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Avengers: Endgame

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Avengers: Endgame is epic, grand, enthralling entertainment. It is a film painted on the grandest of canvasses, yet one that maintains a fine eye for detail. It combines planetary scale spectacle with intimate moments, mixes tragedy with comedy and provides a fitting climax to a staggering saga. Along the way, directors Joe and Anthony Russo perform the remarkable feat of paying fan service that also serves the story. Fan service is a much-maligned practice: seen as kowtowing to audiences, it smacks of not respecting the story and compromising the artistic vision. But is the purpose of the story and artistic vision, at least in the case of popular entertainment, not to serve the audience? The difficulty of paying fan service is that it is a shot in the dark, since it is hard to know what audiences actually want and attempting to predict this can end in an incoherent product. Arguably, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been performing this balancing act over the past eleven years and twenty-two films, nodding to comic book and movie fans along the way. For the most part, it has been successful, with a steady feed that develops the franchise into greater complexity, yet without becoming too clever and convoluted for its own good.

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With Endgame, the Russos marshal these potentially disparate elements, including a mass of familiar characters, a multitude of storylines that intersect, loop back, replay and turn in surprising directions, and a variety of tones. The managing of tone is especially impressive, as Endgame follows on from the tragic finale of Infinity War, one of the boldest ever conclusions of a blockbuster. The opening portion of the film depicts our surviving heroes – including Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) – living with the trauma of their devastating losses, each of them dealing with their particular trauma in a different way. From this melancholic position, a quest emerges possible redemption, the film echoing mythic quest narratives like The Lord of the Rings, before moving into multiple parallel narrative strands, and creative and at times overwhelming set pieces.

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No emotion is left untapped in this supreme super-powered saga. Laughs, tears, thrills, spills, affection, boo hiss villainy, punch the air moments of sheer joy – all are here in abundance. It is especially impressive that there are narrative elements that become more problematic the more you think about them, but during the film they are of little consequence because of the viewer’s emotional engagement. Those who have invested in the Marvel Cinematic Universe will find themselves amply rewarded, and those with a passing interest are still likely to find much to enthrall them. While there is more of the MCU to come, Endgame serves as a fitting finale to the previous eleven years, and one of the finest examples of its genre to date.

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Avengers: Age of Ultron

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Joss Whedon’s second Avengers movie may be the most ambitious thus far committed to film. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it succeeds in some aspects of its ambition while others are left undernourished. On the negative side, the sheer number of characters both familiar –Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johannson), Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), James Rhodes (Don Cheadle), et al – and new – Pietro and Wanda Maximoff (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olson), Ultron (James Spader) among others – results in a jumble of motivations, back stories, hallucinations, flashbacks and abilities, and few characters get time or space for development. It also lacks the strong sense of humour of The Avengers, as the bickering between our heroes is much reduced now that they are friends. It may not reach the super seriousness of DC’s superhero antics, but Age of Ultron is the most po-faced entry thus far in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The film is explicitly not self-contained, with multiple references to other parts of the MCU past, present and future, and this sometimes makes the film unfocused. Whedon has publicly spoken of his creative struggles with Marvel, which perhaps explains why the film is sometimes uneven and discordant.

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When Avengers: Age of Ultron does succeed, however, it does so with verve and aplomb, Whedon demonstrating that he has the nous to manage a behemoth of this scale. There are effective character moments such as touching interactions between Romanoff and Banner as well as the Maximoffs, and the film’s biggest surprise is domestic rather than spectacular. The range of superpowers allows for varied set pieces, especially the opening action sequence when he delivers one of his trademark long takes showcasing the various abilities of the Avengers. As the ranks swell yet more powers join the mix, but Whedon, along with DOP Ben Davis and editors Jeffrey Ford and Lisa Lassek, keeps the action coherent, drawing the viewer into the mayhem where we experience both the Avengers’ exhilaration and their fear. Fear is key to this film, as it explores the dichotomy between fear and faith. Both of which fuel the intimate and the epic in this superpowered slobberknocker. The inevitable question is where can the MCU go from here, but the franchise has consistently risen to the challenge of outdoing previous spectacles, and this reviewer at least is confident that future films will continue this trend.

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Captain America: The Winter Soldier

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Captain America is easy to dismiss as a super-powered boy scout, tiresomely attached to outdated notions of honour, duty and that old contemptible, patriotism. Captain America: The First Avenger avoided that problem by emphasising the absurdity of the character, the very identity of Captain America a tool for propaganda within the film’s narrative. Captain America: The Winter Soldier makes a virtue of its protagonist’s datedness by inserting him into a conspiracy narrative, where he does not know what is going on anymore than the audience do. This blend of 1970s-inflected conspiracy with the requisite action of the superhero genre is the strongest element of Joe and Anthony Russo’s film. Unexpected combinations are a recurring feature, as Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) must decide his allegiances with faces new and old, including Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), Natasha Romanov (Scarlett Johannson), Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), Agent Hill (Cobie Smulders) and Agent 13 (Emily VanCamp), and adapt to digital warfare and new social expectations. These combinations sometimes lead to a lack of emotional impact, as certain twists and revelations do not come as a surprise and the intimate is overwhelmed by the operatic. At other times, though, the film is genuinely surprising and manages to disrupt the Marvel universe in daring and unexpected ways. Much as Iron Man Three engaged with post-traumatic-stress-disorder, CA:TWS has a more serious tone that its predecessor, concerned with issues of surveillance and a Big Brother society, and this does not always sit well with the bombastic action. For the most part, it’s a solid superhero adventure, but smoother integration between its different elements would make  it more satisfying.

Freshness and Familiarity Part One – Iron Man/Men

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To those (like me) who have watched and enjoyed the Avengers franchise since its inception in 2008 with Iron Man (Jon Favreau), Iron Man Three offers both variation and familiarity. It has the obligatory action sequences, including the pinnacle of the Iron Man movies at its climax as multiple Iron Man suits battle the super-powered minions of Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce). These build upon the technophilia established in Iron Man, with protracted shots and sequences emphasising the sleek technology and mutable digital images. These are sometimes at odds with the vague social critique that the first film performed – as one viewer described it, “Michael Moore pimps my ride”. Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Junior) is not only a master builder, or “tinkerer” as he calls himself, but also handles information and images with perfect ease.

Iron Man Three features plenty of witty repartee between Tony Stark and Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), as well as between Tony and his computer Jarvis (Paul Bettany). There is also great banter between Tony and Colonel James Rhodes (Don Cheadle), which echoes the previous film directed by Shane Black, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which also starred Downey, Jnr. as well as Val Kilmer (Iron Man and Batman together!). Here is where the variation comes in, as much of Iron Man Three focuses on human exploits. This links to the darker element in the film, which is a change from the previous instalments. Since the superhero cycle began in earnest with X-Men (Bryan Singer) in 2000 and swung to dizzying heights in Spider-Man (Sam Raimi, 2002), there was a consistent presence of “darkness”, with superheroes suffering from relatable problems and sometimes going to sinister places. The peak of this tendency was Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, which went so far as to feature an anarchic psychopath, scenes of torture and the repeated failure of our favourite Caped Crusader.

In contrast to the grim exploits of the X-Men, Spider-Man and Batman, Marvel’s Avengers have been light, frothy fun. Humour has been a constant presence, especially with RDJ’s razor sharp performance of Tony Stark, but also with Thor (Chris Hemsworth) as a fish out of water and Captain America (Chris Evans) being a laughing stock. Best of all, The Avengers featured Joss Whedon’s trademark wit and irreverence, making it possibly the funniest superhero film to date.

Iron Man Three is also humorous, especially in its banter but also in character responses, such as when Rhodes says with deadpan incredulity (something of an oxymoron): “You breathe fire?!” after Killian does just that. Furthermore, the character of the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) provides very significant humour, to which I return later. But alongside the humour, there are some grim moments that make Iron Man Three the darkest entry in the Avengers franchise.

The presence of the Mandarin as the film’s big bad begins this, as the propaganda videos with his threats are reminiscent of Al Qaeda videos. These threats come home to roost when Tony’s friend and former bodyguard Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) is badly injured in an explosion linked to the Mandarin. The aftermath of this attack, in which Happy is shown hooked to monitors in a hospital bed, swathed in bandages, is a very poignant scene that fuels Tony’s anger.

Of course, Tony’s anger makes him reckless and stupid, and his TV interview in which he invites the Mandarin to a confrontation results in his Malibu home being destroyed. Tellingly, several Iron Man suits are destroyed, demonstrating Iron Man’s vulnerability, which continues as Tony himself falls into the sea and is then automatically flown away, before his remaining suit loses power and crashes (startling a digital deer as it falls). Cut off from his equipment, Tony must rely on his own wits and ingenuity. Yet his mind also poses a problem that he must confront.

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A significant development of Tony’s character is his post-traumatic-stress-disorder. The entire film features voiceover, some of which echoes the meta-cinematic voiceover of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and the (very funny) post-credits scene shows us Tony talking with Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), who is woefully ill-equipped to offer therapy for Tony’s psychological problems. These problems permeate the film, as Tony is, plagued with nightmares about his experience in New York in The Avengers, when he travelled through a portal to destroy an alien armada and almost died. Tony’s PTSD is consistently demonstrated as he suffers panic attacks whenever New York is mentioned, his trauma casting a sombre pall over much of the film. Nor is the trauma limited to Tony, as the Mandarin’s previous victims leave behind grieving family and literal impressions, as Tony finds in Tennessee, where an explosion left both a crater and seared shadows on nearby walls. The soldiers of Killian, infected with Extremis, are shown to be suffering agony as the nanoprobes reformulate their bodies, and Pepper herself is also tortured in this way. Trauma cuts deep, and cannot be hidden from in a metal suit.

Iron Man Three brings Tony out of the suit, having him build more modest devices so that he can save Pepper, the US President and half the world. At times, he seems more like 007 (or MacGyver) than Iron Man, using a gun, homemade tazers and other improvised weapons. This creates variation from the previous films, which never quite got the balance right between super-techno-heroics and human ingenuity and interactions. Whereas Iron Man and Iron Man 2 made abrupt shifts from Tony tinkering to mechanical mayhem, Iron Man Three escalates its action. Once Tony invades the Mandarin’s secret headquarters, using his various improvised weapons, he has some success but is eventually taken prisoner and only breaks free when the re-charged Iron Man suit arrives. Even then, the suit arrives one piece at a time and operates at less than full power so the ensuing battle is more comical as spectacular, featuring the very funny line from one of Killian’s minions, “I don’t even like working here. They are so weird!”

The spectacle comes later, as Tony powers the suit completely and flies after Air Force One to save President Ellis (William Sadler). He fails, but succeeds in disposing of Killian’s head henchman, Savin (James Badge Dale) and, in a spectacular aerial sequence, he rescues the passengers as they tumble towards their deaths. This sequence, like others, contains a surprise as Tony is operating the suit remotely, which emphasises his distance from the suit, which is less cocoon and more human-shaped coffin. It does not detract from the visceral excitement of the action set piece, which is spectacular and involving. Furthermore, the final spectacular battle of Iron Man Three feels like a natural progression, as multiple Iron Man suits battle Killan’s minions and Tony himself fights Killian. Whereas the action set pieces in Favreau’s films felt like departures, Black’s are escalations, making the film coherent and satisfying, with a continual focus on Tony’s personal journey.

MAJOR SPOILERS FOLLOW

This can also be the film’s detriment, as it is more a Tony Stark movie than an Iron Man movie. This is further demonstrated by the licence taken with the Mandarin, a major character from the comic books and Iron Man’s classic foe. Most superheroes have these – for the Fantastic Four it’s Doctor Doom, for the X-Men it’s the Brotherhood of Mutants, for Superman it’s Lex Luthor and for Batman it’s the Joker. Iron Man’s greatest nemesis has long been the Mandarin, and for many viewers the prospect of having these two great adversaries clash was one of the most exciting elements of Iron Man Three. Imagine the surprise and (in some cases) disappointment when the Mandarin turns out to be an actor playing a role devised by Killian. Some viewers were very disappointed by this, which indicates the importance of the Mandarin within Iron Man lore.

For my part, I was genuinely shocked by the revelation of Trevor Slattery, to such an extent that I didn’t believe it initially. I was waiting for Slattery to be a decoy and the real Mandarin attack, or at least be somewhere else. But instead, we get an actor whose Lear is the “toast of Croydon” (very funny for a British viewer). But the surprise worked, and Ben Kingsley’s hilarious performance meant that I was carried along for the ride.

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Furthermore, it is actually a relief that the Mandarin turned out to be a fiction within the film. The original character is a Chinese stereotype and somewhat racist, and the casting of Kingsley raised questions of why such a role should be played by a white actor (not forgetting Kingsley’s Oscar-winning role in Gandhi). The film avoided the Fu Manchu territory by making the Mandarin more of a Bin Laden figure, and in “his” propaganda videos he had an American accent (replaced with a British one when he was discovered). These elements in his character serve several functions. Firstly, it avoids racism, because the Mandarin never seems Other. Secondly, it avoids the fantastical nature of a character that possessed “power rings” in the comic books, either magical or derived from alien technology. While Thor managed to incorporate science and mythology very nicely, Iron Man has been somewhat grounded in practical science (however fanciful) and the inclusion of power rings would have jarred with the overall possible world. Thirdly, and most importantly, for the Mandarin to be a smokescreen, and the real enemy to be Killian the power-mad weapons manufacturer emphasises the contemporary concern over internal threats. Killian recognises the opportunity in giving people a figurehead to fear, in order to legitimate arms manufacture, and uses it to great effect. Tony’s discovery of Slattery demonstrates the conceit of true danger often being less exotic but no less dangerous.

As with much of the film, the climax had its surprises, both with the multiple suits and Tony, not to mention Pepper, proving to be able combatants in their own right. For Killian to be in league with the Mandarin was not surprising; for him to actually be the Mandarin is a masterstroke, as it maintains the conceit of military contractors being a threat. This may not be original, and indeed forms the conceit of more “realistic” films as Snake Eyes, The Manchurian Candidate and The Ghost Writer, but it works, maintaining the critical eye on the military-industrial complex that has characterized the Iron Man franchise since it began in 2008. Tony Stark may have learned the error of his ways, but other arms manufacturers still pose a threat.

For Killian to be the true locus of the film’s threat serves as the external version of Tony’s internal conflict – he needs to address the trauma he suffered and face up to danger, which he does by doing his fighting himself. Except that Killian is far more powerful and without his suit Tony would be finished, but fortunately Pepper is there to save the day. When Pepper fell into a fiery explosion, I thought she had been killed, and was delighted when she re-appeared, reconstructed by Extremis. While it was gratuitous to have her in a bra at the film’s climax, it was very pleasing for a woman to save a man and put down the bad guy for a change. But Tony faces up to his demons and succeeds in overcoming them, demonstrated by the destruction of all his suits and the removal of the arc reactor and shrapnel from his chest, as these defences are no longer needed.

By reworking the characters of the Mandarin and Iron Man himself, Iron Man Three departs significantly from the comic books. None of this hurt it at the box office, as its current take stands at $1,077,068,034 worldwide. It is easy to be protective about the texts we love, but reinterpretation need not devalue the original. There are multiple versions of Iron Man to enjoy, in comic book, animation and feature film. Iron Man Three builds upon the strength of what has come before, and does a very fine job of being its own model.

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Searching for Salvation in all the Wrong Places – Part Two

Boyle 2 Spiritual themes run throughout the work of Danny Boyle, from the rise of greed in Shallow Grave to the transcendent states in Trainspotting, “what is written” in Slumdog Millionaire and the delirium of 127 Hours. In my previous post, I discussed the themes of salvation and the soul in 28 Days Later…, Boyle’s visceral and frightening non-zombie zombie film. Five years later, Boyle experimented with science fiction in Sunshine, which works as an interesting counterpoint to 28 Days Later…. The spirituality of Boyle’s work is especially apparent in Sunshine, and while parts of the film do not work as well as others, it remains a fascinating psychological and philosophical journey.

Whereas 28 Days Later… quickly breaks into a mad, frenzied dash, Sunshine has a more sedate opening act, the voiceover of Robert Capa (Cillian Murphy, again) easing us into the steady movement through space. The voiceover provides simple and necessary exposition, informing the viewer that the sun is dying so the vessel Icarus II has been sent to reignite the star with a gigantic bomb. We also learn that the first mission, Icarus I, failed and, as the film progresses, this failure and its ramifications will form both the narrative and spiritual conflicts of Sunshine.

Much of Sunshine resembles other space travel science fiction: the living quarters of the Icarus II and the banter between the crew are reminiscent of Alien; the film’s spiritual concerns are similar to Solaris, while the isolation and alienation, as well as the gardens, recall Silent Running. I greatly admire Sunshine’s willingness to engage with serious themes of spirituality and confrontations with death, life, God and science. When science fiction does this, like in other recent films such as Inception, Avatar and Prometheus, it is at its most satisfying. Inevitably, “serious” sci-fi echoes 2001: A Space Odyssey, and there are moments in Sunshine that echo Stanley Kubrick’s opus. One of 2001’s many memorable scenes is when astronaut Dave Bowman moves through a stargate, described by some as “the ultimate trip”. Sunshine features similar moments when the screen is filled with light, a golden expanse that is both beautiful and terrible. The general aesthetic of films set in space is to emphasise the void of blackness, but Boyle uses light in Sunshine to extraordinary effect, bathing the Icarus II and the performers in golden radiance.

The characters’ entrancement (see what I did there?) is mirrored by the viewer’s envelopment, as the film transports us into its world through its “retina-scorching” visuals. For me, the best science fiction is that which transports you, and Sunshine certainly does that. A key element of this transportation is the film’s spiritual concerns, closely tied to the film’s use of light. The first scene after the opening voiceover presents Searle (Clifford Curtis) viewing the sun at what appears to be intense brightness, yet it is only 3% intensity, and much of Sunshine is almost unbearably bright. Searle describes his experience as something transcendent and profound. This element of the mission through space remains prominent throughout, an encounter with something immensely powerful and magnificent. Salvation for the Earth is the goal of the astronauts, but beyond this, each of them seek spiritual salvation or enlightenment in different and often misguided ways. Mace (Chris Evans) is the most cynical of the crew, committed only to completing the mission, which he does not live to see. Corazon (Michelle Yeoh) focuses upon life through the ship’s garden, which is both a living environment and the means to life for the crew, but the garden is destroyed by fire and she dies among its ashes. Cassie (Rose Byrne) is the heart of the crew and the film, caring for everyone as much as she can, and there are suggestions of a (nascent) romance between her and Capa. Of course, it comes to nothing and her compassion and sympathy is overridden, largely by Mace. Harvey (Troy Garity) and Trey (Benedict Wong) are more minor, but it is interesting that after his mistake endangers them all, Trey seeks redemption in suicide. But the most interesting quests for salvation are those who seek it in light.

For Searle and, to a lesser extent, Kaneda (Hiroyuki Sanada), salvation/enlightenment is achieved by “touching” the Sun. Searle demonstrates this conceit through his fascination with seeing as much light as he can. When Kaneda sacrifices himself to the Sun’s rays for the good of the mission, he turns towards the approaching wall of searing heat that will destroy him. At the moment of his death, Kaneda is calm, humble and seemingly embracing the great power that consumes him. Searle is intensely curious, repeatedly asking Kaneda over the radio “What do you see?” What Kaneda sees is his death, his eternal darkness, in the midst of light. What can you see when the retinas are overloaded by light? Too much light is ultimately blindness, while in the midst of darkness one heads for light. This paradox again reflects the film’s spiritual journey, a journey simultaneously into light and darkness.

The major contrast, of course, is between Capa and Pinbacker (Mark Strong), captain of Icacus I who went mad and killed his crew. Capa describes the ignition of the bomb, and by implication the Sun as a whole, as beautiful; Pinbacker has embraced death as he sees the Sun as expressive of God’s majesty, before which humanity should die. Pinbacker believes he has found salvation in death, Capa does so as well, but his death is life for Earth. Sunshine’s final explosion of light, and Capa’s almost ecstatic face as the reaction takes place, confirms his prediction that it will be “beautiful”. Indeed, Capa seems to achieve the transcendence that Searle pursued and that Pinbacker possibly found, but without the murderous madness. In its ultimate embrace of death as a transcendent experience, Sunshine resembles another film that came out the previous year, which also involves travelling to a dying star and confronting death: Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain. To an even greater extent than Sunshine, The Fountain fills its frame with almost tactile light, blinding and beautiful all at once. And in this enveloping light, both films express transcendence and spiritual salvation.

Sunshine does have problems, especially the final sequence which suffers from Boyle’s over-stylisation. When the character of Pinbacker appears, naked, scorched and space-crazy, the erratic editing and cinematography distracts from the danger. Narratively and thematically, the ending is fine, but stylistically it is a problem and straighter presentation might have been more effective. This is a recurrent problem with Boyle’s films, although I think he gets the balance right in Trance. In Sunshine, the final spill into horror undoes some of the tension generated in earlier scenes, but the spiritual journeys continue, presenting a route to salvation even, or perhaps especially, in the face of death. Sunshine