Tuesday, May 16, 2017

LOGAN - A Special Double Film Review



They're back on the prowl!

It's another blind double review from Ben and Rick, continuing their tradition of independent reviews and analysis. This time, it's the holophratic Logan.

You know the drill, soldier! Ben will be writing from Los Angeles, California, while Rick will be reporting in from the great state of New Mexico. We have not discussed the film or its production to ensure that our opinions remain our own. As is the intent of the blog, we will analyze the film from the perspectives of admirers of comic books, films, and modern storytelling.

SPOILER ALERT - Please be advised that these reviews contain detailed descriptions of plot, character and dramatic conclusion of the film. - SPOILER ALERT

» Ben's Review
» Rick's Review


Days of Future Future

Review by Ben Alpi

Wow, it’s been a while. I had to dust off the writing desk. A few weeks ago, Rick recommended I go see Logan, the latest outing for the “Wolverine” character and Hugh Jackman, and then we could write another epic double review. He said the film was unique among super hero films, and he wasn’t kidding! I had not planned on going to the theater to see the flick, I must admit that I have actually skipped all the previous Wolverine-titled films as well as X-Men: Apocalypse, but I do love working with Rick and I really like Jackman so, without seeing any of the trailers or any other reviews or spoilers about the film, the wife and I headed off to the theater.

The film, directed by frequent Jackman collaborator James Mangold, began by setting the stage. It seems films today toss you in the middle of the pool of action and expect you to start paddling. Logan does this to a degree by tossing you into a future world where you have to piece together where/when the film is set and how the players got to this point, but does more to inform you than some. In the first scene, Wolverine kills a bunch of guys who try to strip his limo. Yes, Wolverine is an Uber driver. Okay, times are tough. This set the stage as it tell us “yes, there is swearing and graphic violence.” And that Wolverine is not the fighter he once was. He’s coughing a lot. I figure they must be pulling in adamantium poisoning. Wolvie’s seen better days. Drinking heavily. He wants to buy a boat. Why?

We get the tone of the world through a series of shots of relentless Vegas-style limo-driving. Shallow people, thick traffic, and no respect for a man just trying to make a buck. It’s bad. It’s raining. It’s so bad and rainy, it’s Noir. A noir film is an interesting choice. Such films usually feature an anti-hero so, that makes sense. I could have done with a bit more backstory, I had tried to forget X-Men 3 for instance, but I was buckled in.

After illegally buying prescription drugs, Logan meets a man with a metal arm named Pierce (Boyd Holbrook) who has a business card. All the villains have them these days. Says he knows what Logan is hiding in Mexico. Okay. Logan thinks it’s weird and so do we.

Logan meets Gabriela (Elizabeth Rodriguez) and her daughter (Dafne Keen) who asks him for help. He refuses. This is the first time in the film Logan refuses to help someone. It’s not the last. Gabriela later ‘Uber’s’ Logan and claims that Pierce is after their daughter. Logan still refuses, but helps them anyway. I’m sensing a trend.

We finally (in a good way) learn who or what is in Mexico: Professor Xavier absolutely brilliantly played by Sir Patrick Stewart. Stephen Merchant, always great to see, plays Caliban, one of the few remaining mutants. There are illusions to some sort of catastrophe that befalls mutants. Also, there are implications that Xavier caused some trouble at some point and has to be sedated and kept away from people. When we finally meet Professor X, it’s a scene that is very, very well played by both actors, proving once again how amazing they both are. I felt every point and counter-point as the characters argue about Charles’ situation. As the film progresses, their relationship is one of the most touching that I’ve seen in a long time in the theater. Certainly the highlight of the film.

After a few more border crossings, the mother ends up dead and I suspect the daughter has stowed away in Logan’s limo. And she has. She is the mutant that Charles has been psychically connecting with, similar to how he used to use Cerebro. He says that they have to help her get to Eden, a supposed mutant sanctuary, but Logan refuses.

Metal Arm Guy, A.K.A. Pierce, arrives at the hideout. He’s here for the girl. Logan is tempted to give her up. She fights back though, piercing Pierce with a foot blade, and this is where we find out that she is actually a little Wolverine. As we learn more about her, I started to question how a child could have her bones covered in adamantium given how much and how quickly they grow. It’s a small point but one of those things that tends to bug me. So, like ole Wolvie, she’s the strong, violent type. Also silent.

They knock out Metal Arm Guy and tell Caliban to cover his photo-sensitive skin and dump him in the desert. Wait, what? You kill everyone else who stands in your way, but you don’t kill the guy who poses a clear and present danger? All right, but then you have someone who has no ability to defend himself, especially in the sun, go dump him? That is pretty dumb. And when the inevitable happens and Caliban is captured, I was left thinking that nothing but the plot required that Pierce survive.

An army of soldiery thugs, led by Pierce, descends on the hideout and an impressive, gritty battle ensues. It’s really creative and visceral, showing Mr. Mangold really knows how to do action.

That’s when we get to the ‘on the run’ part of the noir film. It’s actually kind of lovely; Charles, Logan, and the little girl on a road trip. We learn that the little girl is Laura, and Eden is from a comic book. It isn’t real. But Logan doesn’t tell Charles for several scenes, which is a bit odd. Perhaps he wants Laura and Charles to live the dream? Is Wolverine that thoughtful? In Vegas, they stop at a hotel and Charles and Laura share a beautiful scene as they watch the Western film Shane on the TV. As the glowing hero Shane speaks in one room, Logan drinks and coughs in the next. When the bad army finds them though, Charles uses a mind blast ability to hold everyone at bay. It’s a pretty intense and well done sequence with Wolverine swimming though people frozen in place to save Charles and Laura. We also find out what had happened with Charles previously—it was just such a mind blast, though involuntary, that inadvertently killed several people and forced him into exile.

He's not even supposed to be here today. (Clerks image ©Miramax)

Logan vacillates between being the reluctant son of a elderly father and the reluctant hero. It’s indelible throughout the film and gives a lot of reality to a comic book film. It is just so palpable that Logan just doesn’t want to be here today. We see flashes of the hero inside of him, but he always, always backs off to keep to the seemingly easier side of not getting involved. But he consistently gets involved anyway. For a character who at this point has probably lived 100 years, Logan still doesn’t know who he is. He rejects people but also looks for himself in them. That is the tragedy of the character. He wears the mask of a vicious man, but what he really wants is to be free of his demons and be surrounded in friends who love him. He’s also always searched for a woman to love him, flawed as he is. Logan is a very passionate character and that’s at least partly why he always gets himself into trouble. He is certainly ruled by his passions and really needs a support network to keep him on the straight and narrow. So, I can see how the situation of this film could come about. This is pure Logan at his most unhealthy.

Back on the road, we’re introduced to robotic trucks from a big bad corporation. The corporation seems a bit shoehorned in because they’re really only there to supply Laura’s setup. I might have liked it if the story was more about the corp and its bad-for-you manufactured goods. It would have made for a much larger story though which probably wouldn’t have worked in this personal sort of film, however.

We learn that the corp, headed by Dr. Rice (Richard E. Grant), has been creating test tube mutants using DNA harvested from powerful mutants years back. This includes Laura who was created using DNA from Wolverine. Mr. Mangold and his Director of Photography John Mathieson, use an effective trick where instead of ‘microfilm’ or incriminating photos, they use video recorded on a smartphone to tell us all about the secret facility and the plight of the children. Tidy, quick, and logical.

The trio escapes to a country home where they are surrounded by a kind, loving family. They have a wonderful time and Charles tells Logan it was the finest evening he has had in years. Then, in the biggest twist of the film, Logan unceremoniously murders Charles. That can’t be Logan! You’re right, it’s not. He’s a clone created by Dr. Rice. The Not-Logan, as real-Logan soon finds, then murders the whole kindly family. Jesus this is dark.

Dr. Rice has arrived and has brought his latest creation, thanks again to Wolvie’s DNA, and the clone is pretty much an uncontrollable animal version of Logan in his prime. Another battle begins, Caliban commits suicide in an attempt to blow up Pierce. Wolverine and Laura, and half-dead dad Will (Eriq La Salle), lay waste to the whole shebang with a huge fight with Not-Logan. Finally winning the day, Logan manages to return to Charles before the professor succumbs to very terrible wounds. In an very touching scene, Charles believes they have made it to the boat and dies in Logan’s arms. Wolvie and Laura drive off with Charles’ body. Wait, what? They drive off? As in leave? As in leave Rice and Metal Arm Guy alive? This is the point of the film when I became very conflicted. On one hand I was hit hard by Charles’ death. The heart wrenching death of Logan’s adopted father, while in his care no less, and his last connection to the life he spent years building out of nothing. On the other hand, there is no way Logan would leave Pierce and Rice alive. I tried to rationalize that perhaps Logan didn’t know or thought the cops were coming… but no. The only reason Pierce and Dr. Rice survived was to serve the plot. (Again.)

Logan buries Charles in another quite touching scene. Logan is at wits end. His rage consumes him. Everyone he knew, everyone he loved, all of his friends, are now dead. He can’t help but blame himself. He’s alone. He wanted to die before. Now he’s certain. And he nearly does. But, in an incredible show of inner strength, Laura pulls him back together. For forever or for one last hurrah? Signs point to the latter. He said he would help her get to Eden. But it’s fake, he tells her. But still, all her friends from the project are going there, too. Indeed, a surprising number, perhaps even all of her friends survive the journey.

They get to Eden and, again, Logan is ‘There you go, have fun. I wasn’t even supposed to be here today.’ But almost dies. The children take them in and nurse Logan back to health. No one points out that any of the children failed to make it. That seems odd in a film of such reality. Also, that would mean the corporation must have concentrated their forces on getting Laura? Ostensibly they were supposed to send guys after all the kids, but we really only learned the whole backstory a few scenes back. And it does seem that they were at least spending the majority of their resources, including Not-Logan, on just her. Rice even came down, taking a personal interest. Why is that? Seems the plot had a hand in that decision, too. I do get the feeling that some rewriting happened, however. Perhaps this whole ending was new (or old)? Was the original ending too dark? Because from this point on the story feels like it’s from a different film. We’ve spent so much time scraping, clawing, bashing, and slashing our way through an ultra dark, ultra real world to get to this point, and suddenly the film becomes somewhat formulaic. The kids idolize Logan and I could see him taking a page from Charles’ book and becoming their teacher; and teach them how to avoid following in his footsteps. But, after everything, EVERYTHING, still he rejects Laura and the kids. His one desire being to be set adrift again. Really. After the life you’ve lead, going through this whole film, and the children representing all you have left in this world, you’re just going to give up? I understand that Logan is an anti-hero. Friends of mine when I was young loved how much of a badass he was. They respected his gruff, no-nonsense, fly-in-the-face-of attitude. I liked him a lot too, especially his sense of honor, but they also liked the violent version of him that developed over time and I didn’t. I liked the Chris Claremont version and Claremont wrote some of the toughest, emotional stories ever in comics. But there was always a sense of doing the best you can under the circumstances. And I think the Wolverine character works best as part of a team and with a foil. He always seemed to pick up strays like Shadowcat. Although I was interested in following him in his search for his past, I found his solo stories a bit too dark. So I’m sure that you, dear reader, can understand my reaction to this rather dark film.


Reminds me of a favorite Calvin and Hobbes, click to read it »
(image by Bill Watterson, ©Andrews McMeel Universal)

So, the kids do exactly what they said they’d do and leave Logan behind. He seems surprised, which is odd. By the way, the kids shaving his face was fun, but also added to the sadness. Sort of putting the cherry bomb on the cake of all that Logan has lost since the glory days. And of course the bad guys have found the kids, which we knew would happen, and Logan is compelled to get involved again. He runs headlong into the final battle with the help of a super serum the corp has developed—which we are told a half dozen times how it will wear off and when it is indeed wearing off. The kids, who have been relentlessly trained in combat, run and run and run and don’t use their powers against their oppressors. Finally, with Logan in the fray, they begin to fight back. Pierce is there, Rice is there, Not-Logan is there. Rice is dispatched quickly and easily, as he should have been a quarter of an hour ago. Not-Logan is left for Logan as the children gang up on Pierce, their assumed tormentor, to capture and murder him.

Now, the kids in this film deliver some pretty good performances. But, Mr. Mangold doesn’t quite get genuine performances all the time. There are some cheesy bits to Laura’s brooding, but she’s pretty darn good. Although, I was finding myself asking why she was so broody. Logan brooded because he was a man without a past. His only memories were only fragments of being violated by doctors who took advantage of him and his abilities. He belonged nowhere and had animalistic tendencies—all of which pushed him to be Mr. Broodyface. For certain, Laura had cause to be unhappy and angry, but as a youth who never lived outside the lab, she had no context to know how terribly she was treated. Still, she can be a dark child so, no real worries there, I just felt she was trying to mimic Hugh’s Wolverine a bit overmuch. It felt a bit gimmicky. To avoid mimicry, I might have asked Miss Keen to watch lion and other predator documentaries. To study not just the movements of cats, but the reasons behind their body language and the way they live.

Still, she did a really good job. The other kids did not do so well, however. There were some shots of them I didn’t think were genuine, but when they crowded over Pierce as they killed him, I was tossed straight out of the film. They ‘looked scary’ in a goofy kids film sort of way. In other words, they were caught acting in the very serious climax of this very serious film. There is no room for goofiness when committing a murder. The big battle at the end was already feeling trite and even a slight misstep is amplified at this point in a film. In screenwriting, it used to be the middle that was the hardest to figure out. These days, it seems the ending is the hardest as so often now it’s thrown away and the audience is already grabbing their coats before the credits roll. The film industry blames video games and Facebook for slower attendance growth but I think it’s all about how you leave the audience at the end. One mistake can erase a history of success.

So now, we are dragged to the conclusion of the film that we know is coming but don’t want to see. The hero of millions of children young and old killed by a mindless, raging animal skewered on a tree. Without a functioning healing factor, there was no way Wolvie will survive. So, surrounded in children who never got to have a childhood, a mugger runs at us to steal ours. One of the children who helped bury Logan held a large toy figure of the character. Very meta. The children wept, but they didn’t really know Logan. They were completely unable to understand or truly be affected by who it was they were burying. But we know. We are Logan’s lost family and friends. We who cherish him and are left asking “Why?”

And to the gruff tunes of The Man in Black, the lights came up in the theater. No one cheered. No one even spoke. Eventually, the stunned silence was broken but only in short, quiet utterances as people dried their eyes and slowly started to rise. I had not realized that sitting in front of me was a teenage boy and his father. The teen wiped the tears from his cheeks. Poor guy, I thought. It was like they really did kill Wolverine and I felt a pang of anger. How dare they kill this kid’s hero. I at least had the bulwark of years watching and reading about the character to reassure myself that this was only a ‘what if’ story.

As my wife and I walked out the theater I told her I was really touched by Logan and Charles’ relationship. She wasn’t, she said. I said that I felt the filmmakers made exactly the film they wanted to, but it’s isn’t really the kind of film I enjoy watching. I spent the rest of the day in a funk. I was sad, perhaps even in a sort of mourning. A film hasn’t affected me that much in a long while. I also fretted about what Rick would think when he found out I didn’t totally like it! My wife and I spoke off-and-on about the film, the choices made, the plot, and the internal logic, as I tried to fight off the doldrums. So much sorrow. Why would anyone want to watch, let alone make, a nihilistic Wolverine film? What was the moral learned? To reject everyone in need except when the guilt of not helping poses a greater threat? Was it out of love that he helped Charles, or was it because he couldn’t avoid feeling obligated? Was he simply paying a penance or was he actually trying to escape? These are not the qualities of a hero. Selfishness is not what we want to teach our children. The film successfully posits that, left to his own devices, Logan would self destruct. But didn’t we know that? Isn’t that why he’s a compelling character—not because he will self destruct, but because he has the courage to reject that part of himself? This film essentially gives in to the Dark Side. This is why I think the filmmakers were successful, this is the noir film they wanted to make. And to make a film of that genre, there are indeed certain elements one must add—and so they did, in spades. I have to applaud Mangold for an amazing effort, except for the ending. The baddies did get their comeuppance, but do we feel that Logan has really made an impact on his world? I suppose if Sony was interested in creating a whole clone-based X-Men franchise, this would be one way to do it. But, I want to see my heroes on the screen, not imitations of them. I have always felt a little cheated that all the X-Men films have essentially been Wolverine films with my favorite characters Storm and Cyclops completely stereotyped and sidelined. Although, X-Men: Days of Future Past is one of my favorite films of 2014. The chance that First Class director Matthew Vaughn was given to reboot the franchise is one I would have loved to have. But that film lacked a solid emotional backbone and seemed not to understand the plight of mutants—and certainly not X-Men as allegory. Wolverine was recast as Magneto whose powers only worked as the plot dictated. This is a big beef with me. When storytellers establish the magical system of a fantasy world, but change the rules whenever they need to serve their plot. (Why didn’t Obi Wan Force-run and save Qui-Gon?)

Logan was a powerful, gritty film that tried very hard for realism. It mostly succeeded there, but it may have been meant more to the initiated and would have benefitted from more explanation in parts. Not everyone knows about adamantium poisoning, for instance, or can recall the previous films when they were alluded to. I don’t know if Pierce was from the comics or not—if he was, perhaps knowing more about him would have made him more than a cardboard villain. Rice was even more two-dimensional except when he appealed to Logan about giving Charles up. That was good and you know Logan was again tempted. With such flimsy antagonists though, I have to wonder if Logan’s Selfish Side was the true villain of the piece. There were some logic issues, as I mentioned, and I do have to wonder if they could have chartered a plane and skipped the road trip (the cost wouldn’t have dented the boat money) but, that’s not noir. Speaking of, I’m fairly sure the makers are the first to make a contemporary noir super hero film.

I’m not sure I would recommend this film unless I put it in the context of “It’s a what-if.” But even then, it is a tough movie to watch. Perhaps not as tough as The Road, but I don’t think I’ll see either film a second time. Great action, amazing performances, but so much sadness, murder, and violence. I think this is a time we need to look up instead of down. I’m done with having to take a dose of guilt and pessimism with my heroes. In Captain America: Civil War, the heroes were made to pay for damages they didn’t incur. Why? Because the socio-political climate of our times says we shouldn’t look up to people who are trying to use their extraordinary powers and intellect to help people? I think showing the pitfalls, like the creation of Ultron in Avengers 2, is totally valid, but at least use logic to make it make sense. Make it reflect our own society and show us how such injustices might be rectified—or simply that trying to rectify injustice is worthwhile. Perhaps the anti-hero parts of characters like Ironman and Wolverine are tantalizing to all our vengeful sides, but if they don’t force themselves to reject their dark sides, then they are villains. Superman and Captain America are the opposite of these characters and for it, they’re called boring. Are they, though? Or is it that these naysayers themselves are simply unable to imagine exciting stories with these characters? Millions of people around the globe watch It’s a Wonderful Life every year. Why? George Bailey is Superman, he is Cap. People watch it every year because it is a vindicating story that shows how a man can stand up to indifference and malice in his own community and do what he can for the greater good of all people. Is he, or any of these characters perfect though? Of course not, George has very serious doubts and he regrets not being able to leave town or fight in the war, and that makes him human. I don’t think it’s the super powers that make any comic book hero great, it’s the connection I can make with his or her humanity. X-Men are outcasts who go through a life-altering change at adolescence which speaks directly to any young person and that never really came out in the films. It’s not just about mighty mutants duking it out, it’s about people similar in their differences banding together for a cause greater than themselves. To help humanity, not just battle Magneto. That’s an incredibly powerful story and one reason why the comic book has survived and thrived.

It has become my mission to direct feature films that bring back a sense of optimism. I don’t mean unrealistic cheese ball films, I mean stories that accept that we’re imperfect and don’t dwell completely on that imperfection. That shows we can still do good in a world that constantly tries to tell us we can’t and why we shouldn’t. Wolverine is not dead. The fate we have seen in this vision of the future is not set. We can change these events and with this knowledge Logan can unlock this chain of events and avoid this bleak and terrible end. If we have the will to make it so.

I’d like to thank Rick once more for inviting me to team up with him for another titanic review. Thank you for reading and let us know what you think in the comments! As always, stay safe out there.

Ben Alpi
Los Angeles, California
USA



Litigating the Logan Act

Review by Rick Arthur

It slices. It dices. It juliennes. Order now and you will get a second one for free! It is three AM in America and the combination of alcohol and tiredness are making this offer seem really appealing. Operators are standing by. The tenor is exciting. We collectively reach for our credit cards and dizzily punch in the numbers on our phones.

I did not fall in love with Wolverine right away. I was introduced to him in what seemed the endless summer days of my youth through the magic of Hulk comic books. I just loved Hulk at that time and I think Herb Trimpe was the main artist. The particular issues with Wolverine were fun but I was much more fascinated by the Wendigo character. This was Hulk numbers 180 and 181. It wasn’t until later when Wolverine appeared in a backwater comic called X-Men that I sat up and took notice. I had read and liked some of the earlier X-Men comics but was not overly smitten. I was a kid after all. When I picked up issues 94 and 95, I was excited by how different it felt from the other comics I read. I loved the Russian Colossus character with Thunderbird and Wolverine coming in second and third. The Dave Cockrum art was crisp and solid and I can picture that classic cover with my eyes closed, the characters spilling out of an exploding plane to their comic book melodrama doom. Not a usual introduction. In issue 95, Thunderbird dies. At the time I was confused by this but attracted at the same time. He was one of my favorite new characters. This was really just a clue that the X-Men title was going to be something different, more “real” and that was fine by me. Wolverine stepped out of the rubble to become my favorite character.

Not much later in the comic book series, Cockrum left to be replaced on art by some guy named John Byrne. The art style totally changed as did the pacing of the book. I think the writer, Chris Claremont, was just picking up steam. The “All-New, All Different” X-Men was propelled by some of the greatest storytelling to appear in serial comics. Wolverine was decidedly different than all the rest of the team and took a huge step forward in my imagination. He was feisty, a bad ass before that became the accepted norm for all comic book heroes. I think most importantly there was a mix of violence and mystery about the character that grabbed my attention. Claremont also did something clever that helped a lot of people identify with that X-Man. Wolverine had trouble communicating his feelings and was a bit socially awkward in that regard, more than mildly passive/aggressive. This was a perfect way to tell stories to budding teens who struggled with the awkwardness of growing up. The hook was in my young mouth and I bit. I would follow Wolverine for many years after this under the collaboration of countless writers and artists. The character never strayed too far off my emotional radar.

Flash forward to the X-Men films. I was like a lot of fans who were skeptical that one of their favorite comics could be adapted successfully to the big screen. Marvel had not had a lot of success up until this point in the cinematic universe. I didn’t love the movies but they had charm and much of that was provided by the Wolverine character brought to life by Hugh Jackman. The Australian actor made the role his own through a long series of appearances as Wolverine in the X-Men franchise. He got some of the movies’ best lines of dialogue and most intense action sequences. Multitudes became converts to Wolverine by seeing him on the screen. He lived, breathed, and clawed his way into our collective movie-going conscience. Jackman is a pretty talented guy and I loved him in the film adaptation of Les Miserables opposite Anne Hathaway and Russell Crowe. I hope he will continue to entertain with less stunt-filled roles after his superhero gig is finally finished although I can’t picture him not doing cameos of one sort or another.

I want to divide my review of the film, Logan into two (or more) parts. One part will be about discussing the plot, characters, effects, and overall story. The other part will be in poking into some of the themes and ideas in the film. There are a lot of potential threads to pull on and I am sure I will only be as comprehensive as my time allows. I feel my purpose here is to put a certain end cap on my personal relationship with the character, one I have grown up with who deserves my consideration. The Logan film is perfect for the continuing discussions my friend filmmaker Ben Alpi and I have about modern myth making. If you have read this far and don’t realize that this review will be full to brimming over with spoilers, excuse yourself now. For the rest of you, pop some popcorn and grab a frosty beverage and settle in. We are going to the movies.

I am going to start my review of the movie, Logan, with a quick look into the violence portrayed onscreen and the difference between showing and implying violence. This film is rated “R” presumably for violence although we get a gratuitous flash of flesh from a member of a wedding party. A lot has already been written about the fact that this particular film has an “R” rating compared to all the other movies in the franchise. Yes, of course, now the filmmakers can fill the screen with the kind of over-the-top hyper-killing and blood spatter that have been commonplace in other genres for a long time. Wolverine can now be depicted for “real,” for what he would really be like in all his gory, visceral detail. There are three distinct reactions I have to this. First, to most film fans, the level of violence in Logan is not new at all. This depiction of Wolverine does not raise any kind of bar as far as being horrific, impactful, emotional, and it certainly doesn’t bathe the audience in blood like The Shining, Carrie, Hellraiser or 300. The Christian Bale serial killer flick, American Psycho uses more gallons of blood.

Under the direction of James Mangold, Logan hovers somewhere on the violence depiction spectrum slightly above what we are used to with the onscreen Wolverine character and far, far below the stylized graphic violence of modern horror films. No lines were really crossed. Nothing new was really shown or added. No boundaries were redrawn. A thoughtful examination will tell you what you already know. This violence was not in service of the character or the story. Showing “more” added absolutely nothing to the emotional content of this film. Nothing. Let that sink in for a minute. During the entire run of films with Wolverine, we are told and it is suggested how out of control, violent and berserk this character is as a part of his identity. Graphic depictions of beheadings and real time amputations seem more than a bit tame as presented here. They do not shock in the slightest since all previous efforts took great pains to imply the goriness which in Logan are actually shown. Since all the characters are grim, stoic, and half robotic to start with, there is little or no emotional value expressed and the result is no context for the violence.

One of the scariest things I ever saw on film occurred in the Jeff Goldblum film, The Fly. The horrific consequences of a man having fly digestive acid dissolve his arm was harrowing to watch. The camera does not pull away. A friend commented to me about Logan by describing the violence in a sort of shorthand that is all too common. “That’s what I would have done.” Yet, violence is generally without reason, an instinctual rather than reasoned response. There is no thinking taking place, only action/reaction. You honestly won’t know what you will do in a violent situation until you are in it. Past is also not necessarily prologue. One of the important things soldiers are conditioned for when training for war is how to dehumanize there feelings toward the violence they will encounter in combat. You don’t want people to freeze on the battlefield. You want programmable assets.

Talk soon revolved around a single particular scene in the film. Professor Xavier has slowed down every human being in the radius of a casino hotel. Wolverine, pushing with great force against invisible energy, inches toward an armed bad guy who has just enough time to notice Logan out of the corner of his eye. That feeling of being trapped, seeing danger coming, and knowing you will die but being unable to avoid it is a powerful producer of fear. It is like having full awareness as you smash through the windshield of your crashing car.

Much of the physical action in Logan involves the title character cutting, slicing, dicing, puncturing, lopping off, disemboweling, or beheading his enemies. We are lead to believe that this is the result of something called a berserker rage, an overpowering aggression that consumes all rational thought. It is meant as a state that represents man’s banal, murderous impulses run amuck. I would think of it as the ultimate in loss of temperament, a purely chemically fueled orgasm of rage which would blot out anything rational. I suppose that it might be like describing and in a sense condoning psychotic breaks so severe that people died horribly because of them. Let the smoke clear. Warriors would transform themselves into an instinctive state that allowed them to kill in battle both passionately and dispassionately. Other than Norse or Germanic mythology, I am pretty sure this has never been a heroic virtue.

Logan is described often in the comics as possessing this “animal” trait. In the comics, he is depicted as entering this wild, uncontrollable state and not being able to return to normalcy until his thirst for violence was abated. It was suggested that friend and foe alike would tremble in the presence of the Wolverine in a berserker rage. John Byrne often drew the character as a dervish of unleashed killer instincts capable of great destruction and coming out of battles sweaty, spent, and dazed, looking more than a bit drugged. I am somewhat reminded of Mel Gibson’s overwrought character Riggs embodied by manic, violent outbursts then transforming back into his dispassionate self when the action was done. Jekyll and Hyde. Hulk and Banner.

For the film Logan, I wonder about this depiction of the Wolverine character. Sure, he has endured a lot and acts broken and wizened but it appears as though only injections can return him to his frenzied fighting form. Otherwise, his character is shown to be as rational and in control as you could want, though in the same breath depressed, decaying, and conflicted. He even takes on the role of caretaker to Charles Xavier and the man-made mutant named Laura. Logan yearns for isolation from his horrific memories. Perhaps a boat out on the ocean away from every living being except Xavier whom he keeps alive will sooth his anguished soul? The death of Xavier severs Logan’s link to the past and the girl Laura remains Logan’s only link to the future. She is like the open door at the end of a long, dark hallway offering a glint of hope. I am reminded of two scenes in film that use the same device. One scene is from The Professional where the character Leon comes preciously close to fighting off an entire SWAT team and escaping into the sunlight through an unguarded back exit. For a second, there is hope. Secondly, it is the paranoid thriller The Parallax View starring Warren Beatty which finds his reporter character maneuvered into an assassination plot where he becomes the scapegoat. There is only that open door leading to the sunny, normal outside world which causes him to run. In both The Professional and The Parallax View, the main characters are manipulated into making a fatal choice.

Hugh Jackman takes his final solo X-Men turn as the title character in a much more complex performance than the grunting and smirking that has been previously required. The script suggests a great deal more deliberation and visceral acting from him. What is suggested onscreen is a sad tale of an invincible warrior whom carries the ghosts from his tortured life with him. This is the end. His character is desperate to have his pain expiated and Logan is at the weakest and most vulnerable in his long life. Logan is beset by crippling “post traumatic-style” emotional conflict which is killing him. His legendary healing factor is sputtering. Wounds won’t heal. Claws won’t extend. He carries scars as hideous reminders of his physical and mental battles. He longs for release but clings to the Professor as a drowning man in the ocean to a raft.

Does he have any more fight left in him? We get real hints of darkness. Is he having suicidal thoughts? Uncontrollable nightmares? Does Logan keep a dying demented Xavier alive simply to access his own memories and take his pain away? When he meets Laura, the relationship becomes a little like that of Brad Pitt’s Louie to Kirsten Dunst’s Claudia, the child vampire. The director and screen writers would love to have the audience view this film as an updated, mutant spaghetti western. There are great pains made to insert Alan Ladd and the movie Shane as well as accepted gunfighter motifs like the deserted town and the lonely train tracks out in the middle of nowhere. Snippets of dialogue echo classic films. The cinema violence in Logan reminds me briefly of samurai films, the beheadings of Highlander, or Clint Eastwood taking a near-death beating only to come back for vengeance. Yet, at this distant point, what is Wolverine fighting for? What does he believe? What motivates him to continue to roll out of bed, his super mutant abilities betraying him in an orgy of rotting flesh, unable to heal? Why does he live?

In mythology, Sisyphus is condemned by the gods to labor at the rewardless task of repeatedly pushing a large rock up a mountain and having it roll back down once reaching the summit. Wolverine is similarly burdened but his rock are his sins, his guilt, his regret, his memory, his anguish and his pain of loss. An invincible, immortal being must be broken, humbled, and made mortal. His flesh must rot and time must be his constant enemy. The body must become weak in order to make way for the renewal of the spirit. This is an old idea which was popularized by Joseph Campbell in his book, The Hero With A Thousand Faces. The struggle for Logan’s redemption is indeed a hero’s struggle. The endless acts of evil he has done in an eternal life has both withered and twisted his spirit. The blackness has touched every part of him, corrupted everything noble about him and burned everyone he has ever touched or loved. Wolverine can no more run and hide from his past than he can escape his indestructible adamantium bones or his regenerative, animal flesh. It is a nightmare, a curse, a warrior forever trapped in the post traumatic stress of his countless violent deeds. He carries with him a single adamantium bullet. For what dark purpose does he hide it away? For what future, desperate moment?

In a previous film, Wolverine kills the Deadpool character by cutting off his head. Those laser eyes cut a death spiral path down the inside of a collapsing nuclear cooling tower. It is as though Wolverine had triumphed over the snake-haired Medusa. A single adamantium bullet to the head wipes out his memories even as he emerges victorious in battle against a bogey man foe swiped from Logan’s id, an amalgamation embodying the sum of his relationships grafted into a super-powered Frankenstein’s monster called Deadpool. That bullet to the head is the adamanitum gift of release, the gift of peace of mind, the chance for a rebirth of his spirit but it carries with it a most terrible price.

Logan’s brain heals his past. There is no hope for wisdom. No lesson is learned. The rock has rolled to the bottom of the mountain again without victory or achievement. It is a cruel reset of his emotional condition and he will be tricked again into an endless cycle of loving and losing of pain and suffering. In this current film, as he contemplates this kept bullet and its final meaning, can he know what it will bring? Has Xavier fished this information from Logan’s mutant brain like a hacker recovering files from a broken hard drive? If Logan is aware of his past, does he understand what resetting will mean? Also shown in a previous film, Xavier is morally unable to shoot Magneto in the head despite the pleading that Magneto can tests his power this way. It is a thinly veiled death wish by Magneto. Xavier won’t grant it. Would he, in turn, grant it for Logan? Assisted suicide and mercy killing, putting an animal out of its misery would reduce Xavier to a complex moral quandary.

Why does Logan drive a limo? This is one of those things that doesn’t make too much sense in terms of the world in which the characters find themselves. In order to hide out from a military/industrial/medical complex that wants to hunt you down, you don’t get a driver’s license or limo medallion. You don’t pass through checkpoints so often that guards know you by sight. You don’t go anywhere that might put you in contact with cameras, sensors, scanners, police or government types. Wolverine is especially suited for survival in harsh environments, even if dragging Xavier around is not. What about stashing away in the Yukon or any mountain or forest on the continent. Sure, maybe this “risk” of hiding in plain sight is justified by the need for special medication for Xavier. This too is flimsy. Wouldn’t it be easier and safer for Wolverine to slash and grab an army duffle full of the medication from a supposedly secure source? Or get a Walter White character to rove around the desert and cook some up in a lab? Not sure how wearing a shirt and sport coat fits into the “wild man as hiding animal” motif. I do like the obvious comparison to the limo driving in the film Strange Days with Angela Basset behind the wheel however.

Obviously, using the mutant Laura to advance this story is a deliberate choice. The child must be innocent, born in violence, and not given a choice in becoming a weapon. Wolverine must find a commonality with the girl. The fact she is almost a direct reflection of Logan in powers, temperament and adamantium is not unnoticed. Gee, could she represent his past and future at the same time? Not too subtle at all. Actress Dafne Keen play the child mutant Laura. While she does not have too much to do in the script except snarl and cry, Dafne does a great job as the first new mutant born in the past twenty-five years. I am a little perplexed by her powers however. She has healing abilities and animal instincts. Why did the bad guys graft adamantium onto her too? She is so young, her bones are going to be growing for almost another whole decade. Isn’t that going to screw up the adamantium which will be bonded to her? Her scenes with Hugh Jackman remind me a bit of Ryan O’Neal and Tatum O’Neil in Paper Moon. The first child born after a drought of births reminds me of Children of Men. As Laura rocks on the toy horse outside the store, I am reminded of Jennifer Connelly in a movie called Career Opportunities. Mangold seems to lift, nudge or wink at a variety of films and genres if only by association.

The issue of what exactly adamantium can do in this film is cause for a raised eyebrow. Logan is suffused with it over his bones and claws. It is suggested that the adamantium is causing an allergic reaction with Logan’s super immune system which is weakening him, making him vulnerable. So, even somehow degraded, adamantium is the strongest metal known to man. If you had this rare metal and it was in the shape of a knife, it would cut through anything, steel, stone, flesh, and bone. Cutting through any solid object would be equivalent to swinging your arms through the air. There would be no resistance, no hesitation, no getting stuck. Only contacting other adamnatium could stop it. Like cutting through butter with a hot knife. Extended claws could never cut halfway, pick someone up off the ground or in any way show resistance. In the last few scenes of the film, Logan is thrown onto a sharp tree stump which impales him. This is a vampire’s death for sure. Naturally this could never happen. The wood is far less strong than the metal and could never pierce Logan.

I might have liked to see the Logan clone be an inexact copy, one that was more animal with bushy eyebrows and sharp teeth, perhaps even animal eyes. It is weird to see because we are told that the clone is stronger and faster and more primal than Logan. There does not seem to be any indication that the clone experiences the berserker rage. He wades pretty dispassionately toward Logan and actually fights in a fairly straight forward fashion, going toe to toe. This could have been a great opportunity to show Logan utilizing his experience rather than raw fighting skill to essentially defeat himself. Alas, I don’t feel the clone idea was thought through too well and is a low point in the film. Wasn’t this supposed to be a mutant western after all? In the hands of the choreography team that produced the stunning fights between Captain America and Winter Soldier for example, this might have been the hottest ticket in town. The action looks and feels a bit flat by today’s standards which is a shame because the filmmakers went to the trouble of getting an R rating and writing more adult versions of the characters.

No review of the X-Men/Wolverine movies would be complete without mentioning alcohol. I know this is an R rating but the use of alcohol in this film is meant to directly suggest machismo and drinking in order to drown depression and anxiety. Super poor presentation. We have had binge drinking, revenge drinking, male bonding drinking games in Thor and now flat out using alcohol as a crutch for emotional problems. I can not say that alcohol has been used very responsibly or casually in these films. These characters are bad boy role models for young adults and adults who haven’t grown up. Perhaps that is the point. Wolverine is immature and impulsive when it comes to dealing with his emotions. You would almost guess the opposite. After fighting animal rage for decades, he might actually have learned to control himself if only by default.

Logan has something important to say in this film. Don’t become what they made you. It is an odd summation. Don’t be an animal? Don’t be a killer? While he is directing this to Laura as dying words of wisdom, this is actually a total summary of Wolverine’s pained existence. Yet, all he can blurt out is don’t be what they made you. Maybe a better sentiment would be, it is okay to trust, okay to love, okay to lose and rise again (like a phoenix). For all of Jackman’s theatre chops, this ending didn’t do much for me. Fizzle not bang. What about the anguish he has held onto during the entire film? The loss? His dead memories of dead teammates and loves? Not a mention, a hint or a wink. So, again a wasted opportunity.

I would like to close this review by remarking how well Hugh Jackman was able to embody this character as written for film. He got a lot of funny lines along the way, more than his share of intense action, and a little bit of drama. Jackman was able, over a long period of time, to create a character which propelled audiences through his movies. It was no small feat considering how high the expectations were for the Wolverine character. Jackman injected a lot of human emotion and empathy into his portrayal which in turn allowed him to connect with viewers. Anyone else trying to wield the claws in subsequent films will have a high bar. I feel just a bit sad writing these words. Wolverine has been in my life since I started reading comics and has been a favorite. While this definitely does not mark the end of the character, it does feel like a good place to book mark him and let others pick up where I leave off in my affection. In my memory, Wolverine will always be that Claremont/Byrne bad ass, stone cold killer rising up out of the murky sewer water to challenge the Hellfire Club. Is that the best you can do, bub? Jackman sets the standard on film. You know what comes next.

Thank you,
Rick Arthur
Central New Mexico
USA


Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Captain America: Civil War - Special Double Movie Review

Captain America: Civil War In Theaters Now

The tradition continues!

Rick and Ben are back with independent reviews and analysis of Captain America: Civil War in another double blind, double shot!

You know the drill, soldier! Ben will be writing from Los Angeles, California, while Rick will be reporting in from the great state of New Mexico. We have not discussed the film or its production to ensure that our opinions remain our own. As is the intent of the blog, we will analyze the film from the perspectives of admirers of the works and the character of Captain America and about modern storytelling.

SPOILER ALERT - Please be advised that these reviews contain detailed descriptions of plot, character and dramatic conclusion of the film. - SPOILER ALERT

» Rick's Review
» Ben's Review



Civil War Heroes

review by Rick Arthur

This film was designed to be a blockbuster crowd pleaser, another in a growing line of movies made by Marvel Studios to support something called a “shared universe.” In this election year, there is no doubt that opening weekend crowds voted with their wallets and made a beeline toward theatres to watch the match-up of Team Cap versus Team Iron Man. This is a reminder that this review was done “blind.” I have no idea at all what Ben has written. I saw this film on opening weekend in regular format. I did not want this space to become a debate hall for 3D, IMAX, drive-in, etc. I encourage readers of this blog to post comments about points brought up in the reviews, the Marvel Cap movies, or Cap in the comics. Ben and I will both respond as time allows. Spoilers? Relax. This is ALL spoilers as it is a frank discussion of the ideas presented in the film and comics.

My overall opinion is very favorable and I give Captain America: Civil War forty-one stars out of fifty for being fun, fast paced, and packed with action. The stunt and fight coordinators really earned their keep creating sharp, interesting set pieces which are impressive in this film and also in Captain America: Winter Soldier. When I was a kid, Marvel comic characters were always sporadically appearing. The Hulk TV show was a favorite with Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno. We went around the house ripping our shirts off in slow motion and giving the Hulk growl. Barely animated FF and Spidey cartoons and not too much else. The Spidey theme song is unforgettable. I always longed for the day when comic books could be brought to the big screen. Fast-forward a few decades. Now, comic characters, particularly Marvel characters are everywhere. Special effects and camera work have caught up to our heroes allowing them to fly, jump, kick, punch, lift, throw, and spout cheesy dialogue just like in the comic books. These colorful characters have been turned into super big budget opening weekend popcorn movies with lots of action, thrills, and little plot. Captain America: Civil War is the kind of movie that would have absolutely wowed me as a ten-year old kid.

The story behind Civil War is simple. Set a situation up (some multi-nation accord) that makes heroes register with a United Nations oversight committee. This is an echo of the Mutant Registration Act from the X-Men movies. Iron Man says yes. Cap says no. Heroes take sides. There is your Civil War, the conflict that is supposed to drive the plot of the movie. Weighing in at two hours and twenty-six minutes, the filmmakers have plenty of time to tell any kind of story they choose. What needs to be remembered is that this is the third in the Captain America series of films. Astute blog readers will notice the review I gave Captain America: Winter Soldier and I am afraid that Marvel’s misuse of Cap as a character in his own movies is systemic. I want to note that I spoke with several moviegoers who thought this was an Avengers movie the same way that Winter Soldier was confused for a SHIELD movie. Cap does not carry his own film and is in effect a supporting character. Moviegoers, particular those just going to the theatre to get entertained have been easily misled into thinking this was another Avengers outing. They don’t understand or care about the character’s alliances in either the comics or other films.

The action sequences in Captain America: Civil War are crisp, fun, and feel new. I have broken the action down into a few categories: Car/motorcycle; Guns; Hand to hand combat; and Iron Man. The fight sequences are choppy, fast, and have thunderous impact. It gives a sense of speed, weight, and gravity to the undertakings. Serious fights make the audience want to root for the hero. There is a sense of consequence, of things changing which is a result of masterful fights. It feels like a comic book come to life. This action film more than succeeds and viewers should be thrilled to the edge of their seats.

While I won’t talk about the Zemo mess, as the third in the Cap series some emotional beats got the slightest of mentions. The death of Peggy Carter, Cap’s love from WWII, is poorly handled. First time moviegoers have no idea what is going on or why they should care. The same can be said of the Sharon Carter/Cap kiss. What was that all about? There is zero impact to what should have been emotional moments in the script. There are other misfires as well. At the end of the film, the Winter Soldier problem is laid to rest. Cap and Bucky/Winter Soldier talk about the old days in Brooklyn in what should have been a very satisfying emotional payoff. However, we only see the back of the characters and the scene feels eerily like it was added as an afterthought by using extra footage. That conversation and the conclusion of Bucky’s story are handled poorly. Also handled poorly is the end of the Civil War. Cap writes Iron Man a letter, after all the deadly combat, and we get the conclusion read to us as a voice over. There are many instances where this technique could be used effectively but not here. What is Tony Stark’s reaction to Steve Rogers? We will never really know. A more direct approach is required. So, to end the movie Cap uses a voiceover letter and to end the three-movie arc featuring the story of Cap and Bucky we get more warmed over voice work. Sounds like the filmmakers dropped the ball big time.

What are the driving ideas behind the story? Many plot questions are never addressed. Listen closely to how the characters talk to one another. They are all glib, even smarmy. I find it a weakness on the part of the script that all the characters: Vision, Scarlet Witch, Black Widow, Hawkeye, Cap, and Iron Man have similar dialogue, at times interchangeable. There is no individuality except Spider-man. Why isn’t Thor or Hulk present in this film since it is clearly about the Avengers? The answer is weak especially since Hulk is animated. Captain America deals with conspiracies in this film while confronting Iron Man. While the tale of Bucky as the Winter Soldier drove the plot in the second movie, Winter Soldier’s abuse by Hydra competes with storylines involving the Civil War,

Marvel feels the need to roll out more characters from its vast empire. Black Panther has a great role in this film and creates a wonderful trailer for his stand-alone adventure. Spider-man has been borrowed from Sony and steals valuable screen time from the main players. Just in case we forgot he has a sequel coming out, Ant-man drops by for a few minutes of screen time too. Without all the cameos could this film be under two hours? While Black Panther was included as part of the story, both Ant-man and Spider-man tag along in order to sell themselves to audiences. This should not be surprising but it is disturbing. More seeds for later include a growing relationship between Vision (Paul Bettany) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen, younger sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen). In the original comic books, they are married pretty early on (1975).

I found a few things in the film Captain America: Civil War to be coincidental, not to the degree that there is a conspiracy but just so you scratch your head. Captain America, the comic book character, was created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby in 1941. The fact that Cap was iconic while at the same time borrowing from other patriotic heroes in the comics near that time, did not take away from the many stunning new innovations Simon and Kirby cooked up. Later, during the revolution in comic books that came in the 60s at Marvel, once again, Jack Kirby had a hand in creating the Avengers. The original line-up was Iron Man, Thor, Ant-Man/Goliath, Wasp, and the Hulk. Moving forward to the Civil War movie, Black Panther was also introduced in the film and was co-created by Jack Kirby back in FF#52. The character was the first mainstream black hero in comic books. Does anyone find it coincidental that Black Panther’s father dies at the United Nations by a bomb supposedly set by Winter Soldier? Then Winter Soldier killed Tony Stark’s mother and father? I was afraid they would try to pin Ben Parker’s death on Winter Soldier too.

I should take a minute to refresh your memory as to why Marvel even exist. The company went into a deep and serious bankruptcy under the leadership of corporate raider Ron Perelman (1996). In bankruptcy court for an unprecedented two years, Marvel was on the verge of being totally liquidated unless a plan could be formed to pay off their considerable debts. A last minute gamble to borrow even more money to make movies at Marvel Studios, which up until this time was merely producing films, turned to gold with the release of the Jon Favreau directed Iron Man. Robert Downey, Jr. stunned and charmed audiences with his portrayal of Tony Stark/Iron Man with a tight little script, an indie cast, and no big names. If Iron Man had failed, the odds for Marvel paying its debts and emerging from bankruptcy court would have been long indeed. That film was not heavily advertised and was not expected to do more than break even.

Captain America is a genuine hero. I feel pretty badly for Cap. Both his sequels barely involved him. The second film was all about SHIELD. The third film was all about the Avengers. I think Marvel missed an excellent opportunity to showcase Captain America. First and foremost, the character has all the virtues of a hero: strength, intelligence, courage, loyalty, honor, and a lot more. As skillfully played by Chris Evans (remember him as Johnny Storm?), Captain America embodies all that is good about American military strength and democracy. He should inspire. He should inspire by example. He should inspire by his words. Speeches from Cap will move men to action or tears. He is a natural leader yet humble. Instead of being picked on for being a fish out of water, Cap would lead…

I suppose that Stark, a control freak in the films, wouldn’t admit to it but he would want to follow Cap too. Instead of throwing mud at a man who fought in WWII and trying to disparage his wholesomeness as out of date in a world of spies and assassins, Stark should simply acknowledge that he wants to be like him but can’t. Captain America acts as a foil for Iron Man in these films but if that is his only role then all the rest of the character is left by the wayside. It might have been nice to see Cap and Iron Man engaged in an escalating battle of wits along with all the fisticuffs. Yet it really would have been great to see Cap do what he does best: be a hero; a legend; a symbol of the American spirit to fight against all odds for that which is right. Yeah, I would have liked to see that. Maybe next time.

Captain America: Civil War. Forty-one stars out of fifty. Strong action sequences. Little plot or characterization. Still fun.

Liberty for all,
Rick Arthur
Central New Mexico
May 9, 2016


The Man Who Planted Trees

review by Ben Alpi

I first have to say that I’m really glad to be back writing alongside Rick again. It’s been a long time and I’m glad we could do this. (Even though I have no idea what he’s writing!) I enjoyed watching Captain America: Civil War, the latest and likely the climax of the Captain America films. Differing from my normal avoidance of all news and trailers about a film I want to go see, I actually did see one trailer of the film last year, their first one, in front of Spectre. And I think it’s interesting. My wife liked that trailer and I actually didn’t. I said it made the film seem small in scope and like it was set in our normal world—not the world of superheroes. Interesting…


Overall, the film had some truly fantastic moments with some solid performances and great action. It was a very fast paced film which was great in some ways, but also meant a lack of depth. Being a Captain America film, I would figure we’d have a solid understanding of what he stands for and his motivations. I’m not certain that we did. I think the directors Anthony and Joe Russo did a great job of juggling such a large array of characters, but where the storytelling was sometimes very clear, at other times the logic and motivations were fuzzy. Although I haven’t read anything about it yet, I’m fairly certain this film was two, or even three, scripts blended together with a very late addition of a certain Web Head. But let’s get into the fray!

"Cry 'Havoc!'..."

The film opens with a solid action scene that establishes the new Avengers team. I really liked the fully formed Falcon although, his programmable drone reminded me of the strange programmable Batarang from Batman Returns. The super-side of Black Widow was on full display and was perhaps the best action sequences of her using her Sting. Wow, Scarlet Witch is far more powerful than she seems in the comics! Cap has some really nice action with some great uses of his shield. As the heroes win the day however, the main bad guy (Crossbones) decides he’s going to blow himself up. That’s not good! But Scarlet Witch is able to contain the blast in the force field and flings it… into a building? This opening scene had a lot of very shaky/too-close camera work which made it a bit hard to follow the action. Perhaps it was that, but even though Scarlet Witch is the newest team member, her mistake felt off. I think if the directors wanted us to feel strangely, that’s great, but the camera shots and Scarlet Witch’s movements didn’t really seem to say she tossed the force field off to the side, instead of straight up as anyone with their feet planted would do. Magic and super powers, even The Force in Star Wars, can be difficult to balance in a story because you don’t want your heroes to be too powerful. So, sometimes they work as well or are as powerful as the storyteller wants. Spider-man’s popularity might be in part because his powers are so well defined and he has a built in foils, one of which being his mechanical web shooters often fail at crucial moments. Scarlet Witch doesn’t know the extent of her powers and I don’t really get any indication that she’s working on that. So, the Avengers have put a ticking time bomb on their squad and she eventually goes off as was to be expected. Seems pretty convenient.

Meanwhile, Iron Man is speaking at MIT and is then stopped short by the encounter with a lady who blames him for her son’s death in Sokovia, the city the Avengers evacuated in Avengers: Age of Ultron. This sets up the assumption that the Avengers are reckless despite showing in that film to what lengths the super team will go to try and keep people from harm; namely the small army of robots Tony sends down to clear the stage for his battle with the Hulk and the massive flying evacuation efforts at Sokovia. (Wait, Iron Man versus Hulk? How much in-fighting do the Avengers have anyhow? A lot. So much in fact, it spills into Cap’s movie.) Still, given Tony co-created Ultron, I could certainly see how Tony would blame himself even though that fact isn’t mentioned in this film. And, the fact that this film is not a sequel to that one, but of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. So, the woman’s blame makes sense but it seems like Tony would have had encounters like this several times throughout the years; especially given he was actually the object of blame in Iron Man 2 and Avengers: Age of Ultron. Why is it this time it really shakes him up? Given this is a crossover and not an Avengers sequel, I think if they had mentioned Ultron or established that Tony was already (still) blaming himself, this event would have tipped him over the edge and had much more weight. Perhaps I’m nit-picking here, but this is one of the cornerstones of the film and if the directors leave a portion of it to the assumptions of the audience, it will be at least a bit shaky.

A Tale of Two Movies

The other thing about this second sequence of the film is Iron Man is given something we never really get with Cap, his very own scene which establishes where he is personally/emotionally and what he’s been up to. This scene replays Tony’s last evening with his parents giving us a powerful reminder of what drives him. Also in this one scene, we get to hear him speak about what he holds dear, helping people, the future, invention, and we find out he and Pepper are having relationship troubles again. In a single scene we get a full setup of Tony’s situation and that’s really good filmmaking. And, there are no other major characters featured, it’s fully Tony’s dramatic, dialog-heavy set of scenes. This is what first tipped me off that this film might have started out as two separate scripts. This is a scene from an Iron Man film, not a Captain America film.

In the next scene, the setup of the Sokovia Accords clearly frames the central argument of the film and the cause of the Avenger’s Civil War. I really liked how the directors took the time to establish the debate. I do have to mention though that Secretary of State Ross’ listing off of New York, Sokovia, and Wakanda is terribly laborious given we already are familiar with them. As far as the debate, I felt like Cap and Iron Man had been given each other’s lines. And, actually, Cap is completely right; the Accords are a slippery slope and would only shift the blame. I don’t see how ‘reigning in’ the Avengers, Iron Man’s side of the debate, will solve anything. Even as I turn it over in my mind now, perhaps the Accords would help with PR or politics, but they would do nothing in reality, certainly it wouldn’t do anything to stop other super beings, hero or villain. Although I’ve never read the original Civil War storyline in the comics, I know that it involved the entire Marvel universe and that makes much more sense. When you narrow the focus to just the Avengers, it reduces the scope of the film and the severity of the conflict. Unlike in the early 20th Century Fox X-Men films, I didn’t get the feeling that the media, the governments, and the people were all against the Avengers and certainly, I would think the world’s anger would apply to all super beings, not just the Avengers—and not just Bucky.

Ending the scene, Cap gets a text that someone has passed away. He leaves saying to his team, “I gotta go.” (The leader of the Avengers leaves as if he’s your pal at the college dorms? I know the Avengers are chummy, but Cap has responsibilities and he really should leave like a leader, not a college kid.) Where he goes is to the funeral of British super spy Peggy Carter and the only Cap-centric scene in the film. Instead of a tragic scene of Cap’s last conversation with Peggy, the woman he fell in love with, she had died while he was doing other things. This is a terribly tragic thing and I really felt bad for Cap missing the chance to say goodbye, but his regret is never really addressed. Instead, Cap learns that his hot CIA neighbor, Sharon Carter, is Peggy’s niece. (Hey, isn’t this from the 70’s Cap film?) In her eulogy Sharon quotes Peggy, “Compromise where you can. Where you can’t, don’t… it is your duty to plant yourself like a tree… and say ‘No, YOU move’.” This is taken from a speech by Sam Clemens/Mark Twain and was quoted by Cap in an issue of Amazing Spider-man during the Civil War storyline in the comic books. It’s a very powerful quote but I feel that without context, it alone does not solidify Cap’s resolve to go against the Accords. Certainly, I’m afraid I don’t think he has reason enough to put the beat-down on his friends and fellow soldiers, and certainly not to put their lives at risk. I get the distinct feeling that the writers don’t really know what soldiers are like and they certainly don’t know how the British handle the death of one of their fallen heroes. Dang nab it, I could easily see a scene where in her death bed, Peggy comforts Cap, a mere boy to her years, telling him that she has lived her life and was lucky enough to become old. So many of her comrades and friends were not so lucky. Cap confesses that he wishes that he had the chance to grow old with her. She raises his head by the chin and looks him in the eye. Although there was no way she could have known that this is how their lives would turn out, it’s no excuse for him to not live his life. To not use his gifts. To not stand up for what he believes in. And then she would quote from Churchill, Shakespeare, or Kipling and her extended family would gather around them, and she would say her goodbyes and peacefully pass away. A dignified death for a woman of distinction. Very British.

In the actual film, after the funeral Cap is hanging around in the empty church. I don’t know if he has gone to the burial or if Peggy is to be buried at a later date so, finding Cap simply standing around is a bit jarring. So, why is he there? Is he talking to God? Let’s hear it! Let’s find now what he’s thinking, where he’s at in his life, what he wants the future to hold. By definition, the main character of a film is the character we spend the most time with, it’s the one we get to know the best, we get to see the world the way he or she sees it. But we’re held at arm’s length away from Cap through the entire film. Sharon enters and they talk. Now, I know these two are soldiers and death comes with the territory, but what they don’t talk about is Cap’s regret, perhaps even guilt, about not being there when Peggy passed. I have to say that I think there is another trend in Hollywood, a lack of understanding of emotions. This is an obvious opportunity: Cap has just lost someone who is the embodiment of the life he missed, of the friends and family he suddenly lost in a wink of an eye. Isn’t this when it would all come down on him like a ton of bricks? And Sharon is someone with a connection to that past, someone outside of the Avengers, someone who won’t judge him. A real friend. Shouldn’t we be teaching or reminding people how to handle grief? What real friendship looks like? In Cap’s generation, a person would drop whatever they were doing to help a friend. We should show that. And we should give Sharon’s character more meaning in the film.

After the funeral, there is a meeting at the UN to sign the accords. King T'Chaka is so wonderful. And his son, T'Challa/Black Panther is really great as well. In one scene we get introduced to the Prince, we get a sense of his feelings and the pain he feels for those lives lost in his country. As a result, we feel for him deeply when his father dies and we totally understand he wants revenge. There was some really good digital double work with Panther that helped show off his abilities. Bucky is implicated in the attack by a photograph of him in the area. This sets Black Panther on his very clear mission. Cap then finds Bucky who says that he doesn’t remember being the bomber. So Cap assumes Bucky’s been mind-controlled and helps him escape… although near the end of the film, Bucky says he remembers every assassination he’s been sent on. (Gads.) Still, we get a great display of Cap’s strength as he pulls down a helicopter Bucky tries to escape in. It was real reminder that he isn’t just a Batman-like character, he actually is superhuman.

But why is Cap doing this? One might say that Bucky is the embodiment of Cap’s side of the argument. Even if that’s the case, I’m not sure if Bucky himself wants to be included. Saving Bucky makes total sense, but Cap is dragging him whether he likes it or not. Why would Cap do that? Why not bring Bucky in and give him a trial date the same as anyone? Cap, above all, trusts in the Constitution and in due process. Sure, the German police could have killed Bucky, but Cap can bring The Winter Soldier straight to the President of the United States and demand he gets a fair trial. Certainly, there could be some tampering with evidence or the prosecution could use some unsavory tactics to get a conviction, but even if Cap can’t stop that, there is an appeals process. (Or he can break him out at that point.) And I don’t know if Bucky would mind being in jail, or back on ice, until he can be deprogrammed. How great of a scene would that have been, Bucky revealing to Cap that he killed Tony’s parents? And then a scene where it’s revealed to Tony? We would have known Cap was holding back that information and would have constituted a true betrayal. That’s a real reason for Iron Man to start blindly lashing out. But, these are two schools of thought in writing: withhold information to create a ‘twist’ later –or– give information to particular characters, or just the audience, and withhold it from other characters in order to create tension.

After another action scene, Cap and Bucky are ultimately captured and the true villain of the film, Baron Zemo, surfaces to gain control of Bucky and find out what happened on a certain day and date. Non-Baron Zemo is a small guy, inconspicuous, smart. He gets what he’s looking for and escapes. After Cap and Bucky also escape, for some reason Cap begins to build a team to run up against the one Iron Man is also beginning to build… for some reason. This is actually when the film picks up. Cap, Bucky, and Falcon bring in Hawkeye, Scarlet Witch, and the brilliant Ant-Man. Iron Man amasses Black Widow, Black Panther, Grey War Machine, the amazing Vision, and the spectacular Spider-man. The humor and light-heartedness brought especially by Ant-Man and Spidey is so welcomed.


A Spidey-Shaped Shoehorn

This is of course the introduction of Spider-man, one of the most beloved comic book characters, to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Somehow Disney was able to borrow the license from Sony, perhaps that company driving the property straight into the ground had something to do with it, and Marvel wastes no time in finding a spot to wedge Your Friendly Neighbor: in Captain America’s film. Tony tracks down Peter Parker, meeting the high schooler and his no-longer-elderly Aunt, “Aunt Hottie” better known as Aunt May. Unfortunately, this follows the strange trend in Hollywood to make all characters younger—and whether it’s ageism or not, it certainly doesn’t reflect reality. And when this film is trying so hard to be Batman Begins-level realistic, that’s tough to swallow. Besides that however, Peter is brought in as another weapon in this war with no motivation except that Tony’s a sweet talker and Peter’s a big Stark fan. So, the accident in Wakanda was supposedly caused by a rookie Avenger and so Tony’s answer is to bring in someone who’s only had his powers for six months? Spidey is another one of my all-time favorite characters, but his inclusion is really just to show him off. To the degree that he gets an additional scene after the credits followed by “Spider-man will return.” Wasn’t this a Captain America movie?

So, the stage is set for what may be the biggest super hero battle ever put on film. It’s an amazing battle, pitting Cap’s bandits versus Iron Man’s lawpersons. The fight is superbly shot allowing the audience to follow every step. Spidey and Ant-Man continue to stand out with their humor and smart use of powers—even if I don’t think either of them could go toe-to-toe with Earths Mightiest Heroes so effectively at this point. Neither of them have reason to pick a side. I think Hawkeye was just bored at home. Not even Scarlet Witch has a strong motivation besides being under house arrest for… several days? (The horror.) On Iron Man’s side, they even state that they’re pulling their punches. Then why are you fighting at all? I would think that Cap would exhaust any option he can think of before risking the lives of his friends, let alone strangers. When given the opportunity to stop mindlessly punching people, does Cap do what you expect a man of his stature and history to do-- and lead? No. He does not convince his friends that they should not be fighting, but should join forces against an evil bigger than them all. He instead says “We fight.” Certainly, by statement and by deed Cap is determined not to sign the Accords and he’s dedicated to protecting Bucky, but I really don’t understand why he’s willing to go to the lengths he, and Tony for that matter, is willing to go. I commend Cap on his dedication, but for someone who is supposed to have a tactical mind, isn’t he really just being a battering ram?

They continue their battle which results in the severe injury of Rhodey. In other words, finally, in all this silliness there is finally a consequence. It is then discovered that Bucky was actually framed and Tony goes to help Cap and Bucky stop Zemo from waking up the other Winter Soldiers. They arrive and the soldiers have been murdered. That’s a pretty big twist. I’m not sure I liked it, but did we want another fight scene with a group of super soldiers? This was all a rouse to get Cap, Bucky, and Tony together so Zemo could exact his revenge for his family dying in Sokovia. And that is to reveal that The Winter Soldier killed Tony’s parents. That is to say that for the first time in this film, the good guys have a reason to be fighting. Assassination has been a cause for war, in fact. However, I have to believe that somewhere in Tony’s mind, he must know that he’s lashing out. He must know that Bucky wasn’t to blame. And for that reason, I would think that he and Cap would not have such a deadly fight. I think the makers wanted us to see this as the culmination of the Civil War, but it really didn’t have anything to do with it. It had to do with the murder of Tony’s parents. Plain and simple. There is no ideology, no encroachment of freedoms, it is the very personal pain of one individual. And it’s not even the pain of the main character. With everything that happened throughout this film, I wish this event had been much sooner so we could see how Tony and Steve recovered and how they reconciled. That would be the real reason for an olive branch.

Thinking back, this film seems to require that you have seen the other Marvel films but it also wants us to forget some of the events. Given Tony was against government controlling his actions in Iron Man 2, it makes more sense that he doesn’t get the hint at first—that instead of him totally going to the ‘reign in’ side, that his encounter with the woman plants the seed. That would be the start his character arc. Same with Cap; certainly, he would be against any government limiting the freedom of its citizens and he was right to be suspicious of SHIELD’s giant gunships and Tony’s security experiments, but I don’t see why he would be so willing to go against the wishes of the world’s governments, and ostensibly the people, and be so totally willing to attack his friends and those he’s supposed to be leading. He’s totally abusing his power and position and that is more an Iron Man move. And we don’t really see the fallout of the decisions of either side, we just get the predictable outcome—they were both sort of right and both sort of wrong. By the time we get to Cap's betrayal of Tony (by not telling him), the real central conflict of the story and something worth fighting about, it’s the end of the film. Bucky goes on ice, problem solved. If that’s the case, shouldn’t we have stopped to think about this earlier? This makes me wonder about the tidal forces behind-the-scenes of the film's production. Maybe this film never had a chance to be refined and formed into what it really should have been. There are so many Marvel properties involved, so much money, there must be a lot of pressure to change the film and, especially, add more properties. Perhaps if there had been time, the directors could have made a great Captain America film and worked in some of these added bits better. Perhaps with more perspective, they would have seen that broadening the conflict to be about all super beings and flipping the opinions of Steve and Tony just makes more sense. If it was Cap that recruited Spidey because the web-slinger was being persecuted like all super folks, it really brings the conflict home and raises the stakes. It also would have created a proxy character to bring the audience into the story. It also means Spidey gets to develop on his own, not through his new sugar daddy, which has always been one of the cool things about his more homespun, down-to-Earth character. If Cap’s film has to be the pad that launches Spidey, at least let Cap be the one to send him up.

In the end, I enjoyed this film in the theater far more than I’ve enjoyed thinking about it after the fact. And that’s something that has been happening to me more and more over the last decade. It used to be you would jump out of the theater after a film and be energized or be humbled by the immensity of what you have just seen. Filmmakers were tasked with wrapping up as many story threads as possible so the film, much shorter than a novel, feels complete and satisfying. This no longer seems to be the case. It’s rapid-fire editing, action, and done. There are moments in films past that I’ll never forget. Films today are flashes in the pan. ‘Thanks for your patronage. Next!’ What stands out most in this film? Spider-man. Did I mention Spider-man? It was Spider-man.

I don’t know why Marvel decided to make Winter Soldier and this film ensemble casts instead of stories about Cap. Even more than the last film, Cap is relegated to a co-star in what is actually an Avengers film. Why not call it what it is? And I would wager if you added up all the screen time and dialog of Iron Man and Cap, Iron Man would win hands down. That’s just wrong. Cap should have been the one solving problems and leading everyone in more than battle. I think the most tragic thing about the Captain America trilogy of films is that the makers were so afraid of the character not being popular, that Cap would come off as a boring, one-dimensional ‘Boy Scout’, that they ended up making him exactly that. Through all the Avengers and Cap films, how many times did Iron Man mention Cap was “perfect”? Is he? In the first film, instead of treating Cap like an elite soldier, they sent him out as living propaganda. Why? Steve wanted to fight Nazis. Did he ever get to? No. He finally fought Hydra because in the field, no one could say no. And even then, he really only got a montage of fighting because there wasn’t enough depth in the writing for him to do anything else. So, instead of embedding Cap into WWII history, a living example of the Greatest Generation, we made him fight a small group of terrorists. Already the gravitas of the character is compromised. In the second film, it had some great character development, but Cap was still reactionary. I really liked Falcon, Black Widow, and Nick Fury, but I still didn’t feel like we got inside Cap’s head, that we got to know the real Cap, and that we got to face his demons with him. Civil War was even worse in that regard with more characters and even less time with Cap. This is a man from a different time and a different perspective, why not use it? Indeed, what makes Captain America unique and worthy of a film about him? Those are the kinds of questions a writer or director should be asking when considering putting years of their life into a project. I know the business folks want to keep the money machine rolling, but we cannot make filmmaking into rinse-and-repeat. We need to put time into the writing, into the production, and let the characters have their defining moments. Captain America would expect no less.

Thanks for reading. I hope you do go see the film and share your opinions!

For a more perfect union,
Ben Alpi
Los Angeles, California
May 10, 2016

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