Back in the mid-2000’s when Kevin Feige was first dreaming up the Marvel Cinematic Universe, did he know that everything would culminate in the 22nd entry in the franchise? This number just happens to coincide with the amount of episodes typically included in a network series of television, and Avengers: Endgame certainly feels like a season finale, with some characters saying goodbye and others beginning new arcs that will take them into season two. This blurring of media lines makes me somewhat uneasy for reasons I’m not completely sure of, but whether looked at as a single film or the artificial ending of a decade of big-budget, candy-colored filmmaking, Endgame does what the MCU has long been good at: satisfactorily entertain while making stabs at something deeper, most of which fall short because landing credible or coherent emotional beats aren’t required for their movies to be successful.
Joseph Kosinski sheds the high-flying science fiction of his earlier career to get down in the dirt for the gritty saga of Only the Brave. The director of Tron Legacy and Oblivion is on far firmer ground here, able to omit fantastical world-building in exchange for a surprising grasp of character and chemistry. In adapting the true story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, a crew of Southwestern wildfire fighters, Kosinski and writers Ken Nolan and Eric Warren Singer make an appealing and affecting tribute to benevolent masculinity, the kind that betters instead of levels and values self-knowledge instead of repression.
Tom Cruise’s efforts to distract from his high placement in Scientology while simultaneously advertising for its apparent rejuvenating powers continue with the sixth entry in the Mission Impossible franchise. A series that has continually topped itself with each entry, Mission Impossible: Fallout is the first to experience diminishing returns. Make no mistake; Christopher McQuarrie and his team are producing peak action filmmaking. Fallout contains what could be the best fight scenes, the best skydiving scenes, and the best land/air chases possible, but the bar has been raised so high by skyscraper climbs and underwater safe cracking that the best is no longer good enough. The film’s mastery of technique is appreciated, but it’s ingenuity that Mission: Impossible thrives on, and there’s just not enough of it here.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe released entries in 2018 with the highest and lowest stakes over the course of their twenty films. Avengers: Infinity War placed half of all life in the universe at risk, while Ant-Man and the Wasp put some trade secrets on the line between parties that don’t seem particularly adversarial. That the former came out two months earlier than the latter was no favor, and the Ant-Man sequel had to alter its timeline so that it takes place before the cataclysmic events of Infinity War. Those events, while surely transient and at the mercy of comic-book backtracking, make the jaunty feel of many MCU films, including anything involving Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man, seem like the end of a tone that’s differentiated itself from darker superhero outings and endeared this lengthy franchise to its fans. Ant-Man and the Wasp may be something of a last hurrah for the MCU, a place where snark and repartee now no longer feel acceptable.
In its standalone offerings, the X-Men franchise has cracked the code on a formula that had gone stale. No more unformed ensembles and global stakes, like in X-Men: Apocalypse when hundreds of thousands died in a distant CGI churn and a gaggle of barely differentiated teens ganged up to stop the bad guy. Instead, Deadpool and Logan successfully kept things focused on their protagonists, with the former going meta and vulgar while the latter went tragic in a dystopian Western. That success is at stake in Deadpool 2, a sequel with twice the budget and an inability to surprise as easily after the fourth-wall tricks of the original. The film’s increased resources mean that the temptation to borrow from the X-Men’s vast roster of super-powered mutants is irresistible, diffusing Deadpool’s (Ryan Reynolds) charm. At the same time, the pathos of Logan, a film that Deadpool the character knows all about and often references, is another siren, calling for Deadpool to smash onto the rocks of an emotional rooting that he cannot possibly earn. Leitch and Reynolds, who gets a script credit along with original writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, sense these barriers and attempt to avoid them, but as Deadpool becomes a ubiquitous cultural icon, the commercial pressure to flatten him into another superhero archetype is too great to fully resist.
From Guardians of the Galaxy 2 through Black Panther, Marvel’s been on a roll through their last four films. They’ve started new stories and continued others, bringing in idiosyncratic directors, a broader audience, actual recognizable themes and allusions to the real world, and hardly a mention of the glowing Macguffin gems that dimly power the broader Marvel Cinematic Universe. With Avengers: Infinity War, that run and the entirety of a decade’s worth of interconnected entries, culminates in an intergalactic conflagration that functions like a season finale as much as it does a single film. Marvel’s rewriting the rules of what can be expected at the movies, and the test of Infinity War is if a single entry with 40 hours of prologue can be at all understood or appreciated for someone who isn’t interested in all that backstory.
If the Marvel Cinematic Universe were a network TV show, we’d be closing in on the season finale. By the time Avengers 4 comes out in the spring of 2019, that’s 22 feature length episodes in a series that acknowledges that TV is the medium with the more powerful cultural voice and therefore apes the format where possible. Sometimes there’s an overarching story that advances the larger plot, and sometimes there’s a bottle episode that reduces the scale and scope by focusing on one corner of the world. Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther is one of those MCU bottle episodes, shut off from the larger superhero world, and all the better for it. TV is for the living room and film is for the theater, and it’s refreshing when a studio can eschew the increasingly dominant model for a self-contained story. That Black Panther is also impeccably cast, richer than it needed to be, and a pleasure to take in doesn’t hurt either.
Phil discusses some big plot points for Avengers: Infinity War below the break. If you are metaphorically Captain America pushing back against the Thanos fist of spoilers, stay away.
Avengers: Infinity War is given a very difficult task in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). With a whopping 18 movies preceding it and already all but confirmed to be a “part 1” sort of movie, Infinity War had to juggle a dizzying number of characters and plotlines while also providing a satisfying self-contained story. We’ve seen the MCU attempt to tackle this before in Avengers: Age of Ultron. While that movie suffered from muddled confusion without a good central focus, Infinity War manages to involve more characters and more plotlines while avoiding the pitfalls that Age of Ultron fell into. “Infinity War” takes a different approach to the MCU structure and while it doesn’t stand on its own, it does solve many of the issues that have plagued the MCU and accomplishes its ultimate goal of setting up on epic conclusion to the original Avengers saga come 2019.
With Thor: Ragnarok, the last of three 2017 Marvel films, the dominant superhero studio fully commits to idiosyncratic directors instead of the workmen guns-for-hire they started their extended universe with. No more Alan Taylors or Louis Letteriers churning out empty eye candy. Instead, Marvel has turned the keys over to weirdos like James Gunn and the refined vision of Ryan Coogler, and their films are all the better for it. Taika Waititi, the director of Ragnarok, splits the difference between the two, borrowing the wacky space opera flare from the former and the stealth critique of great powers from the latter. Waititi also happens to be the strongest comedic director Marvel’s worked with, and it’s no surprise that he would make a raucous action flick on par with something like Midnight Run or Hot Fuzz. That Ragnarok can be so much fun while also being about something beyond capes and magic powers marks it as one Marvel’s best outings.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.