Avengers: Infinity War

This is over a week late and probably unnecessary. It looks like everyone will have seen this movie by the time anyone gets around to reading my comments, but for what it’s worth, I want to be part of the conversation. I spent the last few days trying to catch up on my coverage of the TCM Film Festival, which was also delayed. The reason everything is running late is that I went to a late night screening of “Infinity War” during the Festival and my old butt has been dragging ever since. The advantage of waiting however has been that I got a chance to see it a second time this weekend and there are some more insights I can add as a result.

My impression of the film originally was very positive, but I did not think it would rank near the top of my list of MCU films. The second viewing may change that because it is a better experience than I originally thought. This was a complicated story to put together. There are three or four parallel story lines at any time and each of them involve characters from different MCU films being fitted together. Connecting Iron Man  with Dr. Strange may not be that hard but getting Spider-Man in there and then layering on part of the “Guardians of the Galaxy” is quite an effort. Meanwhile, Thor is in two sequences separate from most of the other cast but he gets connected with the Guardians as well and does end up in Wakanda as part of the story.

The Avengers are split up after the events of “Civil War”, but they still have common enemies that they must face down. This is the story that brings them all together, and frankly, it is not an Avengers film per se. This is the story of Thanos, the mad Titan who has a plan to restore balance to the universe. Criticism of MCU villains extends back to the first Iron Man film. No one will be criticizing this movie for villain characterization or story. This movie does show Thanos as an enemy, but much like Kilmonger in “Black Panther”,  you can understand and even sympathize with  Thanos and his quest. From his perspective, it is not power or rule that he seeks. Those are simply by-products of the task he has set himself. His iron will is to balance the universe and preserve its’ resources and create a paradise. This is also the goal of many environmentalists here on this planet.

While he does have a tendency to lecture and monologue as he carries out his plans, it is done in the context of his story. The Dark Children who follow him and carry out the destruction of civilizations around the galaxy, also have a herald who proclaims their task and laments the sacrifice that those who are destroyed are making. Thanos is a Malthusian on a galactic order. He is Paul Erlich with infinite power. It turns out that Thanos does also have a heart. We may not have expected it, but after this film, his character will be seen less as a monster and rather a tragic force of nature who is willing to break his own heart in order to reach his goal. There are three or four times in the story where another character gives in to him in order to save someone who matters to them. Thanos does not do that when he is faced with the same choice. He makes the sacrifice and we get to see what it does to him.

Josh Brolin may be acting using motion capture and most of the visual element is computer generated, but he still injects the character with facial expressions that are powerful, rueful and ultimately very compelling. He has a great voice and it is used to full effect in this film. Thanos has several scenes with his adopted daughter Gamora, both in the present and the past. It is the success of those scenes that makes his character a tragic villain rather than merely a cartoon evil monster.

Chris Hemsworth as Thor gets the other great meaty part in the film. Having lost so much, Thor finds a way to go on, and his rationalization of how his life story is playing out hives us all a little hope. Interestingly, he is teamed with the most cynical character from the MCU for most of the film. They create an interesting balance between the two of them. When Thor appears at the end of the film, there is hope that Thanos will fail for just a moment. Let’s face it however, if you have control of all the Infinity stones, it is going to take something more clever than brute strength and rage to defeat.

As you probably have been lead to expect, there are a number of deaths of super heroes in the story. Some will come as surprises, others may be expected, but the core group of heroes will be back for part two. I suspect there are a large number of seeming deaths that can be reversed in the world of comic book story telling, but some of these deaths seem definitive. You should know that there will be more before this story is completed.

Despite the generally serious tone of the outcome of each sequence, there are moments of pleasure and humor that you will savor for months to come. Spider-man’s use of pop culture to solve a problem is great. Bucky and Rocket, battling together in Wakanda may be my favorite shot in the film. It makes me laugh just remembering it. Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man trading insults and comparing egos with Benedict Cumberbatch’s Dr. Stange is also entertaining as hell. Drax and Mantis are amusing in most of their scenes and Chris Pratt continues to show why he should be a movie star. He can play light on his feet and deliver an emotional performance in back to back moments. The Hulk is a surprising source of laughs as well. Even though the tone of the film changes frequently, it still feels as balanced as the universe Thanos wants to create.

As a side note to finish this off, one of the great things about living in Southern California and going to a screening in Hollywood, is that the talent some times drops by. Our screening at the Cinerama Dome was introduced by one half of the directing team of the Russo Brothers, Joe Russo. He was joined by MCU mastermind and producer Kevin Feige. Just a bonus.

Spider-Man Homecoming

Everybody knows that Sony Pictures botched their re-boot of the Spider-man movies with the last two outings. “The Amazing Spider-man” in 2012 was a satisfactory start to a new series but seemed to be covering a lot of familiar territory. The sequel, “The Amazing Spider-man 2” was a complete mess which screwed up the storyline, wiped out an important character prematurely, and basically repeated every mistake made in the third film in the original Spider-Man trilogy. When Marvel and Sony worked out a deal to get Spider-Man into the MCU, they took a huge step in fixing the things that were wrong with the films. The arrival on the scene of Spider-Man in the terrific “Captain America: Civil War” showed the promise of a young new actor in the part. The story can be about a teenager.

I think that Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield were well cast but played the role much more maturely than the character was originally supposed to be. Since Peter/Spidey show up in Civil War without having another version of the origin story, we get to skip that as well and get right to the fun stuff. Here, young Tom Holland (21) can pass for a fifteen year old. He has a baby face and a voice that certainly will not intimidate anyone, so it works. What also works is his desire to be an Avenger. Even though he has incredible powers and a history with the Avenger team, he still feels like a wannabee and that motivates him to act in a manner contrary to the advise of his “mentor” Tony Stark. Holland is completely believable as a nearly ADHD genius who wants to rush home from school and do some good. His desire to be one of the big guys reminds you of a puppy, anxious to please it’s owner but so clumsy in doing so that it upturns the furniture and cocks up the works. The first trilogy and the reboot, all focus on romance, but this film focuses on Spider-Man himself and his struggle to find a place in an era of super-heroes. There is a romance with a surprising turn, but it is not the main point of Peter Parker’s life in this film.

The side characters in this story all add to the freshness of the film. They are not merely cutouts to be plugged in for narrative purpose but real flesh and blood  people who matter to the story. Jacob Batalon plays Peter’s friend Ned, another nerdy kid who accidentally discovers that his friend is the neighborhood hero that he has seen on YouTube. Ned is nearly irrepressible in his enthusiasm for sharing in Peter’s secret. He wants to share it but even more than that, he wants to be a part of it. He offers advice, asks annoying questions and genereally plays Jiminy Cricket to Holland’s Pinocchio. Since they both attend a school for gifted students, Ned is certainly as bright as Peter, but he and Peter are still young and they make social mistakes and act on impulse sometimes. Marisa Tomei, plays the youngest version of Aunt May yet. She is just in her late forties or early fifties and even the committed Tony Stark has sexist things to say about her. Tomei has been an excellent actress in films for almost three decades. Anyone who thinks her Academy award for “My Cousin Vinnie” was a fluke, did not see that movie. Her May is not to far a stretch from Mona Lisa Vito. She is more streetwise, flirty and sharp than any of the actresses who have played this character before. I won’t spoil the quote but I will say she has the final line of the story and it will bring a big laugh. Jon Favreau as Happy Hogan has appeared in three of the “Iron Man” films but has barely registered because there was not much to his part [even though he directed the first two]. Happy is a happy addition to the Spider-Man story. As the contact for Peter Parker to the Avengers, he is the perfect balance between exasperated and impatient. He gets a laugh on screen every time from simple facial expressions.

As with most action stories, whether they are set in a comic book universe, the spy world, or everyday dramas, the villain is a tipping point for the direction of the story.  Since Iron Man is the template they are following somewhat with this approach, let’s use those films as examples. The Iron Monger in the original film had a great actor and a well developed part, the film is stronger as a result. Whiplash is a cipher in Iron Man 2 and The Mandarin is a red herring in 3, both films are less successful from a narrative position. “Spider-Man Homecoming” does not have those weaknesses, instead it has the strength of the first Iron Man, a great actor in a well developed part.  Michael Keaton plays a third winged character, after two turns as Batman and a self referential role as Birdman in the recent Academy Award winner. Adrian Toomes is a character that we can feel empathy for early on. He is pushed in the direction of crime by circumstances that are outlined at the start of the film, but his actions are not driven by revenge but rather the need for financial security for himself and his crew. While it is not clear how he expects to keep a low key presence, given the nature of his new enterprise,  the so called “Vulture” is not really malevolent. His threats to Spider-Man are dire, but in the context in which they are issued they are really negotiation points. There is no spite or lust for revenge, this is a character who is taking advantage of the skills he has and the opportunities that are presented to him. The main caper at the climax of the film is something he enters into very reluctantly. He is not a monster, and Keaton is a great choice to play this working class villain who aspires for so much but also chooses to fly under the radar. Frankly there is a twist in the film that I did not see coming, but looking back it might make sense to those who have closely followed the Spider-Man Franchise. That twist gives Keaton a chance to strut some of his best stuff. He has those great facial ticks and a range in his voice that can go from jocular to threatening in an instant. I thought he added immeasurably to the success of this film.

The screenplay balances the intimate story of Peter Parker and his family and friends, with the two parallel plotlines of the Vulture and The Avengers. Peter is an effective hero occasionally but he also makes the kinds of brash mistakes that any headstrong kid might make. Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark, knows all to well the trouble he can be getting himself into by aiding in Peter’s development as a hero, but he lacks the requisite supervisory capacity to guide Parker correctly. Happy and Tony together are the indifferent parents that need to put their foot down but also need to listen empathetically. Stark is too narcissistic to realize this and happy is too busy. There is great humor throughout the story and it comes naturally in the incidents that crop up and the characters that have been developed. There are the usual story patches that allow Spider-Man to be around when it is necessary, but they do not show too much and with all stories in a comic book universe, they need to be forgiven a little.

I have heard talk of a potential backlash on comic based films. There is a danger of burnout in the audience. That will certainly be true if every film in the genre has to invent or resurrect an alien threat, a maniacal genius bent on revenge, or a scientific accident that creates some kind of chaos. When you have a film like this or the recent “Wonder Woman” where the settings are fresh and the characters compelling, you don’t have to have burnout. The creators of the MCU have found compelling stories about half the time. The hope for the immediate future is that “Thor Raganok” will be closer to “Ant-Man”, “Guardians of the Galaxy” and this film rather than Iron Man 2 and 3 or “The Age of Ultron”. WW holds out the hope that DC is on the brink of making the same discovery. What entertains us is not empty spectacle but stories that are involving with characters we can like or identify with. If you get some well deserved humor in there without shoehorning it in, all the better. “Spider-Man Homecoming” was not a film that I was particularly desperate to see or hopeful for. It turns out to be a wonderful re-invigoration of not just that character, but of our whole desire for comic book films. There are little details in the movie that add to the experience and I don’t want to spoil them for you, but from the moment the Marvel Logo streams on to the screen, if you listen, you will know that the film makers want you to be entertained, and they find some good ways to do that.