Road to Infinity War – The Incredible Hulk, or, Wait! That’s Not Mark Ruffalo!

Oh I did it fam. In preparation for my viewing of Avengers: Infinity War on April 26th at 7PM, I went back and rewatched the previous 18 films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, from Iron Man to Black Panther. Every day leading up to Infinity War I’ll be posting a short piece on each film and my most recent hot takes on nearly a decade of the MCU. I’ll also be linking back to whatever old nonsense I wrote about the movies at the time, if applicable. And if that isn’t enough, check out my ranked listed of the MCU to date on my Letterboxd account here.

theincrediblehulk

Wait a minute… you weren’t in Spotlight!

Look, I get it, it’s a bummer Mark Ruffalo isn’t in this movie and I know Ed Norton and Liv Tyler’s super-quiet acting isn’t the most endearing follow up to the ol’ RDJ charm, but The Incredible Hulk is a solid action flick with some of the best action the MCU had to offer pre-Russo Brothers. It’s also a truly worthwhile piece of worldbuilding and storytelling for anyone looking to steep themselves in the MCU.

Incredible Hulk has a streamlined, straightforward sense of purpose. It’s got momentum, propulsion, a sense of movement and motion that never slows down enough to get bogged down. This is a fugitive flick at heart that pits Norton’s pursued Bruce Banner against Tim Roth’s pursuer, Emil Blonsky. For the duration that Blonksy remains embodied by Roth he proves to be a pretty compelling antagonist. He and Banner’s trilogy of encounters highlight a thematic backbone that echoes through the MCU even today: what do you do when bestowed a reach that exceeds your grasp?

Blonsky, embodying the aggressive military authority that so often pestered Marvel’s heroes during the franchise’s first phase, and Banner have very different ideas about what the Hulk is and that ideological divide is highlighted in their series of escalating encounters; first there’s the amazing favela chase that takes a turn into monster movie territory, then a great fight between the Hulk and a roided-out Blonsky that has a stronger more agile Roth taking on a monster single-handedly, and finally a massive monster mash. Of course by the time there are two monsters duking it out on screen the ethos of Roth’s performance is lost behind a CGI behemoth that is so big and strong it loses its butt and wiener, but the fight still provides worthy, old-fashioned spectacle – no big, blue beam in the sky here!

Each time the two go at it Banner takes up that Marvel party line of personal responsibility, desperately trying to contain and control himself in the face of Blonsky’s relentless antagonism and continued insistence that Banner is a weapon demanding to be wielded. This is the film in which we get the clearest picture of Banner’s burden, of what the day to day life of a pacifist who is also an unwilling WMD is like.

The Incredible Hulk also begins to lay the groundwork for an interconnected MCU in subtle, effective ways without shoving audiences’ faces in Easter eggs. We learn that the Hulk’s existence is a result of the vacuum left by the presumed-death of Captain America. Pre-thaw we see that Cap’s secret legacy is a scientific arms race to recreate the WWII superhero, which provides an interesting connection for Banner and Rogers.  There’s references to SHIELD and Stark Industries as well, but never anything as excessive as some later entries in the MCU would come to boast.

Though it is doomed to sit in the bottom chunk of almost any rankings list of the MCU, Incredible Hulk is not without its merits. It offers some background that the MCU is richer for having and its story is succinct, swift and self-contained, something that becomes harder and harder to get a decade into Marvel’s cinematic reign.

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Saved by the Bell: The Sakaar Years, or, Thor: Ragnarok

ragnarok

Someone’s rocking their spiffiest duds for freshman orientation.

By the end of Thor: Ragnarok the God of Thunder’s third solo adventure reveals itself to be something of the finale to a first semester of college, a young mind’s valiant return home from winter break after having been blown and expanded over the fall months. Thor: Ragnarok is a process of revealing and undercutting the status quo both for the titular character and the audience.

For the Thor franchise that status quo has been the giant golden pipe organ castle of Asgard, a Mario Kart level that debuted in 2011 as a spectacular departure from the earthbound adventures of Iron Man and Incredible Hulk but has since become increasingly less interesting compared to the exploits of Thor’s other coworkers. In Ragnarok, that tired, shallow, golden city becomes the world of half-truths and easy answers built up around a child, a straw house destined to be blown down when confronted with even the slightest shift in perspective.
Enter Hela.

Played by Cate Blanchett, the Goddess of Death is that change in perspective, that freshman seminar with a charismatic professor who antagonizes the way you think the world works so that returning home becomes more than a matter of geographic distance. Hela is Asgard’s past, the receipt for that lavish golden pipe organ than Thor never thought to look at.

Thor vs. Hela is not so much a beat ‘em up as it is a young suburban white kid’s first encounter with the film Twelve Years a Slave.

After his initial confrontation with Hela, Thor is removed from his own status quo and tossed into a different patriarchy, one in which he is not the favored son but the disregarded other. His perspective is challenged intellectually and then literally as he finds himself thrown below the heel of someone else’s lavish kingdom. Like that suburban freshman tasked for the first time with checking their privilege, Thor lashes out fists first, confused, agitated and uncertain, but before long he finds himself hanging out in a dorm room with a roommate, intellectually and emotionally grappling with Hela and all she represents.

Along for the grappling is Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie, the ideal companion for Thor’s journey through the first semester of freshman year. Where the events of Ragnarok change and rewrite everything Thor has ever known about himself and his history, they only reinforce Valkyrie’s understanding of the world. Thor is trying to wrap his head around Memento and Valkyrie shows up deftly dissecting Orson Welles’ F For Fake. Valkyrie doesn’t have to come to terms with Hela the way Thor does because for Valkyrie the Goddess of Death isn’t an idea or a concept but memory and experience.

Nothing is safe from being upended. Just as Hela disrupts Thor’s perception of the status quo, Ragnarok’s relentless, virtuoso pratfalls undermine the film itself and often Marvel Studios’ past films as well. Even Mark Mothersbaugh’s score, for my money the best of any of Marvel’s 17 films, presented at first with the noble orchestral flair one would expend from a grand superhero odyssey, morphs into what can only be described as aggressive synthesizer.

Every facet of Thor: Ragnarok is concerned with highlighting and then undermining the status quo, be it by speaking truth to authority through humor and smartassery or by subverting the cool of its own protagonists.

Director Taika Waititi has unlocked Thor in a way no previous director has, be it in the characters solo outings or with the rest of the Avengers. He ties Thor’s powers, arguably his most alienating characteristic, to an institution, Asgard, than rips that institution away. Presented with uncertainty, challenged with the revelation of his own privilege and that privilege’s cost, Thor has never been more compelling.

Did I mention this is also a straight-up comedy? And that Jeff Goldblum gives the performance by which all performances will be judged for the rest of time?
Ragnarok is one of Marvel’s best movies and easily the best Thor movie. It’s got action, humor, heart and an intelligence that doesn’t get lost in the shuffle. It’s all the fun of watching a college freshman get woke without having to sit through a pretentious holiday dinner with an actual college freshman.

Broken News, or, Spotlight

Spotlight

True Detective Season Three

Coworkers no longer ask me if I saw that story on the news last night because my answer is always the same.

No.

Of course I didn’t see that story on the news last night. That would entail watching the news. Why would I ever do that?

When it’s not rampant irresponsible speculation it’s fear mongering, and when it’s not fear mongering the news is the verbal snuff of an overly-manicured talking head fleshing out the fine details of whatever tragedy is within reach.

On its face Spotlight, director Thomas McCarthy’s film following the Boston Globe’s investigation of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church, is an obvious condemnation of corruption within institutionalized religion. It’s a fantastic conspiracy thriller about what happens when human beings elevate an institution above other human beings. But it’s also something of a ray of hope in terms of what the media can be at its best.

Spotlight follows the investigation behind a news piece painstakingly constructed to combat a problem. The piece at the center or the film didn’t set out to fan the flames of fear or keep the wheels of baseless speculation turning, it set out to right a wrong, to improve upon the status quo.

Crazy, right? But Spotlight isn’t set in some nostalgic golden age of journalism before the 24-hour news cycle and the echo chamber of cable news. It takes place just over ten years ago. The film doesn’t have some sort of naïve view of journalism either. The reporters depicted in the film are far from perfect. Healthy senses of suspicion can all too easily give way to dismissiveness. Competition between publications is an ever present source of motivation. No one is hiding the pursuit of a story here. But the sum total of the journalistic pursuit in Spotlight wasn’t some sort of shoddy map to paranoia. The story in question was an important one. It was one that needed to be told. Can we say the same about any piece of news we’ve made small talk about with our coworkers today?

Spotlight reminded me of something I had forgotten in the cynicism of an election year: news doesn’t have to be a nonstop stream of content primarily functioning to rabidly grasp for eyeballs and ratings. It can and has been a vital force for positive societal change.

Avengers: Age of Ultron, or, Marvel’s Big Comic Book Movie

Superhero movies are nothing new. Long before everyone and their mother decided they needed a “shared-universe” Superman and Howard the Duck were running around on the big screen to the delight and chagrin of moviegoers. But in a lot of ways Avengers: Age of Ultron feels like the first full-on comic book movie.

BIG ATTACK

BIG ATTACK

It’s all there. From the exciting feeling that any one of dozens of characters could pop up just around the corner to the dead weight of ever-imposing continuity, viewing the second Avengers movie is like reading one of DC or Marvel’s massive semi-annual, line-wide , status-quo altering crossover spectaculars. And it comes with all of the same highlights and hindrances of a big comic book event.

Characters from across the Marvel Universe are brought together to interact with one another, be it with clever quips or exciting fisticuffs. There’s all kinds of fun pairings to be had, all in the face of massive, eye-popping set pieces and world-threatening antagonism.

But that epic comic book event scope comes at a cost on film just as it does on the page. The places Age of Ultron goes are huge, explosive and over-the-top. By the monstrous climax of the movie even Hawkeye points out the ridiculousness of it all. It’s spectacular and ludicrous and getting their in two hours requires a few lapses in logic. The same type of lapses found in massive event comics that have to condense a fight for the entire known universe into six issues. Age of Ultron is a fun, exciting ride from A to Z, but it makes that journey in way fewer than 25 steps and it isn’t graceful enough to cover up the letters it missed along the way.

A lot of that is because, much like a major comic book event, Age of Ultron is up to its neck in mythology. I feel confident asserting that Age of Ultron has to contend with more mythology than any other film ever made. It’s the eleventh film in a series that simultaneously has to react to not only its own direct predecessor but also a half dozen other sub-franchises while simultaneously setting up not only its own direct sequel but half a dozen others.

Just a couple of dreamy teens.

Just a couple of dreamy teens.

It’s a lot to grapple with and Age of Ultron doesn’t always do it flawlessly. A lot of the bigger moments wind up feeling a little out of left field and I find myself left with questions I don’t suspect there are particularly compelling answers to.

But Age of Ultron isn’t just like a big, brash comic book event. It’s like a really good, big, brash comic book event. The new characters introduced here are exciting. James Spader’s Ultron is fascinating and entertaining and menacing. The movie is consistently hilarious, the cast always charming and the dialogue sharp. The little, intimate moments in Age of Ultron are fantastic.

I recently posted a piece on Daredevil in which I put forth my opinion that the show is very much Marvel’s take on a DC movie, much as Winter Soldier was a Marvel political thriller and The Incredible Hulk was a Marvel fugitive movie. I suspect the most obvious argument to put forward for Age of Ultron is that it’s Marvel’s artificial intelligence movie, but more than anything before it Avengers: Age of Ultron is very much Marvel’s quintessential comic book movie.

Foxcatcher Problems, or, The 2014 Channing Tatum Initiative Complete

This is my third attempt to discuss Foxcatcher, the recent true crime film that also happens to be my final stop on the 2014 Channing Tatum Initiative. My feelings on Foxcatcher are conflicted enough so as to make it nearly impossible for me to convey them without falling into a rambling pit. But hey, third time’s the charm, yeah?

foxcatcher

Foxcatcher is based on a true story. It recounts the events leading up to a murder. The film is well written, the cinematography is gripping and the performances, particularly those by Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo, are engaging. Foxcatcher is by no means a bad movie. I’m just not sure I understand why it’s a movie.

In my mind there’s something of an unspoken understanding between an audience and a filmmaker when it comes to films “based on a true story,” particularly when that true story is tragic in nature. The understanding being that the filmmaker is given permission to utilize or exploit (depending on just how cynical we want to get) a real life tragedy in order to put forward for consideration some potential truth. 12 Years a Slave used the story of Solomon Northrup’s enslavement to highlight a sickness in American history that is more and more often overlooked or downplayed. Captain Phillips used the hostage situation on the Maersk Alabama to highlight a glaring juxtaposition between the might and affluence of the Western World and the sheer desperation of the Third World. The recently released Imitation Game uses the life of Alan Turing to recount the life of Alan Turing, a scientist whose achievements and prosecution are both perhaps not as well-known as they should be.

With these examples in mind I again posit that I’m not sure I understand why the tragedy at the murder of Foxcatcher has been adapted into a film.

I’ve come up with a few answers on my own but they all feel like I’m reaching, assigning a reason for a works existence after it already exists, rather than discovering the reason why the work was brought into existence in the first place. Perhaps Foxcatcher is meant to highlight the disparity between rich and poor and how easily we overlook the former using the latter as playthings. Maybe it’s something of a cautionary tale regarding undiagnosed mental illness. One of the parties involved has stated that the story highlights the lengths to which American Olympians had to go to match the training regiments of Olympians in other countries. But the film doesn’t seem to lean in to any of those thesis statements.

As near as I can figure the events depicted in Foxcatcher were adapted to film because someone thought it’d make a good movie. And they’re not wrong. If I didn’t know Foxcatcher was based on a true story I’d more than likely be singing an entirely different tune. But Foxcatcher is based on a true story. It’s based on a murder. And while I’m not saying it specifically sets out to exploit a murder for entertainment or ruling out the distinct possibility that I’m just being difficult and don’t get it, I ultimately found the film conflicted and problematic at best.