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Movie Review: “Avengers: Endgame”

In moviegoing history, there has probably never before been an Event Movie on this scale. “Avengers; Endgame” is the culmination of twenty-plus superhero films, the long-promised summer blockbuster to end all summer blockbusters. And in the capable hands of directors Joe and Anthony Russo, it mostly—if not entirely—lives up to that ambition.

(Mild spoilers ahead)

Following the triumph of mad titan Thanos at the end of last year’s “Infinity War”—the extermination of 50% of all living beings in the cosmos—the surviving Avengers have struggled to accept their new normal. The bulk of “Endgame” picks up five years after Thanos’s victory, as Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) finds his way out of quantum space and meets up with Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), and everyone else. As it happens, Ant-Man has a plan for reversing the effects of Thanos’s cataclysm: using special “Pym Particles” to tunnel back through time and seize the six Infinity Stones before Thanos can weaponize them.

(Yes, this is a time-travel movie—just as everyone expected. As such, the number of plot holes is positively ludicrous. But this is also a comic-book movie, so I highly advise not overthinking these.)

Despite its status as a “final” installment, “Endgame” is a fairly restrained affair through its first two acts (on the whole, “Infinity War” probably devoted more of its minutes to bombastic combat). In place of CGI-drenched mayhem, we’re given retrospective glimpses of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) as our heroes retrace their steps across time to recover the supernatural stones. And happily, that gives the stars of “Endgame”—primarily the original six heroes that starred in 2012’s “The Avengers”—plenty of room to breathe and be themselves.

Now, that’s not to say there’s not a real climax here. The final battle between all of Marvel’s superheroes and Thanos’s monstrous army is one of the most eye-popping spectacles I’ve ever witnessed onscreen—if not the most. And it’s utterly impossible not to sit there with a big, dumb grin on one’s face as Earth’s Mightiest Heroes finally assemble en masse. Frankly, I have no idea how this finale will ever be topped.

(Serious spoilers ahead. Turn back now)

From a narrative standpoint, the greatest success of “Endgame” is its ability to satisfyingly conclude two major character arcs: the stories of Captain America/Steve Rogers and Iron Man/Tony Stark. Tony’s journey—from self-absorbed womanizer to self-sacrificing family man—has been a tale of transformative redemption. Steve’s journey, by contrast, has been one of perseverance: despite being yanked from an age of black-and-white morals into the gray relativism of modernity, he has never once compromised his essential principles. Tony’s tale culminates in his making the ultimate sacrifice; Steve’s ends in a state of virtuous anonymity. To the extent that the whole enormous tapestry of the MCU has really been their story, “Endgame” is a tremendous triumph.

But the same cannot be said of the film’s other characters. The whole first hour of “Endgame” centers on the surviving Avengers sadly reckoning with their changed world: while the Hulk finally finds a measure of inner peace, Thor morphs into an overgrown frat boy more interested in video games than intergalactic heroics. And that’s saying nothing of Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye, who becomes a murderous avenger leaving a trail of criminal corpses behind him.

None of these arcs—nor those of the film’s more peripheral characters, like Spider-Man or the Guardians of the Galaxy—culminate satisfactorily. This is particularly egregious in Hawkeye’s case: despite amassing the very same “red ink in the ledger” that Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow bemoaned in 2015’s “Age of Ultron,” Hawkeye reverts to a state of perfect serenity by the movie’s end.

I’d also submit that the deterioration of Thor’s character is one of the MCU’s greatest errors. I’ll always defend the original 2011 “Thor” film because of its surprisingly rich moral subtext: Thor’s final struggle against Loki isn’t an attempt to save his friends, but rather his enemies—the menacing frost giants of Jotunheim, whom Loki plans to exterminate. The much-maligned sequel “The Dark World” didn’t really call that ethos into question. But 2017’s “Ragnarok”—which recast Thor as predominantly a hammer-toting jokester—took an altogether different approach, and the MCU is the poorer for it. At this point, it’s not clear to me that Thor’s character has much room to grow at all. But in fairness, this isn’t entirely the fault of “Endgame.”

(End spoilers)

At the end of the day, “Endgame” is a serious step up from “Infinity War”—in large part because its events feel pretty final. This might not be the end of the MCU, but it is an end, and the film is far better for it (especially given its predecessor’s forced pseudo-cliffhanger). The stories of Iron Man and Captain America, abstracted away from everything else in the MCU, really are as powerful as anything Sam Raimi, Bryan Singer, or any other first-generation superhero film director cooked up.

When I think back over “Endgame,” that’s what I remember—not the stretches of movie that start to drag, not the character arcs that fail to resolve, not the plot holes, but the moments of absolute rightness that bring these heroes’ stories to a close. If this is to be contemporary America’s national myth—that rare thing that can bring divided people together—it’s a good one.

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Posted by on April 26, 2019 in Fantasy

 

Movie Review: “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald”

“The Crimes of Grindelwald” is a beautiful movie, its sweeping shots interwoven with some of creator J.K. Rowling’s most creative and disquieting ideas. It’s also—sad to say—a profoundly confused film that struggles to develop its characters and themes. Like much of Rowling’s post-“Potter” work, it’s a project of wildly varying quality.

As things open, Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) breaks out of confinement. He immediately starts soliciting others to join his campaign for wizard dominance of both magical and Muggle worlds alike. (Sound familiar? We’ll get to that). Meanwhile, our hero Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), who’s been barred from international travel after the cataclysmic events of 2016’s “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” is struggling to navigate the morass of magical bureaucracy. He doesn’t have much time to waste: as a younger Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) promptly advises Newt, Grindelwald’s close to ensnaring untrained dark-magic-boy Credence (Ezra Miller), a young sorcerer with the power to make Grindelwald’s dystopian dreams a reality. (You’d be forgiven for thinking he’d died in the last movie. I too was baffled by his reappearance, which smacks of an ad-hoc retcon.) Along the way, we also catch up with lovable Muggle baker Jacob (Dan Fogler), his pretty witch girlfriend Queenie (Alison Sudol), and her Auror sister Tina (Katherine Waterston).

That sounds like a lot of moving pieces—and it is—but if one looks closely, they’re all pretty much the same as last time. Credence is still out breaking things with uncontrolled bursts of dark energy, villainous people are trying to control him, and quirky little creatures are still swarming around Newt. But to Rowling’s credit (and that of director David Yates), things do evolve further here. In particular, there are three distinct moments in “Crimes” that really pack a punch.

Early on, we learn that the character Nagini (Claudia Kim)—last seen as Lord Voldemort’s pet snake in the original series—was originally a human “Maledictus” cursed to slowly transform over time into a monstrous creature. In “Crimes,” she doesn’t have much to do other than serve as Credence’s vaguely defined love interest. That’s a shame, to be sure, but the hook of a genuinely tragic and compelling story is here nonetheless. What would it be like, we wonder, to experience growing up, first loves, and the wonder of life with such a horrible shadow hanging over one’s head? Heck, I’d watch an entire movie based on this premise—especially one set in Rowling’s Potterverse.

That’s not all. As the film progresses, we learn of a family tragedy involving Newt’s love interest Leta Lestrange (Zoë Kravitz) that positively seethes with a haunting sense of generational guilt. And in the film’s climactic moments, when Grindelwald makes his pitch for wizard hegemony to a rally of assembled onlookers, the story abruptly lurches in a dramatically different direction than I expected—one that really works.

(Spoilers follow)

“Crimes” is set in 1927, not long after the horrors of World War I. Capitalizing on that history, Grindelwald displays to the massed wizards a series of premonitions depicting World War II’s apocalyptic violence—from the ruins of Stalingrad to the death camps of the Holocaust to the flames of Hiroshima. Wizard rule, he warns them, is the only way to avert such a cataclysm.

Sure, it’s a variant of the “would you kill baby Hitler?” question, but in this context it makes perfect sense. Fortune-telling and prophecy have been core elements of the Potter saga since the start! And on reflection, it’s not at all clear what the “right choice” might be in such a scenario. If you knew that supporting a global monarchy—abandoning the promise of Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations—would prevent millions of lives from being lost in World War II, would you back such a regime? Especially if you knew, with metaphysical certainty, that World War II would occur otherwise?

Because this is such a fruitful chain of ideas, it’s endlessly infuriating to me that Rowling and Yates squander the brilliance of their setup. Not for a moment do we doubt that Grindelwald is using his WWII vision solely as a ploy to secure his own power. But would it be so hard, one wonders, to make Grindelwald a more complex character than Lord Voldemort? Why not make Grindelwald believe his own ideas—be someone truly sold out to his own sense of messianic destiny? Why not allow him to believe that he, and only he, can stop the coming doomsday? But alas, we’re left instead with a cartoonishly evil supervillain utterly devoid of nuance or personality.

(End spoilers)

Even if “Crimes” feels like a long string of missed opportunities, it’s certainly not unwatchable. There’s visual pizzazz to spare, and the four characters at the film’s heart—Newt, Tina, Jacob, and Queenie—are still some of the more interesting protagonists in big-budget blockbusters today. There’s no stereotypically “normal” hero or heroine among them: Newt almost certainly experiences some sort of personality disorder, Tina actually acts like a sober-minded adult rather than a stereotypical action-waif, Jacob has no wizarding powers to speak of, and Queenie is frighteningly impetuous. (For what it’s worth, there are probably a slew of think pieces incoming on Queenie and the problem of “white feminism.” Bet on it.) Simply watching them interact is half the joy of the whole thing.

So on the whole, is it worth watching? For longtime Potter fans, probably—even if “Crimes” lacks much of its predecessor’s charm, there’s nothing here as awful as the much-maligned “Cursed Child.” That’s certainly something to celebrate.

One can only imagine, though, the film it could’ve been. That, however, would require taking some risks—which “Crimes” seems to fear more than Grindelwald himself.

 
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Posted by on November 24, 2018 in Fantasy

 
 
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