The Nature of a Hero Gone Wrong

Collectible statue of Thanos. Used under Creative Commons.A few days ago, I went to see Avengers: Infinity War for the second time. As usual, you see a lot that you missed in the second viewing. I still hold to my original critique that the movie is too big for it’s own good. However, there was another layer that I had missed the first time due to the sheer epic scale, and I think that it ties into the concept of the nature of a hero.

I’ve heard interviews with the writers of Infinity War in which they say that this movie was about Thanos. I found this to be very true, to the point that the heroes are almost all incidental characters. I applaud this, also, because, in order to tell the story of a hero well, one must have a compelling story behind the villain. Cheap and one-dimensional villains cause movies to fall (we all try to forget the altogether unfortunate treatment of the Mandarin in Iron Man 3). Thanos is anything but cheap or one-dimensional. He’s just as heart-breaking, in fact, as he is terrifying. He is terrifying because he acts with a decisive conviction. He will do anything, up to and including murdering the one person whom he (claims to) love, to achieve his goal. This is bad enough, and evil enough, in it’s own right.

On the second viewing of the film, I realize that Thanos is driven by such conviction because he earnestly believes himself to be the hero.

In any genre of literature, the most dangerous of villains live here. They are dangerous because they fight with the same conviction as the heroes. They believe that their cause is just. The motivation that comes with the belief that one is doing the right thing is not easily defeated.

The postmodern tendency here would be to lean on relativism. That is, if the villain can so easily be convinced that he is right, and fight with such a firmly held belief, and that fight can be the cause of so much evil, then let us stop defining “right” as an absolute. “What’s right for me is right for me, but maybe not for you,” and all that. That’s a slippery slope, and it’s a logical fallacy here, because there is an absolute point in which Thanos specifically proves himself to not be the hero.

Thano’s flaw is that he fails to respect all life as sacred. In the self-perceived nobility of his cause to save life, he is reduced to only logic. He sees the world, the universe, as only a mathematical equation, a “simple calculus.” In this reductionist worldview, killing some at random to save others is completely acceptable, because it is an action borne only of logic, while being devoid of any ethic.

The most powerful moment of this film is when Captain America refutes this type of logic with ethics. When confronted with the Vision’s sacrificial impulse to give up his own life to save many others, Steve Rogers replies firmly, “We don’t trade lives.”

There must be an objective litmus test that separates the hero from the villain. Respect for life is one of those. The absence of this objective proof is a dividing line that proves the nature of a hero, or defines the nature of the villain.

Image attribution: William Tung under Creative Commons.

A Review of “Avengers: Infinity War”

Photo Avengers Infinity War Poster. Used under Creative Commons.All of the build-up for this film was that it would be big. Even huge. It is, after all, the culmination of 10 years of Marvel faithfully adapting its characters to the big screen. It’s also big in the sense of how we are seeing the Marvel Cinematic Universe stretch, recently bringing in paranormal and extra-terrestrial elements. Just as in the source material, Marvel has explored every genre, from science fiction to YA, high fantasy to spy thrillers to space opera.

There’s a trick to bringing so many characters, and their native genres, together into a “team.” This is the challenge with writing any super-hero team, and the challenge becomes greater as it scales. The Defenders, for example, is easier to pull off than the Avengers. Now, however, we’re going a step beyond. Now we are seeing teams brought together with teams, along with solo adventurers. The Avengers were big. This is bigger than big.

So, however, is the threat. Thanos is a Titan. We’ve seen him coming with a sense of dread attached to the foreshadowing, but even those of us steeped in the comics literature forget that he is more dangerous than all of our heroes’ rogues galleries combined. Now he is acquiring the Infinity Stones, making him all but impossible to defeat.

So, this is the biggest. This is the film’s strength, and also it’s weakness.

It’s too big.

In fact, it’s almost numbing.

We see some fantastic heroic moments here, don’t get me wrong. Some characters, particularly Wanda Maximoff and Dr. Strange, really have an opportunity to shine. Others though, while their presence and actions are critical, are cheated of very important moments. One that stands out is when Bruce Banner and Natasha Romanof encounter each other again for the first time since Ultron’s defeat, and we get barely a five second close-up before we’ve moved on. This is understandable in a way, given the sheer volume of characters and the scope of the story that this movie is telling. There simply isn’t time to explore everything. Still, having been spoiled by Marvel’s Netflix series making time (such as devoting an entire episode to the conversation that results from Foggy Nelson discovering Matt Murdock’s identity), this is a bit hard to swallow, especially given how we’ve grown to know and love these characters. In the case of Banner and Romanof specifically, I gladly would have spent another 10 minutes in the theatre to have some kind of conversation take place.

Also, there isn’t any time to fully explore the fallout from Civil War. These loose ends are either left hanging, or tied off too neatly. Not that this is really critical when the universe is about to end, but, again, an extra few minutes here and there would have been nice.

What was nice was the inventive combinations of characters working together. The pairings were thoughtful, very deliberate and well-crafted on the part of the writers. This also led to some beautifully-written dialogue, and well-timed comic relief to alleviate some of the weight of this story as it progresses.

There is no happy ending here, and some of the prominent deaths will shock you. This doesn’t resolve until a year from now with part 2. What will be fascinating is how other stories, specifically Ant-Man and the Wasp, will be told during the interim, having to deal with the aftermath of the ending of Infinity War.

Fascinating, and a welcome relief, because they will be smaller.

And we could use a little of that right now.

Image attribution: Brickset under Creative Commons.

The Nature of a Reluctant Hero

Nature of a Reluctant Hero. Image used under Creative Commons.A few years ago (has it really been that long?), I spent a lot of time putting thoughts together here on the nature of a hero. Those conclusions still spring to mind for me occasionally, and, given some recent events in my life coinciding with just finishing a Green Lantern novel that I picked up on vacation last summer, it came to the forefront again.

The novel isn’t the best I’ve read, but O’Neil does, by the end, give us a compelling (though somewhat non-canonical) telling of Kyle Rayner’s beginnings as Green Lantern. The story begins slowly, but the author is giving us a very important point by the end.

In the DC Universe (pre-New 52), Kyle Rayner was the second Green Lantern on earth. He is given the power ring by the last surviving Guardian after the original Green Lantern, Hal Jordan, goes crazy and retires when he is unable to save his home city from destruction. The Guardians have vanished, and Rayner, a struggling graphic artist with little drive or ambition for anything in particular finds himself, without explanation or instruction, in possession of what is arguably the greatest source of power on the planet. Rayner now wears the mantle of one of the most formidable heroes in the DC Universe.

You can see where this gets interesting.

And, while it moves slowly in places, O’Neil does well at extensively relating Rayner’s internal dialogue as he struggles to first understand his power, and then to decide if he actually wants anything to do with it. The short answer is that he does not. Whatever aspirations he might have held, none of them included placing others’ good before his own, rushing into danger in order to protect others. This just isn’t him, not a position in which he has ever envisioned himself. Yet, now he is confronted with something bigger than himself, something outside of himself.

Quite literally bigger in this story. When the rest of the Justice League vanishes, he is the only one left save reality from destruction. As the story progresses, Rayner makes numerous choices to move beyond himself, to act sacrificially to save others, others who aren’t always even human. He doesn’t begin a hero, but becomes heroic in how he handles the responsibility that is thrust on him.

The author’s moment of brilliance, I think, in this novel comes just before Rayner embarks into the final epic conflict, when he tells the Guardian who gave him the ring:

“I’m a hero because you gave me something heroic to do.”

When I’ve talked before about the nature of a hero, I’ve frequently arrived at the conclusion that there is a decision point in many of these stories. Given a set of circumstances, how a character handles a choice determines whether or not that character becomes a hero or becomes a villain. When Rayner is confronted with a huge responsibility, he doesn’t run away, but chooses to embrace it, despite the fact that he does so clumsily and against his own instincts.

This is one of the most accessible aspects of the nature of a hero because it is something that we all face at some point. While we will likely experience this in a small way, we will be confronted with a responsibility that we didn’t choose and that we don’t want. Our reaction speaks to our choice to become either a hero or a villain in our own story. The reaction is never easy, the choice never without repercussions. It is always, however, necessary.

The inspiration to make the heroic choice is why these characters give us so much.

Image attribution: JD Hancock under Creative Commons.

A Review of “Captain America: Civil War”

7324239866_785eb0d421_mSometimes, you go into a long-awaited movie wondering if you’ve already seen the best it has to offer in the trailers. Certainly, this thought occurred to me as I stood eagerly in line for Captain America: Civil War on opening night. In true geek fashion, I had been anticipating this movie since before Age of Ultron, and had devoured every hint, rumor, teaser and trailer in the preceding months. I had discussed theories and possibilities with friends and colleagues, and still felt as though I was unprepared for what I was about to witness. There were so many possibilities here, my head was swimming, giddy with what could be about to take place.

As it turns out, the trailers were as carefully composed as the film itself, because they led you to believe that you knew what would happen, giving you just enough to inform, yet still leave you gasping with shock in the theatre.

Civil War is the third MCU installment for Captain America, and the thirteenth Marvel film in its modern universe. I have, as I suspect have most fans, entered a bit of a comfort zone with these movies. That is, I’m not nearly the kid in the candy store as when I waited in line, pre-purchased ticket in hand, for the first Avengers movie. That’s not to say that I love these movies any less…if anything, the opposite is true. The reason is because I love the characters. Having read their adventures for most of my life, of course, helps, but I think that every viewer who has engaged in this genre since the first Iron Man movie all those years ago has become emotionally invested in these characters. We’ve watched them grow and develop, lived through their struggles and (sometimes Pyrrhic) victories with them, and, while we’ve come to awe at their heroism as they confront the evils over which we could never possibly hope to triumph, we’ve also come to appreciate their humanity.

That’s what I walked away introspective about at the end of Civil War, and, while it’s what I expected, it’s not what I expected.

The tone of the Civil War story arc in the comics, upon which this movie is based, was highly political in nature. Certainly, the character of Captain America is uniquely positioned to explore questions of politics and national identity, and we’ve seen that used to great effect in previous films. I expected that, not the emotional weight of the way in which we see each character struggle. The struggles are not just external, although there’s plenty of that, and the fights are not the fun, fanboy match-ups from the early minutes of the first Avengers. This is what you feel when you watch loved ones fight, when you can see from the outside that both are right in their way, that all motivations are honorable, and that no one is going to win while everyone will lose.

The internal struggles are just as real, with deeper implications. Steve Rogers has been attempting to find his identity since the truth that he assumed he fought for collapsed in the Winter Soldier. He is refusing to follow logic because his first allegiance is to his best friend, the one friend who can begin to understand what he has survived. He wants to do what’s right, and isn’t certain what that is any longer. Tony Stark continues to battle against his past, to try to make up for the horrible mistakes that he seems to continue to make even while attempting to atone for other mistakes. Bucky Barnes struggles to undo the evil into which he was made against his will. Wanda Maximoff struggles with her identity, wondering if she is still who she was in a more innocent time. The Vision struggles to find what it is to be human. Natasha Romanoff struggles to balance pragmatic survival with loyalty to the closest family she has known. And these struggles are only some of what are carefully developed and tracked throughout these two hours as these characters whom we’ve come to love, this family to which we feel we’ve become observers, split as their own best intentions consume them.

Civil War is never meant to have a happy ending. The implications of this movie have rightly been predicted to forever alter the Marvel Cinematic Universe moving forward, and that’s a fair assessment. Just as in the conclusion of the same story in the comics, there is no going back. Just as in the arguments that we wish we had never had, those words can never be unsaid, their wounds never reversed, only, hopefully, healed.

So, the political inferences are there in Civil War, if you want to see them. Certainly, though, they are not the focus. The characters are, and that is a wonderful decision on Marvel’s part.

There is humor interspersed at just the right times during the fights, keeping the script from becoming too weighty while simultaneously adding to the tragedy of these events. The movie introduces new characters, of course, and unless you have no idea what was coming, you were as excited to see Spider-Man done well as the rest of us.

Spider-Man was my big disappointment in the movie, though, I have to confess, mostly because a young Aunt May is something that I’ve never seen in any incarnation of this iconic hero. It makes sense to focus on a teenage Peter Parker, though, because this gives much more room to develop the character as we move forward, and I have no doubt that the writers will continue to take as great care with this as they have to date. Visually, of course, Spider-Man’s great, and, even with his flaws, we’re already exponentially better off that the last tragic attempt to put the Web-Slinger on the screen.

The Black Panther could not be introduced in a better way. T’Challa grounds the film. He serves as the center of gravity as both sides spin further out of control, an outsider who brings clarity to the conflict in a very unexpected way. His monologue at the end as the climactic battle wages nearby is simple but unbelievably profound, and brings out what we as the viewers know, a quiet but powerful expression as we are screaming for the fighting to stop.

If you’ve paid careful attention to the previous films (and I mean careful…there are details in the Winter Soldier specifically that are critical to know), you’ve seen this conflict coming. Still, while we want to see our heroes in action again, we don’t want this, and that makes Civil War dramatically different from every other film to date. These are events that we didn’t want to see happen, a conflict in which our heroes do not win, and, in fact, a conflict in which no one else wins, either, especially not those who depend on them.

When heroes are proven as weak as we are in important ways, it damages our view of them. Their power and dedication seem unimportant when built on the same emotions and experiences that the rest of us have. Perhaps that’s unfair. Perhaps their humanity makes them even more heroic, knowing that they overcome it far more than they succumb to it.

Perhaps we have cause to fear them, however, when they fail in their responsibilities.

Perhaps we all fall down if we don’t learn to talk to each other instead of fight.

Civil War leaves us wondering where we go from here. Make certain that you watch this film.

Image attribution: Andrew Buckingham under Creative Commons.

A Review of “Ant-Man”

Image of Ant-Man Film Poster. Used under Creative Commons.Each time a super-hero team arrives on the big screen, the “starting lineup,” as it were, tends to differ a bit from the comic literature. The reasons for this are various, but it generally works if you have the right casting. Even serious purists would be hesitant to denounce a film based upon the starting lineup differences, I would think, partly because we’ve just come to accept it at this point.

To that end, the Avengers cinematic canon is no different. While there are certain characters that really had to be included in the beginning (it’s pretty difficult to have the Avengers without Captain America), there are others who are mixed in early even though they appeared later in the comics (like the Black Widow…not that I’m complaining), while others are omitted (at least we finally got Mockingbird in Agents of SHIELD).

So, I’ve been wondering when the Ant-Man would make his cinematic appearance. I didn’t really ever think it was a question of whether or not he would, as Ant-Man is a founding member of the Avengers in comic history…I was just waiting, and was pleasantly surprised to see that this is how Marvel Studios decided to wrap Phase 2 (originally this was the launch of Phase 3, but is now considered the end of Phase 2 as Marvel once again has the rights to Spider-Man…and will hopefully redeem the Friendly Neighborhood hero from a history of films that we’d rather forget. But, that’s for another post entirely).

I’ll preface this up front by saying that I’m not a huge fan of Paul Rudd as an actor. That’s not to say that he doesn’t deliver in this role, because he does, at least for the most part. There’s just something that he brings to his performances that tends to detract from the character for me.

That said…

There have been multiple Ant-Men in Marvel history, several heroes having donned the costume, and several more have derived their abilities from the Pym Particle. So, while you might see Ant-Man on the surface and think something to the effect of, “how quaint,” know that his history is deep and extremely influential in the Marvel universe. We’re introduced to Scott Lang’s Ant-Man here, and Marvel has written the screenplay to follow the comic story arc very closely, something that I was very happy to see (significant liberties with the Wasp notwithstanding). They have also done an excellent job of connecting the plot to the larger canon of films by re-telling Dr. Pym’s adventures as Ant-Man during the war, which is very thorough, and something that the writers of all the Marvel films have done such an excellent job of handling since we first saw Iron Man so many years ago. Where the screenplay does depart from the historical arc is with Hope, the daughter of Dr. Pym, and the story of the Wasp. Still, they’ve introduced the character (also a founding member of the Avengers in the literature) strongly, as she deserved, and I can’t wait to see what they do with her in the future.

I really appreciate how Ant-Man is not portrayed as a small, or secondary, character. He’s a powerful hero, and he’s a motivated hero. Scott Lang’s story is closer to us than any hero that we’ve encountered so far from Marvel in many ways, because his is a story of redemption from some tragically poor choices. His redemption isn’t motivated even for his own best interest, but for that of his daughter. This makes Lang more of an everyman character for the audience, displaying a part of the nature of a hero that has proven elusive in many of the other characters in the Avengers universe. There is a lot that has been, and can be, done with this character, and Marvel has now made it clear that they intend to fulfill that potential.

Where Ant-Man falls short is in what Rudd brings to the role…overly and awkwardly comedic instances that feel injected arbitrarily in the story, either by poor improv or bad directorial choices, and that broke my suspension of disbelief on at least three occasions. This is not creative comedy (like Guardians of the Galaxy), but an offbeat, disingenuous sort of addition that was unmerited. Disappointing, but not enough to detract from the movie as a whole.

The climactic battle of the film smacked more that a little of the first Iron Man, something I doubt was intentional as much as it was in need of more inventive possibilities. I think that this un-necessary attempt to replay the first Iron Man…a correlation which leaped out to me twice while in the theatre… is the other disappointment for me. I almost feel as though Peyton Reed was uncertain in his directing, and borrowed more heavily than needed from the established history.

Ant-Man is decidedly different from the Avengers films so far, which is good, because it will introduce a new dynamic into the team in the future (the interaction between Ant-Man and the Falcon is excellent). While weaker than the other movies, this is still a solid offering and one worth seeing and having in your collection. Stay for the hidden endings…there are two of them…and see if you concur that Ant-Man is a good 3.5 star movie.

Image attribution: Global Panorama under Creative Commons.