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Ant-Man and the Wasp

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While the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has its hands full dealing with the existential threat that is Thanos over in Avengers: Infinity War, Ant-Man and the Wasp deals with crises of an appropriately smaller scale: Evangeline Lily’s Hope Van Dyne/The Wasp (she is rarely if ever called by her nom de super) and her genius father, Henry Pym (Michael Douglas) need a gizmo to finish the “quantum tunnel” they’re building in hopes of rescuing Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer), mother to the former and wife to the latter, from the microscopic “Quantum Realm” where she was lost many years gone by. Black market technology broker Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins) has the widget, but he wants Pym’s own technology to sell to the highest bidder. The villainous – or is she? – Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), who can phase through solid objects, also wants the gadget for her own reasons. All reformed thief Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), aka Ant-Man, wants to do is run out the clock on the two years of house arrest he was sentenced to after the events of Captain America: Civil War. No such luck…

After seeing half the universe wiped out in the last Marvel big screen outing, the modest stakes of Ant-Man and the Wasp seem almost quaint. It’s not about saving the world, but about rescuing one person. We’re not up against the ultimate evil, but a shifty arms dealer and a rogue spy. The big prize is a few mended fences – Scott has been on the outs with Hope and Hank in the two years since we last checked in, and one of this film’s chief narrative arcs is him getting back in their good graces.

It’s actually refreshing, and for all that the Ant-Man films are goofy comedy capers, they’re among the more emotionally astute offerings from the Marvel stable. We might enjoy spectacle, but let’s face it – the idea of the end of the universe is pretty abstract. However, almost everyone can relate to wanting to amend for past mistakes, or be a good role model for your kid (Judy Greer, Bobby Cannavale, and Abby Ryder-Fortson are back as Lang’s family).

Which doesn’t mean we don’t get a healthy dose of effects and action, but it takes a while for Ant-Man and the Wasp to get there, only really kicking into gear with a rather great chase through a restaurant kitchen pretty late in the game. The Ant-Man schtick is a simple one – people and objects shrink or grow – but director Peyton Reed and his team certainly find it malleable enough to keep discovering new wrinkles – although perhaps the best is the office building/roller luggage bit seen in the trailers.

Still, the film’s real strength is its cast – it’s simply a lot of fun to hang out with Lang and his extended circle. Michael Pena’s Luis remains the comedic MVP, but only just; almost everyone gets a chance to crack wise, and the film is only a couple of degrees off being a straight-up comedy. Only John-Kamen’s angsty Ghost really gets to grips with the usual woe-is-me superhero self pity, and she’s got her reasons. John-Kamen’s turn here is pretty great, but as a character Ghost feels a little out of place in this sunnier suburb of the MCU. Similarly, Goggins’ villain hardly seems like a credible threat even when he’s having a sinister henchman dope people with truth serum. Ant-Man’s real nemesis is actually Randall Park’s ineffectual FBI agent, who’s assigned to keep tabs on him while he’s under house arrest – a guy so nice he moonlights as a youth pastor.

Happily, Ant-Man and the Wasp is so breezy and charming that what would be defects in a more self-serious film are assets here. Marvel movies sometimes have tonal issues resulting from trying to straddle the line between the comedic and the dramatic – the much-loved Thor: Ragnarok is notably guilty of this – but this latest effort solves that equation by all but jettisoning the dramatic. What we’re left with is a nimble, light and enjoyable jaunt that probably won’t make anyone’s Best Of lists, but is nonetheless hugely enjoyable in the moment.

 
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Luke Cage Season 2

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Following on from the events of last season and crossover series The Defenders, season two of Luke Cage (or Marvel’s Luke Cage if you prefer) sees the titular Hero for Hire (Mike Colter) settling into the groove of being Harlem’s champion-about-town. Old enemies are still around to make life difficult for him, chiefly politician-turned-crime-boss Mariah Dillard/Stokes (Alfre Woodard) and major-domo Shades (Theo Rossi), and a new threat arises in the form of Jamaican gangster Bushmaster (Mustafa Shakir), who wants to take Harlem for himself and has no qualms about employing horrifying violence to do so.

Which sounds like there should be plenty for our man to deal with this year, but unfortunately Luke Cage Season 2 is a fairly sluggish affair. It’s a show that absolutely shines in the details but fumbles the big picture, filling the screen with fascinating and vibrant elements of African American culture (the soundtrack, again highlighted by live performances at the nightclub Harlem’s Paradise, is all killer), but hampered by leaden pacing and an almost terminal lack of narrative direction. It’s always fun to hang out in Luke Cage’s Harlem, but this season it seems to have a real problem with figuring out what kind of story it’s trying to tell.

That’s weirdly appropriate in a way, as Luke’s main arc is figuring out what kind of hero he’s going to be. He spends a lot of time this season ruminating on his position in the community, and figuring how to get paid (Hero for Hire, remember?) without compromising his ethics – and he’s not always successful. In parallel, we get Mariah trying to negotiate her transition from political player to, ultimately, gangster, which is a rough journey and not as well written as you might hope. The series seems to have a real problem with understanding who Mariah is or who they want her to be, and as a result her characterisation is wildly erratic and inconsistent, lurching from calculating mastermind to drunken mess to aggrieved matriarch and back. Luckily Alfre Woodard is an absolute gun and remains eminently watchable even when the script doesn’t give her the support she deserves.

Season 2 also continues the grand Marvel thematic tradition of Oh No My Dad Was Problematic, bringing in the late, great Reg E. Cathey (this was his final role and the series is dedicated to him) as Cage Senior, a preacher who has been alienated from his son since the latter was jailed, and who blames the stress of that ordeal for putting his wife into an early grave. Mariah is also struggling with her legacy, trying to reconnect with her daughter, Tilda (Gabrielle Dennis) a doctor-turned-naturopath who has turned her back on the family legacy. Between this and season 2 of Jessica Jones that’s two instances of Oh No My Mum Was Problematic we’ve had from Marvel this year, which is some kind of blow for representation, we guess.

Still, themes of family, legacy and community run deep in Luke Cage, with pretty much every character directed by, or struggling to get out from under, generational issues – old debts, bad blood, family shame, cycles of violence and revenge. Even Bushmaster, a charismatic and ruthless villain with a nice line in capoeira kick-fighting, is driven by the desire for vengeance for crimes against his family. This is the good stuff – by grounding the action of the series in this palpable sense of place and history, the whole thing has a greater dramatic weight.

That weight does slow things down though – although perhaps that’s just Netflix’s insistence on sticking to their unwieldy 13 episode season plan, which we have griped about before. Once again, there’s not enough story to stretch over the 13 hour framework comfortably, and we spend a lot of time spinning our wheels or dealing with needless complications that don’t forward either the plot or the themes of the series. This is a problem endemic to the Marvel Netflix stable, and perhaps it’s no more prevalent than in most episodic entertainment, but given we’re encouraged to binge this stuff, it becomes all the more apparent and damaging in this context.

It does allow time for little detours and fun moments, though, and as we pointed out, it’s in these little details that Luke Cage sings. We get a few fun cameos from the broader Marvel Netflixiverse, and we get to spend a lot of time with tough cop and – since the events of The Defenders – amputee Misty Knight (Simone Messick), who refuses to let the loss of a limb slow her down (even if it is eventually dealt with in the most Marvel way possible). One of the most fun interludes involves Knight hanging out with Iron Fist’s Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick) and kicking an impressive amount of ass in a barroom brawl – this might be the closest we get to a Daughters of the Dragon show, but we’ll take what we can get.

Which is a good attitude to go into this one with. Luke Cage isn’t a bad show, but it definitely falls short of its obvious inherent potential. It’s entertaining enough and sports excellent performance scenes, but the whole thing doesn’t hang together as well as it should. If we’re getting a third season – and S2 leaves us in a place where that seems like a certainty – hopefully it’s a tighter and more focused affair. We’ve hung out enough – it’s time to get moving.

 

 
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Avengers: Infinity War

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And so the hour comes round at last. Avengers: Infinity War, the 19th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, functions not so much as a movie in its own right as the biggest season finale of all time, bringing together a huge ensemble of characters from across the franchise’s various series to battle the space tyrant Thanos (Josh Brolin) for control of the Infinity Stones that have littered the Marvel films since 2011’s Captain America. Thanos’ goal is to wipe out literally half the intelligent life in the universe, and when all six stones are housed in his gaudy Infinity Gauntlet, he can do it with a snap of his fat, purple fingers.

Now, if none of that made any sense to you, you may want to seek your cinematic pleasures elsewhere. It’s not that the price of admission is particularly high for Infinity War, but you must be At Least This Geeky to Ride; the film assumes a knowledge of and investment in pretty much the whole sweep of the MCU, and has little time to hold the hands of any newbies. There’s simply too much going on, and too many beats to hit.

That also means a fairly frenetic and disjointed pace while all the pieces are put on the game board, and it’s a really good half an hour before Captain America (Chris Evans) shows up, Alan Silvestri’s Avengers theme swells, and things really settle into a sweet groove. In the meantime, we have three plot strands getting set up and eventually woven together in the mandatory massive final act smackdown. After the Asgardian refugee ship is destroyed by Thanos, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) hooks up with the Guardians of the Galaxy (Christ Pratt, Zoe Saldana, et al) and goes off in search of a weapon capable of destroying the Mad Titan. When Thanos’ henchman, Ebony Maw (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor) attacks New York City, Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr), Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), and Spider-Man (Tom Holland) hitch a ride on a giant space ship and find themselves on Thanos’ home world. On Earth, Cap and the gang hole up in Wakanda with Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and Bucky/The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) in order to protect the android Vision (Paul Bettany), who houses the Mind Stone that Thanos seeks.

As befitting its title, Infinity War has a huge canvas and the way it cuts between vast cosmic panoplies, alien worlds, the majesty of Wakanda, and the decimated landscapes left in Thanos’ wake is dizzying to the point of being overwhelming. This is a film that is absolutely packed to the gills with spectacle and action, to the point where it almost doesn’t have time to breathe. The thing clocks in at a whisker under two and a half hours, and a longer cut on home release would be welcome not to jam in more chaos, but perhaps a touch more character time.

For all that, we do get some nicely observed, generally quickly sketched, character moments, though. Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts barely gets a look-in, but her relationship with Tony Stark, which has largely occurred off screen of late, has actually progressed the way human relationships tend to. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) and Black Widow’s (Scarlett Johansson) relationship has not, given Banner’s two years’ crackin’ skulls in the Space Colosseum, but we get a brief and trenchant moment there.  The relationship between Vision and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) is brought to the fore as the android argues that he should sacrifice his life to ruin Thanos’s genocidal plans, saying that his life is worth trading for the untold billions who will perish if Thanos wins (Cap, bless his red, white, and blue socks, will have none of that).

The film also gets decent mileage out of putting disparate characters together and letting them bounce off each other. Thor’s cosmic-level masculinity evinces jealousy in Star-Lord (Drax (Dave Bautista) decides he’s some kind of “pirate angel”), but the Thunder God bonds with Rocket (Bradley Cooper) over their shared sense of loss. Meanwhile, over on Ebony Maw’s ship, alpha dogs Doctor Strange and Iron Man, who for all their specific differences are damn near the same character in the broad strokes, butt heads over the leadership of their little team, which is never not fun to watch.

Yeah, the whole thing is a blast – which sits at odds with the often wrenching deaths of several major characters.

No spoilers here, but the body count in Infinity War is both significant and surprising. The sudden tonal shifts are essentially a genre feature inherited from the pages of the MCU’s source comics, which cheerfully bounce from action to comedy to pathos and back, to varying levels of success. Anyone with an eye on the broader MCU as both an ongoing narrative and a business has been in no doubt that some heroes would be left toes-up in the course of Infinity War, and that’s appropriate; a bloodless war is not a war. In execution, the effect of these deaths is… questionable. Or, at the least, variable. A couple seem arbitrary, cutting off character arcs that didn’t seem finished (then again, that’s what sudden death tends to do, right?). A couple are wholly dramatically appropriate and absolutely crushing. And the rest?

The rest seem temporary.

And now we must drift across the line into the Spoiler Lane just a little bit, because there’s something significant about Infinity War that must be discussed to put it into context as a film and as part of the overarching Marvel Cinematic Universe, which is as bold a filmmaking experiment as any, but has by this stage certain inherent structures and tenets which mean that we the audience should have, by rights, seen this coming. Bale out now if you feel the need.

Infinity War is Part 1 of 2.

This feels like a cheat, particularly given that Marvel/Disney have gone out of their way to tell the world that, while originally conceived as a duology, Avengers 3 and 4 are discreet, self-contained films. The viewing experience, however, is very much a Deathly Hallows or Mockingjay vibe – the story is left half-told. We’re left at the midpoint of the narrative, with everything left largely unresolved, and we need to come back in 2019 to find out what’s what. Now, to some degree that’s part and parcel of the serial nature of the MCU, but it’s never been done to this degree, and the result is that Infinity War is a great episode in the ongoing saga, as a distinct filmgoing experience it is at least somewhat unsatisfying.

And as for those temporary deaths alluded to earlier, that’s something the canny viewer picks up metatextually. We’re left at a narrative point where certain events are almost bound to be reversed – it’s just the way these stories work. This too is a hangover from the source comics. Death is very much a temporary condition in the on-paper Marvel Universe, and it’ll be interesting to see how this trope translates to the on-screen Universe and how it affects the emotional stakes thereof – self-sacrifice doesn’t mean much when there’s a spell or a widget or an Infinity Stone that can reverse the cost. And even putting those concerns aside, some of the casualties are just starting out in their own series – there’s just no goddamn way they’re leaving some of the fallen in the dirt for too long.

Which is not to say that Infinity War isn’t emotionally resonant. It packs a wallop, and if you’re invested in these characters and their stories, there are moments that are going to knock you back in your seat. Conversely, if you’re pretty much only here for the spectacle, you’ll get that in spades: the Battle of Wakanda is one for the books, and if you ever wanted to see a god kickstart a dying star, well, here’s your shot. Following in the footsteps of Thor: Ragnarok, Infinity War frequently goes full-on Jack Kirby, and that’s nothing less than a complete delight.

Infinity War also gives us a great, great villain in the form of Brolin’s Thanos, which comes as rather a big surprise. Largely relegated to glowering in the background in previous appearances, Thanos was looking like a bit of a risk, and possibly another addition to Marvel’s roster of weak villains. Instead, Infinity War goes out of its way to define Thanos as a character. Like all great villains, he thinks he’s right – his crusade to wipe out half of the universe is, to his mind, an act of mercy, a necessary evil, and a terrible burden he bears for the greater good. That’s a hell of a change-up; previously the Mad Titan came across as Ming the Merciless in purple warpaint, but now, along with Killmonger and Loki, he’s an upper echelon Marvel bad guy, and thank God for that – the last thing we needed was another Whiplash/Malekith/Ultron/name your poison.

Ultimately, Infinity War is not the stunning apotheosis of all that has come before, and that’s a bit disappointing. It is a hell of a lot of fun, though – an epic romp across the breadth of the Marvel Cinematic Universe with all the action, comedy, pageantry, and sturm und drang you could hope for. It’s so damn close to being an all-timer, though, and what galls is that it falls short of greatness due to the self-imposed demands of serial storytelling. The irony is that the very story model that lets us have a big screen Marvel Universe is what prevents its flagship event movie from being as transcendent as it could be.

You’ll still have an absolute blast, though.