The Mauve Knight, or, Avengers: Infinity War

There aren’t any specific spoilers for Infinity War below, but if I hadn’t seen the film I wouldn’t read it. You can check out some of my pre-viewing predictions for the movie, which I’ll be returning to on Monday to grade for correctness in a separate post, here.

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CHIN ATTACK

Watching the 18 preceeding Marvel films before going into Avengers: Infinity War gave me an appreciation for the myriad character narratives that wind throughout the franchise, with huge developments often happening for characters in movies that don’t even bare their name. For instance, some of the most compelling moments in Iron Man’s development throughout the MCU have been in the likes of Avengers: Age of Ultron, Captain America: Civil War and Spider-Man: Homecoming. Black Panther has a huge moment of clarity in Civil War. Black Widow has an arc all her own despite never having an eponymous film. You never know how consequential any given Marvel film will be for any given Marvel character, and so going into Infinity War I was very curious what it would contribute to some of these individual characters’ narratives, what this chapter would mean in the book of Iron Man, or Black Panther, or Captain America.

I was pretty surprised when the answer was, sort of, kind of, not a lot. That’s not a barometer for the quality of the film, mind you, and it isn’t to say that consequential things don’t happen, but there aren’t a dearth of defining character beats for our heroes. There are simply so many that no one Avenger has a particularly verbose arc. I thought there’d be more Cap. More T’Challa. More Tony. And despite loving the film, I found myself wondering who exactly it was about.

But that’s actually pretty obvious.

Avengers: Infinity War could have just as easily, and more aptly, been dubbed Thanos: Infinity War, because Josh Brolin’s Mad Titan is the protagonist of the film.

In The Last Jedi (don’t worry I promise I don’t have another hot take) Supreme Leader Snoke makes a comment to Kylo Ren bemoaning the existence of hope. Not hope in the Jedi, or hope in the Resistance. Just straight up hope. It’s an exchange that drives me bananas because it rings so flat and so dull, because it is such an utterly villainous sentiment, as if Snoke is going out of his way to be a villain. It’s a sentiment that makes it seem like Snoke is not only a villain to our heroes, but a villain to himself, as if he is primed and ready to unironically grab the mic and announced “well my name’s rappin’ Snoke and I’m here to say it’s fun to rap in an evil way.”

Thanos, inversely, is no such arch-villain. In fact he’s not entirely dissimilar to Tony Stark. Both operate under the assumption that they have been, as Loki would say, “burdened with glorious purpose.” They have lofty, conceptual ideas of morality and salvation and equally lofty, conceptual notions for achieving those ends. There are certainly parallels of egomaniacal do-goodery between Thanos’ Infinity Gauntlet and Stark’s Ultron program.

Part of what makes Thanos’ pursuit so compelling, what makes him a perverse, distorted protagonist (not hero, mind you), is that it doesn’t seem like he even necessarily wants to be doing what he’s doing. He’s possessed by the notion that controlled destruction is the only way to save life from utter annihilation and that he, like a great cosmic martyr, will foot the bill of that heinous but necessary sin on his own soul for the good of life itself. He seeks to save life from itself at his own expense.

There is no time then, to plumb the depths of the likes of Tony and Steve and T’Challa once more, because if Thanos is the protagonist of Infinity War, the antagonist is the entirety of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as we know it. Every one of the heroes in this movie has run deep in some previous film and thus, at least so far as the long term Marvel audience is concerned, they do not need to here. Here, in Thanos’ story, their purpose is to be short-sighted, to lack the will and purpose to make the sort of sacrifices the film’s true protagonist is prepared to demand of himself, to lack scope beyond themselves in space and time. They’re henchmen, the lot of them. Obstacles. And to see them relegated to as much before Thanos is frightening and distressing, all the more so because Thanos is our twisted protagonist.

How do you bring together twenty-something protagonists from six or so separate film series? You flip the script and dare them all to stop one protagonist from acquiring the dopest MacGuffin ever. If this were the last film in Marvel’s phase three I’d be unhappy, but as the penultimate chapter before much of the MCU’s inaugural class purportedly graduates, Infinity War upends the MCU in exciting ways with a villain whose six-year build up does not disappoint.

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Road to Infinity War – Captain America: Civil War, or, When Keeping it Rational Goes Wrong

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.

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KISS FIGHT.

With its 13th film the Marvel Cinematic Universe officially arrives at the point in which audiences can reasonably assume that the denizens of the MCU would be like “hey these super-folks are great I guess but they sure do knock stuff over a lot with alarming regularity and I guess maybe we should do something about that.” Captain America: Civil War delves into that sentiment without ever lapsing into navel-gazing, becoming the Empire Strikes Back of the Marvel Universe that Age of Ultron fell short of and, perhaps most notably, dividing the Avengers along philosophical lines that as of this writing have yet to be resolved.

That there is no clear answer to the problem of collateral damage in the MCU is a testament to the franchise’s characters, who bring perfectly rational ideologies into a world too vast and sprawling to rationalize. Tony and Cap’s conflict in Civil War is such an ideological standstill because, after a dozen previous films, it arises so organically, so reasonably. Tony is being Tony and we love Tony. Cap is being Cap and we love Cap. The only thing that’s changed is circumstance.

Since 2008 Tony’s heroism has always been bombastic and proactive. He’s never thought small and this isn’t the first time he’s forecasted a problem and sought out an inventive solution like a man possessed. He’s always been about the big picture and he’s always had the ego to believe, for better or worse, that he can and should change the world.

Inversely, Cap is a hero who has always been grounded in the here and now, defined by a call of duty to intervene in any situation in which he senses injustice. What is broken right now? What can be fixed right now? Cap’s concerns are the injustices he can see and hear, not those that others imagine and prognosticate.

These ideologies don’t necessarily have to conflict with one another, but Civil War’s Sokovia Accords all but ensure they do. The Accords present such a compelling source of conflict because they play to the thematic backbones of both heroes.

Tony’s character arc has always been a humbling. He was a hot shot who was taken down a notch and forced to reevaluate his entire life, and now, even as a hero, his ambitiousness often sees him flying too close to the sun, all too often reaping dire consequences for the world around him, as in Age of Ultron. If you’re Tony Stark and you have even an inkling of self-awareness, come Civil War you might realize you’ve got a track record of biting off more than you can chew to the detriment of humanity. Tony’s acquiescence to the Accords is a step in the right direction for the character, an admission of guilt, a surrendering of the ego to the idea that maybe Tony Stark doesn’t always know what’s best for the world.

But for Cap, agreeing to the Sokovia Accords would mean abandoning responsibility, signing up for an excuse to take the easy way out rather than doing what is right and standing up to injustice whenever and however he can. Even as a scrawny Brooklyn kid Cap has always been about doing everything in his power to stop bullies. If something bad is happening and Steve Rogers gets wind of it, he will always take it as his personal responsibility to intervene, whether it means stopping the Red Skull from world annihilation or confronting a heckler in a movie theater. For Cap, surrendering his agency to act against injustice is irresponsible, lazy even.

These ideologies ensure that Cap and Tony come into conflict, which is unfortunate because in other circumstances, having both a head in the clouds and boots on the ground could be an asset. The reasons Cap and Tony come to blows are the same reasons the Avengers need both of them. Hopefully circumstances will arise that shed light on that, for the sake of both our heroes. Like, I don’t know, maybe a purple-chinned glove-monster from space or some shit.

For more on Captain America: Civil War, specifically why the youth of today should be held responsible for coming up with hot takes on this shit rather than me:

May 20, 2016: Captain America: Civil War, or, What’s Your Policy on Late Work?

Road to Infinity War – Captain America: The First Avenger, or, Chad Kroeger featuring Josey Scott

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.

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Someone’s been taking their Weight Gain 4000.

I did not care for this movie when it came out in theaters. I can still remember sitting there, tired and perturbed, feeling slighted by the fact that all of the cool action stuff from the trailers seemed crammed into one montage. And the musical number? What the hell?

It’s fitting then that much as Steve Rogers is set up from the get go to be a sort of equal and opposite of Tony Stark, Captain America: The First Avenger has aged spectacularly in direct opposition to Iron Man, which certainly shows its age at this point.

Prior to Captain America the heroes of the Marvel universe were the arrogant and powerful made humble. Even Bruce Banner finds himself in the position he’s in because of his scientific overconfidence in the pursuit of recreating the super soldier formula we’re finally introduced to here. But where Stark, Banner and Thor are all powerful men in one respect or another, who are humbled and forced to reexamine their power, Steve Rogers is humble, gets power, and remains humble. And I’ll be damned if Chris Evans’ performance isn’t pitch perfect immediately. Over the course of Winter Soldier and Civil War I really fell in love with Evans’ performance, but looking back at his first outing he’s always brought a fidelity of character to Steve Rogers such that there can be no doubting that the scrawny dweeb getting beat up in an alley and the super boy scout doing curls with a helicopter are one and the same.

It’s fascinating to look back at The First Avenger, plot Cap’s course throughout the MCU and consider that while he and Stark have both changed how they interact with the world around them, they are largely, fundamentally the same people they were in the beginning. Going into Infinity War Tony Stark’s ego is still writ large across the MCU, only now it takes the form of a guilty conscience with a savior complex, and Steve Rogers is still a pillar of morality and righteousness, but the stage on which he acts has grown exponentially and the definitions of morality and righteousness have only grown murkier with scale. In retrospect, even from Phase 1 of the MCU, Civil War feels absolutely unavoidable.

It’s also fascinating to look back at The First Avenger. Period. This movie looks absolutely amazing. It’s almost like it was directed by a legendary concept artist responsible for the likes of Boba Fett and the AT-AT. This alternate WWII is stunning. Hydra’s soldiers and technology are pulpy and sinister without looking goofy or distressingly anachronistic, and the art-deco tinged Stark Expo feels ripped from 1940s visions of the future.

The action also holds up way better than I remembered and it’s clear that even before the Russos got involved with the characters the powers-that-be at Marvel had some ideas about the vocabulary of Cap’s movements and how his super-strength is communicated visually and aurally.

And Bucky. And Peggy Carter. And Hugo Weaving’s the Red Skull. And Tommy Lee Jones. And Stanley Tucci. Time and time again Captain America films have exceptional supporting casts and The First Avenger was no exception.

When I saw Civil War for the first time I felt like Chris Evans had grown into an embodiment of cinematic superheroism gleamed perhaps only once before in Christopher Reeves’ Superman. Rewatching First Avenger I realize he’s always embodied that sort of heroism. There’s a sincerity and a sense of purpose to Evans’ Captain America that perhaps as a younger man I could scoff at and write off as corny. But having aged out of some small portion of my youthful cynicism and having watched all the external and internal battles Cap has had to fight to maintain that purpose and sincerity, I couldn’t help but watch First Avenger with a fondness and excitement and awe that utterly surprised me.

Thor left audiences with a question of sorts: what can the likes of Thor, Iron Man and the Hulk do against a vast cosmos of potential antagonism? The First Avengers is a sly, knowing answer.

Captain America: Steve Rogers #1, or, Comics Are Cancelled Forever!

Spoilers ahead for Captain America: Steve Rogers #1, Superior Iron Man #1 and Batman & Robin Eternal #1

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RUN ATTACK!

I’m not concerned with the controversy surrounding writer Nick Spencer and artist Jesus Saiz’s recent debut issue of Captain America: Steve Rogers so much as I am fascinated that there’s any controversy to speak of.

Captain America: Steve Rogers #1 sees the return of Steve Rogers to his strapping young self after a brief stint as an old, old man (classic Steve). The issue follows Steve as he takes on a noticeably-extremist Hydra more attuned to the terrorists of today than Nazis, and in the twist heard round the world Captain America: Steve Rogers #1 concludes with Cap throwing an ally out of a plane and saying “Hail Hydra.”

Oh shit!

There are less interesting reasons to be surprised that the controversy surrounding Cap’s dope new catchphrase exists. It’s a comic book, a largely serialized medium that ends on a cliffhanger with a reliable enough consistency that you can set your watch to it. It’s the first issue of a comic book and the debut of a new creative team, which is pretty much a flashing neon sign that the character will be heading in some sort of new direction that upsets the status quo. And to reiterate, it’s the first issue, so the story has barely left the ground.

But what fascinates me about the Captain America backlash, and boy oh boy has there been backlash, is that this is the character that crossed the line.

Good guys have gone bad left and right and plenty of these villainous benders have taken place recently. But Captain America’s hailing of Hydra is the only one I’m aware of that got written up in the New York Times. Yes, I read.

Last year there was an entire book based on the premise of Tony Stark’s maniacal ego getting the best of him. Superior Iron Man saw Tony Stark first give away an Extremis app that let the public enhance their looks and abilities, then charge exorbitant fees on the app when everyone got addict to their new and improved lives. Nefarious. And yet Superior Iron Man #1 didn’t go flying off the stands in a whirlwind of fury and curiosity, nor did it spawn a million think pieces. It just kind of happened.

To be fair, Superior Iron Man took place after the events of Axis, a storyline that saw Tony’s personality inverted, and it also choreographed suspicion in Tony’s cognizance pretty quickly. But the first issue of Superior Iron Man also saw its protagonist be a huge dick throughout, rather than in the final panel.

Superior Iron Man isn’t a fantastic analogue for Captain America: Steve Rogers #1. But it isn’t the only instance of a beloved hero turning against everything they believe in in recent memory.

I would argue that Batman & Robin Eternal #1 is a one-for-one equivalent.

Much as CA:SR #1 showcases Steve Rogers presumably allying himself with his sworn enemy, Batman  & Robin Eternal showcases Batman gunning down a boy’s parents in front of him in a dark ally.

Same character-180. Same first issue revelation. Entirely different, arguably non-existent, fan reaction.

So why can Tony Stark become a techno drug dealer and Batman can apparently murder parents in front of their children to little or no backlash, but Steve Rogers saying “Hail Hydra” lights Twitter on fire?

I have no idea. But if I had to wager a guess I’d say it’s all Chris Evans’ fault.

I’m not the first person to compare Evans’ performance as Captain America to Christopher Reeves’ Superman and I won’t be the last, because it’s a damn good comparison. There’s an inherent goodness and a deep sense of responsibility that Evans’ brings to Cap. As exciting as it is to watch him kick the shit out of pirates and terrorists and robots, what really defines Evans’ Steve Rogers is that at his core he’s a good guy. A solid bro, if you will.

Tony Stark and Bruce Wayne aren’t awful human beings by any stretch of the imagination, but where Iron Man is a smartass superhero and Batman is a brooding, vengeful, insane superhero, under Chris Evans’ stewardship Captain America has become the superhero.

Maybe the reason every other comic book reader with a Twitter account feels the need to send death threats like an eight-year-old animal-mutilator is because Captain America has replaced Superman as the very mold of what a superhero is, the foundation that is tweaked and twisted into endless variations. Maybe the twist at the end of Captain America: Steve Rogers #1 is upsetting not because “THEY MADE CAPTAIN AMERICA A NAZI” or “THEY MADE CAPTAIN AMERICA A GIMMICK,” but because it’s scary. It implies that evil can’t just get to smartasses and brooding, vengeful psychos, it can get to solid bros too. And if Hydra can get to Captain America they can get to the core, the essence of modern superheroism.

Or maybe they’re just a bunch of dumbasses.