). The moment when this film truly shines is in the climax following a revelation which turns our very perception of the plot upside down. This is a film that will certainly benefit from multiple viewings and I suspect it is one that will be studied by students of the social sciences as well as film students for a long time to come. Furthermore Arrival is a film that encapsulates the intrinsic values of knowledge, compassion, faith, cooperation and understanding, ideals that seem more distant with each passing day. It raises many challenging and important questions but does not try to answer them all because otherwise there’d be no room for contemplation. This film believes in humanity’s ability to change and adapt, something we can only do if we are willing to listen, consider, and be challenged. This is a great film that came out at a time when it was most needed.

★★★★★

Avengers: Age of Ultron

Cast: Robert Downey, Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, Cobie Smulders, Anthony Mackie, Andy Serkis, James Spader, Samuel L. Jackson

Director: Joss Whedon

Writer: Joss Whedon


Usually when I review a film from a series I like to briefly discuss my thoughts on the films that came before to provide context. However a discussion on the Marvel franchise could take up an entire article so instead I’ll settle on just discussing the first Avengers film. For me The Avengers is the perfect superhero film. While earlier films like Spider-Man 2 and The Dark Knight had already perfected the superhero formula, The Avengers took the genre onto a whole new level. It was the first film to ever bring together an ensemble of heroes who had already been introduced and developed in their own films and it pulled it off beautifully. It brought together all of these brilliant characters and, by allowing them to interact and work off each other, created a dynamic quality that no film had ever really done before. It was an incredibly well executed film that had the perfect amount of action, the perfect amount of humour and the perfect amount of character. I couldn’t wait to see the Avengers’ second outing together.

The film opens with the Avengers, Captain America (Chris Evans), Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), leading an assault on a Hydra base to recover Loki’s sceptre. There they encounter the orphaned twins who were subjected to Hydra’s experiments, Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who has superhuman speed, and Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen), who has the power to manipulate minds. Wanda infects Tony Stark’s mind and gives him a vision of his worst fear come true. Stark sees a dark, forlorn future; one where he stands alone surrounded by the corpses of his fallen comrades as the Earth falls to the alien threat they failed to stop. Stark is deeply affected by this vision and resolves to prevent it from ever happening.

Upon studying the sceptre’s gem, Stark and Banner discover an artificial intelligence that Stark believes could be the final piece they need to create the Ultron program. Stark envisions Ultron as a global defence program designed to protect the Earth from the alien threats that the Avengers would be unable to fight themselves and convinces Banner to help him complete it. Ultron (James Spader) becomes sentient and turns on his creators. Ultron sees himself as the next evolutionary step and thus believes that the only way for world peace to be achieved is for humanity to be annihilated. The Avengers band together to stop him but are then overcome with fears and doubts that threaten to divide and destroy them.

Like its predecessor, Avengers: Age of Ultron delivers on the action, the humour and the character. However the inherent weaknesses of the Marvel franchise become more noticeable in this film as they become more difficult to manage. After the way The Avengers developed the Marvel franchise and set it up for further growth, the success, acclaim and demand that followed meant that the sequel was inevitably going to try and go even bigger and further still. This means more characters to juggle and more interactions with the other Marvel films. So, with a gigantic line-up of future films already in development and a large ensemble of major characters played by actors who are contracted to appear in them, Whedon thus doesn’t have the creative freedom to take the risks and tell the story that he might otherwise have done in a perfect world. In addition to this we the audience are becoming so accustomed to these massive blockbusters that they’re almost starting to feel a little generic and the action is starting to look a little familiar. Still, with all of that weight and pressure bearing down on this film, Whedon, being the master craftsman that he is, just manages to create a worthy sequel that is entertaining and exciting to watch even if it didn’t amaze us in the same way that The Avengers did.

With such a gargantuan number of characters to feature and develop, the film is able to provide a balance between them and allows each major character a moment or two to shine. While Captain America, Iron Man, Thor and Hulk remain the stars of the show characters like Black Widow and Hawkeye (who many felt were underused in the first film) are given extensive roles and compelling arcs this time around. The film also has a number of new characters to deal with, most notably Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch. Despite a limited amount of development and screen time these two characters are nevertheless able to create a memorable impression complete with motivations and distinctive personalities, if little else. There is also the titular villain to consider who (thankfully) is one of the Marvel franchise’s more entertaining and memorable villains. Ultron is strangely emotive for a sentient being and shows an indignation and a fallaciousness that is very… human. Spader’s voice is both menacing and sardonic and complements the character perfectly.

I liked this film a lot but I didn’t love it. As good as it was, it was missing that little bit of magic that was present in The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy. Maybe this is because the film had so many different characters and arcs to balance that it was never really able to find a clear and distinct focus. Maybe it’s because my expectations were overly amplified by the incredible quality and success of this franchise. Maybe (hopefully not) it’s because the Marvel franchise is starting to collapse on itself and that this film marks the beginning of the end. Whatever the reason, Age of Ultron is nevertheless a good, entertaining film that offers plenty of thrills and plenty of heart. There is some great action, there is a good amount of humour, and the characters are as enjoyable as ever whilst delivering a decent amount of development and emotional moments. The challenge of running the Marvel franchise is only going to get more difficult from here and so I hope that the Russo brothers are up to the challenge.

★★★★