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Posts Tagged ‘Russo brothers’

As recent events have perhaps shown into sharp relief, we as a culture don’t build many cathedrals any more. I feel this is a shame, as I love a good cathedral despite the fact I am not what you would call a person of faith. There is something about the sheer scale, workmanship and ambition of these vast spaces which I find tremendously uplifting. But, as I say, cathedral building seems to have gone into decline, and the skills that led to their creation seem to be slipping away too – wheel turns, civilisation rises; wheel turns, civilisation falls. One wonders what flavours of human endeavour will likewise disappear, or at least decline, in the years to come. Certainly many commentators have been predicting the disappearance of the big Hollywood movie as we know it for some years now: we may occasionally hear that box office income is looking healthier than ever, but this is mainly the result of inflation – actual ticket sales have been in decline for a decade and a half. There may be more really big movies than ever before, but there are also fewer medium-sized ones, and it’s questionable how long this situation can remain viable. There are many variables in play, obviously, but it does seem likely that there will be big changes over the next few years, leading to fundamental changes in the kinds of films we see and also how we watch them.

I mention all this because it is always good to appreciate what we have while it is still there. If the traditional summer blockbuster is destined to go the way of the Gothic cathedral, then we should take a moment to consider the skill and ingenuity that goes into making one of these films, especially a really good one. They are a distinct form of art, with their own conventions and requirements – not exactly high art, to be sure, and intrinsically populist, but still a form of art, and one that has brought genuine pleasure to multitudes of people for generations.

I suspect that some people may be rolling their eyes already, especially considering that I am ostensibly here to discuss the Russo brothers’ Avengers: Endgame. I do feel a little silly being quite so solemn in a piece about a film which delivers the purest kind of entertainment, but nevertheless, I genuinely think it represents an unparalleled achievement in the making of popular cinema, possibly one which will never be surpassed, and everyone involved deserves some recognition for this.

It occurs to me there may still be a few uninitiated people out there who may be wondering what I’m on about. Endgame is the twenty-second film in a franchise (or series of franchises) which began over ten years ago. The various films in the series share storylines and characters, build and riff on each other, plant seeds which only much later come to often-unexpected fruition. Just as the people who built the foundations of a cathedral often had only the vaguest conception of how they (or their descendants) were going to finish the roof, so it seems fairly likely that the makers of those first few films had little idea of exactly how the project was going to get to this point. Yet here we are, and the unity of vision and purpose the films have maintained, while not perfect, is still remarkable.

Following a couple of somewhat lightweight entries, the new film picks up shortly after the end of the nineteenth film in the series, Infinity War, which saw the cosmic titan Thanos (Josh Brolin) obliterate half the population of the universe, on sound Malthusian grounds. Left untouched by the cataclysmic finger-click were the founder members of the Avengers, although they were left scattered and traumatised by their failure to stop Thanos. The new film, you would expect, sees them regroup and attempt to either reverse Thanos’ terrible deeds or enact some kind of justice. But is it really the case that no good deed goes unavenged?

There’s probably going to be some more eye-rolling at this point, but that is all I’m going to say about the plot of the new film. I found it to be a delight, and that was largely because of my regime of (mostly) strict spoiler hygiene. Part of the joy of the story comes from the way in which the plot plays out, and the many surprises along the way. I imagine the world breaks down into two camps at this point: people who are just not on board the Marvel train, who won’t really care about the details of this film, and people who are, who will want to encounter Endgame in a state of blissful ignorance.

There are many remarkable things about Endgame, not least its sheer technical proficiency and ability to tell a story with a huge array of characters that still manages to feel personal, but perhaps the most surprising is that it genuinely manages to live up to expectations. Since this is the culmination of a story which has been playing out since 2012, if not earlier, this is an amazing accomplishment. More than that, in so many ways it even manages to surpass expectations – not just in terms of its inventiveness, either. Given the nature of the Marvel project, of which this is a landmark feature but by no means the end, I approached this film with a confident sense of knowing what was going to happen, or at least what the state of play would be at the end. Well, I was surprised by this as much as the rest of the film, for the script is not afraid to make some unexpected, tough choices, as well as providing numerous moments that left the audience of the screening I attended alternately cheering and sobbing.

It is true to say that people who decide to finally take the plunge and make Endgame their first Marvel Studios movie are probably going to be left a bit baffled, for there are not many concessions made to this audience – but this is really only to be expected, it’s the equivalent of opening Lord of the Rings a handful of chapters from the end and expecting to understand what’s going on. And given that this is not the final film in this series (there is one more to come this year, with others no doubt to follow), there are elements of this film’s story which are likely to prove problematic when it comes to scripting future instalments.

Finally, I would say that Endgame is a fantasy blockbuster, and if you don’t like the genre, you probably won’t like this film either. What makes it special aren’t exactly its own merits as a film, anyway, but the way in which it serves as a climax, a summation, a capstone, and a victory lap for the films that have preceded it. It is the boldness and confidence of the Marvel project which has been the most surprising thing about this series of films, not to mention the fact that they have generally managed to keep their standards so very high. In a very real sense this film marks the completion of something unprecedented in the world of entertainment – but it deserves to be recognised for its quality as well as its innovation. One can marvel at the mystery of how it came to be, but not to the point where one forgets to enjoy it.

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Is there really any doubt remaining? In ten years, Marvel Studios have risen from nowhere to become the world’s dominant makers of blockbuster entertainment. Once-mighty rival franchises have stuttered, wobbled, and stalled: the Marvel project forges on implacably. Most film series have to operate at full stretch if they produce a movie every year – Marvel are now at the point where they seem comfortably able to release three: having already come up with the year’s most successful film so far (Black Panther, still showing in some cinemas), they now look set to surpass themselves once more, in the form of the Russo brothers’ Avengers: Infinity War.

Marvel have opted to release this movie under their Avengers marque, but it is really quite a different kind of film from most they have done before. Josh Brolin (an actor due to spend a hefty chunk of the year kicking super-powered butt, one suspects) plays Thanos, a benevolent cosmic titan who is not afraid to take those difficult decisions and make himself unpopular in the service of the greater good. His current idea is to solve most of the universe’s problems by the simple expedient of removing fifty percent of its population, entirely fairly and completely at random.

To do so he needs to lay his mighty purple hands on the six Infinity Stones, the embodiment of fundamental cosmic forces, and as the film opens he has acquired one from the planet Xandar and is in the process of retrieving another from the refugees late of the destroyed world Asgard, administering an admonitory smack or four to the Asgardian king Thor (Chris Hemsworth) in the process.

From here it’s off to Earth, a unique world in that it currently hosts two of the Stones, one being in the amulet of master sorcerer Dr Strange (Cumbersome Bandersnatch) and the other lodged in the head of android superhero Vision (Paul Bettany). The silly little super-people of Earth are currently in disarray, following the falling-out between Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) and Captain America (Chris Evans) a couple of years ago, but the appearance of Thanos and his followers serves to focus their minds rather wonderfully, and there are various skirmishes in New York and Edinburgh.

While this is going on, Thor has hitched a ride with space-going ne’er-do-wells the Guardians of the Galaxy and is intent on exacting vengeance on our hero. Meanwhile, the defenders of the Earth are gathering to make their final stand in the enigmatic African nation of Wakanda, where Captain America’s old friend Bucky has had his old codename of Winter Soldier retired (which makes sense, as there’s no winter in Africa) and taken the new one White Wolf (which doesn’t make sense, as there are no wolves in Africa, either. At least not white ones). Can Thanos get the rest of the stones and save the universe, or will these insect-like pests conspire to drag him down?

(Well, it’s kind of true. One of the startling things about Infinity War is that you can view the film in this way and it still makes a lot of sense; it does seem to be a deliberate choice.)

As I say, this is billed as an Avengers movie but really works as a summation of everything they have been doing for the last ten years and in the previous eighteen movies (well, almost: there are a couple of characters, one of them fairly prominent, who they simply couldn’t squeeze in, even to a movie as big as this). So, as you may have surmised, there are lengthy sequences based around characters from the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, while Iron Man spends most of the movie engaged in a snark-off with Dr Strange and Spider-Man (Tom Holland). Even by Marvel’s standards, this is a blockbuster on an immense scale, bringing together dozens of characters and half a dozen separate storylines.

So the question is, how can they possibly make it work? At least one of the previous really big Marvel films, Age of Ultron, felt like it was in danger of buckling under its own momentousness. Well, I’m not quite sure how they’ve pulled the trick, but Infinity War really does work – provided you’ve been following along, at least. I can think of no surer way of creating total bafflement than to stick someone uninitiated in front of this film. For the true believer, however, this is a kind of pop opera, spectacular entertainment on an unprecedented scale.

One of the smarter moves of the script is to establish right from the start, in the most emphatic manner imaginable, not just the power of Thanos, but also the movie’s willingness to take a scythe to the ranks of the established characters from these films. It really does seem like no-one is completely safe, no-one has script immunity, and Thanos is a potentially deadly menace to virtually everyone else. (The Avengers and their allies spend most of the movie frantically trying to come up with a way to foil Thanos without having to confront him directly.) This results in a genuinely tense experience: there were various gasps, wails, and cries of ‘Oh no!’ in the screening I attended when one character took a sword to the gut near the end. It’s a scene that makes it clear this movie starts with its intensity and scale already cranked up to 10, and it stays there for most of the following two-and-a-half hours.

The danger, of course, is that audiences will not find themselves swept along by a thrilling adventure, but battered into submission by sheer bombast instead. They manage to avoid this by making a film which is surprisingly light-footed as it shifts between its various plotlines; it also does an exceedingly fine job of capturing that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby alchemy – almost without fail, an absurdly grandiose moment of cosmic spectacle will be neatly followed by a knowing one-liner, somehow offsetting it without undermining it.

Still, you may be thinking, with so many continuing characters, surely someone has to lose out in terms of simple screen time? Well, yes, up to a point this is true – but no-one feels especially ill-served (except for the people who don’t appear at all, anyway), and everyone gets at least one moment to shine. That said, the only character to get much in the way of genuine development is Thanos himself, most of this coming by way of his relationship with his adopted daughter Gamora (Zoe Saldana). One of the themes of the film is the question of what sacrifices people are prepared to make for the greater good, and Thanos is not exempt from this.

Is this the best movie that Marvel Studios has made to date? Much as I enjoyed Infinity War, I think not: it’s a tremendous ride, not quite like anything I’ve seen before, but the sheer scale of the thing robs it of some of the humanity and emotion that characterise the best films in this series. Perhaps it’s trying to go just a bit too big – there’s at least one unexpected cameo from a returning character which just feels odd rather than a pleasant surprise. The knowledge that there’s another Avengers film out in twelve months will inevitably colour people’s response to the climax of this one, too, well-handled though it is.

It’s difficult to see quite where Marvel can go from here, but the fact that they will be recovering the rights to many other of their most popular characters in the not-too-distant future suggests they will not be short of possibilities. It seems unlikely they can top Infinity War, but then ten years ago even the idea of a film like this one would most likely have been dismissed as absurd. And yet here it is, and it is supremely entertaining stuff. When it comes to this studio, all bets have been off for some time now.

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Spring 2016 may well go down in history as the point at which the superhero movie phenomenon became so all-pervading that the heroes themselves ran out of villains to fight and started beating each other up instead. We have already seen DC entering the fray with their Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, while right now Marvel are striking back with the Russo brothers’ Captain America: Civil War (there may well end up being a colon shortage as well as a supervillain drought).

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Civil War comes out at an odd time for the Marvel Studios juggernaut: their franchise-of-franchises seems to be as popular as ever, with a huge slate of movies planned over the next few years and even a goofy and obscure character like Ant-Man capable of scoring a significant box-office success – but, having said that, their last lynchpin movie, Age of Ultron, received only a lukewarm response from critics and did rather less well than the first Avengers movie. So the new movie has something to prove, even if it’s only Marvel’s ability to consistently make this kind of huge spectacle genuinely entertaining rather than simply an exercise in storyline management.

Things get underway with Captain America (Chris Evans – the other one) leading the Avengers into action in Lagos, taking down the high-tech mercenary Crossbones. However, in the process there is significant collateral damage and a number of civilian deaths. This only chimes with the somewhat gloomy mood of Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr), who is still struggling to deal with being responsible for the near-extinction of the human race in the last movie he appeared in.

It turns out the UN agrees and proposals are drawn up to place the Avengers under close governmental supervision, unable to go into action without official sanction. Obviously, this sits better with some members of the team than others, and the situation is only exacerbated when the meeting to ratify the new arrangement is bombed, seemingly by the Captain’s childhood friend-turned-cyborg hitman Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan). Needless to say, Cap can’t stand by and let his old pal be hunted down like a dog, which puts him and his latterday partner Falcon (Anthony Mackie) on collision course not just with Iron Man and his officially-sanctioned team, but the vengeful African superhero Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman)…

You may already be thinking ‘Wow, for what’s supposedly a Captain America movie, there are a lot of other super-people in this film’. Well, you’re not wrong there: in addition to all of those guys, the rest of the current Avengers line-up – Black Widow, Vision, Scarlet Witch, and War Machine – also make significant contributions, while Hawkeye comes out of retirement too. Paul Rudd steals practically every scene he’s in as Cap recruits Ant-Man for his squad, while the film’s most heavily-trailed innovation is the introduction of Tom Holland as yet another new version of Spider-Man, on Iron Man’s team.

This is, to be fair, somewhat indulgently done, with Marvel clearly doing a lot of the prep work for their first Spidey film, due out next year. Spider-Man’s youth and chattiness are really dialled up to the point where it’s almost slightly ridiculous, but by this point the film is on such a bombastic roll that you either go with it, and most likely have a good time, or don’t.

The Russos pull off the neat trick of making a film which, in its initial stages at least, looks and feels rather like their previous film, 2014’s Winter Soldier, before escalating rather considerably to become something much on the scale of one of Joss Whedon’s Avengers movies. If you were one of the people moved to sheer ecstasy by those sequences where the Hulk fought Thor (neither of whom appear here, by the way), or the big green guy took on Iron Man’s Hulkbuster suit, then this movie will be right up your street as it features full-scale superhero action on an unprecedented scale: Hawkeye vs Vision! Ant-Man vs Black Widow! Spider-Man vs Winter Soldier! It all kicks off and then some, and the colossal battle which concludes the second act of the film will take some topping.

It’s not entirely surprising that the actual villain of the piece, Zemo (played by Daniel Bruhl), rather vanishes into the background, but then the whole point of the story is that this is a guy who knows he has no chance of taking on the Avengers in a fight. To be perfectly honest, I’m not entirely convinced that this story actually hangs together all that well – Zemo’s plan seems to be one of those entirely dependent on random events going in his favour, and characters behaving in very particular ways. Isn’t it all just a bit too convoluted and machiavellian to be plausible?

Hey ho. I must confess that while I was watching it, none of this really occurred to me, although even then I found myself wondering just how wide an appeal Civil War is going to have: for the many people who’ve been following the Marvel movies over the last eight years, and are heavily invested in these characters and their relationships, this will likely be an enthralling and impressive movie – but for everyone else, I wonder if it isn’t in the end just a bit too introspective and downbeat for its own good. How are they going to include the kind of massive collateral damage that characterises their movies from now, given that Civil War establishes that innocent people caught in the crossfire do get killed?

Nevertheless, this movie does everything you want from a Marvel release, and very little you don’t want. It works on its own terms as a spectacular action movie, with a serious core but plenty of crowd-pleasing action and humour (Anthony Mackie gets most of the best jokes), and also teases and sets up a couple of future movies in the series – it seems virtually certain that Spider-Man: Homecoming will be a massive money-spinner, and if Black Panther looks like less of a sure-fire hit, I’m intrigued so see what they do with the character. Some people are murmuring to the effect that we are reaching saturation point when it comes to superhero movies, and that people will soon start to lose interest: however, as long as Marvel keep hitting this standard of quality, I don’t see that happening any time soon.

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It was fashionable, about ten years ago, to declare that we were living through the Golden Age of the Comic Book Movie. Implicit in this, of course, was the suggestion that one day the ‘Golden Age’ would end and we would go back to the bad old days when Joel Schumacher directed Batman films and David Hasselhoff played Nick Fury. Obviously it hasn’t happened; no year is complete without at least four major productions based on either Marvel or DC characters, and – if we’re honest about it – the overall standard of these is generally pretty good.

Much of the credit for this must obviously go to Marvel Studios, who hadn’t even released a film when talk of the ‘Golden Age’ first happened, but are now a major feature of the pop culture scene. Owners of the characters who Marvel farmed out prior to the creation of their own studio are now copying their franchise-of-franchises model (forthcoming X-Men and Fantastic Four movies will apparently be linked, while The Amazing Spider-Man looks set to spawn a glut of spin-offs), while even their old rivals at DC Comics seem intent on inverting the Marvel Studios’ model by using a team movie to lay the groundwork for various solo-hero projects.

It’s got to the stage where things are rapidly becoming traditional: the first Marvel Studios film of the year is a sure sign that summer is on the way – this being ‘summer’ in the cinema-release-schedule sense, of course. Cinema summer used to start in the middle of May or even later, and run until late August, but it has gradually been creeping out in both directions. This is why, only quite shortly after the official start of the British spring, I was able to go and enjoy Marvel’s latest would-be summer blockbuster, Captain America: The Winter Soldier (directed by Joe and Anthony Russo).

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Chris Evans (the other one) is, naturally, back as the steroidally-enhanced ex-corpsicle, and very logically the man with the shield is now working as an agent of SHIELD itself (although if one of his missions has been ‘make the TV series less disappointing’ it doesn’t seem to have worked, based on the episodes we’ve seen over here at least). This is despite his growing concerns over the intrusive and authoritarian methods SHIELD is increasingly adopting, and a lack of transparency within the organisation.

However, the increasing tensions between Cap and co-workers like Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) and the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) are put on hold when senior elements of SHIELD come under attack. Dark forces are at work behind the scenes, and soon enough the star-spangled man is forced to go on the run from his own government’s intelligence apparatus, pursued by SHIELD itself and a shadowy, decades-old cyborg killer known only as the Winter Soldier.

As usual, I will answer the most important question first: yes, there are teasers after the end titles – two of them on this occasion. The second one isn’t much cop, but the first one is interesting. In any case, sitting through the credits gave me a chance for a nice chat with the guy sitting behind me concerning the status of the Rights-Fudge Twins, who will be appearing in wholly different incarnations in this year’s X-Men movie and next year’s Avengers sequel (as both mutants and members of the Avengers, they are covered by two licences, so their main superpower is essentially the ability to make entertainment lawyers very rich).

What about the rest of the movie, though? Well, as noted above (not to mention previously), Marvel are quite simply very good at making a certain kind of film, and they have not dropped the ball on this occasion. The plot is extremely robust, the effects are immaculate, the action is very well staged and there are laughs and more thoughtful moments in all the right places. Lots of familiar faces reappear from other movies (I see this is being advertised in some countries as a sequel to the first Captain America movie, but it really follows The Avengers at least as directly), plus some new characters are introduced into the mix. I found the movie version of Batroc the Leaper (played by Georges St-Pierre) to be pleasingly realised, but on other hand the Falcon (Anthony Mackie) largely seems to be present to beef up the film’s special-effects quotient, and I’m not sure how effective the revelation of the Winter Soldier’s secret really is. Obviously the highest-profile new face in this movie is Robert Redford as SHIELD commander Alexander Pierce, and while it’s nice to see the veteran star in such a high-profile movie, he doesn’t quite get the material he needs to shine.

The Winter Soldier is less SF than Iron Man 3 and a lot less fantastical than Thor: The Dark World, and this by default puts it towards the grittier end of the Marvel canon (although this is obviously a relative thing: there’s a limit to how gritty a film featuring flying aircraft carriers and malevolent AIs can truly be). It clearly wants to be about the tension between public safety and personal privacy, with Captain America obviously flying the flag for individual liberty, but this never feels like much more than a sprinkling of thematic dust on a big blockbuster machine of a movie. That said, Chris Evan does a genuinely impressive job of making Cap a stand-up, decent, idealistic guy without turning him into a prig or a bore, and the contrast between him and the Black Widow (who’s much more pragmatic) is nicely achieved.

The real genius of Marvel’s approach to all their films is that, so far, they’ve shown very good judgement when it comes to knowing how much they can vary their basic formula without losing the audience or destroying the unity of their films as a whole. That these films are conceived as part of a larger narrative is clear (and there’s a reference to Doctor Strange in this film which may suggest one direction this narrative may go in future), and while this has obviously worked on a number of levels, it does mean the films feel perhaps a little lacking in individual identity. Certainly, looking back at my reviews of Marvel Studio films all the way back to The Incredible Hulk in 2008, my general response has always been very much the same: they make technically brilliant, accomplished blockbusters that supply everything you would expect from the form, but somehow lack that extra bit of vision and individuality that lifts them above the level of simply being great entertainment. Well, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a vehicle for one of Marvel’s touchstone characters, so perhaps it was unreasonable to expect it to be too daring (on the other hand their next film, Guardians of the Galaxy, promises to be utterly insane), and it is after all, ultimately a superhero blockbuster. Most people will go to see it expecting nothing more than an entertaining movie from a well-loved brand: and they will not be disappointed. The Golden Age shows no sign of finishing just yet.

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