To Infinity – And Beyond!

And so, after 18 movies over the course of 10 years, we come to the end of the current Marvel Universe. It’s all been leading up to Avengers: Infinity War, with teaser appearances by big bad Thanos (Josh Brolin) salted through several of the previous movies. There was a certain amount of peril inherent in this strategy. What if Thanos didn’t measure up on the big screen? What if the climax proved anticlimactic?

The good news is Infinity War truly adds an exclamation point to the previous films. While a Marvel film is a hugely collaborative endeavor with plenty of oversight from producer and Marvel president Kevin Feige, along with Marvel’s owner, the Walt Disney Company, they do balance involvement with allowing their directors and screenwriters to breathe. Infinity War benefits from having Anthony and Joe Russo in the director’s chair – well, chairs. The brothers had worked on TV shows like “Arrested Development,” “Happy Endings,” and “Community,” along with films like Welcome to Collinwood and You, Me, and Dupree, before helming one of the best Marvel movies, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and following it up with the equally exciting Captain America: Civil War. They’ve shown an ability to tap into emotional truth and convey complex plots while still making an exciting and engrossing film.

Infinity War boasts the full roster of Marvel movie superheroes with two exceptions – Antman and Hawkeye. The massive cast could have created a headache for anyone trying to follow the story. However, Marvel veterans Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (who wrote all three Captain America movies, as well as created “Agent Carter” for TV) subdivide the cast and the action. The story shifts between several locations – some familiar, some new – with a contingent of the cast in each locale. Think of a large, succulent steak dinner sliced up into bite-size pieces, and you’ll get the idea.

I won’t go into any specifics of the plot, since there’s too great a chance for spoilers – that is, if you happen to be one of the few people who haven’t seen the movie yet. It blew up the records for opening weekend gross for both domestic and international box office. It has been mentioned in the past, though, that Infinity War represented the end of the series of movies over the past decade, meaning that no character had their future assured. Markus and McFeely underscore that in the very first scene.

There had been some criticism of Josh Brolin’s Thanos, based on his brief appearances in the other films. Some thought the embodiment was cartoonish (you could say). However, those concerns are squashed in the opening scene of Infinity War. What’s unexpected, though, is the fine performance Brolin gives, even beneath the CGI embodiment. While he’s an obsessed madman on a galactic scale, there are moments of aching sadness and signs of humanity – hopelessly twisted, but humanity all the same – deep within him.

The main characters are well-established now, but there are standouts in the movie. Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man started the whole Marvel Universe, but he had his best turn as the character in Captain America: Civil War. The screenwriters build on that experience as he is faced with a devastating loss. Tom Holland is one of the newest members of the Universe, yet his Spiderman is a pivotal part of the story. Thor: Ragnarok was a huge success for Chris Hemsworth a few months ago, and that movie sets up a large part of the arc of Infinity War’s story as he goes through the classic heroic plot of recreating himself to face a greater threat than he’s ever faced before.

The trailer I’ve attached does feature one scene that doesn’t appear in the movie. That’s often a negative for films – think Twister – though in this case it was important to keep a plot point hidden. (When you see the movie, you’ll understand,) While you have to be aware to catch it, Markus and McFeely have also answered what happened to the Red Skull after the climax of Captain America: The First Avenger.

Marvel has turned tags at the end of their movies into an art form, and they usually feature two these days, though Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 was greedy and included six. Some are just fun, such as the last tag of Spider-man: Homecoming, but others build toward the next film or films. Infinity War has only one tag at the very end of the credits, but it’s a doozey, and leads directly to two films next year: Captain Marvel, with Brie Larson as the titular hero, and the still-untitled Avengers 4.

The only problem is, now we must wait a year.

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Captain America Rises

Of all the superhero series that have filled the screens of theaters – and filled the seats as well – the most pleasant surprise for me has been Captain America. The first movie, Captain America: The First Avenger, had a tinge of nostalgia that you don’t usually find in the genre, with the origin story set during WWII. It also had a compelling and semi-tragic love story between Steve Rogers and Peggy Carter; not many superhero movies leave you with a tear in your eye. Then came Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the best Marvel movie to date. So I was primed for Captain America: Civil War.

The movie was directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, the brother team who helmed Winter Soldier and who’ve been tagged to take over for Josh Whedon for the next Avengers movies, the two-part Infinity War. The script, based on the classic story by Mark Millar (who also wrote the base stories for Kick-Ass, Wanted, and Kingsman: The Secret Service), was adapted by Christopher Markus and Steven McFeely who’d done the previous Captain movies and are also doing Infinity War. While they each may not be Christopher Nolan, as a team they come pretty close.

As a result of an operation run in Lagos, Nigeria by Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Sam Wilson aka Falcon (Anthony Mackie), and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) that causes a large number of civilian casualties, Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross (John Hurt) delivers an ultimatum from the United Nations to the Avengers: submit to oversight by that organization or be declared outlaws. He has an ally in Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) who’s racked by guilt from the Ultron affair.

Rogers sees the other side, that political interference could prevent them from being effective or doing what they see needs to be done. Wilson supports him and they refuse to attend the signing of the accord. But then the conference is attacked and it appears to be the work of the Winter Soldier, Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan). Rogers believes Bucky is being framed, and with the help of Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp), Rogers tries to save his friend. But there is much going on behind the scenes with a mysterious player named Zemo (Daniel Bruhl) pulling strings in the background while pursuing his own agenda.

After several movies each, the main actors wear their characters as comfortably as their costumes. One of the pleasures of Civil War is the new kids on the block. Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) joins Team Cap and brings a welcome dose of snarky humor. For Team Iron Man there’s Spiderman (Tom Holland). The character has finally been repatriated to Marvel after fourteen years at Sony and five great to awful films, and Holland gives me hope the upcoming Spiderman movie will be the former rather than the later. Best of all though is Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), who’s out for revenge after his father is killed at the conference. Boseman is a powerful actor as he proved with 42 and Get On Up. Where superhero movies are often operatic in their emotions, Boseman dials it way down, which makes his performance all the more compelling. His own stand-alone movie has been announced for 2018, and I’m already looking forward to it.

It’s fun to see the consistency of the Marvel Universe. They brought back William Hurt as Thunderbolt Ross, the character he played in 2008 in The Incredible Hulk with Edward Norton. They also again have John Slattery as the older version of Howard Stark, a role he began in Iron Man II.

I’ve mentioned in previous reviews how hard it is to make a good third movie in a series. Lord of the Rings managed it by pretty much filming all three as one movie, and it had the benefit of having a trilogy as its basis. Even when the third is done well, the second movie is often the stronger. Nolan ran into that with The Dark Knight, which still is the pinnacle of the superhero movie genre. The Dark Knight Rises was excellent and a fitting conclusion for the trilogy Nolan planned, but it will always be overshadowed by The Dark Knight. The same goes for Star Wars. Return of the Jedi was a decent final chapter for the original trilogy, but it couldn’t match The Empire Strikes Back. About the only time the third movie in a series was better was Revenge of the Sith, but then it didn’t have far to go to outshine episodes 1 & 2.

Civil War falls into the same slot. It’s thrilling, has a deeper plot than most superhero movies, the acting’s first-rate, and it builds to a satisfying climax, but it couldn’t top Winter Soldier. So hang your expectations at the door and simply enjoy it for what it is, a really good movie.

The Legends of Legends

Thor: The Dark World begins as the original Thor did, with a look back at Asgardian history, but this one goes far enough that the story has become a legend to the people of Asgard. It tells of a time when the Dark Elves tried to use a weapon known as the Aether to destroy the Nine Realms. Odin’s father defeated them, and sent the leader of the Dark Elves, Malekith (Christopher Eccelston), into a suspended animation exile. The Aether was hidden, and then forgotten, except as a legend.

In the present day, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) returns from the Battle of New York with his prisoner, Loki (Tom Hiddleston). Then he and his inner circle of warriors – Sif (Jaimie Alexander), Fandral (Zachary Levi), Volstagg (Ray Stevenson), and Hogun (Tadanobu Asano) – set about to restore peace in the Nine Realms, including Hogun’s home world. Meanwhile, on Earth, things are getting a little crazy. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard has been arrested for dancing naked at Stonehenge. Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) is in England pursuing her studies, helped by Darcy (Kat Demmings), who’s now taken on an intern of her own. They find an anomaly in a warehouse in London, where physics no longer apply.

Jane doesn’t know the anomalies (and Erik’s behavior) are tied to a once-every-5000- years alignment of the realms, when the worlds can intersect for a brief period of time. Exploring the warehouse, Jane is transported to the spot where eons earlier the Aether was hidden. Unwittingly she releases it, and it invades her body. She returns to London after what seems to be a few minutes only to find that she’s been gone for hours and Darcy has called the police to search for her. When the police try to arrest them for trespassing, the Aether reacts violently to protect Jane. Thor returns to Jane at that moment and, seeing the power within her, takes her back to Asgard. He doesn’t know that the Dark Elves, awakened by the release of the Aether, are heading to Asgard as well.

While the first Thor was a tale of redemption on a Wagnerian scale (beautifully directed by Kenneth Branagh), The Dark World owes more to The Avengers with invaders from the stars threatening first Asgard and then Earth. The screenplay was written by the team of Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, who wrote the three Chronicles of Narnia pictures as well as the excellent Captain America: The First Avenger. This time they worked with Christopher Yost, who has written a number of recent animated adaptations of Marvel comics. The story expands our view of Asgard from the first movie, and overall it works well, though in the end it gets a little too clever for its own good. Branagh left after the first movie to do the reboot of Tom Clancey’s Jack Ryan series (in which he also appears in front of the cameras). Instead, the directing duties were given to Alan Taylor, who has mostly done series work with HBO, most recently on “Game of Thrones.” He’s a journeyman who tells the story well, though without the theatrical flash of Branagh.

One weakness of the first movie that is corrected this time is the horrible underutilization of Rene Russo. She had hardly any lines, but this time she plays a crucial part in the story. Stellan Skarsgard’s role as Erik Selvig goes way over the top with craziness, but somehow Skarsgard pulls it off. As in the first movie, Kat Dennings is wonderfully dry as Darcy. Hemsworth is a perfect physical specimen to play Thor with his blond locks and honed muscles. The story is more straightforward so his role doesn’t have the emotional resonance of the original, and the same is true for Portman’s Jane Foster. One does wonder why Thor is obsessed with Jane when there’s Jaimie Alexander in the picture. The most compelling character in the film is, not surprisingly, Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, as he tips between hero and heavy.

Overall Thor: The Dark World works better than one would expect and – with the exception of a too cute ending – it’s a satisfying experience. There are two tags: one midway through the credits; another at the end. The mid-credits one apparently is a set up for the next Avengers movie, with an appearance by Benitio Del Toro as “The Collector.” The final tag gives a bit of payoff to the Thor/Foster love story, along with a bigger payoff from an earlier scene in the movie. It’s worth waiting for.