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“Avengers: Infinity War” is the ultimate showdown the MCU deserves

With near 40 characters, dozens of sideplots and a ten-year buildup spanning over a 15 films, it seemed as though Marvel’s “Infinity War” would be a colossal mess. It’s amazing therefore that not only is “Infinity War” not a disaster, it tells a great story that deftly weaves together everything special about the Marvel Cinematic Universe and sets up a killer finale.

The film focuses on Thanos (Josh Brolin), a warlord who seeks to wipe out half the universe with the use of the Infinity gauntlet which he can wield when he discovers all 6 Infinity stones which have appeared sporadically throughout the Marvel Universe up to now. As each Marvel character from Iron Man to Dr. Strange to the Guardians of the Galaxy to Thor to Black Panther comes to grips with his plan, various scenarios emerge to try and stop him before he harnesses the ultimate weapon in pursuit of a psychotic quest. Even that may not be enough.

Thanos serves as the protagonist. He becomes one of Marvel’s best villains to date, joining Loki and Killmonger as fully realized characters with sympathetic agendas and interesting personalities. The fact that he is not a simple evil monster bent on world domination, but has an interesting take on how to save the universe, gives him an interesting ethical quest. He’s empathetic and terrifying.

Anthony and Joe Russo deserve a great deal of credit for finding a way to balance all of the characters while making sure that no one feels thrown in. Each storyline builds in progression to the climax, creating a tapestry of plots around the theme of sacrifice. What will it take to save the world? Your life? Your lover’s life? Your soul? It’s a dark, emotional story, something far deeper than anything the MCU has ever done before. We’re now passed the simple good guy vs. bad guy plot. We’re delving into deep human nature.

In a way, it’s similar to a “Lord of the Rings” film or “Game of Thrones” as Marvel has pushed each of their characters to the final breaking point. It feels like an ending of sorts and that gives the film added heft. This feels like the send off we deserve.

*SPOILERS BELOW* DO NOT READ IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE FILM

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Many will state that this is only half a film, but it is not. The protagonist is Thanos, and he goes from having a goal to achieving a goal, end of story. We all know another film is coming, but the Avengers finally have their “Empire Strikes Back” down ending necessary to really test their mettle. The next film should be connected but feel distinct as it’s own entry.

There are a few storylines that need to conclude, specifically the Tony Stark and Steve Rogers plot. These two have been at it over different ideologies since the first “Avengers” film. “Civil War” officially broke them apart and now the need to destroy Thanos will bring them together. Tony has been trying to avert cataclysm since the beginning, always looking for a way out. Might that mean he and Steve need to recognize the need for self-sacrifice together? Tony and Pepper Potts as well are nearing the end of their drama. Will they get to have a happy ending with a family or will Tony sacrifice himself for Pepper’s future?

Also needing a conclusion are Bruce Banner and Black Widow. Their romance has lost steam over the years, but now they must determine whether or not they can make it work.

Thor seems to have most of his character arc wrapped up after “Ragnarok” by inheriting the responsibility of becoming king, but perhaps he will explore the nature of revenge in the final film. Rocket surviving hints that he will continue to be a foil for the god of thunder.

And of course, the next film will be a continuation of Thanos’ story. After proclaiming he has lost everything, he has still achieved his goal. Whether he is happy or not with the result will determine his future actions. Logic dictates that he will safeguard the Infinity gauntlet at all costs, meaning that the Avengers will be dictating the action. But with reality itself malleable, perhaps madness may overcome the titan, testing his will. Things could, and should, get mighty trippy.

One thing that was lacking from “Infinity War” was a direct ideological confrontation against Thanos. The next film should firmly introduce what the Avengers stand for and how that vision is different than Thanos’ genocidal fanaticism. This will ultimately show what the Avengers stand for and serve as the overall moral of the entire saga. In tying with the previous films, it will likely involve the need to stand together as a team and the value of every person.

One can not help but think back to Vision and Ultron’s conversation at the end of “Age of Ultron.” Vision mused about mankind’s shortcomings and Ultron reminded him that they’re doomed. Vision agreed, but that there was grace in their shortcomings. That speaks to the ending of “Infinity War.” Now comes the need for Earth’s mightiest heroes to show that though they may be defeatable, their ideals aren’t.

At the end of the film, it is hinted that Captain Marvel may be part of the solution against Thanos, but this plot has some inherent danger attached to it. The Avengers can not win with a deus ex machina where a magical being comes in and saves them. The victory must come from them.

And we all know that death is not a certainty in superhero films. Spider-Man, Black Panther and the Guardians of the Galaxy are not really gone. They have further films still to do. We know they’ll be back. It’s just important that when they do come back, the effect of death is not minimized. Characters can not come and go without consequence or else the films will become a muddled mess without stakes. All future deaths will simply be viewed as empty because we’ll just wait for their return. It’ll be tricky for the Russos to navigate that return without cheapening the film’s power.

As the penultimate film of the first MCU iteration, “Infinity War” does a great job of setting up the final film. The saving of the universe is at stake as well as deep themes of personal loss, sacrifice and revenge. It’ll be a long wait till next year to see how it all turns out.

 

 

 

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‘Captain America: Civil War’ a strong entry in MCU

It seems as though a new superhero movie is coming out every few weeks. Most of them pass by and out of memory just as quickly as they came, but there are a few superhero films that stand above the rest, that peak more interest than the normal reboot/sequel, and fans had circled “Civil War” on their calendar ever since it was announced.

Directed by Joe and Anthony Russo, the film features Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) struggling to keep the Avengers together as the government cracks down on their exploits as civilian casualties pile up. Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) is in favor of registering with the United Nations and the proposed Sokovia accord, but Steve is not sure. When his friend Bucky/the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) is implicated in a terrorist plot, the Avengers fracture between those siding with Captain America and maintaining their independence and those siding with Iron Man and starting public accountability.

Some of the action scenes are a bit nauseating as shaky cam takes over in place of actual dynamic action, but the set piece between the two rival teams of superheroes is one of the greatest in any superhero film; fun, interesting, action-packed and dramatic.

Marvel has always had a problem with maintaining dramatic stakes in its films. They are not going to kill off Iron Man or Captain America (they are worth billions of dollars) so how do you keep a movie engaging when there is literally no chance of your heroes biting the bullet? “Civil War” solves this issue by focusing on the relationship between Captain America and Iron Man. The characters may not die, but the relationship between them may come apart and the audience is kept interested by focusing on how Steve Rogers and Tony Stark develop as friends, turn enemies and how they will ultimately end.

Captain America is not a complex character. It is difficult to give him an internal dilemma and once he makes his decision in “Civil War”, there is not a lot going on internally. This is a detriment, but not a fatal one for the film. His actions serve as a counterpoint and seeing how far he is willing to go to maintain his friendship with Bucky and his independence is engaging enough.

And no MCU film has quite gone to the lengths of digging deep into the character’s soul a la Batman in Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” trilogy. Doubtless this is to keep the audience as wide as possible, but there are moments for “Civil War” to go a bit deeper, especially with Iron Man in particular. With Pepper Potts (Gwenyth Paltrow) out of his life, guilt plaguing him and his best friend leading a resistance against him, the film suggests the depths of his sorrow, but could go even deeper, perhaps hinting at his alcoholism as it does in the comics. It is a wasted opportunity to build some escalating themes into his character.

For those who enjoy the MCU films, “Captain America: Civil War” will be an enjoyable experience, one of the best of entries alongside “Avengers” and “Guardians of the Galaxy.” But for those who have issues with the previous MCU films, those issues (lack of deep character revelations, franchise-building, cluttering narratives, uninteresting villains- though that is better in this film) will find more to complain about to some degree.

But kudos to the studio for making “Civil War” more than just another superhero film. There’s heart, fun and dynamism here.

Are the X-Men the new preeminent superhero franchise?

Ever since the proliferation of the superhero genre, sequel-making and universe-building have overtaken movie studios. As rights are sold and potential franchises rise and fall, from the dust, three central pillars have emerged as the tentpoles of the superhero movement: Disney’s Marvel’s Cinematic Universe (Iron Man, Captain America, Thor), Warner Bros. DC Extended Universe (Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman) and Fox’s X-Men (Wolverine, Deadpool, Magneto- they also technically have the Fantastic Four, but no one likes them). There could also still be a case made for Sony, who have the rights to Spider-Man, but they have signed a deal with Marvel, and Spider-Man is now essentially part of the MCU.

It has been widely assumed for years that the MCU was the best that superhero films had to offer. Marvel stuck to a strong formula, building up their heroes in individual films before releasing team features. They utilized strong wit, relatable characters and easy-to-digest narratives to build their brand and it has worked, delivering billions of dollars in sales and strong critical response.

Meanwhile, the DCEU is still trying to get itself together. Attempting to differentiate itself from its Marvel cousin, their films are darker, more intense and full of characters right from the get-go. Unfortunately, audience and critical response has been more tepid. By trying to appeal to so many people while being different, the films are a mess of half-ideas, rushed plotlines and shallow characters. They feel more like board room projections, broken down into audience demographics, rather than singular visions made by committed storytellers, especially in comparison to Christopher Nolan’s preceding Dark Knight trilogy.

And in the background, Fox’s X-Men, one of the first franchises to start the superhero extravaganza, has lingered. Never the biggest in terms of box office, the critical and commercial response has ranged from great (X2: X-Men United (2003)) to terrible (X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)). And yet in the past few years, the landscape has started to change, and it’s worth proposing a new thought: Are the X-Men now the best superhero franchise out there?

Diehard MCU fans would likely guffaw at such a notion, but something is starting to seep into the MCU that wasn’t there before: blandness. While the quality of the films has not deteriorated, innovation has not been present either. “Doctor Strange” was far too similar to “Iron Man.” “Captain America: Civil War” was equally similar to being an Avengers film, which are also growing more and more alike. And the lack of stakes is starting to decrease the interest in the characters. Marvel is never going to kill Tony Stark or Steve Rogers. So putting them in more and more dangerous adventures is not really keeping us emotionally involved. It’s becoming more and more a case of been-there, done-that, and it’s starting to seem that while Marvel continues to excel at making decent movies, they are just making the same movie over and over again.

Meanwhile, Fox’s X-Men have been changing the formula towards what the DCEU was presumably trying to do: darker and edgier. But where the DCEU failed by trying to appeal to the same demographics, the X-Men have decided to ignore the “traditional” superhero audience. Here, they may have discovered something very interesting; while other studios continue to view the superhero audience as kids and parents, the kids who grew up watching the original “X-Men” (2000) and “Spider-Man” (2002) have actually grown up. They have stayed fans of superherodom, but being in their twenties and thirties, their palettes have evolved and mature films with mature themes are no longer a detractor for them. As one of those kids, I have witnessed the effects myself.

What started with “X-Men: First Class” in 2011, which featured spy drama and Nazi hunting continued with “The Wolverine” in 2013, which was set in a non-Western locale and bared the weight of the nuclear bombing of Nagasaki. And 2014’s “X-Men: Days of Future Past” delivered a thoroughly satisfying sci-fi rumination on genocide and transformational hope. But what really blew up the formula was last year’s “Deadpool.” Here was a hard R-rated flick complete with cursing, violence and sexuality. And not only did critics love it, audiences made it the highest grossing R-rated movie of all-time. This was definitive proof that superhero movies did not need to be “fun-for-the-whole-family” type of affairs; they could be badass, violent, mature films as well.

Sure, “X-Men: Apocalypse” was a bit of a disappointment following such a run of success, but a fall every now and then is inevitable. Just this year, the X-Men have dialed up the ante even more, delivering another massive, mature success with “Logan”, a film that carries more visceral emotion than any superhero film ever made. It is violent, it is dour, and yet it is a beautiful story harkening back to the Western, a true innovation for the genre.

And appearing alongside “Logan” is the equally surprising TV series “Legion.” The first TV show based on the X-Men since the various animated series back in the 1990s and early 2000s, “Legion” is confusing, disturbing and wonderfully strange. The viewer has no real idea of what is real, what is fake, who is a friend or enemy, even what is happening at any given moment. There’s never been a TV show like it. It seems to belong more in the real of student surrealist exploration and yet here it is, presented on basic cable, with millions of dollars backing it and a second season already confirmed. Marvel’s TV series, “Agents of S.H.E.L.D.”, on the other hand is a far inferior, kind of bland experience.

And down the pipeline, the X-Men are looking at a second Deadpool film, an X-Force film, another live-action TV show and a rumored X-Men film with the younger cast featuring Dark Phoenix, a bizarre, cataclysmic character given poor treatment in “X-Men 3.” With confirmation that future X-Men projects will stray away from the Xavier-Magneto relationship and with castmembers Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart and presumably Jennifer Lawrence, James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender calling it quits, the X-Men are literally transforming in front of our eyes. It is very exciting to see the franchise adapt towards something new, something interesting, something beyond just the standard “family-adventure” type of affair.

So have the X-Men become the preeminent superhero franchise today? That is up for debate. The MCU continues to be the biggest box office draw, and the DCEU may somehow pull themselves up and deliver on the promise of the Justice League (I’m not holding my breath on that one though).

But when it comes to the MCU versus X-Men, you really have to ask yourself; is it better to settle for standard fare that hits just enough of the right notes or is the occasional risk that sometimes falters, but really tries to be more than its genre, more deserving of your love?