July 15, 2018

35th Birthday Reflections

The wheel on the rock keeps on turning.
Last time I made a Birthday blog post was two years ago. What happened to my 34th year reflections? It would seem I didn't bother writing a post, although I'm certain anything special I did that day would have been the same as any year. I always hear folks say Birthdays becomes less significant the older one gets. All the parties, cakes, and presents don't quite elicit as many thrills as they do in early youth.

A couple of years ago, I posted about the simple pleasures of treating oneself. And I'd still say there's a certain solidarity to it. Between then and now, however, a combination of events (including the loss of my car) made me realize that most things I find pleasurable have the potential to be money vacuums. Films, books, music, and games--the best of them might become life-long inspirations, but the vast majority provide only short-term stimulation. I was lacking a sense of discipline, allowing insatiable wants to fill my home, time, and energy. With only myself to blame, I reflected on whether I was my own worst enemy, and if I needed to defeat a part of myself in order to evolve and make myself a better person. I sought ways to deflate my ego.

At that time, the work environment I was caged in had a strange way of making me feel like anything I did was never good enough. In retrospect, I wasn't sure if it was genuinely a fault of others, or if it was a negative funk spread around by other griping folk. Combine that with my ongoing struggle to deconstruct my writing and figure out why it wasn't connecting with anybody, and I became trapped in a negative feedback loop. I expected bad things and nothing good. When nothing good happened, it validated my feelings and the loop dug deeper like a drill in the psyche. People often tell me I'm too hard on myself, because I might sense disappointment or disapproval in anything from a fleeting glance to command decisions, and I took it as a sign that I failed somehow. And when I think about the past, I cynically believed that failure wasn't really tolerated or embraced as gleefully as you might read about in other articles posted nowadays.

Except, when I'm asked about what I've specifically failed at, it's all micro-failures that many folks have probably forgotten by now. Lately, I've resolved to stop expecting the worst out of everything--out of people, situations, work, and everything. Let come what may. If it's bad, then it should roll off like a rain droplet on a leaf. At least I want to be that zen-like, because I know that negative reactions to negative actions only results in another negative loop. But positivity usually does perpetuate itself, and can defuse bad things before they explode. Everything that goes around comes around. I've been perfectly content when I go through the daily grind without expectations, and can greet every obstacle or challenge without a preconceived judgment or expectation.

In light of that, I see now that deflating the ego was probably not the ideal solution--maybe it needs to be inflated some. It's arrogance that I always feared, but then again, everybody's arrogant to some degree, and one can't create without some level of audacity. What matters more is my ability to deconstruct--to not hold things above reproach, including myself, so I can learn, adapt, and move on.

In 35 years of life, this is my conclusion thus far: there is an inherent power to falling then rising. It's the pattern of every story, both fictitious and real-life, that elicits a tear or catharsis. I've always struggled with myself because, as Plato saw perfect forms in everything that was unattainable because of human imperfection, I also felt that there was a level of perfection I could never achieve, and I feared how others saw me for it. But if perfection can't be attained, then why beat myself up over it? As Tyler Durden said, "Maybe self destruction is the answer." He says this in Fight Club not in the spirit of beating oneself up, but in becoming reborn.

In light of all this, what am I doing on this fine day? Writing. This blog post for one thing, which turned into an outlet for the last few years' worth of musings. But my actual writing is going through a revival of sorts, as I sought more lessons and learned to embrace the power of voice and "showing" more. It is Camp National Novel Writing Month again, and I am partway through a sprawling space adventure of sorts. I know it stinks in certain parts, but the time will come to tear it down and build it back up, because that's all part of the process. In a little bit, chances are good that I'll run off to Barnes and Noble to peruse their film section (because the Criterion Collection movies are on sale, woohoo!) and their books. Grab a free Starbucks coffee if I can. Then run to the library for a write-in--something I should have been doing all this time, but life (and my continued abhorrence towards driving) kept getting in the way. I figure I really ought to connect with other writers more, because I do feel comfortable and at home among them.

Shopping spree? Eh, it's not things or treats I really need right now. I looked forward to simply using the time to write. Even if it never amounts to a publishable manuscript, it'll at least be the gift of gratification and fulfillment that will make this Birthday, like any other day, feel .

30 or so years ago, I remember my parents blasted Journey's "Wheel in the Sky" from their hi-fi system. I might not have known what it was at the time, but something about the lyrics and melody spoke to me. It became a favorite of mine in childhood, and it remains so today. The song held up, and its words carried a message that I felt mirrored my own life. Having lived and worked in several different places now, I really don't know where I'll be tomorrow. But the universe continues in endless cosmic cycles. It's a reminder that the past is gone, the future is coming, and we should all live in the moment.

June 30, 2018

Film Review: Solo: A Star Wars Story

Back in 1977, when Harrison Ford walked into everyone's life as the galaxy's most lovable and (anti-)heroic scoundrel, did anybody ever really jump up and demand "I want his backstory"?

Anyone? No? Well, I didn't ask for this either. But with the latest Disney/Lucasfilm pact, something like this was inevitable, because money. The beautiful thing about Han Solo is that his backstory is already sprinkled in throughout the series--writing a prequel just for him practically writes itself. And yet, that's the disconcerting problem--Han worked in the originals because he was a mysterious rogue with a shady past, with only shadows of it popping up as occasional story problems. I feared that revealing the source of his shadowy past would take away from the enigmatic depth, because less really is more in this case.

Thus, I walked into Solo: A Star Wars Story cynically, expecting a blue milk run through all the checkboxes that aligned with the original movies (the fact that Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were bumped off the director's chair in favor of Ron Howard did little to alleviate my concerns). Even though the film opens with a fast and furious speeder chase, I just leaned back and expected a dry, colorless, lifeless hack job to sink into my ears and eyes.

I walked out rather satisfied. What happened? Same things that makes any movie perfectly watchable--a magic combination of storytelling and cinematic experience. Howard managed to bring that certain something to the table that made Willow so charming back in the day--an adventurous spirit, wrapped around a romp of a plot with charming characters, cute comedy, eye-popping action, and marvelous special effects.

Sure, you do get to see certain checkboxes marked off, such as how Han met Chewbacca, hustles and bustles with Lando Calrissian, beauty shots of the Millennium Falcon (and its eventual degradation into a hunk of junk--man, that was fast), and the historic "Kessel Run" in a miraculous 12 Parsecs! Fortunately, these don't really lift away the air of mystery from Solo's character--if anything, they turn his moments in the originals into throwbacks. Prequels often run the risk of making universes smaller, but Solo manages to expand the Star Wars cinematic realms in exciting ways--this is a film that dives deeper into the seedy webs of crime syndicates, and promises that there's a lot more fertile ground to cover. This is easily the closest a film has come to becoming a Shadows of the Empire adaptation. The only bad thing Solo does as a prequel is that it brings back a Prequel Trilogy character just for the hell of it--even I'm pulling the last of my hair out wondering "how is this character still alive?!!"

The actual story behind Han Solo is a simple one: he was dude (Alden Ehrenreich) on Corellia who tried to worm his way out. When he failed to get his girlfriend (Emilia Clarke) off the planet, he joined the Empire. Then he got kicked out of the academy. He went to war anyway (I dunno, I wish there was a little more shown about these Imperial years), hooked up with some roughnecks (headed by Woody Harrelson, playing a character who feels lifted out of a Sergio Leone western), and took a job to rob a train (I'm sensing a pattern...). When that goes to hell, he has to take another job to make up for things and save his hide, which prompts the madcap chase to rip off the Kessel spice mines. The whole time, Solo plays the odds not only for his freedom, but for the girl he left behind.

There are predictable aspects to this plot (especially anything that was already revealed in the original movies). It's also hard to feel tension for these characters when you know the leads have to survive. What helps, however, is that the story is still firmly established on characterization that feels fresh. Alden Ehrenreich embodies Han Solo with surprising nuance--all the fun qualities Harrison Ford initially brought to the table carries over without feeling like a mere copycat. Other performances are quite solid, and they're all unified with a fairly decent script. I feel the opening act is the weakest, largely because so much of the character is "told" to us and not shown. After the big train heist scene, the film settles into a comfortable pace and pattern that's easily digestible.

Like the other modern Star Wars films, this looks really sharp and slick. Most of the film looks a little too dark for my liking, but the cinematography is still really nice most of the time. No expense spared on any of the sets, props, costumes, or special effects. Music is often quite pleasing and interesting. It all looks and sounds so money.

But that may be the film's downfall: money. Fans might not be fooled or enticed enough to see past the film's business prerogative. But what studio film isn't made to make money, especially with the Star Wars brand? Solo could have been much worse--I'm personally pleased that it managed to capture the right spirit, even if it took a little time to find it. Casual viewers might shrug it off--as a fan, I've got nothing but good feelings about this.

3.5/5

Book Review: At the Mountains of Madness (HP Lovecraft)

It takes a lot to scare me, especially in a novel. H.P. Lovecraft's shtick has always crept under my skin with theory alone, and there's myriads of other media that carries over the same tropes of cosmic horror with varying degrees of success. When it comes to the original (and all things original for that matter), there are things to admire, but it's just that--a thing to admire.

Writing itself was different in Lovecraft's day--much more tolerant of telling, not as much showing. With At the Mountains of Madness, the dude expends many many pages to describe this Antarctic expedition in a dry, scholarly voice. He stiffly describes the slow, gradual exploration of desolate ice fields, mountains, and finally an ancient city that shouldn't even exist in our reality. It's at its best when the macabre happens--dead bodies, mutilated animals, stolen and broken supplies, all with no apparent cause...now that's creepy. But the climax of the experience occurs when the characters behold one of these Elder Things and it just freaks them out of their minds.

When the macabre becomes apparent, the story does hold some level of dread, tension, and suspense. I pretty much kept reading because I knew this would pay off with some kind of crazy monster at the end. But to get there, you have to wade through a ton of dry prose that tells (not necessarily shows) the journey, the history of all the things (including the things that should not be), and so on. The only emotions that emerge out of the text is terror, at the end. Which might be the point I suppose--the characters are blank slates that let us experience their terror, but when you spend a hundred pages describing every shape, stone, street of an ancient city, it reads like a textbook. Don't even get me started on the hieroglyph reading, which leads to a massive infodump on the whole genealogy of the Elder Things and all the critters that bleed into other Lovecraft stories (to be fair, the shared-universe aspect of his work is a nice touch).

What attracts me to Lovecraft will always be his core themes: that some things are so far above-and-beyond humanity we can't even comprehend them. To try is to go mad. And those things will crush us, not because they're evil but because we're all just petty insects to them. The vastness of the cosmos and the greater creatures that could exist beyond Earth or the universe is what instills terror, either with a direct confrontation with an abominable Elder Thing, or with the implied effects of their existence (which is scattered with freaky details throughout the whole expedition). It's the themes that define just about every Lovecraft story I've read so far. I'd even go so far to say that most of his stories have the same pattern: characters experience something weird, it lures them into a creepy place, they see a monster, they come out of it mad. Same pattern in this book, just as it is with Call of Cthulhu or The Colour Out of Space and whatnot. Same-but-different.

This is one of those works where I wanted to like it more, but couldn't get past the long, wordy, super-dry prose. I can get behind the idea of it, because this brand of horror is something I admire and do find unsettling. The story is solid, but the execution fell flat for me personally. It's a thing to be admired--studied even. And I'm glad I read it (along with some of the other Lovecraft stories). But it's a vast universe of terror, and I believe Lovecraft's influence has birthed a cosmos of other, more unique, more enjoyable, and maybe even scarier stories.

3/5

May 22, 2018

Film: Lessons Learned From the Marvel Cinematic Universe

Here it is, the release of Avengers: Infinity War. It's a film so epic, it took eighteen other films to build up to it--including three whole trilogies, a few duologies, and a bunch of one-offs. It's also the third time all these films converge into one mash-up, turning the Avengers itself into a trilogy (although a proper wrap-up won't happen until the fourth one, due in 2019).

Think about it for a minute: in one franchise, we have a bunch of mini-franchises, each one with its own distinctive tone, genre, style, story arcs, and iconic characters. Most franchises struggle to remain consistent with one singular thing--Marvel unleashed a whole bunch of things then brought them all together under one thing, three times now. And it managed to do so without losing its audience and without losing so much money that it had to quit.

It's a pretty spectacular business model for one thing: the comics may have been marketable before, but the films pushed these properties into a bigger spotlight and infused them into the cultural zeitgeist (to the point of churning out countless memes, and making obscure things like the Guardians of the Galaxy popular). But what makes the MCU work is that the stories work, time and again. The products speak for themselves--the majority of their films are well-crafted and maintain consistency. Not every film is perfect, of course, but the way the whole series flows and connects together is what makes it so sublime. It never has to retcon itself that intensely (whereas I'm always seeing rumors of how the next Terminator and Alien movie will ignore so-many others that came before them). I've never seen any raging online debases about how they contradict each other (whereas you wouldn't believe the endless troll battles fought over each and every Star Wars film). Other companies have tried to imitate the shared universe model, but with less success--Universal attempted it with all their monster movies (but kept failing), and Warner Bros attempted to rival Marvel with their DC line-up (and although I admire the effort, the results aren't pretty).

As I chug through yet another marathon of the MCU, I figure now is the time to reflect on exactly why I enjoy and go back to these films--as stories--pin down what it is that makes them work and what a writer like me can take away from them.

WARNING: SPOILERS FOR MANY MARVEL FILMS OLD AND NEW FOLLOW

The Age of Darkness (Pre-MCU)

This logo--so old, so bland, so...bleh...
The MCU as we know it kicked off in 2008. Before then, there was a plethora of Marvel films produced by other companies. Many of those rights are still beyond the MCU's grasp for some reason or another, although some made allowances recently.

The whole superhero craze started as far back as '98, with Blade. At the time, I didn't even see it as a comic-book film, because I was unaware of the comic--all I saw was a hip and trendy vampire flick with lots and lots of blood and action. Very much in the same vein as all those Crow movies, Spawn, or The Matrix (wait a minute, two of those are comic-books too...shows how much I knew back then, I just thought dark and violent supernatural action was in. I wish it still was).

At any rate, the superhero trend really rocketed ahead with the first X-Men. They made three of those suckers. Then they made three Spider-Man movies with Tobey Maguire. Two Fantastic Fours. Two Punishers. Two Ghost Riders. A Hulk. Daredevil and Elektra. Few of these were successes. Others were not. By now, many of these are dated and don't really hold up. But if I were to go back in time fifteen years, all of these really excited me--in the absence of the MCU, these seem to shine a little more because there's no better alternatives.

So what can be learned from this squabble of non-canon flicks?

Series planning can make or break a saga. As with the majority of other film franchises, things like the X-Men falter because they weren't really projected correctly. The first three are solid, sure, but I doubt Bryan Singer would have approved of Cyclops and Professor X getting killed off in the Last Stand. Also, remember that time where they wanted to do prequels for all the characters? We got one (X-Men Origins: Wolverine), and nobody really liked it. So that plan was abandoned and that one film had to be retconned. The plan afterward? Retcon everything with a new trilogy--it seemed cool since Days of Future Past managed to tie together the old and new sagas, but Apocalypse wound up retconning even more stuff. So now the whole thing is a jumble. Fun series, yeah, but about a much of a mess as trying to figure out the Terminator timelines.

Where did the X-Men go wrong? For one thing, I believe it came out at a time when trilogies were in and a conclusion was expected by the third film. And we got it. But Fox had to keep pumping out the movies to hold onto those rights, and maybe make more money in the process. They made a plan with their prequel series, then abandoned it. Maybe they shouldn't have. Wolverine was a box-office success, and it's not like the story didn't have merit--cleaner editing and a more unified script would have made it a phenomenal film. Maybe in an alternate universe, a film for Storm and the Professor and whoever else could have turned the franchise into one unified cinematic universe. But things being what they are, we wound up with three disconnected trilogies (and we'll probably have four or so if Deadpool has more sequels). Same goes for Spider-Man (one trilogy and one duology, before Homecoming happened).

Speaking of which, Spider-Man was all the rage between 2002 and 2004. I'd still say the first two movies are enjoyable, but not necessarily as "good" cinema or storytelling. Cinematically, the films are cartoony and over-the-top, in much the same ways as Tim Burton's Batman movies were. Enjoyable, but Spider-Man was given more gravitas in The Amazing Spider-Man series. As stories, Sam Raimi's trilogy comes off as choppy--all the movies pack in a pretty big scope that encapsulates all of Peter Parker's high-school years, his budding career, his college years, adulthood--all combined with the superhero aspects. It's a lot of story to pack into each movie, so the films whiz through some details while slowing down to emphasize others. Watch Homecoming after all this, and you can see the difference--that movie focuses on just one sliver of Parker's life. It may not cover how he got his powers, or a successful romance, or the pressures of adulthood, but it does provide a satisfying arc of its own wrapped around a coming-of-age story, and it works fine. One film doesn't need to handle much else--the remaining drama can be covered in many more films.

Most other things have been one-offs with no real connection or plan. Sure, they can all be watched in a vacuum and enjoyed on their own merits. But without a solid end-goal, any sequels we got seemed to have no clear direction. At its worst, some pieces failed to align and wound up creating plot holes and inconsistencies.

If you're planning a series of any kind, make a plan and stick to it. If you're not really sure if the plan will work, seek feedback. A story series should have one unified source (I've seen novelists refer to this as a series bible) where plans are made and referred to. It does no good to have your plan fragmented and split.

That is not to say that a plan can't change mid-stream, but then you'd want to update your series bible. And when you get to a certain stage, it might be too late to go back (although movies like to retcon themselves, I don't think writers have that same luxury). The MCU movies maintain their integrity because the backstories are solid and unchanging. If something didn't work, the series just plows ahead. It still refers back to past events of it has to, but some things (like, let's say the bad guy from Iron Man 3) don't ever get mentioned again. What's important is not to undo the past, but to acknowledge it and keep the plots of the stories flowing in the next most logical direction.

Biggest reason why I wanted to harp on the pre-MCU films is because there is a slight cross-over. 2003's Hulk is technically not part of the series. But there's also no reason why you can't include it in a marathon. The film does provide the character's backstory, which is then recapped in a flashy montage in 2008's The Incredible Hulk (which is part of the MCU). Aside from that, the events of Hulk are never brought up in any future films--the backstory exists and is set in stone, and you can watch all the other films in order without the Hulk's story being self-contradictory. The same trend carries over in all the future films too--just as a good sequel should, each film continues where the previous left off, then takes its own unique direction.

What the Marvel Universe Taught Me

Thor experiences the ultimate in home theater technology.
Looking at the MCU as a whole, here are the takeaways I get from looking at the entire series:
  • Planning, as explained above. Keep good track of what happened before. Keep a single good bible or notebook for all worldbuilding and character notes. Know how this all ends (even if you don't know the middle bits) and head in that direction without flip-flopping the trajectory. Each character has a distinctive arc that begins and ends in their own series, and can be affected by interactions within the cross-overs.
  • What makes the Marvel movies popular is not the plots, premises, or action--it's the characters. Each character shines well because of superb casting choices, but what helps the most is that each character is given key moments in their respective stories where they get to show off their unique gift or power (which is especially important in the mash-up movies where lesser characters could have gotten lost in all the noise). The MCU is at its best and most awe-inspiring with scenes like Iron Man shooting a tank, the Hulk face-punching a Behemoth, Hawkeye shooting down Chitauri without even looking, Spider-Man yanking Captain America's shield, and so many more. It's a superb combination of good character intros, beats, challenges, and setpieces that brings out their inner heroes or personalities.
  • Lesser characters also have their moments, and it makes them surprisingly lovable. Happy Hogan, Pepper Potts, Agent Coulson, Heimdall, Skurge, Jarvis--all these minor characters help fill in the universe and make everything feel more connected and alive. Many stand out because of their personalities and very specific character beats. But other times, it's just awesome to see a character who's otherwise assumed to be a nobody become a somebody. It's the same concept behind TR-8R--the one stormtrooper in Star Wars: The Force Awakens who challenged the leads with an electric baton. Everybody loved that guy because he became more than cannon fodder for the one scene. Same can be said for Agent Coulson, who might look like just a regular federal agent throughout the MCU, but becomes somebody to root for in Avengers when he challenges Loki. And we feel something for him when he's killed. Unlike TR-8R, Coulson had greater depth, thanks to a few small scenes that showed his personality. It didn't take much, just a few shots of him playing off of other characters.
  • It's not always about characters standing up and fighting though. Hawkeye has his moment in Age of Ultron when...it turns out he has a family. We've seen him kick so much butt, this comes as a surprise twist, and it's a nice touch because it adds another side to the character. Up to that point, we've only seen him as a badass archer dude--afterwards, he becomes a man with stakes.
  • One issue I see harped on time and again is the notion of "disaster porn," which describes films that contain so much mass destruction it must be exploitative. I can see why movies aim for bigger and more explosions--it's a form of theatrics and it's been part of the blockbuster formula since Roland Emmerich's heyday. The MCU finds ways to curb these criticisms by addressing the core issue of whether or not lives are being lost or saved during a major, destructive action scene. Iron Man and Spider-Man actively save people when they can, and show no interest in murdering villains--they bring justice without crossing moral boundaries. Doctor Strange evades the issue completely by either directing the fights to the Mirror Universe or by undoing the damage with time travel. The conflicts in Thor never really address hapless Earthlings in the fray, but Ragnarok makes it part of the plot to evacuate Asgard (which, in turn, helps Thor realize his destiny as king). Hulk by nature doesn't give a sh*t so the issue doesn't even come up--he is a walking disaster in himself, so perhaps some death and mayhem by his hands is expected. Captain America typically saves hostages and innocents--if he can't, he'll direct others to do it. Ant-Man has the potential to be reckless, but he has some moments where he yells at people to get out of Yellow Jacket's crosshairs. The Guardians of the Galaxy might not have the noblest of intentions, but they do save whole worlds. When it comes time for the Avengers to take action, they collectively focus on saving lives during their battles. What really makes the series nuanced, however, is that the major battles they fight do have repercussions: everything that happened in Sokovia led to the issue of accountability being addressed, and it becomes the source of major conflict in all of Captain America: Civil War. Really, the whole movie is about fallout, and it redirects the series in more interesting ways. Late in the series, you see the effects of loss, disaster, failures, and it has lasting effects. Most other movies don't even bother with these kinds of things. The DCU in particular fell under fire, with accusations that Superman kills more people than he saves (although I don't particularly agree). They tried to rectify the mistake in Batman v Superman, but in the clunkiest way (the script practically tells the audience four times that the setting is abandoned so the heroes can fight all they want without collateral damage). Marvel never had to resort to these kinds of corrections, and I don't really see their films labelled as disaster porn. The reason is the films are careful to address collateral damage, and in some cases, even make it part of the plot. I find it rather brilliant.
At what cost?
  •  Escalation occurs all the time. Each movie has its own complete plotline, which in itself will mean a series of mounting stakes and conflicts and such. But even with whole trilogies and the whole universe, things just keep building. This all started with just a few random heroes doing heroic things--once Thor's hammer appeared, the scope opened up to include all of outer space, and that came to a head with Avengers. It didn't stop there though--while all the Earth-bound heroes erupted in other kinds of conflicts, the scope continued to widen with Guardians of the Galaxy, then Ant-Man, then Doctor Strange. Even Black Panther broadens the scope some by including hidden civilizations in the mix. At this point, the series is boundless, but it only got there by a slow and gradual opening up of possibilities. And that progression is rarely dull, because it took a number of sub-plots to get there. This is also why Infinity War is such a big deal--the title alone suggests there's no limit to the possibilities, scope, or scale of what happens next.
  • Macguffins, man. Hitchcock defined this as the one thing characters on-screen care about the most, but the audience doesn't. This whole series is ultimately about six Infinity Stones that all the heroes have to keep away from the Big Bad. On its own, it comes off as more of the same. What helps is that most of these have now been entwined with each heroes' journeys. The blue one (the Tesseract) has been exploited by both Hydra and Loki (which, in turn, put Captain America and Thor into action). The yellow one (was in Loki's staff) gave birth to Vision, who is a cool dude we'd love to see stick around. The red stuff (the Aether) nearly killed Thor's GF. The purple one nearly wiped out a planet, until the Guardians of the Galaxy stepped in. The green one (the Eye of Agamotto) is the thing Doctor Strange had to master to save the world. The orange one, Thanos acquired only by making a personal sacrifice. We may not care about actual stones, but we care about the characters and want to see them succeed. But the fact that all these stones come together in the Avengers films creates additional unity.
  • There are a plethora of villains in the MCU. They all look menacing and wicked, but not all of them are particularly good characters. Most come and go movie-to-movie, seeming without apparent motivation beyond wanting to destroy, kill, take revenge, or something. The ones that stood out to me are the ones that often flip-flopped (Loki or the Winter Soldier), had a deeper or unique point-of-view of things (Ultron, Thanos, Killmonger), or had a personal connection (or perhaps grudge) beef with the heroes (Hela, Ego). Guys like Red Skull, Ronan, Malekith, Kaecilius--I really couldn't tell you what made them tick, they were all one-note characters. What would have made them stand out much more is if the films actually dug more into why they were the way they were.
  • The most admirable nuances of the MCU is how certain story threads are woven among the stories. Characters coming together is only part of the equation--their backgrounds dictate how they play off of each other and the kinds of chemistry that happens (which ranges from pleasant to explosive). Some threads you think might be just abandoned wind up playing a part later--even if it's minor, it's still a great way to create unity and excite fans. For example, characters you may not expect to see again wind up reappearing later (for example, the Collector and Red Skull appear in Infinity War). Exchanges and dialogue are repeated (such as Thor repeating Black Widow's serenade to the Hulk). Main characters from some movies become minor characters in others (General Ross, the main baddie in The Incredible Hulk, appears in Civil War and Infinity War, not necessarily as a villain but as a minor political antagonist).
Now, here's some quick take-aways from individual stand-alone movies.

We Have a Hulk

Should be read as "Days Without Coffee."
  • 2008's The Incredible Hulk begins in a cool place--it tracks Bruce Banner hanging out in South America trying to get a grip on his anger issues. It follows the thread that 2003's Hulk left off with, but with the opening montage filling in the backstory it makes Ang Lee's film optional. In a quick credits scene, you are shown what you need to know, then we cut directly into some quick "slice of life" scenes involving Banner. 
  • It's worth noting that scenes like this don't always make for good hook, especially in books, but the movie works because we're given a key conflict: Banner's inner struggle with his own "inner beast." That's the thing that persists for the whole movie, until he reaches the point where he achieves total control over the Hulk (which in turn substantiates the "I'm always angry" line in Avengers--viola, a character arc). You don't always have to open a story with smashing or anything--a simple or understated conflict can be compelling in its own right.
  • Plans for an Incredible Hulk 2 have been rumored for a long time now, but still hasn't happened. Which is a shame, because there's at least one lingering thread that's begging to be picked up (specifically, the one scientist dude had some goo drip into his head, which will turn him into a baddie named Leader). The doors are also open to see if Bruce will ever get back with Betty, and will Ross ever lighten up? Between the events of The Incredible Hulk and Avengers, I suppose these threads could become a form of Chekov's Gun (meaning, things introduced in a story that aren't brought up again or have no bearing on future events).
Proof That Tony Stark Has a Heart

The best heroes never look at their own 'splosions.
  • 2008's Iron Man was one of the best event films of the year if for no other reason than it gave us a character worth rooting for. The film's best asset is Tony Stark, brought to life perfectly by Robert Downey Jr. Not just because he's all quippy and such, but because of the arc--this is a narcissistic and indulgent man who has to learn to become a hero, and this arc becomes the whole plot of the movie. From arms dealer to an armored man who disarms terrorists--what a turnaround. The humor and personality makes the character likable, even before he becomes a hero. He is also a genius engineer, and it is mighty impressive to see him at work on things like a rot rod and such. But what makes him rounded is that he has inherent vulnerabilities--impulsiveness, selfishness, alcoholism, daddy issues. None of his negative traits makes him outright nasty or anything, but he can be an a-hole at his worst of times. Exploring all of these traits and his whole journey worked because the character hooks (likable traits) were strong enough to get audiences to follow along.
  • The first movie starts in medias res--we're thrust into the middle of the story, then it goes back in time after the title screen. It works great as a hook because, first, we're shown the character beats in the jeep (it's a really good trait to see him bring out some life in the deadpan soldiers around him), before everybody is ambushed. We're hooked to the character first, then he's put into danger.
  • It's pretty typical for second-parter movies to do something to take away the characters' power or make them fail outright. Iron Man 2 admirably does this to some degree. It may not have been a hit with audiences, but I do admire it for making the Iron Man suit in itself an enemy, literally poisoning Tony's body. It becomes a metaphor for his inner struggle between his two identities (Tony Stark the billionaire human vs Iron Man the robotic hero). What makes the film's conflicts more compelling are that Tony loses most of his allies and support, mostly because of his own arrogance or recklessness. It's all very important ground to cover for Stark's arc--the only way for him to progress further is to make him fail in some way, then overcome his shortcomings. And he does.
  • The only thing that holds IM2 back is the actual plotting--it comes off as choppy, because all these story beats happen independent of the main threat (that being Whiplash, who later allies with Hammer so the threats become unified, although none of that contributes to Tony's suit problems or the friction with his allies). There's a lot of effects, but few causes. Part of me wonders if the film would have been stronger if Stark actually lost the first fight against Whiplash on the racetrack (although I suppose another spin on things is that him winning the fight boosted his ego to the point where he let all the bad things happen to him). If nothing else, I wish there was more unity among all the different threads the movie grabbed--they do get tied up in the end, but their beginnings are what I question the most.
  • "It's a one off." Tony Stark uses a super-duper laser to wipe out most of the drones at the end of IM2, but the film wisely establishes that it's a one-and-done weapon. Otherwise, one could ask why Tony doesn't use this sort of thing all the time. It goes to show that establishing some rules helps eliminate plot holes (in addition to maintaining consistency).
  • "I vant my boid." Seriously, don't write that way unless you know what you're doing. I suspect this goofy line wasn't written in a cliched Russian accent in the script, but there are writers who can masterfully capture accents and dialects in text, reflecting the exact way they are said. That takes a lot of linguistic study to pull off. Most of the time, I find passages written in authentic dialects to be a slog to get through--impressive when it's done right, but it also requires more brainpower to comprehend, and it runs the risk of coming off as cliched if the writer isn't careful. If you're in doubt, you don't have to capture every syllable or inflection this way--it works just fine to write the text normally, and let the readers imagine the foreign or unusual voice in their heads.
  • Iron Man 3 remains my least-favorite in the MCU. One of the biggest things that bugs me to no end is that it's bookended with Tony's narration, even though the other two films aren't. Tony flat-out tells the audience who he is and he tells us that he has changed in the end. Uh, no. The movie itself should have SHOWN us all of this. For some reason though, the plot fails to focus on the journey to its actual ending--Tony "changing" and having the shrapnel finally removed from him should have factored into the overall plot with the Extremis and all that. But the final scenes don't connect to the main story at all--it's as if they're tacked on as an afterthought and Tony has to let us know that stuff happened. This movie would have been much more powerful if Tony's life was endangered by his heart thing. The fact that it does betrays the film's ultimate problem: it's not so much an Iron Man film as it is a rehash of Shane Black's previous work, The Long Kiss Goodnight. The two are so similar, it's not even funny. It's also probably the reason why some story decisions (such as making the Mandarin a fake) were made, which upset fans who expected the material to be treated more accurately. There are probably other issues I could dig up, but the narration and finale bugs me the most because it strikes me as a violation of the "show don't tell" rule, on a macro level nonetheless (now, if you want to see a case where narration gets it right, look at Taxi Driver--the narrator there tells us much, but never directly says he changes or is lonely, the story shows us this and his voice is another form of "showing." Tony Stark could have followed in the same path, he just needed to express himself in the narration without spelling plot points out to the audience).
Thor the Mighty, Thor the Brave

How all these films should be viewed.
  • The Thor movies do manage to push Thor through fairly compelling character arcs. The first film is pretty solid--it shows the journey of how Thor became a worthy ruler when he's stripped of his power and exiled. He proves himself by the end. The Dark World, like most second-parters, challenges Thor further by attacking things more personal to him (Jane and Loki). Ragnarok shows a very satisfying arc, since much like the first movie it strips Thor of his power and exiles him--key difference now is that he harnesses inner power and proves he doesn't need his hammer, in addition to learning the "Asgard is not a land, but a people" theme. All three films culminate in Thor becoming the king of the Asgardians, and it is a pretty satisfying trilogy that way (despite the tonal shift in Ragnarok).
  • Thor opens with scientists witnessing something weird in the desert, they run somebody over, then it fades into the prologue. These scenes have Anthony Hopkins tell the audience, in a storybook-type manner, all about Asgard, the Nine Realms, a history of war, and so on. As noted above, narration that tells the audience stuff tends to stand out to me. It was weak in IM3 because significant plot points that should have been in the movie were simply told. With Thor, it's more about getting the audience caught up on what Thor's world is, and it is kinda important because up to know, we've never seen Marvel's cosmic side of the universe. In this respect, I do see the narration as a necessary evil. What helps more is that, later, it's revealed that Odin is actually narrating to his sons. Funnily enough, Thor: Ragnarok goes the same route--it opens with Thor seeming to address the audience directly, only to eventually show that he's just talking to a skeleton for some reason (goofy, but a clever trick on the audience that does manage to slip some exposition on them too). Ragnarok also provides a recap framed in a very funny way--it's a play within the movie that recreates the events of The Dark World.
  • Some things in the Thor movies do get dropped like they're hot. The Warriors Three appear in the first two, but barely in the third (there might have been a reason for their absence, but I forget what now). Jane Foster is also written off in the third movie. Even the approach of the movies are altered a bit as they go on--the first film leans heavier towards sword-and-sandal fantasy, going so far as showing Thor and the gang riding horses on the Bifrost Bridge. In the next films, they just use spaceships. This trilogy could have benefited more from some kind of unified planning, but instead it wound up adapting and changing in response to how well the other MCU films were received (Guardians of the Galaxy in particular would have surely influenced the style and comedic approach to Ragnarok).
  • Speaking of comedy, I always saw Thor as a lunkhead and a fish-out-of-water, so I felt the movies were at their best when they showed him at odds with Earth people and culture. Most other scenes came off as stiff, because they take themselves quite seriously. Ragnarok, however, doesn't hold back and becomes a straight-up comedy. I believe it strikes the best balance because the serious scenes still carry weight, but aren't all that stiff either. Funny scenes in all three movies work because they stem from the characters' personalities and how they play off of situations and other people. There's also a fair amount of bathos (that is, to undercut a dramatic moment with comedy, thus obliterating all the tension). It comes into play repeatedly in Ragnarok, but it works because it achieves the correct effect (it makes audiences laugh, and this is a comedy, so yeah). What I admire the most is that Ragnarok still has some impressive dramatic moments that are untarnished by comedy--Odin's passing, Valkyrie's flashback, Heimdall's rebellion, Thor tapping into his inner-lightning power, Asgard's destruction. It might not hit the same gravitas as the first Thor film, but it still packs a good, cathartic punch without being dry and stiff.
  • Loki emerges as one of the best recurring characters in the MCU. In the first Thor movie, he comes off as rather bland though--you don't really see this character shine until Avengers, at which point we see a lot more mischief and comedy out of him (and in later movies, a larger sense of tragedy). What I admire about him is that after a long string of failures, he is eventually steered onto the path of becoming a hero, going so far as trying to oppose Thanos in Infinity War (at the cost of his life). He is as lucid of a character as they come, and it makes him well-rounded, complex, and easier to sympathize with.
  • I also appreciate Hela, from Ragnarok. Much of it stems from Cate Blanchett's performance and wardrobe, all of which are phenomenal. Her mere tone of voice tells you all you need to know about the character, but she achieves a better level of pathology by revealing the hypocrisy of Odin, which in turn reveals her motivations and ideals. The only real shame about Hela is that she's never hinted in any previous film, despite being Thor's sister--a few hints in the other two films would have gone a long way.
America! F*** Yeah!

How most editors approach your work.
  • I personally never cared for Captain America, mostly because I didn't know much about him before the movies. The First Avenger does a good job of making me care--it does this by showing (not telling) us specific scenes that underscore what makes Steve Rodgers a worthy hero. For most of the film's first half, he's thrust into situations where he stands up to bullies (often much bigger and stronger than him), has to overcome adversity (such as being rejected from the military), and he shows compassion. Once those things are established, he's then given strength to realize his dreams, but his dreams are then taken away from him as he's delegated to being a showman rather than a fighter. This sets up the next most compelling struggle: Steve proving his worth. These aspects are enough to make me root for Steve and see him succeed, so when all the combat finally happens in the last half, it's rather satisfying. In essence, the movie works because the character works, and the themes surrounding him (concerning strength and courage) resonate through his actions (plus some on-the-nose dialogue).
  • One thing I find odd about The First Avenger is how the second half introduced a number of side characters, hand-picked to be Rodger's specialized unit. They all look rough, tough, and full of personality. But we never get to know them. If they had speaking parts, I don't even remember them. They are literally expendable--which might be the point, but even the Expendables movies gave its characters room to breathe and have fun, which made their rough, tough casts likable. With Captain America's own Dirty Dozen, I kinda wish the film added more depth and personality to them. Granted, the film is dense as it is and there's not much room for more characterization, a few added lines and more chemistry wouldn't have taken up much screentime (in fact, some subplots could have probably been trimmed to let these passing scenes breathe more). But really, there's a little too much going on for just one film--the film breezes through a huge, eye-popping montage showing all kinds of awesome sub-conflicts that could have been great stand-alone stories in themselves. It all could have constituted a TV series, especially with the added side characters. But it's not unusual for films to use a montage like this to show the passage of time (or in this case, an entire war campaign). I think my complaint stems more from the scope of the story stretching beyond the confines of the film, and the film isn't able to encapsulate all of it in a really satisfactory way. What might have helped is if the introduction scenes for the side characters got cut--since we don't get to know them personally, there's no real need to set them up in the first place. The film could have shown its montage with this new unit, and we could have just rolled with it--it's war, Rodgers would have picked up allies over time, it would have made sense.
  • Speaking of allies, The Winter Soldier starts with Rodgers making a new friend in the modern age (Sam Wilson, who later becomes the Falcon). It is an important plot point to set up for a later payoff, but the exchange does generate chemistry that characterizes both characters. When Black Widow shows up, the film even gives her a few lines to help characterize her. It all passes by pretty fast, before the first big action scene hits. Even though the jogging scene doesn't seem like a good hook to start with, it works more because of the character hooks. Not everything has to begin with a bang.
  • Civil War has its share of political nuances, which are interesting and it does build up to some impressive fights. What disappoints me the most is that the movie splits its POV with so many different side characters, in order to squeeze in such things as Spider-Man's introduction, Black Panther's introduction, and Vision and Scarlet Witch. I believe this is too much--broad though the story is, it spreads things so thin that less screen time is given to the actual title character. If the film focused on just him and Bucky, I would have been more pleased because the personal stakes should be more interesting than the team-ups and franchise tie-ins. I'd even argue that the personal stakes should have taken precedence over the political, but I do appreciate that the ideological differences are what creates the split--it's a very fundamental problem that touches the heart of each character.
  • Civil War does excel at addressing the fallout of Avengers: Age of Ultron and the issues of accountability. I admire how the villain is directly born out of the carnage of AoU--he's just an average, non-super person looking for justice. Meanwhile, the heroes become flawed, and War Machine (or is it Iron Patriot?) comes out of it crippled. That's a pretty stark and nuanced turn of events.
They Are Groot

Quill tells Ronan to clean up this mess, or else.
  • One thing I admire the most is that GOTG has very low-key dialogue, to the point where it's ridiculous, colorful, and just plain funny. I don't think any other movie could pull off a line like "I'm Marry Poppins, y'all!" in a way that makes sense or can be taken at face value. The movies embrace their own ridiculousness and become effortlessly entertaining because of it. It's an effect that eventually filters into Thor: Ragnarok, and I believe it's for the better. Not every written work can get away with this sort of thing, but I think the key lesson here is to know exactly what voice, tone, and amount of color you need for your work, and apply it. Even if the words come out stupidly, sometimes you just got to cut loose and let it come out naturally.
  • Dialogue in the first GOTG is pretty brisk. In the second volume, some of the jokes become strangely wordy, especially from Rocket. Look at the whole Taserface gag--it takes Rocket several lines to underscore just how ridiculous the name Taserface is. Later, we get a much shorter exchange: Taserface tells a Sovereign operator "Tell him the name of the man what sealed his fate... Taserface." Then the operator just bursts out laughing. That scene is hilarious--it's a case of bathos being used properly (and it probably helps that the name Taserface in itself can't be used in a serious circumstance, so the operator's reaction is genuine and it all comes off as funny). Rocket's lines merely point out the obvious--it's amusing, but on its own it's rather wordy and it becomes obnoxious.
  • Bathos is used repeatedly in the two movies. For GOTG, I think it's largely warranted--they're mostly comedies, and they're space adventures with talking raccoons and trees for freak's sake. But in the same respect as the Thor movies, I think GOTG still has enough dramatic weight to work--scenes like the guardians banding together against Ronan, Peter seeing a vision of his mother, and Peter fighting his own father, and Yondu's funeral are still pretty heavy-duty scenes that invoke a cathartic feeling. Even in these movies, comedy doesn't hijack the heart of the stories.
  • GOTG captured my heart long before I saw the first frames of the picture, because it falls squarely in a certain niche of sci-fi films I enjoy: movies about outlaws in space. Whether it's Han Solo in Star Wars, or the crew of the Bebop, Serenity, or Outlaw Star, these types of stories usually appeal to me because they boast ensemble casts of lovable characters. GOTG's cast is as lovable as they come--the first film establishes right away who Star Lord is (an abducted kid who lost his mother to cancer--who wouldn't feel for that?), and we come to admire everybody else as they come along. Groot and Rocket's bickering made them an amusing duo before Quill stumbled in their paths. Gamora and Drax are characters we can admire because they're tough and kick a lot of butt--we come to learn that Drax is actually hilarious for many reasons, while Gamora elicits sympathy through her relationships with Nebula and Quill. The only character I found off-putting was Yondu, but he became lovable by the second movie when his motivations were fully revealed--looking at the first movie now, you can tell that everything he did he always did to protect Quill. All these misfits (or "losers" as Quill describes it) create chemistry and dynamics that run so fast and loose, the pacing rockets ahead through so much laughter and action. Just like the other sagas mentioned above.
Ants, Man

It's right behind you!!!
  • Ant-Man is one character I briefly worried about from a moral perspective, because he is a former con and a thief and we're asked to root for him (my mom is always concerned about films that glorify evil and crime, so I couldn't help but to wonder...). Ant-Man managed to alleviate those concerns for a couple of reasons: for one thing, the character is not inherently evil or a criminal, he actually tries to do the right and honest thing, but circumstances lead him back into crime (briefly). Add the personal stakes to that (the drama between the guy and his daughter), and we can't help but to root for him. The best crime films focus on how characters' lives and situations force them down the wrong paths, and those paths inevitably lead to their own doom. But there are others where the characters redeem themselves and become heroic, and I find that even more compelling--and that's the case with Ant-Man. So from the perspective of crime and heist stories, one shouldn't lose sight over how character actions and sympathies guide the story's stance on crime and law. Granted, there are stories and films that offer challenging views on this sort of thing, but Ant-Man keeps the morality in check.
  • Perspective is what makes Ant-Man so fun. When he's no bigger than an ant, the most unassuming and harmless of things suddenly becomes a threat (like insects, toy trains, the contents of a briefcase, a bug zapper). The film makes a good show theatrically of playing off the disparity of the threatening and non-threatening, usually by cutting back and forth between the character POVs (where the threats are real) to an external POV (where the threat is trivialized). This is one of the ways in which the film induces some good laughs. It works because it plays off of the differences in POVs, and in any written word POV differences can be used to show a lot regarding character, conflicts, and and more.
  • For the longest time, Ant-Man was attached to Edgar Wright, who penned five or so drafts of the original script and shot some demo footage. He ultimately left the project--his scripts  and his vision didn't seem to cut it with the Marvel execs. Wright himself summarized it as "I wanted to make a Marvel movie but I don’t think they really wanted to make an Edgar Wright movie." Given Wright's aptitude for pacing, comedy, style, and action, I really do wish he could have stayed on. But I understand the issue: he wanted to make the film his way, but Marvel has its agenda that filmmakers have to adhere to. This is where the "cookie-cutter" complaint comes from--sacrificing artistic liberty in favor of unified storytelling, styles, tones, and everything else. On the other hand, it's hard to tell if Wright cursed himself by not compromising with his vision. Then it becomes a question of integrity, whether an artist can be expected to compromise at all. Some directors just won't put up with a studio imposing its will on them--others are pure yes-men. Same actually applies to authors--publishers and editors have very specific criteria of what is and isn't acceptable to publish, and many writers have to make the decision between personal expression and conforming to the market. For intellectual properties owned by other people (like Marvel), artistic liberty is especially narrow. So the thing all artists need to ask themselves is: how much of their ego can they set aside to do what's asked of them? I like to think that Wright could have made a great (and possibly better) picture out of Ant-Man if he was able to stay on, even as a director-for-hire with less control. But then, would we have gotten the superb Baby Driver if that happened?
Earth Has Wizards Now?

Somebody get this man a comb!
  • Doctor Strange has some of the more questionable uses of bathos--the film's tone is often serious, but there are moments where comedy undercuts the gravitas of certain scenes. One of the best examples is with the cape that seems to have a mind of its own--when the doc put its on, there's a big swell of music, then the cape tickles him and he makes a fuss about it. Funny? Yeah...no. It would have been just fine to let the doc have his dramatic moment when he simply dons the cape and the music swells and he's the hero and blah blah blah. This isn't really the kind of movie that begs to be a comedy, so why force it in there? It boils down to a bit of a tonal disparity, and perhaps filmmakers didn't know whether to bank on serious action or goofiness (the latter did work out for many other films and became expected from the MCU). Sometimes, you can't mix the sweet with the bitter--this movie might have been a little more powerful if it remained a straightforward, serious drama.
  • That being said, the doc does have his funny moments in Thor: Ragnarok. But it wasn't so much the doc that generated the humor, as it was the way Thor and Loki played off of him. Nothing the doc says is funny, but Loki screaming "I was falling for thirty minutes!" is. Also seeing Thor's reaction to all the warping is funny. Those scenes worked fine because the doc was being himself, and the comedy came naturally out of his interactions with others. Nothing forced.
  • The movie's opening hook is a good one--the fight on the side of a building is a glimpse at even greater and crazier things to come later on. It sets up a promise to viewers, then the movie delivers with a similar (but much bigger and higher-stakes) setpiece. 
  • On top of that, it sets up one or two story questions (including the question of "what the heck is going on here?") that keeps the viewer glued to the screen until answers come. Reality-bending movies in general (like The Matrix) turn the question of "how is this possible?" into a story question, and audiences stick with the film to find the logical answer.
  • Some of my favorite scenes are when Strange is first trying to find his way in. After witnessing the extent of the multiverses and the Ancient One's power, he pleads "Teach me!" And she says "...no." No? Really? Wow. After coming this far, you kinda do want to see the doc succeed at all this, but to be turned around at this juncture seems disheartening to both the character and the audience. Of course, Strange eventually gets his training, but that's also a repeated set of failures until he proves himself. Failure becomes one of the movie's themes, and it even factors into the finale where Strange traps Dormammu in a time loop. Aside from driving the plot and story, the lessons about failure is a nice theme that everybody can take inspiration from. For writers in particular, the craft only gets better after failing again and again and again. For storytelling, having your characters fail is more compelling than having them win all the time.
  • I admire the movie the most for visualizing things that no other movie has before or since. The entire montage through the cosmos and other dimensions is a mind-blast of epic proportions. The big chase through the city in the Mirror Dimension is like Inception on crack. I also really admire the finale, which becomes an elaborate fight scene going backwards in time. It's an impressive show of imagination, and I consider it an inspiration (or perhaps a challenge) to spur me to think about what's the next most incredible thing I can think of. Not every story can warrant this kind of madness (especially since this is all substantiated more by magic than science). But really, most of these scenes occur when events go from bad to worse--one should always be asking what's the next, worst, most incredible thing that should happen next? Strange and Mordo were almost trapped and killed many times, and it made the tension in these scenes quite intense.
  • There are a few key motifs that gives Doctor Strange that much more substance. One is the hands--the first time you see the doc, he's holding up his hands because they are the tools that lets him do what he does. And he presents his hands time and again for some reason or another, before and after his accident. The other big symbol is time, and you see it with the doc's watch collection, among other things. His whole arc revolves around the connection between time and mortality--the Ancient One's speech gives us the unifying lesson about making use of our time, but it's the repeated use of symbols that drives the themes home. Notice that the film ends with Strange putting on a broken watch--it shows how far he's come from the beginning.
Welcome Home Spider-Man

Spider-Man giving directions to the nuclear wessels that gave him his powers.
  • The film doesn't sound interesting at first glance, and I've known one or two folks who find Homecoming droll or uninteresting. Part of it is the fact that this is the sixth Spider-Man movie in fifteen years, and the third time it's been rebooted. Folks unfamiliar with the MCU are probably wondering why Spider-Man hasn't been played out yet. Plus it's a high-school comedy, and that's a genre full of tropes and cliches that some folks probably don't want to see in a superhero film. What makes the film work for me is that both sides of the coin--the superhero film, the high-school comedy--criss-cross to the point where the superhero antics tie into the typical high-school pressures, while the high-school pressures wind up colliding with the superhero problems. Not only does this make it a unified story, but it's also a way to keep the story from becoming too cliched.
  • The film's opening hook, outside of the Vulture's origins, involves Peter Parker fooling around with his camera, making a video diary out of the events of Civil War. It helps recap previous events, it shows Tony Stark's relationship with Peter, but the most important thing is that it characterizes Peter within a few short beats. From these moments onwards, we're hooked on this crazy kid and we want to see what he'll do next.
  • We aren't given an origin story with this Spider-Man. He just shows up in Civil War, already empowered, and the films set up a mentor/apprentice relationship between Spidey and Iron Man to substantiate the fancy suits. The good news is that the suits don't become a plot contrivance--it actually becomes an obstacle that Spidey faces at key moments, and those are some of the funner scenes in the movie. Also, given that we've had Spider-Man's origins covered twice in the past (if not more), rehashing it here would have only been a drag. What Marvel did was rope him in as a side-character, followed by a spin-off adventure--it's the kind of thing you'd probably see in comic-book form anyway, and it works fine as a film.
  • Spider-Man's greatest goal becomes his own failure--all his efforts to impress Tony Stark and run down the Vulture winds up depriving him of his suit in the last act. This sets up his greatest lesson (thus completing his character arc for this film)--that if he is nothing without the suit, then he doesn't deserve to be a hero. He proves his worth, learns his place, and even denies the chance to get a more powerful suit and become a new Avenger (although this all happens in Infinity War regardless). None of this would have happened if he was successful the whole time--Spider-Man had to fail at least a little in order to learn these lessons and become a real hero.
  • I've been curious to know if Michael Keaton's role in Birdman had any bearing on his choice to play the Vulture. After all, Birdman is film in which he plays a washed-up superhero actor struggling for artistic recognition on Broadway, and parts of the film harp a lot on Hollywood's shallow action-movie formulas, which is part of Marvel's shtick. On top of that, an actual Spider-Man is seen in Birdman in some sort of artistic montage scene. Was it foreshadowing, or just a coincidence? Either way, the film benefits even more in context--Birdman was fascinating because of Keaton's fame playing Batman. Now it works more thanks to his fame as a Spider-Man villain. It's just funny how these things work out.
I Bless the Rains Down in Wakaaaaaanda

Boom. There he is.
  • Black Panther starts with an animated prologue that lays out the history of Wakanda and who the Black Panther really is. It's the kind of thing I can take or leave--a necessary evil to get the audience caught up on this world, but there is a part of me that thinks the movie could have worked without having to spell out things to the audience. How groovy would it have been if the film dove right into Wakanda with all its wonders without any explanation? It might throw audiences off for a moment, but a few lines could have cleared any confusion up (especially if you plant an uninformed character into this environment, who then has to be told what's going on) and it would have been more natural than directly addressing the audience. As it is, this opening reminds me of other films (I can't remember now, but I think it was The Protector that opened with a cheap animation that reminds me a lot of the sandy effects Black Panther uses) and it comes off as just more of the same.
  • After all that, there's this odd scene in an apartment, the events of which are fully revealed later, and then the same apartment building is revisited at the film's end. It's all a way for the film to wrap its beginning, ending, backstory, and conclusion into a tighter package. I can't say the drama of the scene really compelled me that much--maybe because the setting is so unassuming for tension revolving around kings and princes incognito and stuff. It's not my favorite opening for a film, likely because it's such an odd mix of low-key and high-stakes elements, but I do appreciate how it's revisited. What I find most appealing is the ending scene, where T'Challa buys the place and we can see its transformation through at least one detail (the basketball hoop, once a wooden crate on a stick, now an actual hoop). Sometimes, one good detail is all you need (and having it revisited turns it into a motif).
  • One thing about this movie that makes me scratch my head the most is understanding why Wakanda is what it is. A whole advanced civilization developed...because of metal? Yeah, Vibranium is special and all, but how does its mere presence substantiate such things as nanosuits, flying airships, ray guns, and other space-aged things? The film offers no explanations--infodumps on the matter probably would have induced yawns and wouldn't have helped anyway. But I wouldn't have minded at least a little something to bridge the gap in understanding. Or, better yet, they could have found a way to marry the cause and effect better--either by toning down the technology, or by showing (not necessarily telling) more insight on Wakanda's development over the ages. 
  • One thing I admire the most about the movie is the personalities all the characters bring to the table. T'Challa is a cool hero, sure, but his spotlight is often yanked from him by characters like Shuri, Okoye, or Zuri. Even Killmonger commands interest. Most reviewers comment on Wakanda being the kind of place they'd want to visit, and with folks like this I can kinda see why. There's a lot of charm to the cast.
  • As mentioned with Spider-Man, failure is an important part of T'Challa's arc. He loses the crown to Killmonger--that's a pretty big deal. It also sets up the final battle with the highest stakes possible (for this movie anyway). There's nothing more epic than watching a guy lose it all (especially as a ruler) and rise back up to take back what's his.
  • There's always a push for more diversity, and a big part of Black Panther's success is in filling a void that most other movies just aren't filling. Other Marvel movies have shown mixed cultures and races here and there--you can see quite a bit of it in Spider-Man: Homecoming. These films can be a reminder to all of us that, sometimes you have to ask yourself, why not make your main hero different in some way? The world is quite a diverse and colorful mix--it would be a great misrepresentation of the human race to default every character to just one type.
Avengers Assemble Disassemble Reassemble

One frame--six heroes--infinitely epic.
  • Avengers--heck, all of them--jump straight into the action with little-to-no introduction or recap. First thing you see in the first film: Loki coming out of a portal, taking the Tesseract, and all hell breaks loose. First thing you see in Age of Ultron: everybody attacking a Hydra base. Infinity War probably has the less interesting intro, but you still see Thanos fighting the Hulk. No more lead-in is used, and is perhaps not even warranted--if you're watching these films, you would have presumably seen the others and know who all the characters and events are, so the films waste no time in getting to the meat of their own respective stories.
  • In the first Avengers, each character is given a proper introduction, so even the uninitiated can feel pumped to see the heroes together on-screen. First, we see Black Widow in a typical spy situation (a bit of bathos at play since through a phone call we see that the situation is not at all dire and she's really the one in control--a scene that's not only cool and amusing, but also reveals who that character is). Tony Stark, we first see flying around in his suit, fixing stuff. That's who he is. Captain America, we see going at it on a punching bag until it breaks off, with flashbacks. That's enough to show who he is and what's going on with him. Thor, we see surrounded by lightning landing on top of this airplane thing. How cool is that? All these scenes are brief, fairly iconic, and serve as good shorthand for catching us up on who's who and what makes them tick.
  • Even though each character has their origin story in their respective movies or trilogies, all the Avenger movies manage to open them up more. In a few cases, it's because there's one or two additional reveals (such as Hawkeye's family). But most of the time, it's because of the chemistry and how the characters play off of each other. The way Tony Stark and Bruce Banner connect, or the way Stark and Steve Rodgers butt heads, are indicative of their characters (plus, these become threads that lead to bigger conflicts down the road, including the whole Civil War movie).
  • Ultron interests me because he is like the son of Tony Stark. This is never stated outright, but it is shown through the low-key, arrogant way Ultron carries himself, which seems to mirror Stark's own personality. It's also a bit on the juvenile side. Seeing as Ultron was a system Stark invented, it only seems appropriate to see Ultron as his offspring personified. It's also somewhat Frankensteinian, especially the way Ultron controls Stark's suits and they become mangled as the fights go on. Ultron ultimately becomes a metaphor for how good intentions (or technology, or the Avengers Initiative itself) can be tainted and turned into evil. A combination of visual cues, dialogue, and acting invokes all of these ideas.
  • Infinity War is probably the biggest eye-opener to what a story can be. It's Thanos' story primarily, and he is the victor in the end. The Avengers actually lose. This only works because Thanos himself is characterized in a compelling way--we are shown his ideology through a carefully-scripted flashback, which in turn uses the image of a balanced knife as a metaphor. And it shows his personal ties to his daughter, whom he sacrifices later in the story. We see him show compassion and experience loss--all traits that build up a character we can follow and admire, whereas previous villains lacked these traits and became just guys we loved to hate. Even though Thanos is a tyrant and murderer on a massive scale, you almost want to see him succeed, partly because the pathos is so good, and also because the sheer scope and stakes inherently makes us wonder what it would actually look like if he succeeded. The film delivers on both.
  • The biggest theme to Infinity War is personal sacrifice. It seems like most character relationships that have been built up are put to the test when select couples are forced to kill the ones they love. Gomora trusts Quill to kill her if she's captured, and after much grief he does go through with pulling the trigger. Scarlet Witch is also forced to kill Vision in order to deny Thanos the Mind Stone. Both these couples have at least one scene in the movie where they express their feelings to one another--they've had scenes in previous movies, but the movie makes sure to remind audiences (or to show to the unfamiliar viewers) that the connections exist. It's enough to make each of these scenes suspenseful. Their decisions and convictions are also additional ways of showing their characterizations. These choices might also impact future actions--if so, these moments would become critical turning points that evolve the characters and make them more complex. All of this applies to Thanos too, who makes the same choice with Gomora.
Beyond Infinity?

More movies are coming, and it's not too hard to predict what will happen next. Infinity War's last stinger hints at the coming of Captain Marvel, who will get her own movie in 2019 and will likely swoop into one more Avengers movie to combat Thanos directly (and I predict some time or reality-bending shenanigans can bring back some the characters who were wiped from existence). We've also got another Ant-Man movie on the horizon (which will probably substantiate his absence from Infinity War, and since Ant-Man has proven that he can shrink into the microverse, he also has a shot of doing some weird quantum-science stuff to potentially undo Thanos' destruction). Chances are good that the fourth Avengers movie (coming 2019) will be the finale to round off the main story arc involving Thanos, but plans do continue beyond that. I don't think filmmakers have a specific storyline in mind, but they are open to more possibilities. I'm pretty sure a third GOTG is imminent, and maybe a second Doctor Strange.

After all this, I can't imagine the scope or stakes being raised any higher than what's already been done. Smaller-scale sequels with personal arcs will probably be more compelling anyway and will see a lot of these mini-franchises through to satisfying directions. But eventually, all good things have to come to an end, and I can't see the MCU progressing past four phases of movies. What other directions would they go if they do? A law of diminishing returns has to kick in at some point, especially since the MCU has gone through so many storylines that have permanently shaped the outcome of the series and made it impossible to double-back and recapitalize off of some things. For a series as well-planned as this, a great finale is just around the corner, and I'm looking forward to it.

Pepper Potts learns the value of digitally backing up all her work.

May 20, 2018

Book Review: How to Build a Time Machine (Paul Davies)

How to Build a Time Machine by Paul Davies

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Let's get this out of the way first: time travel like you see in the movies will probably never become a thing. Physics simply doesn't make things like a flux capacitor plausible. Therefore, you ought to know that this book won't help you or anyone else build a working time machine. It's simply not possible with today's technology, and it might never be possible.

That is not to say the book is a waste or doesn't deliver on its promises, because the third chapter does get really deep into the details of a hypothetical model for a time machine that could jive with physics. It's not as easy as you might think: if you don't have a giant spinning cylinder that's as long as infinity, then you're best bet is to create a microscopic wormhole by conjigguring with quantum science (don't even ask me how, quantum mechanics is my biggest blind-spot). But then you'd have to solve bigger problems, such as how to keep it open for longer than a trillionth of a second or so. And you'd have to enlarge it, probably with matter that gives off antigravity, which may or may not exist. Then you'd have to pump it full of negative energy, which can either be found in black holes, or generated with some crazy contraption involving mirrors and lasers the size of the solar system. If you manage all that, then congratulations, you made a singularity. There's a lot more details to it--I think part of the process involved hurling a bunch of nukes at it. You know what you can do with your wormhole then? You can either wait for so-many years to use it, so you can go back in time to the point the thing was made. Or you can drag the wormhole to a stellar body and use time dilation to go back in time, potentially beyond the time machine's invention. Maybe.

If it sounds too incredible to ever happen, then you can see the real value of the book: it underscores just how complex space and time are interconnected, and it lays out the reasons why time travel in sci-fi is so implausible. The book is a pretty short, breezy, high-level examination of basic relativity--if you know about it going in, it's nothing new. Newcomers might struggle a bit to grasp these concepts, but I think Davies does a good job of relaying the information in simple, laymen's terms. There are more advanced theories and concepts that lie beyond the scope of the book (such as String Theory, M Theory, Multiverse Theory), but I'm glad it doesn't over-complicate things.

For an aspiring sci-fi writer like myself, this book is a pretty brisk and enlightening read--a firm reminder of how scientific theory actually works and how unlikely it is that we'll ever have a working time machine. Casual and curious readers ought to give it a try--it might be something you know about already, but designing a plausible time machine is an interesting thought experiment.

May 6, 2018

Film Review: Avengers: Infinity War

As Marvel Studios celebrates its tenth year anniversary, Phase 3 hits its climax with the biggest scope and scale possible. The events and characters of eighteen past films have finally aligned--every iconic hero bands together in a desperate fight to stop a tyrant from conquering space, time, minds, souls, power, and reality--existence itself.

One would be mad to go into this movie with zero exposure to previous Marvel films--they've all had subtle clues and threads that build up to Infinity War. Without needing much introduction or explanation, the film jumps right into Thanos' quest to gather the six infinity stones spread across the galaxy. In turn, the Avengers assemble again to block his conquest. From outer space to the hidden sanctum of Wakanda, all the heroes fight swarms of aliens to their last. They will be pushed to their limits and forced to make impossible decisions.

It may sound like more of the same, and in this day and age the idea of bigger and bigger stakes may induce more yawns than thrills. With Infinity War, the spectacle is definitely as big as they come, but it's not the sole draw. Even the plethora of iconic heroes aren't the main highlight. Surprisingly, it's the villain who dominates the show--Thanos (Josh Brolin in a performance that's both menacing and compassionate) was just a passing reference in past films, but in full view he shows a striking amount of nuance and depth. His motivations and ideals elicit sympathy for what could have just been random destruction for the hell of it. But there is reasoning and emotion to this character, which sheds new light on previous events and directs the plot into unexpected directions.

The story is patched together with many many POVs, following more characters than you could shake a hammer at. Somehow, the film finds room to give each character screentime to show how far they've come and let their personalities shine. Few are MIA (probably for a reason), and none are crowded out completely. The film is stuffed with enough character beats to ensure that each player is alive, and it makes their choices and struggles more compelling. What I find most striking is that many characters are forced to do the impossible: to sacrifice their loved ones for the greater good. Personal stakes are as epic as the literal stakes, and it makes for powerful storytelling. On a grander scale, the theme of sacrifice extends to the fate of our world and the universe--the film suggests that the universe can only sustain so much life, and when too much life threatens to deplete life-giving resources, a time must come to make these choices. It's a somber reflection on the relationship between mankind and the Earth, and it's a conflict that could very go on forever.

Throughout the MCU, a whole army of talented actors have given life to so many distinctive characters, and most of them return in Infinity War with satisfying nuance, personality, and liveliness. Given all the different plots, characters, and concepts that have to be juggled, I believe the script is as good as it can be. With decent cinematography, sets, props, costumes, and music score, the film is pleasing to look at.

Folks tend to blame the MCU to churning out "cookie-cutter" superhero films, but Infinity War does not go the way you think it will. It manages to evolve the characters further, even to the point of characterizing the villain with compelling depth. The story pushes all the conflicts over bold thresholds that truly challenge everybody, and that alone makes it a heck of a show. But when it comes to being the end-all-be-all superhero battle, the film delivers. The only disappointing thing is that many more threads are left hanging, begging to be tied up in the inevitable Phase 4 finale.

4/5