Infinity War: the pathos of Thanos

So, Avengers: Infinity War from Marvel Studios. The biggest of epic battles to end all epic battles (although not quite, as there’ll be an Avengers 4 in 2019, but more on that later). So, yes, there’s Thanos (Josh Brolin), a really bad guy. The worst. He’s purple, with a big chin from the planet Titan. He’s from Titan, not just his chin. That would be weird.

Yes, so Thanos. He wants to acquire some powerful trippy stones, so he can kill half the universe (that old chestnut). But… he has obstacles in his way, heroes! Earth’s mightiest ones, in fact. There’s Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) aka Iron Man, Peter Parker (Tom Holland) aka Spider-Man, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) aka, er, Thor, plus precisely 57 others I cannot be bothered to name.

But rest assured, they’re all great. Many have capes, for example.

And because there’s so many of them (and imax screens are only so big), the directors (the Russo brothers) have opted to split them up. Have them fighting battles in different locations. Some earth, some in space.

This is a nice idea and provides a change of scenery, so it’s not just one giant battle on earth. It also means we get some sexy pairings we’ve not seen before (Tony Stark, Steven Strange and Peter Parker, Rocket and Thor, that sort of thing). And from these odd couplings banter springs forth, classic Marvel. Keep the jokes coming. They’re sorely needed in an epic film such as this, lest we stray into dour DC territory.

But we don’t. It’s all good. The filmmakers know what they’re doing. They also, wisely, keep the focus on Thanos. This is his story. Nay, no longer will we have bad guys with questionable motivation, for Thanos has a decent reason. It’s just his execution (pun intended) that is perhaps somewhat suspect. Brolin sells it though, humanising the purple-chinned one. We connect, even if we don’t agree with him.

It’s not all Thanos Thanos Thanos though. Each hero (yes, all 57 of them) gets a little moment to shine, at least once, even if it’s a tiny line. Some get more than a line of course, it’s all about whose agent negotiated for what screen time. Isn’t it? I mean, let’s take the credits. Chris Pratt gets ‘with Chris Pratt’. His agent has to get a bonus for that one surely?

Anyway. The war. Yes. Each hero gets a moment and some get really cool ones too. Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) for example, finally, shows levels of badassery we’ve not seen. And it’s joyous. Thor gets a moment that rivals a couple of the best bits of Ragnarok (this other film he was in) and Tony has upgraded his suit to repair quicker than Wolverine (sorry, other franchise). Drax quietly steals most scenes he’s in and Star-Lord questions his masculinity when confronted with a pirate-angel (this will make sense when you see the film).

Basically, the film’s really good, albeit exhausting. Must be all the grizzled heroes and big-chinned bad’uns spouting worthy dialogue all over the place. Anyway, if you love Marvel films, you’ll get all as giddy as a cosplayer as comic con. You’ll be thrilled, shocked, scared, entertained and, perhaps saddened a little in places. But don’t worry, the conclusion of this story, a bit like Game of Thrones and winter, is coming (right after Deadpool 2 and Ant-Man and the Wasp this year and Captain Marvel next year).

May the force be with you.
Sorry, wrong franchise. Um, how can I make this better?

Hail Hydra.
#teamthanos

Thor: Ragnarok – he’s come a long way, baby

The first Thor came out back in 2011, if you can believe that. And at the time it was a bit of a punt by Marvel who, until this point, had only really – successfully – thrust a decent Iron Man upon the world. Because Captain America: The First Avenger was to come later in 2011; but first the studio had some Aussie beefcake most people hadn’t heard of as the lead, along with a luvvie director (Kenneth Branagh) at the helm, putting together a flick about the God of Thunder.

What could go wrong?
Well, more importantly, what could go right?

Because Hemsworth shocked a lot of us by utterly owning the role and Branagh, considering his lack of experience in the genre, got the tone spot on, delivering action and comedy with verve and dynamism. Plus, the film was a commercial hit, which allowed Marvel to start making bigger plans to introduce a host of other characters and expand the MCU at a more rapid rate. So Thor, along with Iron Man, kinda led the way.

Moreover, if we take the team-up films, aka Avengers and Civil War off the table for a second, standalone films are probably the true measure of the strength of a character, and Thor’s sequel, The Dark World (2013), was solid enough, but perhaps suffered from ‘difficult second album’ syndrome.

Yet even an average Marvel film such as this was still a helluva lot better than most blockbusters.

So our God of Thunder weathered the storm and Marvel, as a studio, continued to read from a blueprint that the rest of us, quite frankly (wait for it), marvelled at. Because their quality with every release just kept improving, even with the odd dip, they kept upping their game and pushing the formula, lest it get stale.

This, in turn, has given us wonderful oddities such as Ant-Man and Dr Strange, and the mad, unexpected crowd-pleaser that was Guardians of the Galaxy.

And other directors have seen this, and no doubt become attracted by the prospect of a big budget and the chance to put their own stamp on a Marvel superhero.

Granted, some filmmakers with too singular a vision just couldn’t manage to adhere to the studio’s rules (Edgar Wright), but for those that did (James Gunn, Scott Derrickson) the rewards were that they produced a film audiences and critics loved, which was also a huge hit.

Which leads us to Taika Waititi.

Now for those of that haven’t seen Hunt for the Wilderpeople, get thee to your nearest TV or streaming device and watch it. For it be very funny. And most strange.

Set in New Zealand, it stars Sam Neill and some kid that’s barely acted before, and it’s offbeat and hilarious. Think Flight of the Concords/Mighty Boosh territory with a bit of Thelma and Louise thrown in and you’re halfway there.

This is what Taika brings to Marvel.

Well, that, and a large slice of Flash Gordon with lashings of retro ’80s aesthetic. I mean, the film is pretty darn cool. But in case you were worried it wasn’t cool (or weird) enough, just add more Jeff Goldblum. Or any amount of Jeff Goldblum really.

Because the man has always been about five miles left of normal, and these days he’s ripening as the years go by, like an old fruit left out in the sun. Which is actually rather delightful, as he pretty much steals most scenes.

But I digress. As usual, off topic. Rambling and setting the scene.

Let’s focus on Ragnarok.
Story and timeline wise, this film picks up two years after events in Avengers: Age of Ultron (and around the same time as Civil War and Spider-Man:Homecoming) where Thor has gone off to hunt for infinity stones. He’s introduced in a bravura first sequence involving a fire demon, a scene which rivals that of Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2′s opener.

It’s kick ass, stirring stuff.

And through events involving Odin (Anthony Hopkins) Thor’s sister Hela (Cate Blanchett, having a whale of a time), the Goddess of Death, is freed after a long imprisonment.

She immediately sets out to rule Asgard and lay waste to anyone in her path – and it’s up to her baby brother to stop her.

Only problem is, he’s been waylaid on junk planet Sakaar which is ruled by the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum). There he’s forced into combat with the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) – whom we last saw hightailing it away from earth in a spaceship for reasons only Hulk can answer.

So this predicament means Thor needs help to get off the planet and save his people. Luckily, this comes in the form of a Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) whom he finds in self-imposed exile, and, of course, his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston). Plus Hulk. So they form a team (of sorts) to take Hella on.

Basically they’re following Top Gear’s mantra of ‘ambitious but rubbish.’

Now, Marvel films are known for their in-film banter during fight scenes but this is, by some margin, the funniest the studio have put out so far. Yes, more so than Ant-Man, Guardians and any others you care to name. Again, the Taika influence is strongly felt, as he reportedly added a lot of the humour to the script once he came on board.

Hemsworth, too, wanted the tone to be lighter, and he’s clearly demonstrated why being let loose has been a blessing. Yes, the God of Thunder with his hammer and cape is all a bit silly. So why not double down on how mad it is? Additionally, if you were looking for a companion piece in the MCU, Guardian of the Galaxy wouldn’t be a bad bet.

Basically, when things get too serious or preposterous, burst the bubble with a joke.

Works every time.
This is something that DC, for all their progress (by the looks of the Justice League trailers) just don’t get. Superheroes are ridiculous, so let them be.

By and large, this will be the best time you’ll have seeing a Marvel film. Even if you’re not the biggest superhero nerd and have no idea the difference between DC and Marvel or who the Avengers are or anything like that, you’ll still have fun.

It kind of sets the bar pretty high for the forthcoming Black Panther if I’m honest. And though it’s likely that film won’t compete on humour (how can it?) it will probably take the title as the coolest Marvel film so far. From Run the Jewels on the trailer to Black Panther as a character and his homeland of Wakanda, it remains something of an exciting prospect to see how it comes together on screen.

So even without seeing it, I feel confident saying this is going to be a pretty strong year for Marvel.

Spider-Man: Homecoming – review

So Spidey is back – and now with added baby-faced Tom Holland. Back in the day Tobey Maguire had three goes at the role with Sam Raimi directing: Spider-Man (2002), Spider-Man 2 (2004) and Spider-Man 3 (2007). Then Andrew Garfield had a crack with Marc Webb in charge: The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014).

And each, arguably, suffered from the law of diminishing returns. Spidey wasn’t dead but he had been battered pretty thoroughly. Then he popped up, teasingly, in Captain America: Civil War (2016)played by a young Tom Holland. And everyone loved his – albeit short – take on the character. Seems Spidey had returned and this time he was part of the MCU.

Hooray, this felt fresh and well-timed.

So we get Spider-Man: Homecoming a year later. Now some say this version of our arachnid hero is the best yet. Not just because having a younger actor play the role REALLY works and makes more sense (he’s supposed to be a schoolkid), but also because Tom Holland just seems a better fit as an actor than Maguire, and certainly Garfield.

Because, frankly, Holland plays to his strengths, making him cocky and intelligent yet vulnerable and with a big heart, which, naturally, brings him to Tony Stark’s attention. For you see, with Homecoming, he’s very much Tony’s protégé, with Tony a sort of tough love father figure towards Peter.

And as part of that tough love, after helping Stark out in Civil War he gets cuts loose, and told to basically stay out of trouble until he’s called upon, with Happy (Jon Favreau) his reluctant minder.

During which time hard-as-nails salvage guy Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton) is nicking alien artifacts found during the aftermath of the chitauri attack on New York and turning them into weapons – and in doing so becomes the Vulture.

So little Peter has to prove he’s got what it takes to bring Toomes down, change from boy to man, and prove his hero status to become a fully fledged Avenger.

Which is all well and good. But the nice touches for me in this film come from things we’ve not seen before. THANK GOD the filmmakers didn’t show us how Peter got his powers and came to live with Aunt May. We’ve seen it so many times. Save for a quick line about being bitten by spider and how his aunt has been through a lot, that’s it. Great, let’s move on.

More thought along similar lines has also gone into Peter’s suit. As it’s made by Stark it comes complete with gadgets galore and a PA, but with a little twist to contrast Iron Man’s JARVIS. So from the types of web he can use (grenade, taser) to the suit’s modes (kill, surveillance), it adds a lot more to Spider-Man in terms of his capabilities as a hero and how he can fight.

Yet, as Tony points out, he needs to be a hero without the suit (much like Tony’s own journey in Iron Man). So there’s a couple of pivotal – and fairly emotionally weighty – scenes where we get to see what Peter is really made of. And it helps, of course, to have a worthy foe, because in Michael Keaton we get both comic book pedigree (Batman, Birdman) and oodles of charisma, where he can flip from charm to menace at the drop of a hat (he should really play baddies more often, it suits him).

Ultimately, it’s great that Spider-Man is with Marvel now. Sony, for all their efforts, never really found their groove with this character. And given the fact that Marvel just continue to go from strength to strength as they expand their universe, it’s encouraging that Spider-Man is now a part of that. Roll on Thor: Ragnarok.