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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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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Season 7 (Review)

The seventh season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is a remarkable accomplishment.

The seventh season is not perfect by any measure. Taken as a whole, it lacks the consistency that made the fifth season one of the best twenty-odd-episode seasons of television ever produced, particularly in a dire mid-season run of episodes that includes Prodigal Daughter, Field of Fire and The Emperor’s New Cloak. The fifth season (and even the sixth) never hit a run of three consecutive episodes that drag that hard. Similarly, there are moments when the production trips over itself during its epic run of ten closing episodes.

Similarly, it lacks the sheer quantity of all-time great episodes that made the sixth season so exciting and compelling, like that opening six-episode arc or Far Beyond the Stars or In the Pale Moonlight. However, the seventh season does quite well for itself; episodes like Treachery, Faith and the Great River, Once More Unto the Breach, The Siege of AR-558, It’s Only a Paper Moon, Chimera, Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges and Tacking Into the Wind are massively underrated and count among the best episode that the franchise ever produced.

However, the seventh season has a very clear sense of direction and purpose. After all seven years is a long time on television. By the time that the other Star Trek series hit that mark, there was a sense of exhaustion creeping in around the edges. The final season of Star Trek: The Next Generation often felt aimless and meandering, the production team waiting to transition to feature films. The final season of Star Trek: Voyager felt similarly worn out, a faded photocopy of an approach that had worked on the previous three seasons.

In sharp contrast, the seventh season of Deep Space Nine knows roughly where it is going. From the opening scenes of Image in the Sand, the production team are cognisant of the fact that the curtain will be coming down at the end of the season. As a result, the seventh season is written with an ending in mind. The writers might not have known that ending from the outset, and were still working on it even during the sprawling final arc at the end of the year, but they knew that it existed and was waiting twenty-six episodes in the future.

As a result, the seventh season of Deep Space Nine has a very strong sense of identity and compelling sense of urgency. These attributes distinguish the season the final years of The Next Generation and Voyager, but also mark it out as one of Deep Space Nine‘s (and the franchise’s) strongest years.

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La La Land and Nostalgia’s End

One of the enduring criticisms of La La Land is the extent to which it indulges in nostalgia.

This is true of both the film and its characters. The opening scene proudly declares that the movie has been filmed in “Cinemascope”, with the landscape heavily saturated with bright colours that evoke classic Hollywood musicals even before a final showstopping number that evokes everything from An American in Paris to 7th Heaven. In this day and age, producing any big budget musical would feel like an act of nostalgia, but La La Land is a love letter to a genre that has fallen even further to the wayside than the western.

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Even the characters inhabiting the film’s world are defined by nostalgia. This is most obvious with Sebastian, a jazz nerd who desperately wants to construct a loving shrine to the artform as he loves it. “It’s dying,” he urges Mia. “It’s withering on the vine.” Sebastian laments the conversion of a cultural landmark into a “samba and tapas” restaurant. However, Mia is implied to be just as nostalgic. Her room is decorated with classic Hollywood memorabilia. When she finishes a rendition of her one-woman show, she asks Sebastian, “Is it too nostalgic?”

This sense of nostalgia has become an obvious line of attack against La La Land, particularly once it emerged as a Best Picture frontrunner. This is the way that things work; the same accusations were leveled at films like The Artist and Argo, to pick two recent examples. However, these criticisms miss one of the more compelling and nuanced aspects of La La Land‘s nostalgia. The film clearly pines for a lost past, wistfully remembering a world that no longer exists. However, it also accepts that loss. Unlike most exercises in nostalgia, La La Land understands that things can have value because they end.

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Note: This post contains spoilers for La La Land, including a discussion of the film’s ending. Go see it. Then come back.

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The X-Files – Milagro (Review)

This July, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the sixth season of The X-Files and the third (and final) season of Millennium.

The teaser establishes the mood quite quickly. It is a rather striking opening sequence for an episode of The X-Files, focusing on a writer staring at a blank page. The sequence cuts through time as the writer searches for inspiration, trying to take his cue from the index cards helpfully arranged on the wall. Eventually, the writer makes a grand gesture. He reaches into his chest, and pulls out his heart. It is a very effective opening sequence, one that makes it clear that Milagro will not be a normal episode of The X-Files.

The sequence also makes it clear that Milagro will not will it be a subtle piece of television. The teaser is not a particularly elegant metaphor, but it is an effective one. What is writing but tearing out a piece of yourself? Sometimes you have to wear your heart on your sleeve; sometimes you have to put it on the page. The teaser to Milagro is a very earnest piece of work from Chris Carter, a clear acknowledgement that what follows is a deeply personal piece of work.

Burning heart...

Burning heart…

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The X-Files – Two Fathers (Review)

This July, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the sixth season of The X-Files and the third (and final) season of Millennium.

This is the end. I never thought I’d hear myself say those words after all these years. You put your life into something… build it, protect it… The end is as unimaginable as your own death or the death of your children. I could never have scripted the events that led us to this. None of us could. All the brilliant men… the secret that we kept so well. It happened simply, like this.

– the Cigarette-Smoking Man channels his inner Chris Carter

In case you were wondering about the title...

In case you were wondering about the title…

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The X-Files – The End (Review)

This May and June, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the fifth season of The X-Files and the second season of Millennium.

The End is a watershed moment for the show.

There is a reasonable argument to be made that The End accomplishes very little in terms of narrative. It doesn’t really do a great job bridging to The X-Files: Fight the Future. It certainly doesn’t do a great job wrapping up any of the show’s long-running concerns. Indeed, it adds two characters who will go on to become major (if controversial) players in the show’s overarching mythology. Even the big dramatic twist at the end of the episode feels familiar, with The End closing on a more memorable visualisation of the cliffhanger to The Erlenmeyer Flask.

Burn, baby, burn...

Burn, baby, burn…

Nevertheless, The End does feel like an end of sorts. It closes out five seasons of The X-Files. Carter had suggested in interviews that he only wanted to do five seasons of the show before transitioning into feature films, and so The End marks the conclusion of the run that Carter had originally planned for the show. After all, The X-Files had crossed the hundred episode mark earlier in the year. It was ripe for syndication. It was at the stage where Fox and Ten Thirteen did not need to keep the show on the air to keep printing money.

At the same time, The End marks another more definitive sort of end. It would be the last piece of The X-Files to be filmed in Vancouver until The X-Files: I Want to Believe a decade later. Vancouver was a part of the show’s DNA. It had been the show’s production hub since The Pilot. More than two decades later, The X-Files would return to Vancouver for its six-episode wrap-up miniseries. Discussing the revival, Carter argued that Vancouver was “a natural place to make a show like The X-Files.” Certainly, the mood and atmosphere lent itself to the series.

"My video collection!"

“My video collection!”

So The End marks a fond farewell from the production team to a city and region that had served them well.  In that respect, it feels like a more definitive sort of ending. The End opens with a scene that is confident enough to let Canada be Canada. As with the opening scene of Herrenvolk, it is almost comical how hard The End flags its “and starring Canada as Canada” cred, to the point where a mountie rushes to the aid of an assassination victim. The closing scene of The End burns down the show’s most iconic and memorable sets.

While The End is not necessarily a satisfying mythology episode or season finalé in its own right, it does feel like a suitably big moment in the evolution of the show.

Smoking gun...

Smoking gun…

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Daredevil – Nelson v. Murdock (Review)

To celebrate the launch of Marvel’s Daredevil and the release of Avengers: Age of Ultron, we are reviewing all thirteen episodes of the first season of Marvel and Netflix’s Daredevil. Check back daily for the latest review.

Franklin P. “Foggy” Nelson is perhaps the most constant fixture of Matt Murdock’s personal life.

The lawyer was created by Stan Lee and Bill Everett for the first issue of the comic, published in April 1964. It seems like Foggy has always been there for Matt in one form or another. “Nelson and Murdock” is the heart of Matt Murdock’s life as a lawyer, and so Foggy is generally around to deal with the fallout from whatever crisis has engulfed Matt’s life from one moment to the next. However, Foggy is notable because he is really the only member of the Daredevil cast who can be described as a “regular” character since the book’s inception.

daredevil-nelsonvmurdock2

Despite the fact that Stan Lee and Bill Everett were clearly inspired by The Amazing Spider-Man, Daredevil never developed an ensemble with quite the same depth and breadth. While casual comic book fans can list off dozens of Peter Parker’s friends and colleagues from the earliest years, Matt Murdock has always had a rougher time building up a steady and reliable supporting cast. Part of this is undoubtedly down to the book’s difficulty finding its own identity. Characters came and went as the creative team tried new directions.

Through all of that, Foggy stuck around.

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