Thoughts on WandaVision

I know, I’m slightly late to the conversation on WandaVision. This isn’t because I watched it late, but because it took a while to unpack this series. Like most viewers, I found it a bit mystifying from the trailers, but I was intrigued from the first episode. This, I thought, is by far the quirkiest thing that Marvel has put on any screen, large or small, and yet held a sense of foreboding that something was just around the corner, something ominous. What I found as the series progressed, and as I’ve had time to ruminate on it a bit, is that there is a deeper theological undercurrent to this series than I’ve seen in any of the MCU to date.

Let me cut to the ending though: I loved WandaVision.

Comic book literature is sort of naturally given to feature length films, because it tends to contain huge battles between good and evil that are epic in scale. Arcs like Captain America’s backstory, or the Avengers, are well-suited to a series of large-screen films. We’ve followed them, loved them, found ourselves invested in them. If you’ve read comics at all, though, you’ll know that there’s more to the characters. Comics give space for the backstory of the characters, as well. They at times devote entire issues to conversations between incidental or secondary characters, developing not only those characters but others in the process. There’s room for dialogue, for the heavy introspection of someone’s thoughts. Were the screenplay writers to include this in every film, they would all easily exceed two hours. What we’ve seen with Marvel’s series at large, though (think of the Defenders series on Netflix) is that their episodic nature provides the writers with the room to unpack backstories, develop characters, help us to know these heroes (and villains) better. Think of the entire episode of Daredevil devoted to Matt Murdock revealing his secret identity to Foggy Nelson. That was incredible dialogue, and the viewer was so much more invested in both Murdock and Nelson after.

That sort of space is something that both Vision and the Scarlet Witch have been in need of since they debuted in Age of Ultron. Wanda Maximof’s story of one of trauma. Repeated trauma. She watches her parents die. She chooses to become an Avenger, and then her brother dies. She still tries to do what is good, and manages to find a strange an unusual love in the Vision, not only to watch him die as well at the hands of Thanos, but actually is forced to be the one to kill him. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Wanda is one of the strongest characters in the Marvel universe at this point, not just in sheer power level (we’ll get there), but in the will to even get up each morning and keep going after that amount of trauma. I’m not sure I would make the same decision.

Wanda, however does. The complication is that she is endowed with a level of power that she can’t even comprehend prior to this series, and, when her mind finally breaks under the pain of grief of loss, that power alters reality. The writers riffed on the House of M story arc from the source material, and walked the thin line of introducing the complexities of this scenario without ever allowing Wanda to become a villain. Because, at the end of the day, it just isn’t that simple.

What fascinates me about WandaVision is the theological implications of the story. This is ultimately a story of what happens when any one of us tries to play God. Wanda just wants an end to pain. She has no ill intent. So, she does exactly what any of us would do if we found ourselves in possession of an enormous amount of magical ability to alter reality to fit our will. Wanda departs the realm of hero, but never becomes a villain. She just wants a respite from her grief but, because she’s only human after all, creates a disastrous scenario when she takes matters into her own hands, even though (and this is important) she does so instinctively rather than intentionally.

I don’t want to throw out a post full of spoilers…you really need to watch this series if you haven’t. To continue the theological discussion, though, the best part of the story is that, in the end, when confronted with the decision to maintain the relief from sadness that she so desperately wants and deserves, or to let Vision, her one love, die yet again in order to free the innocent people around her from the prison that she’s inadvertently created, Wanda displays the nature of a hero and places the good of the many before her own. The pain that she’s feeling we cannot fathom, but she repents of her wrong doing and makes an effort to save the lives of others.

There are far more themes introduced in this series than I can explore here. We see an image of temptation by the evil one in the Garden in Agatha Harkness. We’re given a bit of time to ask the question, can a machine love, if we can create as we were created, and what the ramifications of such actions might be. There is so much going on in WandaVision.

WandaVision is the most original idea that Marvel has tried to date. Each episode is superbly written, perfectly performed, and full of layers of significance that one just doesn’t find in any series created in the U.S of late. If you’re a comics fan, and especially if you’ve followed the MCU at all, this is a must-watch. I wouldn’t recommend that this be a jumping-on point to the MCU if you haven’t, though. The good news there is that you have a lot of great material on which to catch up.

Thoughts on Avengers: Endgame

Photo of what looks like a theatre display for Avengers Endgame. Used under Creative Commons.I’ve waited a week since Karen and I went to the opening night show of Avengers: Endgame to write this. I don’t want to call it a review, as I normally do, I think because of the finality of this film, of the experience of seeing the film. Because I’ve known these characters for so much of my life….ten years on the screen, and many, many years more than that in print…I experienced a period of mourning after Endgame. The heroes won…we knew that they would. I don’t think we knew how costly that victory would be, or at least hadn’t let the suspicion take root.

The fact that I’m walking away with this level of emotional response is, of course, indicative of the quality of story-telling. This is an epic that concludes an epic, and it pays so much respect to the films that have come before. The heroes reconcile old schisms, make sacrifices, and recall what it is to be heroes, all while dealing with an apocalypse.

I suppose I am doing some reviewing here, because I need to mention that the storytelling is even broader in its expanse than Infinity War, diving into time travel and alternate outcomes in true comic book form. This is predictably necessary for a film of this scope, to do justice to what we’re seeing, larger than our minds can even take in at first. That said, I felt like it became beholden to a sort of genre convention of a “final episode” at times, which led to some contrived moments.

My biggest issue with Endgame is that the inexcusable destruction of Thor’s character that began in Ragnarok continues, which is unfortunate. Thor would have been a fantastic addition to Endgame, but instead there is another character here masquerading as Thor. I think that, in order to preserve the continuity of the universe, the directors had limited options other than to perpetuate the disservice that Ragnarok’s director did to the through-line, but still…it detracts enormously from the movie.

The heroic sacrifices of our heroes at times leave me understanding…this truly was the only way that it could end…and at times left me angry, entering a first stage of grief. I’m also left with hope, ordering events from the time travel exploits in such a way in my mind that I can conclude that maybe, just maybe, someone that we’ve lost might return (rarely does any character stay dead in comics, anyway).

Of course, I’d be remiss to not tell just how much I love the final battle between good and evil, which in so many ways is what a super-hero story is about. The audience in our theatre cheered, applauded, and when we finally heard “Avengers, Assemble!” nearly responded with a standing ovation. This is the bigger universe that Tony Stark had found himself a part of all those years ago, and now, rising above all mistakes and personal failings, the one several of our heroes give everything to protect.

To be honest, my mind has been spinning as I unpacked this three-hour adventure so much that I almost didn’t write this. Because I reviewed the first Avengers film though, I wanted to review the final one. This was the ending, a true ending. Notably absent from the end credits is any mention of “The Avengers will return.” This was their final battle. Steve has received his much deserved leave and passed his mantle, and Tony can rest…the world is safe. I can recall seeing each movie leading to this, though…recall every theatre that I sat in, devouring analysis after and looking for hidden gems that hinted as to what was coming. This has been years of masterful storytelling, and I think we’re all grateful. Everything, though, must come to an end. We’ll always remember this ten-year adventure with excitement, knowing that it ended the best…the only…way that it could. For one final time, the Avengers fought the battle we never could. As Fury predicted at the close of the first movie, they were there because we needed them to be.

Image attribution: Brendan C under Creative Commons.

A Review of Aquaman

Aquman. Used under Creative Commons.I confess that I haven’t been sold on the striking, “tough guy” image of Aquaman that has appeared in the DCEU films beginning with Justice League. To be fair, Justice League wasn’t exactly a terrific debut for any character as it was a waste of film overall, but, deeper than that, I’ve grown attached to the Arthur Curry we met during DC’s New 52 reboot 7 years ago, and that is the image that stuck. The blow was softened a bit by comics artists recently beginning to depict our aquatic hero with long hair to give some consistency between print and the film, but Aquaman is just difficult to sell as a tattooed, beer drinking, self-described “blunt instrument.”

Still, our hero is from New England, which gives him some home court advantage, and Wonder Woman proved that DC is capable of producing good films after all, so I gave Aquaman his chance this weekend.

I was unexpectedly surprised.

The key word there is “unexpected.” The movie is unexpected in many ways. First off, it’s very well written, with only a couple of unexplained or under-explained moments that, for the most part, I was willing to overlook as a genre convention. Geoff Johns is behind the story, and thus we can expect that the characters be treated with care.

Still, I found the inconsistency in character in events at the beginning of the movie to be jarring, as Curry leaves a pirate to die aboard a sinking submarine because that pirate has taken innocent lives. While this is loosely consistent with the source material regarding the origin of Black Manta (our secondary villain for the film), the intentionality of the act is disturbingly out of character, and decidedly un-heroic. I think that the goal here is to develop the results of a childhood without a mother and Arthur Curry’s resulting rebellious outlook on life, but I think that it still does violence to the character. There is repentance in the end on Aquaman’s part, or at least a hint of it, but this still walks dangerously close to destroying the film before it even gets started.

The world building here is beautiful. Atlantis is breath-taking, both visually and in the depth of culture that is revealed. This is quite possibly the movie’s greatest strength, as the audience is drawn completely into this world beneath our waters and its ancient history.

Perhaps Aquaman’s largest flaw is that it’s overly ambitious. This is the story of a would-be king fighting for his kingdom and a throne that he doesn’t want. It’s also the story of a man coping with his tragic childhood, with the two concurrent sub-plots of a romantic interest with Mera and the development of Black Manta. The film is around two hours and 20 minutes, but could easily have been twice that to give all of it’s plot points sufficient time to unfold. As is, it skillfully maintains the story, but comes very close to not doing so on numerous points. That is, the movie nearly derails several times because there just isn’t time to unpack everything, but then manages to tie some things together with some well-written dialogue and move on to a climactic battle. Still, a bit too close for comfort. I almost wish that Black Manta had been introduced in his own film later…we still would have had more than enough to enjoy in this one.

I enjoyed the interactions between Arthur and Mera, who is portrayed very consistently with the comic, and actually very well acted by Amber Heard. I hope that she continues to be featured in upcoming films, as well, and not relegated to a side character in only a few.

All in all, Aquaman is a surprising success. I’m actually not entirely certain how they managed to pull off as much as they did in the time frame, but this film continues to move the DCEU in an upward  trajectory. You should make time to see it over the holiday, especially if you only remember Aquaman from those old Super Friends cartoons, and re-imagine the underwater hero that never quite received the respect he deserves.

Image attribution: LucasBaiao under Creative Commons.

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.