Posts Tagged ‘hayley atwell’

On the face of it, I’ve set myself a fool’s errand here : to review Avengers : Endgame on its own merits, completely divorced from its cultural context and all which came before it, may not even be possible. But once we get a few particulars out of the way, that’s precisely what I intend to do, those particulars being : This. Is. The. Biggest. Thing. Ever.

We’re talking the cinematic equivalent of your wedding day or the birth of your first kid — or so the Disney/Marvel marketing machine would have you believe, not that they’re necessarily wrong, depending on your own circumstances. The so-called “MCU” came into being when I was in my 30s, but I can only imagine what this must mean to people who literally grew up on this stuff. Ten years of big-budget spectacle after big-budget spectacle, all leading up to this — the spectacle.

And, on that level, not to give too much away too quickly, directors Joe and Anthony Russo deliver. This movie is as big a production as anything Cecil B. DeMille could have dreamed of, plus a whole lot more. The scale is simply staggering. It starts — and ends — in surprisingly quiet, dare I say intimate, fashion, but in between it really is everything and the kitchen sink.That can be good, that can be bad, that can be some of each — and, on balance, the brothers manage to make the most of what amounts to a raft of corporate and circumstantial mandates. There’s no need to donwnplay the scope of their achievement, no matter how badly I despise the media conglomerate behind it all. They had a job to do, and they did it exceedingly well.

Long-time readers here will no doubt be surprised to read those words, given my long-standing antipathy toward most of the Marvel flicks, but once they started coming up with villains that posed a worthy challenge for their heroes — a process that took the better part of nine years — it seems as if a corner was turned. The stamp of auteurship afforded Ryan Coogler with Black Panther is nowhere to be found here, it’s true, but this also isn’t the by-the-numbers extended television episode that so many other MCU flicks have been. It’s probably fair to say it inhabits a middle ground — a “house style” production that nevertheless uses the strictures imposed upon it to its advantage. That takes some doing.

But, again, its own merits only is the rule of the day here. I do, however, need to preface that by saying I was not very enamored of this film’s predecessor, Avengers : Infinity War. After the aforementioned Black Panther I felt it was a massive step back, a reversion to the norm, a dour reinforcement of the status quo. So I was not expecting to like its “back half” very much at all.

Cue some genuine surprises : a central role for Karen Gillan’s perpetually under-utilized Nebula. Several unexpected “ultimate fates” for Josh Brolin’s cosmic baddie, Thanos. A turn toward the nearly likable for Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark. Jeremy Renner’s Clint Barton taking on the “conscience of the team” role usually occupied by Chris Evans’ Steve Rogers. A time-travel plotline that re-visits a number of key events in “MCU” history without once feeling like a nostalgic “greatest hits” reel or, even worse, a victory lap. And a sense of consequence hanging over every scene that nevertheless avoids becoming a Sword of fucking Damocles.

I’m gonna take a minute, at this point, to single out screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely for a praise — they had a lot to stuff into this particular stocking, both in terms of the “B” they had to get to from “A,” but also in regards to figuring out how to give a hell of a lot pf people something to do. Samuel L. Jackson, Marisa Tomei, William Hurt, Angela Basset, Robert Redford, Michael Douglas, Michelle Pfeiffer, Vin Diesel, Dave Bautista, Benedict Wong, Pom Klementieff, Letitia Wright, Sebastian Stan, and Natalie Portman all draw a shorter end of the stick than the rest of the cast, but damn — in addition to the already-name-dropped Evans, Downey, Brolin, Gillan, and Renner, Paul Rudd, Benedict Cumberbatch, Scarlett Johansson, Mark Ruffalo, Evangeline Lilly, Chris Hemsworth, John Slattery, Anthony Mackie, Tessa Thompson, Brie Larson, Rene Russo, Chris Pratt, Gwyneth Paltrow, Danai Gurira, Tom Holland, Elizabeth Olsen, Chadwick Boseman, Jon Favreau, Don Cheadle, Tilda Swinton, Hayley Atwell, Zoe Saldana, and Bradley Cooper all have important shit to do in this story. That’s pretty remarkable any way you slice it, and the logistics of the whole thing — well, I can scarcely being to imagine. Our intrepid authorial duo must have been keeping Excedrin in business for a good while there.

As for the stuff everyone really wants to know about, well, I’m going to keep things “spoiler-free” given the movie literally just opened at the time of this writing, but any long-time comics reader can tell you — death is never permanent, especially death on as large a scale was we were left with in the last flick. And it’s not even the folks who did die that necessarily have the most to worry about — it’s the ones who didn’t, because they’re the ones who’ll be called upon to pay whatever price is required to bring everyone else back. Which means that, yes, certain “character arcs” do come to an end here — and these are all pitch-perfect, whether tragic in nature or (here’s a glimmer of hope for those who haven’t seen it yet and may be rooting for a favorite or two) otherwise. Every hero gets a hero’s ending at the end of their hero’s journey and — forget it, that’s enough of the word “hero” in one sentence.

Production design, cinematography, costumes, locations — all are scaled to fit here, which is to say big, but the surprising amount of personality that finds its way through to the surface is what I think is this film’s most noteworthy feature. Against all odds, you’ll find yourself invested in these proceedings, even if you’re as far away from being a Marvel fan as yours truly. I didn’t go into the theater actively looking to find things to pick on when the lights dimmed and the screen lit up, but I didn’t think they’d be too hard to find. To my more than pleasant surprise, apart from a handful of stupid plot holes, nothing to add to the negative side of the ledger leaped out. Believe me when I say — I’m still trying to figure out how the hell that happened.

As to whether or not this is the “end” of something, as its title suggests — I’ve gotta say that, on the whole, it doesn’t feel like it is. More like the culmination of a whole lot of “somethings,” in preparation for the next act. The Marvel blockbuster machine shows no signs of slowing down — and for the first time probably ever I actually find myself interested to see what it has in store for us next.

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If you accept the axiom that “super-heroes are our modern mythology,” then allow me to start this review with a little bit of myth-busting. It’ll be fun, I promise.

Myth #1 : I reflexively hate all Marvel movies. This idea has become so entrenched among my friends and readership (such as it is) that I’ve come to accept it myself. But before I sat down to write this thing — well, okay, I was already sitting down, but I hadn’t started writing yet — I looked back over my past reviews of Marvel flicks and discovered something curious, namely : I’ve actually “gone easier” on most of these than even thought.

Thor? I gave that one a pretty decent write-up. Captain America : The First Avenger? I gave that a glowingly positive review. X-Men : First Class and X-Men : Days Of Future Past? Again, wildly enthusiastic notices from yours truly. The Avengers? I wasn’t even all that negative on that one, more just — meh. The Avengers : Age Of Ultron? Again, just sort of tepid, but I actually said it was better than I thought it was going to be. Veering more towards the “positive” again, we have my reviews for The Amazing Spider-Man and The Amazing Spider-Man 2.

Really, the only Marvel flicks that I’ve expressed outright disdain towards were Thor : The Dark WorldCaptain America : Winter SoldierIron Man 3 and Guaradians Of The Galaxy. I was admittedly pretty relentless in my condemnation of all of those, but fuck it — I still stand by every word I said and think they’re pieces of celluloid shit with basically no redeeming qualities whatsoever. On the whole, though, I’ve actually written more positive reviews of Marvel movie product than I have negative ones. Go figure.

Myth #2 : Marvel’s latest, Ant-Man, had a “successful” opening weekend. I’m calling pure bullshit on this one, and it’s frankly astonishing to me how few people are willing to state the obvious here — that they’ve got their first flop on their hands since The Incredible Hulk.

Let’s talk about some obvious double-standards here, shall we? When Green Lantern took in $53 million its opening weekend, it was was touted as a “disaster” for Warner Brothers and DC. Likewise for Watchmen’s opening take of $55 million. Superman Returns was immediately written off as a major disappointment when it hauled in $52 million. And how about The Amazing Spider-Man 2? That flick was subject to an almost relentless “netroots” smear campaign co-ordinated by Marvel and aimed at Sony for the express purpose of getting them to throw in the towel on the franchise and “bring it home” to the so-called “House Of Ideas.” It raked in $91 million its opening weekend and was instantly labeled a “failure” thanks to Marvel’s uncanny ability to essentially control the entire fucking internet when it wants to.

All of which brings us back to Ant-Man. It made $58 million this past weekend — barely more than Green LanternWatchmen, and Superman Returns (despite having higher 3-D ticket prices than those three flicks), and far less than The Amazing Spider-Man 2 took in — and yet the headline on IMDB this evening reads “Ant-Man Comes Up Giant.” Please.

Reading the full text of this week’s chart analysis on boxoffice.com, the truth becomes more evident : you’ve gotta go down a couple paragraphs, but the ugly reality Dis/Mar can’t ignore is in there : this represents the second-lowest opening weekend for a Marvel movie ever (after The Incredible Hulk), and the lowest, when adjusted for inflation, in terms of actual ticket sales. It’s also highly unlikely that it will have much in terms of “legs” going forward, because it’s got a heck of a lot of competition out there right now. This movie landed with a thud — but it almost seems like people are afraid to say so.

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Normally I’d just chalk that up to Marvel’s overpowering PR machine “spinning” the message as they always do. Or possibly to the fact that Ant-Man has been a troubled production almost from the start — original screenwriter/director Edgar Wright bailed out over “creative differences” in favor of the apparently-more-pliable Peyton Reed and there have been reports of cost over-runs leaking into the entertainment press here and there — and maybe all the negative early scuttlebutt convinced casual or “on the fence” fans to take a pass, but ya know what?  At this point I think there might be something more going on. Have you taken a look at the upcoming release schedules from Dis/Mar and Warner? Both Marvel and DC films are going to be positively ubiquitous for the next 5-6 years, and if the whole super-hero trend is finally starting to run on fumes, Hollywood is in for a very rough half-decade. Nobody’s saying that Ant-Man is flop because Hollywood can’t afford even the idea of a super-hero movie flopping right now. They’ve put all their eggs in one basket, and the frankly monumental degree to which this one “under-performed” right out of the gate has studio execs all over Tinseltown nervous.

And now that we’ve got all that business concluded, let’s talk about the film itself, shall we? I promise to keep it brief.

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Dear God but this sucked, didn’t it? I mean, seriously. And I can say that in complete safety having established my bona fides as “nowhere near the Marvel-basher my reputation would suggest.” This is just a bad movie. Paul Rudd is likable enough in his lead role as ex-con-turned-reluctant-hero Scott Lang, but from there it’s all just downhill. Michael Douglas is an obviously tired and disinterested shell of his former self as “original” Ant-Man Dr. Hank Pym, Evangeline Lilly has all the charisma and charm of a Denny’s omelette as supposed “leading lady” Hope van Dyne, Corey Stoll is particularly uneven and unbelievable as chief baddie Darren Cross/Yellowjacket (although I give the half-dozen-or-so screenwriters credit for admitting, even if by accident, that corporate CEOs and psychopaths are often one and the same), the talents of Martin Donovan are absolutely wasted in a two-bit “supporting villain” role (and speaking of wasted talent, why have Hayley Atwell’s Agent Carter in here at all?), the humor is flat, the pacing uneven, the idea that a guy could train to shrink down to sub-atomic size over the course of a weekend without losing his mind is a heck of a stretch even for a Marvel movie, and they give away how the whole thing’s gonna end pretty early on when they explain how Ant-Man’s red and blue discs work ( old-school Doctor Who fans will know what I mean when I call this scene the film’s “Hexachromide moment” ).

If all that weren’t enough, though, there are also Ant-Man‘s hideously offensive racial politics to consider. Sure, Scott’s done time, but he go busted for a Robin Hood-style crime of stealing from the rich to give to the poor. Why, he’s even got a Master’s degree in electrical engineering (he tells us so himself). He’s also, ya know, white. His trio of prison buddies, though — well, they’re real criminals. Why, just look at ’em — one’s Latino (played by Michael Pena), one’s black (hip-hop star T.I.), and one’s a dirty Russian immigrant (David Dastmalchian). All three of them are dumber than a box of rocks, too. Good thing they have their educated friend around to keep ’em out of trouble.

The only character in the film who’s anything other than a one-note cipher is a cop named Paxton (Bobby Cannavale), who’s married to Scott’s ex-wife and starts out thinking the worst about our “hero” but ends up coming around. Even his “character arc” is fairly cliched, true, but at least it exists. Everyone else is basically the same from start to finish. And all of this is brought to you via Reed is Marvel’s dull-as-day-old-dogshit “house style” that makes every movie look and feel like a two-hour TV episode with a huge budget.

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There’s a bit of a small-scale tragedy in all this, of course — Ant-Man is definitely an “also-ran” character and the potential was here to do something altogether different than what we’ve come to expect from typical MCU fare. But I think that potential probably headed out the door along with Edgar Wright. “Different” is something Marvel just doesn’t do at this point — but they might want to re-think that stodgy mindset pretty quickly, or the next few years could be long and hard ones indeed. Ant-Man‘s poor showing at the box office certainly isn’t proof positive that a “super-hero implosion” is necessarily upon us just yet, but it’s a strong signal that one could be in the offing, and the more rigidly Dis/Mar adheres to their strict assembly-line formula, the more quickly they’ll usher in the day when people really do just find themselves getting tired of the same old stuff.

I have to say, critically-speaking at least, this has been quite the summer for Marvel, hasn’t it? Granted, none of their 2011 summer releases has enjoyed the kind of spectacular box-office success that flicks in the Spider-Man and Iron Man series have, and even X-Men : First Class has underperformed a bit compared to previous incarnations/installments in that franchise’s run, but between that, Thor, and the subject of our review today, veteran Hollywood blockbuster director Joe Johnston’s Captain America : The First Avenger, it’s fair to say that properties from the so-called “House of Ideas” have become absolute critics’ darlings.

And hell, why not? The fact is that as far as mass-marketed mega-budget studio marketing tools go, these films have all been pretty damn good. Sure, they’re still more about selling toys and hyping the next big thing to come from Stan Lee’s commercial empire (in this case, as with Thor, the object that pre-publicity-hype being 2012’s forthcoming The Avengers)  than they are about the actual movies themselves per se, but damn if they haven’t all featured a lot better characterization, acting, plotting, and what have you than most massively-ballyhooed, massively-distributed, massively-seen, and massively-budgeted Hollywood fare.

Okay, fair enough, in this case more than most the film is almost pure set-up for the sequel-and-spin-off machine, and from start to finish the whole thing feels more like a prequel for an actual movie that hasn’t happened yet than a self-contained story designed to stand or fall on its own merits, but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t do just that anyway. The giveaway comes in right at the start when the remains of Cap’s doomed flight are found in the Antarctic in the present day, but once we shift back in time to World War II and get into the story proper, it’s eminently gripping and satisfying from start to finish even if you never do quite escape the feeling that it’s two hours of pure backstory.

The strongest element has to be the superb performance of Chris Evans in the title role — with an honorable mention going to the CGI effects team. For the first third or so of the film, as we meet Steve Rogers in his early incarnation of heart-of-gold super-wimp, Evans’ typical-Hollywood steroid-enhanced-looking-frame is digitally manipulated to appear thin and lanky, and while the effect is impressive enough in and of itself, it’s Evans’ performance that really sells it, and when he gets injected with Tony Stark’s dad’s super-goo to become the Nazi menace’s worst living nightmare, the subtle changes Evans uses to convey the fact that he’s still the same good-natured kid, albeit one now almost trapped in a body he doesn’t fully comprehend, are astounding. It’s easily the best acting job ever turned in by a leading man in a superhero flick.

Beyond that, everyone else is solid, too. As Cap’s arch-nemesis The Red Skull, Hugo Weaving is coolly menacing when he needs to be, outright unhinged when it’s called for, and a righteously callous bastard throughout.  Tommy Lee Jones is right at home in a military-hard-ass role he was born to play, and he seems to be soaking up most of the acting accolades from the media for his turn here. What the hell, it’s been a long career and he’s earned it. And Hayley Atwell, besides being drop-dead gorgeous, is convincingly endearing as our guy Steve’s love interest, Peggy Carter. You really believe she’d take a shine to this guy even if he’d stayed a a scrawny wuss forever.

Johnston keeps the film moving at a pace that heightens one’s interest throughout without resorting to being a breakneck thriller, and there’s certainly no harm in that — more Hollywood directors could take a cue from this and learn that there’s much to be gained from keeping a person in their seat at all times rather than on the edge of it  from the word go. The pacing here is pretty much pitch-perfect and the screenplay from Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely is so exceptionally loyal in tone, if not exactly in content (although it’s plenty close there for a modern audience), to the Joe Simon-Jack Kirby comics of the 1940s that it’s sure to please even the most die-hard “Golden Age” purist.

And I think that’s the secret to Captain America : The First Avenger‘s success more than anything else, truth be told. As was the case with Thor, the folks behind the camera have finally figured out that while Stan Lee gave us the hype and the melodrama, it’s Jack Kirby’s vision and boundless creativity that was actually the heart and soul of these marvel characters in their earliest, and best, incarnations. It took Hollywood a long time, but they’ve finally figured out who the real genius at Marvel was, and by faithfully translating “The Kings”‘s vision to the silver screen, Kenneth Branagh and Joe Johnston have delivered a couple of the best superhero movies ever made.

I realize this review is pretty late in coming and that most folks who have any interest in this flick have probably already seen it, but on the off chance that you’re one of the few who’s intrigued by this and hasn’t made it out to the theater yet, do yourself a favor and check it out while you still can. You’ll be mightily impressed at best, pleasantly surprised at worst.