Wednesday, 22 February 2017

My Thoughts on Captain America: Civil War

Released after Batman Vs Superman: Dawn of Justice, I was equally excited to see what the latest instalment of the Captain America franchise had to offer. Anthony Russo and Joe Russo have certainly proved themselves capable of directing a mega-franchise. In fact Captain America: The Winter Soldier is my favourite film from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But the idea of turning one of the most significant comic book events into a 2 hour film was always going to be a challenge. And the end result is something that’s entertaining but also deeply flawed. 

Firstly, the action set pieces are pretty special. The chase scene between Bucky, Cap and Black Panther both shows the Russo brother's eye for filming action, but it also proved to be a well-conceived way of introducing the character of Black Panther. Of course, the airport scene is the clear highlight of the entire film, again suitably introducing the latest Spiderman into the mix. Overall from a typical blockbuster standpoint, it was an action-driven one that looks and sounds good.

However my main problem with Civil War boils down to the writing. Liberties were taken to transfer the renowned comic series Civil War onto the screen, and it evidently proved too grand and complex a challenge. The film attempts to simultaneously highlight and showcase the division within the Avengers, emphasise the changing attitudes towards them, introduce the likes of Spiderman and Black Panther, and pave the way for the Infinity War storyline. And the film never really succeeds at explaining any of those narrative elements. Instead we're given a series of absurd coincidences, woeful justifications and a questionable level of hypocrisy.

But the more worrying problem is that when you step back and look at the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe, the only narrative tread that is connecting it all together is through the arrival of Thanos. Civil War attempts to use the aftermath of Sokovia, New York and Washington (with some laughable death tolls) to justify the film’s conflict; the UN enforcing a registration act on the Avengers. There’s no global tension or resentment towards the Avengers. Instead you have frustrated government officials and passing comments from news stations, but there isn’t an atmosphere of anger towards superhero kind which feels decidedly necessary to the entire story. 

In my opinion, Marvel really needs to actually do something significant with the overall narrative of it’s universe, something with genuine consequences. In fact Marvel did this with the collapse of S.H.I.E.L.D and the rise of Hydra during the events of Winter Soldier, but never really built anything decent from it. Civil War has similar opportunities to instigate real repercussions, but the film plays it far too safe. The death of James Rhodes (Warmachine) would have added some emotional weight to the conflict. Meanwhile the entire premise of a divide and conflict between Captain America and Iron Man is subsequently made redundant through an email between the two at the end. It's all too safe. 

In the battle between the superhero blockbusters, Civil War proved to be the better overall package when compared with Batman Vs Superman. But after watching it, I still think that Captain America: The Winter Soldier is my favourite of the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe. Civil War had the action set-pieces, the characters and the visuals, but I don’t have a urge to watch the film again and continue to ask “Why is there a Civil War in the first place?”. 

Sunday, 5 February 2017

My Thoughts on Doctor Strange

Doctor Strange was just released in Japan, three months after its US release. However it’s the first Marvel film of the last couple of years that I haven’t rushed to the cinema to watch. In fact, I didn’t necessarily want to see it in the first place because of my lack of interest in the character. 

Until now Marvel had avoided the concept of magic in its cinematic universe. Scarlet Witch’s lack of “chaos magic” being a clear example. Instead Doctor Strange immediately showcases the unique approach to sorcery and wizardry during the opening scenes as The Ancient One battles Kaecilius and his forces. Put simply, the film looks and sounds fantastic. Strange’s introduction into the astral plane and dimensional shifts is a dazzling acid trip of colours, shapes and animations. The dizzying New York fight sequence between Strange, Mordo and Kaecilius is almost too hectic. I actually found myself briefly looking away from the screen in order to refocus. It’s an impressive set of action sequences that contrasts well with the franchise’s typical use of explosions and fistfights. My only issue is that while the environments and the effects are spectacular, the character models dancing around these kaleidoscopic set-pieces aren’t as polished. 

Story-wise, for the Marvel Universe to include Doctor Strange it was definitely justified in creating an origin film for such a unique character. We see Strange’s progression and transformation from the arrogant neurosurgeon to “Master of the Mystic Arts”. In fact the film wastes little time in showing Strange’s growth as an individual. One minute he’s struggling to use his hands, the next he’s surpassing his mentors and teachers. The film also does a good job at hinting at the grander scale and scope of Strange’s world. A multitude of dimensions, time manipulation, and the global nature of the Sanctums create a character, property and the basis for a plethora of interesting opportunities and situations in the future. 

But for all the film tries to differentiate itself from it’s Marvel counterparts, it still follows the typical narrative progression of any traditional superhero film. And with that comes a lot of the same, reoccurring problems. The most disappointing being the villain. Marvel yet again squanders the opportunity to present a villain of note. Mads Mikkelsen is one of my favourite actors and very capable of playing captivating foes. The problem lies in creating a balance between developing the protagonist and the antagonist, which the very nature of an “origin story” restricts. The story’s focus is purely on Strange, and Mikkelsen’s motivations and character are thus largely relegated to exposition and incoherent babble. In fact by the end of the film, his character withers away in the background in order to introduce the real villain Dormammu, who is equally trivialised in the last 10 minutes. With a wealth of villains in it’s universe, its frustrating and worrying that Marvel can’t seem to forge a character with any lingering danger or presence. 

In regards to the titular character, Benedict Cumberbatch certainly looks the part and he can wave his arms in a convincing manner. At times while the script falters and so too does his accent, his charisma proves just enough to create an engaging character. But I’m still not convinced that he is an actor worthy of his popularity or high esteem.  Meanwhile, Tilda Swinton and Chiwetel Ejiofor are great in their supporting roles, but Rachel McAdams is left by the wayside to question her own function in the film.

For me, Dr Strange wasn’t the evolutionary step in the Marvel franchise many critics have deemed it to be. Don’t get me wrong, it’s an enjoyable film with fantastic visuals. But it lacks a certain narrative charm or individualism that feels necessary with the character and the property. If Strange is indeed part of the next Avengers instalment, then I’ll be interested to see how they frame him with the likes of Hawkeye and Captain America. With a character so omnipotent, it seems pretty laughable to have him levitating next to a purple-dressed archer.