Tag Archives: spoiler alert

Terrible Reviews: The Avengers, Infinity War (On Protagonism)

There’s a lot to be said about Infinity War that can’t be said without spoiling some of it. Based on the state of my local movie theater on Sunday morning at 10:30, it’s a little hard to swallow that anybody with a serious interest in seeing the movie hasn’t already seen it, but surely these people must exist.

I have thoughts that must be thought about the movie, though, so here’s the obligatory warning: here there be spoilers.

Furthermore, in the interest of not turning this post into a 3000-word monster, I’m going to break it up. Here, then, is the first installment. With extra spoilers.

On Protagonism:

Let’s get one thing clear: the movie is a thrill-ride. It’s hard to look away (and harder still to walk away, for example when your six-year-old in attendance has to go to the bathroom for the third time just when you feel yet another climactic battle looming) for fear you will miss something, and miss something important. The film is eminently watchable.

But from a narrative perspective, I found myself getting frustrated. Every time you start to settle into the groove with one of the bands of heroes (and the fact that there are multiple bands of heroes is maybe the first indicator that trouble is afoot), you have to cut away for an update on the other bands of heroes. There are at least three — and sometimes four — groups of heroes doing different things in different places until the final battle. And this is a Marvel movie, mind you, in full swagger, using every tool they’ve honed over the last ten years — every subgroup is rife with internal conflict between its members, cheeky one-liners, and hilarious deadpan.

In short (too late!), as an audience member, I am fatigued with protagonists. Who am I supposed to root for and identify with? Banner and his performance anxiety? Thor and his abs? Stark and Strange trying to out-Alpha each other? Captain America and his beard? I’ve seen almost all of the movies at this point, and each of these characters is lovable, so I want to root for all of them — but there just isn’t time. Because the cast is huge and the plotlines are tangled and far-reaching, the film is paced like a coked-out cockroach skittering for the sugar bowl. You can’t identify with a protagonist, you barely have time to recognize them in their shiny new duds (seriously, it’s like every superhero gets a costume upgrade in every sequel) before the movie is shuffling you off to the next thing like an overbooked tour guide. Character development? Forget about it. There are no less than a dozen heroes here — it’s enough work just to remember who’s doing what.

Very frustrating.

Until you shift your perspective.

There’s no consistency to be found amongst the heroes. Some are all business while some crack wise, some concoct elaborate schemes and others wing it. The movie even seems to shift in tone based on who you’re following at the moment. No, the consistency comes from the bad guy.

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Lurking behind everything that happens is the swollen, ill-proportioned face of Thanos. And once I realized that this movie is pulling a fast one on the audience, I became much more sanguine in my thinking about it.

Thanos is the villain. He’s also the protagonist of the movie.

Thanos hogs the screen time. Thanos has all the character development. Thanos chews on the scenery for every shot he’s in, and thanks to the magic plot devices, he’s literally hiding around every corner. Thanos, in other words, takes the hero’s journey in this movie. Every twist and turn that happens in the movie is centered not on the Avengers — a kicked anthill is as frantic and as useful as they seem to be in the movie —  but on Thanos.

He hears a call to action when his home world is plunged into strife, and goes on a quest to deliver the same peace to the entire universe (just, you know, not in the way we’d prefer). He meets a mentor character who helps him in his goal (Red Skull, we hardly knew ye!) He and his band of villains have all the try/fail cycles. (Didn’t get the time stone there, didn’t get it there — third time’s the charm.) He has to make sacrifices to meet his goal. And the final victory brings him within an inch of his life.

Thanos is the protagonist of Infinity War. And the filmmakers know this: in the closing credits, where we usually get the grim but reassuring message “The Avengers will return,” we get instead “Thanos will return”. That’s not just a cheeky jab to drive home the stake in the hearts of all the Loki fanboys (and fangirls. And the fanboys/girls of Spiderman. And Groot. And Black Panther. And and and YOU GET THE POINT). It’s an acknowledgement that this movie is not about what — or who — you thought it was.

Once you’re down with that, the movie becomes a lot easier to digest, narratively speaking. The quest we’re on is Thanos’s, and the Avengers — legion as they may be — are but speedbumps on the residential suburban street leading to the eradication of half the population of the universe. Our favorites are cannon fodder — occasionally seriously inconveniencing the real protagonist, but ultimately never really standing a chance. Which is the posture of all the villains in every other Marvel movie to date.

I’ll point out that this trick of the light only works because the filmmakers have pulled the cinematic bait-and-switch of turning the Infinity War story into two movies. When Thanos receives his comeuppance, as he must in the next chapter, Thanos’s current arc, which is riding the hero’s trajectory, will come crashing back down to reality.

But once you engage with the movie on its own terms (and failure to meet a story on its own terms is basically the biggest source of strife, not just in Marvel movies, but in any cinematic universe — I’m looking at you, butthurt Star Wars fans), it starts to make a lot more sense.

On Cliffhangers and the Season Finale of The Walking Dead

Spoilers below for the finale of The Walking Dead season 6. Be warned.

Stories are like missile launches. Somebody, somewhere, gets pushed out of their comfort zone, so they push a button. The symbol of their hurt feelings, anger, frustration or desperation goes sailing through this liminal space, there’s maybe some doubt about whether or not it will actually hit its target, then it either hits the target and blows it to holy hell … or it doesn’t.

That’s a story. Problem, struggle, solution.

Stories play with this simple but fundamental structure all the time, especially in the contemporary age of sequels and sagas and ten-book series and multi-season television dramas. Harry Potter, for example, hasn’t beaten Voldemort by any stretch at the end of Sorcerer’s Stone (or Philosopher’s Stone if you must) — that problem remains to be solved. He has, however, halted Voldemort’s plot in its tracks, found a long-lost magical artifact, and established himself as at least a passable wizard. Book one of Harry Potter sets up a lot of problems (is the stone real? what’s up with that weird professor? who were Harry’s parents and why did they leave him with the most horrible people in the world?). And Book 1 answers something like 90% of those problems (the answers are “yes”, “he’s possessed by Voldemort”, and “they were crackshot wizards themselves who died saving the world”).

To return to the missile metaphor, Rowling aims at the problem of becoming a wizard and finding out what’s up with this stone, fires, and obliterates her targets. Out of the rubble arises a new problemthough. The cliffhanger here is: Voldemort is not actually killed in the encounter with Quirrell, and he escapes to fight another day.

This is an acceptable cliffhanger. The critical moment has passed. Answers have been provided, and the cliffhanger establishes a new question that doesn’t need an answer right now, but rather gives us something to think about in the space between the book and its sequel (how will Voldemort strike next?)

Then, you have the unacceptable cliffhanger, like the one we saw at the end of The Walking Dead earlier this week. (You have seen it, haven’t you? This is the part where I cry SPOILERS and wave my hands frantically as you read on into the abyss.)

The entire season has revolved around a couple of questions: namely, can Rick’s group survive in their new community, and who the balls is Negan? Well, here comes our missile metaphor again: the writers take aim at these problems and push the button to deliver annihilation. Midway through the season, it seems the missiles have found their mark: a man claims to be Negan and the group kills him, and life seems to be stable (if not entirely safe) in the compound.

But then more threats are discovered, and we learn that the compound isn’t safe at all, and that Negan is probably still out there. This is well and good — we don’t mind that our missiles missed the mark, as we can always adjust mid-stream and launch again.

Which brings us to the finale. It answers our two questions, and thanks, at least, are due for that. Is Rick’s group safe in Alexandria? No, not even almost. Who the balls is Negan? He’s a leather-jacket-wearing, barbed-wire-wrapped-bat-wielding, ruthless but cultured sonofabitch. Okay, great, awesome. Targets fired at, and we have the answers to our questions, yay!

But then.

The ending.

Image is the property of AMC.

Negan beats the everloving hell from somebody, and presumably that somebody dies from his or her wounds (hard to argue otherwise from the camera angle that showed blood flowing into the victim’s eyes, not to mention that a blow to the top of the head like that — and I’m not a doctor or anything — seems like it would almost certainly shatter some vertebrae, if it didn’t simply split the skull like a vat of cottage cheese dropped from a tall building).

And we don’t get to see or know who it is. The show works really hard to establish that it could in fact be anybody who’s present at the encounter, except for Rick himself, who must bear witness.

That’s not a cliffhanger. It’s a cheap shot at the end of a boxing match. The critical moment is interrupted.

With the introduction of Negan, and the dire predicament that Rick and co. find themselves in, we have both the answers to the questions that got us here, and a question that will drive us forward into next season (now that they are so clearly outclassed, outmanned, and out-ruthlessnessed, how will Rick’s gang survive this?).

But then, the attack.

It pretends to be one of those questions that carries over to next season, but it isn’t. Because it’ll be answered in the opening minutes of episode 1 (or episode 2, the way this show goes — they’ll join some new ancillary character derping around in the woods for 90% of episode 1 then cut back to Rick and co. for two minutes before the credits). It isn’t a driving question, it’s a sucker punch to frustrate us and keep discussion alive through the off-season.

And I guess, at that, it’s functioning as intended.

Still, for a show that really handles itself well when it comes to surprising its audiences, this cheap shot feels especially cheap. Because you don’t need it. In fact, cut the episode either thirty seconds longer — showing us who dies to end the season rather than start the new — or thirty seconds shorter — leaving the attack as a shocker to open the new season — would be immeasurably more powerful, narratively speaking.

It feels like a flub, or worse, it feels like a calculated measure to frustrate the audience and get them trading enraged tweets on the net. It follows the Donald Trump election strategy — just get people talking about you, who cares if they’re saying good things or bad?

It sucks. It’s exploitative.

But I shouldn’t be surprised. They did the same thing earlier in the season, showing the apparent death of a beloved character and then cutting to alternate storylines for two episodes only to reveal that what we thought was that one guy getting devoured by zombies? Yeah, no, that was just sneaky camera angles exploiting our viewpoint, and it was the guy that our guy was hiding underneath that had his intestines ripped out, not our guy.

Shameful. Cheap. It insults the intelligence of the audience. I remember watching that moment and thinking, “I see intestines, and I see our character, but I don’t see the actual intestines coming out of his actual body. The show doesn’t shy away from stuff like that. What are they trying to pull?”

Audiences expect things from their stories. You play with those things at your own peril. And a cheap cliffhanger like this … that’s one you use before a commercial break to make sure folks sit through all the DiGiorno ads so they don’t miss the reveal. It’s not something you leave sitting on our stomachs for six months while we wait for the new season.

That’s long enough for audiences to decide they’re tired of your crap and move on to stories that don’t suck.

Like Star Wars VII. It’s out this week, did you know? I bought it twice, once for home and once for the office.

Anchorman? More Like Stankorman, Am I Right?

Apparently, even though I’m going to be writing about a movie that hit theaters months ago, I should still write SPOILER ALERT because I’ll be talking about a film that some of you out there may not yet have seen and may yet be planning to see, so that I do not ruin your cinematic experience.  So here you are: in the following post, I will be writing about Anchorman 2, and I mention some things that happen in it.  If this damages your enjoyment in any way, I assure you, it will only be in that I kept the film from disappointing you in its own right.

I should say outright that with only a few exceptions, I do not get mired in brands when it comes to celebrities.  Meaning, I have very little loyalty to one star or another.  Movie stars, larger than life though they may be, are at the end of the day simple human beings like the rest of us, and are therefore prone to making the same errors in judgment that the rest of us make.  What I do have is movie star brand disloyalty, which makes me avoid certain personalities like the plague (I’m looking at you, Seth Rogen.  Do you ever play a role that is in any way unlike every other role you have ever played ever?  Are they even roles?  Fie!).  That, however, is another blarg for another day.

So, no brand loyalty with a few notable exceptions.  I tend to be willing to try out anything featuring Leonardo DiCaprio.  (He’s just so dreamy.)  Sandra Bullock I find to be another safe bet.  See, I think this, and then I start to write about it, and then I start to actually analyze it, and I realize that these are stars which tend toward drama.  Comedy is a fickle beesting (more gouda there, use your imagination).  I don’t have any comedy loyalties.  I WISH I DID.  I really do.  I read a great quote a few years back from my Spirit Guide, Douglas Adams, about how comedy used to be like a delightful spring rainshower – rare, refreshing, and awesome – but recently it’s just everywhere, pooling in muddy puddles and just generally making you damp.  I mangled the words but I think I preserved the feeling.  Everybody does comedy now.  Even I am trying to do comedy of a sort here at the blarg.  You can find it anywhere, which means it’s no longer surprising, which takes away one of the critical elements of comedy.  If you expect something to be funny, you dramatically decrease the chance that it actually will be.

One of the reasons I specifically try to avoid Movie Star Brand Loyalty (MSBL) is that it leads to Crappy Sequels You Didn’t Really Need (CSYDRNs).   Hey, we made this movie featuring this movie star and it was hugely successful, let’s make another one to capitalize on it, HEY for that to work we need the original movie star back again, even if that doesn’t make terrific sense for the world of the story, but who cares because MONEY.

Which brings me to the point.  Wife and I saw Anchorman 2 this weekend past.

Allow me to clarify that I like (but do not love) the original Anchorman.  It’s absurd, satirical, nonsensical and, often, funny, but above all else it’s telling a story that’s worth telling.  You’ve got the idiotic Ron Burgundy, whose character flaws get him first into trouble, then fired, and his journey to atone for his mistakes drives the story forward until at the end he’s on top of the world again.  A nice, neat little Rags-to-Riches ride.  It’s got its bizarre moments – I’m thinking back to the scene where Ron and Veronica (?) hallucinate and go riding around on cartoon unicorns – but they are sprinkled in like raisins in a good raisin bread.  You don’t get one in every bite, so you appreciate it when you do get one (what a horrible simile; I mean, who likes raisin bread?  EW.).  The story holds the film together, and the absurd bits add flavor.  Not a great film, but a good one.  It works.  It meets commercial success.

So they make another one.

In this one, the co-star (and now, wife) gets promoted and Ron gets fired (again).  He breaks up with her over it (again).  He rounds up his crew and comes up with an all new way of doing the news (again).  There’s a brawl in a public park with rival news crews (again.  Granted, this bit is still funny, but only because of the sheer scope of actors they got to cameo in it).  There is absolutely nothing new in the story, which is the first stroke of the hammer.

Then, the absurdist moments that added flavor and texture to the first film are the backbone of this film, which is to say that the film moves from one nonsensical moment to the next without giving the audience time to catch its breath or figure out how (or in many cases if) the events they just saw connect to the whole.  Spoiler alert: they don’t.  Ron racially and sexually harasses the new black lady boss?  Nothing comes of it.  She gets mad and the story goes on.  Ron and his friends forget who’s driving the car and wreck it on the way across country?  Yep, next scene, there they are at work, no further mention of the car accident, no ill effects for any of the characters.  Ron loses his sight in a freak ice-skating accident (no, he didn’t put his eye out, he’s just magically blind now) and, while blind and in exile, rescues and raises a shark to maturity.  Do you think the shark ends up saving his life or playing any role in the story?  Perhaps saving him from a rampaging murderous squid-demon?  Spoiler Alert: it doesn’t.

Anyway, we watched this travesty of a film and then looked at each other and sighed a mutual disappointed sigh.  I honestly wonder if the film was made, not as a money-making venture (though it certainly made money, apparently it’s pulled in over $110 million now, per Forbes, which is significantly more than the original), but as a sociological experiment.  The premise of this experiment would be: How Bad Can We Make This Movie And Still Have People Come To See It?

The story writing is atrocious.  The character development and growth is nonexistent.  The humor is tepid.  (The funniest moment in the film, the cameo-laden park brawl, is freeze-dried and repackaged from the first with fancier celebrities — how they got Will Smith in there is beyond me.)  There’s a bit in there that’s almost clever wherein the film lampoons 24-hour news networks, but it’s over before it gets rolling.  It is, in short, a terrible movie on virtually every level that movies should be concerned with.

And it still made money.  Like, a lot of money.

I am of two minds about this.

First of all, Hollywood doesn’t give a steaming sharknado about its audience’s intelligence.  They will make what sells, which means pander to MSBL and make a movie we already recognize and don’t, DON’T, push the boundaries.  (How many Fast & Furious movies are there now?  Eighteen, right?  And aren’t we on Saw Forty-Seven?)

The second mind, however, is hopeful.

Because if a pile of fetid donkey turds like Anchorman 2 can be commercially successful, then maybe there’s hope for a schlub like me.

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