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.

A Review of “Black Panther”

Movie poster for Black Panther. Image used under Creative Commons.I knew before entering the cinema this weekend that Black Panther would be a very different movie for Marvel, but hadn’t predicted how different. Until now, every character in the cinematic universe has been seen through the lens of a hero, albeit, at times, reluctant or unintentional heroes. This isn’t the story of a hero, but rather the story of a king.

T’Challa rises to power, as you’ll remember from Captain America: Civil War, through tragedy. Thrust into wearing the mantle of king, he is now trying to do what is right for his country, struggling against a history of violence and revenge. His sudden rise to power is marked by living in the tension between honoring their way of life and doing what is right with the power that his country holds.

What immediately struck me about Black Panther was the quality of the world-building. Wakanda here finally fulfills its potential in the Marvel Universe. We see a fully developed nation, honoring and maintaining its ancient traditions all while embracing a technological superiority surpassing any other nation on the globe. The balance that the Wakandans maintain between these two extremes is completely believable and profoundly thought-provoking. The visuals are stunning, especially the dream and hallucination sequences. Both the sweeping shots of the African landscape and the digitally constructed sequences of the high-tech bunkers beneath the city are equally impressive. I also particularly liked the Bond/Q sort of relationship between T’Challa and his sister.

Speaking of Shuri, we should not pass over the fact that T’Challa’s closest advisors and confidants in this film are women, strong female characters that make up the backbone of his government. This is a subtle triumph for the writers that does a great deal to contribute to the strength of the film as a whole.

Interestingly, Everett Ross’ character  truly comes into his own here as we continue to see hints of the as-yet-unrealized fallout from Civil War. Their paths cross as T’Challa’s adventures in the beginning of the film are more like an espionage adventure than a super-hero one. This initially felt slightly out of place, but the director ultimately made it work.

The film offers a powerful social commentary, as well, perhaps the most powerful we’ve seen in a Marvel film since Captain America: The Winter Soldier. The fear of having one’s country legally taken over by an unstable dictator is very real (and oh-so-relevant today). The recognition that violence doesn’t solve this problem, but rather does working to strengthen the system, is equally apropos, and needs to be said to as wide an audience as possible.

The Black Panther is not a costumed hero, at least not yet. He is a warrior attempting to protect those he loves, a leader attempting to make atonement for the past sins of his country.  He sees the wisdom of using violence only as a last resort, and sees the humanity that connects us all. This is possibly T’Challa’s most heroic trait.

In the end, the Black Panther extends Wakanda’s hand, recognizing the folly of not helping others in need when one has the power to do so.  Wakanda coming out of isolation will have a profound impact on the Marvel Universe, and I’m fascinated to see exactly what that impact will be.

Black Panther is a celebration of African culture, and an exploration of what that means. I can’t pretend to understand that, but I think that I am closer to understanding it after seeing this film. Every actor gives a stunning performance here, building on top of a strong screenplay. This is quite possibly the best movie that Marvel has made so far, certainly a relief after the disaster that was Ragnarok. Here is a Silver Age hero brought to the screen as a new type of character for the cinematic universe, taking us in a very different direction. T’Challa will play an important role in the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  I can’t wait to see what that role will be. This film is not to be missed.

Image attribution: junaidrao under Creative Commons.

A Review of “Spider-Man: Homecoming”

Spider-Man. Image used under Creative Commons.In the Marvel comics universe, you really don’t get much more iconic a character than Spider-Man. He is simply the character that most people think of when they think of the Marvel universe, as though the two are synonymous in many ways. His web-slinging heroism through the streets of New York City made for a solid cornerstone of my comics reading as a child. However huge and unpredictable were the adventures of the X-Men or the Avengers, Spider-Man was grounded, a street-level hero who helped the everyday urbanite in his time of greatest need.

That’s what the Marvel cinematic universe has captured correctly about Spider-Man since the legalities were worked out for him to appear in what is now the canonical set of films (and a relief, as true fans just sort of pretend that his most recent two big screen adventures didn’t happen), from his first appearance in Civil War when he tells Tony Stark that he’s “looking out for the little guy.” I was thrilled to finally see Peter Parker alongside his fellow heroes, and entered this movie with a lot of excitement.

Let me say up front that I really appreciate that this was not yet another re-telling of his origin story. However, the challenge of not having Spider-Man’s (or any other character’s) origin story up front is maintaining that character without it, working with the assumption that the audience knows as much as the writers about what events made the character who he or she is. Now, with a character this popular, that’s a fairly safe bet. Still, without even a reference to Uncle Ben in this slightly-over-two-hours film, it’s difficult to have solid footing for Peter’s motivations as we suspend our disbelief. Has Uncle Ben’s death even happened in this universe? Although it is difficult to grasp Spider-Man without that crucial event, we’re just not certain. Peter’s heroic nature was set up well in Civil War:

“When you can do the things that I can, but you don’t, and then the bad things happen, they happen because of you.”

Still, we’re lacking what is arguably the most important motivator of his character without even a reference to the events leading to his uncle’s death.

This version of Spider-Man, though, is obviously keeping in line with more modern writings of the character than the classic stories that many of us remember, which is fine, and is staying true to the Civil War story arc in which Tony equips Peter with a lot of cool gadgets, which completely works given where in the storyline he has entered. While the cool gadgets are a really fun addition to the story, though, the “insta-kill” in his costume feels like comic relief that is forced too much to be in character (keeping in mind that we saw Tony Stark order JARVIS to “terminate with extreme prejudice” in Iron Man 3, but that also felt questionable for his character).

This film, incidentally, is a great continuation of the development of Tony Stark, keeping with lessons learned from Iron Man 3 (“If you’re nothing without the suit…”), as well as from Civil War, as he carries the burden of what could befall Peter during his adventures heavily. This adds Marvel’s signature continuity to the arc.

Let’s not get distracted, though. This is Spider-Man’s story, and it feels like his story as a YA novel. I say this because the coming-of-age theme is inescapable, and, as Peter deals (in well-written form) with the struggles of every high school student to fit in and date the popular girl, we see the Avengers through a teenager’s eyes…an teenager intoxicated with possibility as Peter deals with his budding perception of a hero as being a member of this larger-than-life organization. We watch him discover and begin to live out the true nature of his heroism, placing others before himself, and dealing with turmoil and disappointment as his heroism must seemingly always prevent him from living the normal life that any teenager wishes they could have (homecoming dances, after all, bring back all sorts of memories for most of us). In that sense, this movie was successful in bringing our friendly-neighborhood hero into his own.

We don’t arrive there without some issues, however. First off, notably absent through the film is Peter’s spider-sense. The story would have been better served avoiding some of the technology and focusing on this, a central of part of Spider-Man’s abilities.

Secondly, something that Marvel has not always done well in it’s films is allowing the villains to live up to their evil natures. We see that in this movie, as well. While this is a really interesting take on the Vulture (and Keaton turns in an excellent performance, here), the Shocker is flippantly introduced and dismissed. Short-changing the villain ultimately hurts the story, and beginning with only a single villain from Spider-Man’s rogues gallery would have been more than sufficient.

Perhaps this is more an issue of personal taste, but this movie is quite funny, as comedic as was Guardians of the Galaxy 2 and as Thor: Ragnarok promises to be. I wonder if it too much so, if Marvel’s tone has become too light-hearted in compensation of the necessary weight of Civil War. Time will tell.

As we end with Peter’s decision to stay grounded, I think we’re seeing a great balance being emphasized in the Marvel canon…moving away from the “larger than life” heroes, and (especially with the Netflix offerings) seeing the heroes who are closer to what most of us would encounter. Peter Parker is content to be the friendly-neighborhood hero, having grown to see this as just as valuable as being part of a globally-recognized team of adventurers. He chooses to not be global and famous, but instead to keep watching over the city he knows best, to watch out for the little guy.

And that, perhaps, is his most heroic choice.

 

Image attribution: Pat Loika under Creative Commons.