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To Infinity and Beyond: Of Life (and Death) Without Meaning in “Avengers: Age of Ultron” and “Avengers: Infinity War”

Avengers: Infinity War is a staggering accomplishment, from a purely logistical standpoint.

The film features approximately fifty major characters drawn from ten years of cinematic storytelling, all drawn together to face a major existential threat in a story that spans from a fictional African kingdom to the depths of outer space, all told within two-and-a-half hours, and all packaged in a neat and easy-to-follow delivery mechanism. Marvel Studios and the Russo brothers might make it look easy, but there’s no denying the level of skill and technique involved in shepherding a story like this to the big screen and making it work in a fundamental “this is entertaining” kind of way.

It’s important not to undersell this, not to dismiss the level of craft involved in stitching together a coherent narrative from the differing lengths of cloth. There is pleasure to be had in watching the various characters come together; in watching Peter Quill get insecure around Thor, in listening to Rocket joke about stealing the Winter Soldier’s arm, in the fact that Tony Stark and Stephen Strange spend the bulk of the movie attempting to out-Sherlock one another. Infinity War succeeds on these terms. It’s easy to be dismissive of this cinematic experiment, given how easy it looks, but that does not diminish the accomplishment.

However, there’s also something gnawing away in the background of Infinity War, an awkward question that the film never actually answers. “What is this actually about?” somebody might legitimately ask, and there are any number of possible answers. Infinity War is a film about a big purple dude with a magic glove. Infinity War is about paying off ten years of continuity. Infinity War is about proving that it is possible to make a movie like Infinity War. Infinity War is about ensuring that the next Disney shareholders’ meeting is a blowout party.

All of these are legitimate answers, but they dance around the truth. On its own terms, taken as a piece of popular culture projected on to a screen for two-and-a-half hours, Infinity War isn’t actually about anything. When people sit down to look at Infinity War in the years and decades ahead, to dissect and examine it, what will they come back with? What is it actually saying? What is it actually talking about? Not even in some grand “thesis statement about the universe” way, but in a more basic “this is the thematic arc of the film” manner?

Watching Infinity War, there is a deeply uncomfortable sense that Infinity War is about nothing beyond itself.

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Non-Review Review: Avengers – Infinity War

There is a solid argument to be made for the Marvel Cinematic Universe as blockbuster television series that only releases three or four films in a given year.

There’s a lot of evidence to support this argument, perhaps most notably the directors chosen for “phase two” of the grand experiment. Joss Whedon might have directed Serenity and Much Ado About Nothing, but he remains known for his game-changing work on television series like Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly and Dollhouse. Removing Patty Jenkins from Thor: The Dark World and replacing her with Alan Taylor only reinforced this sense. Drafting in the Russo Brothers from Community to direct Captain America: The Winter Soldier cemented the notion.

Purple reign.

Indeed, the elevation of the Russo Brothers within the Marvel Studios hierarchy with Captain America: Civil War and with Avengers: Infinity War suggests the obvious similarities between managing the sprawling continuity of the shared cinematic universe and the day-to-day management of a television show, where individual instalments might be credited to individual authors, but it is also important to maintain consistency of tone and vision across the entire line. Infinity War suggests the sort of organisational ability associated with long-form television storytelling more than any single cinematic narrative.

There are moments in which this approach works. Infinity War is full of knowing winks and callbacks, allusions and references. There is a sense of set-up and pay-off to certain threads and arcs seeded across the eighteen previous films within the established brand. Characters get emotional scenes that play upon established relationships and dynamics, which are clearly articulated within the film itself, but building off years of watching (and rewatching) these actors play off one another in these roles. There is an undeniable weight to Infinity War that simply would not be possible without that television storytelling style.

Avengers assembled.

At the same time, there are reminders of the limitations of this approach, of the challenges of balancing individual stories with a larger plan for the narrative universe in which they unfold. This is particularly notable because Marvel Studios recently shifted towards a more director-friendly approach in some of its standalone productions. Guardians of the Galaxy and Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 are both undeniably James Gunn productions. Black Panther could only have come from Ryan Coogler. Thor: Ragnarok worked as well as it did because of the unique directorial stylings of Taika Waititi.

Watching Infinity War, it becomes clear how far these directors deviated from the established style sheet, and the difference in approach between these directors and the Russo Brothers. It occasionally feels like Infinity War was constructed by people who watched those movies, without understanding why they worked as well. There is a tonal awkwardness when these characters are woven back into the fabric of the shared universe, in a manner that is occasionally unquantifiable but sometimes fundamental.

Guardians… Get In There?

Infinity War is good, clean fun. Perhaps too good and too clean. In order put the jigsaw pieces together, all of the rough edges have been sanded off. Anything that might generate friction has been stripped away, creating the impression of a very smooth and very functional storytelling engine. Midway through the film, Thor ruminates upon the existence of fate and how it has led him towards this particular moment and beyond to a greater purpose. Doctor Steven Strange perceives one single happy ending to this crisis.

There is a sense that Thor and Strange perceive the vast narrative machine of Infinity War working around them. It is an impressive machine, if a somewhat inhuman one.

Things look pretty Stark.

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The X-Files – Rush (Review)

This November, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the seventh season of The X-Files and the first (and only) season of Harsh Realm.

When did The X-Files get so old?

As with a lot of the seventh season, Rush is an episode that seems consciously aware of the series’ advancing age. Whether watching Mulder’s life go by in The Sixth Extinction II: Amor Fati or battling zombies in Millennium, the seventh season is acutely aware of the fact that any prime-time drama that has been on the air for seven years is rapidly approaching obsolescence. What was once young and fresh becomes old and tired. There is a sense that the series really wouldn’t mind the prospect of retirement, now that it’s well past the syndication mark.

"He wore sneakers... for sneaking."

“He wore sneakers… for sneaking.”

Rush emphasises the advancing years of the show, often awkwardly putting its tongue in its cheeky as it suggests that Mulder and Scully are really lumbering dinosaurs trying to navigate the fast-paced world of high school. David Amann’s script is occasionally a little too wry and self-aware for its own good; this is an episode based around a laboured pun about how “speed” is also a drug, after all. Rush often demotes Mulder and Scully to passive observes, quipping and flirting from the sidelines as the plot unfolds around them.

Rush lacks the charm and dynamism that define the show’s (and the season’s) standout hours, but it is a well-constructed and enjoyable standalone adventure on its own terms. As with Hungry, it feels like a conscious effort to get “back to basics” with the series. If the seventh season is going to fixate on the series’ status as a televisual lame duck counting down its last few episodes, this is not such a bad way to do it.

Scully'll take a run at this...

Scully’ll take a run at this…

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Non-Review Review: Avengers – Age of Ultron

Avengers: Age of Ultron is a hot mess.

It is fun, witty and fast-moving. However, it is also disjointed, uneven and awkward. Age of Ultron is a big and bombastic summer blockbuster, but it feels like Marvel learned very little from The Avengers. Rather than simply taking what worked in the first film, it often seems like Age of Ultron doubles down on every part of its predecessor. There’s more action, there’s higher stakes, there’s bigger conflict, there’s more Tony, there’s even less of an idea what to do with Thor, there’s more continuity.

"Hey, at least I beat the Terminator prequel to cinemas, right?"

“Hey, at least I beat the Terminator prequel to cinemas, right?”

“More” seems to the be the word here. Age of Ultron is bigger than its predecessor in just about every way. The film boasts an ensemble so large that it threatens to collapse under its own weight – a fact perhaps wryly acknowledged by the genocidal robot’s evil plan at the climax. While it is nice to have more diversity in the cast – The Avengers are no longer a bunch of white guys and their token female colleague – it does seem like Age of Ultron strains and groans under all that Joss Whedon and Marvel heap upon it.

Bigger is not always better.

You know, "pull Thor's hammer" is probably not a family friendly party game...

You know, “pull Thor’s hammer” is probably not a family friendly party game…

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My 12 for ’14: Guardians of the Galaxy and “the Day I Left Earth”…

With 2014 coming to a close, we’re counting down our top twelve films of the year. Check back daily for the latest featured film.

Guardians of the Galaxy is a Marvel movie through-and-through. It comes with burdened with all the trappings that one expects from a Marvel film. Thanos provides a mostly superfluous element that clouds the narrative while serving as an advertisement for a film several years away. Ronan the Accuser makes for a suitably banal villain, like a cosplaying fan who won’t choose between his deep abiding affection for Thor and his love of the Smurfs. The third act is a jumbled mess, one that occasionally loses sight of its characters amid all the CGI spectacle.

And, yet, it works in spite all this. One of Marvel’s biggest problems as a movie studio is the way that it tends to smother individual creators in pursuit of a more consistent project. The studio’s best films  – Jon Favreau’s Iron Man, Kenneth Branagh’s Thor, Shane Black’s Iron Man 3 – are the films that aren’t afraid to let a writer or director’s voice shine through. In contrast, the weakest entries – Captain America: The First Avenger, Thor: The Dark World, Iron Man 2 – try desperately to drown out any hint of personality in pursuit of something that can be homogenised; rendered safely within the studio’s comfort zone.

guardiansofthegalaxy1

After all, Marvel is a company that likes to play it safe. It is a studio that would replace Edgar Wright with Peyton Reed for Ant Man. It is a movie that would gladly have Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. spin its wheels for two-thirds of a season so it can wait for Captain America: The Winter Soldier to arrive in theatres. It is a studio that has build six movies around blonde white actors named Chris without a single female- or minority-led superhero film. (Sure, Black Panther and Captain Marvel are coming… eventually, but Black Widow remains a rotating co-star.)

To be fair to Marvel, this system makes a certain amount of sense. It avoids horrific misfires like Catwoman or Elektra, but also does not allow for anything as transcendental and unique as Tim Burton or Christopher Nolan’s work with Batman. Guardians of the Galaxy is very much a product of this system. It is safe, hitting all the necessary plot beats and offering minutes of screentime (and plot convolutions) as tribute to the shared universe. However, there is just enough of James Gunn left in the final product to make it all worthwhile. The film retains a sense of oddness and charm that prevents it from ever feeling generic.

guardiansofthegalaxy6

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Watch! Avengers: Age of Ultron Trailer!

The trailer for Joss Whedon’s Avengers: Age of Ultron has arrived. Check it out below!

Gary Friedrich, Don Heck and Werner Roth’s X-Men – X-Men Omnibus, Vol. 2 (Review/Retrospective)

This May, to celebrate the release of X-Men: Days of Future Past, we’re taking a look at some classic and modern X-Men (and X-Men-related) comics. Check back daily for the latest review.

By the time that Gary Friedrich had taken over writing duties on X-Men, it was clear that the title was in trouble. To be fair, this has nothing to do with the rapid turnover of writing talent on the book. At this point in the history of Marvel, it often seemed like writers were wandering around the office waiting to fill any gap that happened to develop. Friedrich wasn’t a replacement for Roy Thomas as an attempt to herald a bold new direction for the book. Indeed, his first issue was a story pitched by Thomas.

However, at the same time, it’s quite clear that X-Men was struggling to stay afloat. The comic was seemingly re-tooling itself month-in and month-out. Professor Xavier had been killed off towards the end of Roy Thomas’ last run. The cover now trumpeted individual members of the cast and back-up stories opted to focus on characters within the team, hoping they might find an audience as solo super heroes.

The first death of the dream...

The first death of the dream…

This trend continued into Gary Friedrich’s short tenure as X-Men writer. The first issue of Gary Friedrich’s run focuses on a guest star from the golden age, while his last solo script dissolves the X-Men as a team. In the middle, there’s a crossover with The Avengers. This was a very troubled book entering its fourth year, and the fact that it could not seem to settle on a single creative team or direction contributed to that sense of listlessness.

X-Men was a book that simply wasn’t working.

These men... these X-Men!

These men… these X-Men!

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