Episode 10 – Avengers: Age of Ultron

 Avengers: Age of Ultron is insanely ambitious attempting to outdo itself with action, spectacle, and touching character moments. It should fall apart at the seams but somehow the massive ship manages to stay together until the end, even proving to be lots of fun along the way.

I really enjoyed recording this week’s podcast episode and laying out my thoughts on the movie. Thanks for listening.

 

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Podcast #9: Daredevil Season 1

Daredevil

Daredevil is a fascinating twist on the superhero genre, a dark and moody look at a street-level superhero in a corrupt city. Here are my thoughts on the show and why I think its characters work so well. Spoilers ahead.

Listen right here or download the episode on iTunes or Stitcher:

 

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The Top Ten Villains of 2014

***There are MAJOR SPOILERS for many films and television shows ahead. Proceed at your own risk.***

Villains will always have a special place in the heart of fans. Face it, they make all the best stories possible. And yet despite their evil deeds, villains often compose a large percentage of our favorite characters. It is no accident things are this way. No matter how you slice it, the Joker is far more fascinating than Batman, Darth Vader is more intriguing than Luke Skywalker, and Loki is a lot more fun to be around than boring old Thor.

As 2014 winds down, it’s time to look back at the best villains from the past year. Who made an impact on the villain scene this year? We’ve seen some brand new baddies as well as some fresh interpretations of classic villains.

Candidates who unfortunately didn’t make the list include villains who had potential but aren’t quite fleshed out enough to make an impact. Think Ronan the Accuser, Shredder, or Bolivar Trask. One villain who could have ranked higher, LEGO Movie’s President Business, turns heel a little too quickly. Some of this year’s villains have done great work in the past, like Magneto or Smaug, but don’t appear on this list.

The criteria for top villain will be based on villainous actions that they did this year.

Additionally, to qualify as a villain, there must be a thoughtful intelligence behind their actions. A monster that acts on instinct is not a villain. Neither is a character that operates as just a plot device. Ultimately what a top villain requires is a strong internal motivation, a collection of evil deeds, and a delicious endgame.

Let’s look at the top 10 villains of 2014.

electro

10) Electro

The Amazing Spider-Man 2‘s lackluster reception may indeed signal the end of Marc Webb’s rebooted Spider-verse. However buried behind the convoluted storylines is a terrifically campy performance by Jamie Foxx. Quibbles about the overstuffed sequel aside, Electro offers a memorable example of a victim-turned-villain. Overlooked, underappreciated, and always self-pitying, Max Dillon is the sort of tragic figure that blends in well to these big costumed morality plays.

Importantly Max has a pre-transformation connection to Spider-Man over whose heroics he fantasizes. In Max’s unstable mental condition, it makes sense that his obsessive tendencies would not pair well with the gift of unlimited electricity. There’s a memorable scene in Times Square in which Electro watches Spider-Man’s image overshadow him on the giant monitors in quick succession. In a flash, jealousy changes Electro from helpless victim to vengeful executioner. He may have started off as a freak accident but soon he decides that Spider-Man is the real source of all of problems. There always needs to be a good reason for the villain to turn against the hero and Electro nails it.

Perhaps Electro’s greatest tragedy is that the plot even denies him the chance to be the big villain in his own movie, replacing him with Green Goblin in the finale. Tough luck, Max.

the inquisitor

9) The Inquisitor

Coming in fairly low on the list is the main villain of Star Wars Rebels, due mainly to his rather limited screen time. However what we do see from the Inquisitor shows a lot of promise. In his first major debut the Inquisitor sizes up Kanan’s fighting style in an instant, identifying his master and revealing an impressive display of Jedi knowledge. This short moment shows us that this is no ordinary imperial goon. We’re dealing with a highly capable and fearsome agent of the Dark Side.

In one of the most exciting television moments of the year, the Inquisitor also introduces his spinning double-bladed lightsaber. Surprising for a show set after Order 66, we still get a decent amount of lightsaber combat via the Inquisitor and even see him pull off a lightsaber throw. It’s no accident that he reports directly to the top villain of all time, Darth Vader himself. Overall, it brings great pleasure to once again see a Star Wars villain ordering around imperial officers and fighting alongside a squad of stormtroopers. Meanwhile, the Inquisitor’s backstory and his training as a force user remain largely mysterious. Hopefully there is much more scheming, wrangling, and Jedi-hunting to come.

captain cold

8) Captain Cold

The Flash is a zany and welcome addition to superhero television, albeit one that hasn’t taken much time to build up its often one dimensional villains. It’s mostly okay given the excellent development of Barry Allen, his powers, and an impressive supporting cast. But there’s one villain so far that shows great potential after just a single measly episode. On a show chock full of dangerous metahumans, Leonard Snart is the one bad guy that has no powers but already he looks to be one of Barry’s greatest threats.

A career thief who doesn’t hesitate to kill when necessary, Snart’s true power resides in his keen mind. Even after his initial encounter with the Flash, he already knows how to get into Barry’s head. Snart deduces that the fastest man alive will do anything to save lives, even let the bad guy get away.

It doesn’t help of course that Snart carries a cold gun specifically designed to impair and even kill the Flash. Aside from his ruthlessness, Snart also exhibits the type of criminal intelligence that sees superheroes as an exciting obstacle to overcome rather than an immediate threat. The moment between Snart and the kid in the museum tells us exactly what type of villain this is: a villain with personality. And from the look of things, next time we encounter Captain Cold he won’t be returning alone.

winter soldier

7) The Winter Soldier

There were two reactions to the Winter Soldier’s reveal in Captain America: The Winter Solider, “Who is that guy?” and “Yeah I already knew from the comics/internet.” However the reappearance of a mostly unrecognizable Bucky Barnes was undergirded by some of the best action sequences in any Marvel movie to date. The fact is the Winter Soldier impresses with sheer physicality. Whether he is putting a hole in the chest of Nick Fury or easily intercepting Captain America’s shield throw, this is a force to be reckoned with. He is seemingly unstoppable.

His hidden identity makes him all the more fierce to Steve Rogers and his allies. After seeing Roger’s jaw-dropping exploits aboard a S.H.I.E.L.D. vessel at sea, the Winter Soldier’s ease in holding his own against Captain America seem all the more remarkable. If Bucky exhibits one major drawback, it’s that at the end of the day he is just a mere pawn in the hands of Hydra with no volition of his own. Hopefully this will be amended in future movies. Still, the Winter Soldier is exactly the kind of direct physical threat we want to see more of in our villains.

dr mann

6) Dr. Mann

He was the best of us, or so we are repeatedly told throughout the first half of Interstellar. In a surprise move hidden from trailers, posters, and even entertainment sites, the brilliant Dr. Mann makes a major appearance on an ice planet. And things are not what they seem.

With no faith in the dying human race and no courage to face death for himself, Dr. Mann belongs to an interesting variety of villain. He cares only for the greater good of the human race and believes he is pursuing the welfare of his species by rejecting personal attachment and resorting to murder. Despite all his extravagant reasoning, we know he is just a sophisticated version of the same evil we see all the time.

What makes Dr. Mann better than the common villain is that he is unbearably annoying. It’s one thing to leave an innocent man to suffocate to death halfway across the universe. It’s an entirely another thing to justify your crime with a whiny monologue about how you were lonely and the reminder that death will bring you memories of your children. Dr. Mann is a villain not only by his deeds, but by his irritating self-pity. There is nothing to like about him and sometimes that’s good.

agent ward

5) Agent Ward

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. struggled through its first season but everything changed when Hydra dismantled Nick Fury’s entire agency. But what really sweetened the deal was when Agent Ward came out as a double agent. Ward has a personal history with each member of Coulson’s team. This is no random bad-guy-of-the-week but a former member of the main cast. After surviving life-threatening situations together and entertaining romantic notions with two members of the team, Ward had earned their trust, even despite his frigid manners and occasional hostility.

The best part of Ward’s reveal is that there is little lingering doubt inside him over his decision. He is simply carrying out his mission. From the very beginning, he was a double agent with no attachments. Nothing about his betrayal is personal to him. He’s just doing his job.

Ward has never been a great character, but his turn as a Hydra operative ironically redeems him. The truth that he has been working with the Clairvoyant all along and has contributed to the utter collapse of S.H.I.E.L.D. hits Coulson and his team hard. However it also gives the ragtag group a unifying purpose. Ward’s betrayal also gives a boost to some of the underdeveloped characters like Skye who confronts him directly and Fitz, and Simmons whom he sends to the bottom of the ocean. However further glimpses into Ward’s backstory still create some sympathy for this otherwise amoral assassin and offer the possibility of redemption in the future. A good villain indeed.

malificent

4) Maleficent

No doubt the finest performer in an uneven but commercially successful blockbuster, Angelina Jolie’s sly portrayal of Maleficent outshines many of the lackluster elements around her. She skillfully inhabits this sympathetic queen who experiences betrayal, revenge, and finally redemption. Despite the happy resolution and twist ending, Maleficent still works as a great villain. Even before her sadistic mutilation at the hands of Stefan and her full descent into villainy, Malificent is already an efficient warrior-leader willing to defend her kingdom at all costs. And she is not an apologetic sort of person. As she grows in compassion for Aurora, she doesn’t grow any warmer toward her father contributing to a rather spectacular death at her hands.

Whether its commanding her army with savage ferocity from the skies or cursing a newborn princess, Maleficent is quite comfortable with shaping the world around her into something sinister. When her wings are cut off by the man she trusted, she embraces this darkness wholeheartedly. While the film sinks a bit under the special effects and revisionist details, its crystal clear that Maleficent’s evil is born from pain, war, and betrayal, not randomness. If the ending is not wholly satisfying, thankfully Malificent’s slow transformation back from evil witch into a very peculiar fairy godmother is both measured and sensible.

penguin

3) Penguin

Gotham, the strange story of a world before Batman, is really the story of two aspiring men and their struggle to make a mark on their city. Along with the cynical Harvey Bullock and a young Bruce Wayne, the reckless detective Jim Gordon works to bring order and balance to a city in turmoil. But never far away, the ambitious and ruthless Penguin also seeks to climb the highest rungs of the criminal underworld. Perhaps the most violent member on this list, the Penguin definitely carves out his own spot as an unhinged criminal mastermind making a name for himself.

From the outside Penguin seems like just another henchman, and a sniveling coward at that. But slowly and surely we see that he is both dangerous and crafty, willing to suffer patiently as he works toward his endgame. He works both sides, infiltrates powerful crime families, and brutally dispatches anyone who gets in his way. We see just enough of his master plan to realize that he is fairly brilliant in his own demented way.

By keeping Penguin on Gordon’s side and making him subject to the abuse of his bosses, the show somehow manages to make this waddling psychopath come across as somewhat likeable. Just barely though.

koba

2) Koba

Reprising his appearance from Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Caesar’s lieutenant Koba makes a daring introduction in Dawn leaping through the air to spear an attacking grizzly bear. This is one dangerous ape. Following the rule that bodily scars equal villainy, Koba is the rather rare villain whose motivations are mostly understandable and even quite justifiable up to a point.

It is Koba, not Caesar, who assesses the actual threat that the humans present, which includes shooting Ash, concealing guns behind their backs, and stockpiling weapons for an imminent assault. The humans are not trustworthy, something that Caesar is unwilling to recognize. Koba’s scars are all the proof he needs to make that judgment. And while his attempted assassination of Caesar and hasty declaration of war are morally wrong, everything else he has done up until then make pretty good sense.

Koba is a complicated villain, not because his goals are evil but because he ultimately appeals more to his animal nature instead of his moral and ethical duty as a sentient creature. It is clear that he relishes in the violence, indulging his taste for revenge against a species who operated on him like a lab experiment. Perhaps what makes Koba resonate so strongly with audiences is that his descent into evil very much resembles a human one.

deathstroke

1) Deathstroke

If Deathstroke is perhaps a little over the top in terms of his Mirakuru-fueled madness, he all but makes up for it with the sheer cruelty he inflicts upon Oliver Queen and everyone he holds dear. Presumed dead by Oliver, Slade Wilson suddenly reappears in Starling City with an unknown agenda. Very quickly he makes it known that his one purpose is to destroy Oliver’s whole world.

In possibly the finest villainous moment of the year, Slade takes an unexpected tour with Oliver’s family around the Queen mansion while Team Arrow struggles to mobilize against him. Yet even the combined efforts of Sara, Felicity, Roy, and Diggle are not enough to stop Slade who easily thwarts their sniper and escapes unharmed. He walks into Oliver’s house, befriends his mother, charms his sister, and makes a mockery of the Arrow’s whole operation. He knows all of Oliver’s secrets and relishes the chance to exact a long painful vendetta against the show’s endlessly tortured hero.

But what really sets Deathstroke apart is his method. He is not interested in killing Oliver but simply making his life a living hell. Slade kidnaps his sister with the goal of driving the two siblings apart using Ollie’s own secrets against him. And in an act of pure depravity, he forces Oliver to make the same unthinkable choice that Dr. Ivo forced on him back on the Island between the death of his sister or his mother. Without hesitation Deathstroke brutally impales Moira with his sword. Killing the hero’s unarmed mother in front of his eyes and leaving him to suffer must rank among the worst villainous acts of all time.

The Questionable Ethics of Superheroes

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We’re living in the age of superheroes, a cultural phenomenon approaching its zenith in the next few years with a grand culmination of team up films and interconnected television shows. Superheroes appear to be universally beloved despite the reality that their actions are intrinsically unethical and anti-social in nature. How can we as morally responsible viewers condone the violent anarchic behavior of these few individuals whose unchecked power threatens to tear apart the very societies they claim to protect?

When you view a superhero film or television show, you’ll notice right away that superheroes operate within a wildly different world than we do. Our world is imperfect, but still we implicitly trust that the police, the government, and our other social structures will work at least some of the time. They still may fail, sometimes spectacularly, but we have reasonable expectations that the authorities can and should ensure both our welfare and the common good. In other words, we don’t think that an untrained militia of armed citizens would be much improvement over what we have now. Our system, flawed though it is, works most of the time for most people.

Superheroes do not exist in that kind of world. Either through expert training or an unusual set of powers, heroes apprehend criminals and don’t hesitate to interfere with the work of police, firefighters, rescue workers, and military personnel. They exercise their power unilaterally and operate far outside the boundaries of a courtroom or the Geneva Convention. Who gave them permission? No one. They simply willed their personal sense of justice into existence and took matters of life and death into their own hands.

Of course, superheroes are driven by a sense of moral responsibility to protect the populace. However their actions are legally indistinguishable from the very criminals they seek to prevent.  Heroes are ethically quite problematic.

We excuse their behavior for several reasons and not just because they have cool powers. There are plenty of anti-heroes, gunslingers, secret agents, and assassins just doing their job who make no claim to moral superiority. But heroes almost by definition ask for our permission. And we give it to them by our veneration and respect for them. We wear their t-shirts, watch their films, and buy their toys because we support them. Somehow we agree with their fictional actions and condone them.

How do they receive such widespread pardon for their technically illegal acts? Why do we applaud them and hold them up as role models for young children? In order for this ethical puzzle to work, there is one big difference: superheroes must inhabit a broken world, not a functioning world. There are two types of broken worlds in which superheroes may arise.

The first is the Helpless World. In this set up, the police and the city officials and the government are still doing their jobs, but they are hopelessly outmatched. The villains have better weapons, greater resources, and more ruthless schemes. A few bad guys even have superpowers of their own. In the Helpless World, the governing authorities are desperately outgunned and deeply demoralized. From the perspective of the populace, violent crime seems unstoppable and the current structures in place have utterly failed.

In Man of Steel, Superman comes out of hiding to face a threat that mankind cannot deal with on its own, General Zod. This is a helpless world. When Nick Fury calls together a band of unlikely heroes in The Avengers, it is precisely the same reason: the people of Earth do not have the resources to deal with Loki and the Chitauri on their own. In the show The Flash, the police are undeniably good but still mostly defenseless against the superpowered metahumans roaming the streets. Superheroes fighting crime in a Helpless World supplement a benign system of law and order in need of extra firepower.

The second natural home of superheroes is that of the Corrupt World. Heroes that emerge in this setting discover a system that is too broken to ever be fixed on its own. The top political figures are either themselves corrupt or simply too afraid to do anything about the problem. For those able to resist corruption, the cost of standing up against injustice is too high: lack of departmental support, demotion, threats of violence, and harm to loved ones. The real source of power is usually not “the people in charge” but crime families, unscrupulous corporations, and hyper intelligent psychopaths. In a Corrupt World, there is no hope for political reform nor any hint that things can ever get better.

A superhero in this kind of world cannot work directly with the existing authorities, although they may be able to find trusted individuals within the system to work with covertly. In this scenario, heroes function as a shock to the whole system. The powers that be are dealt a special brand of vigilante justice since the current laws have failed to do anything. The hero becomes a beacon of hope for the beleaguered masses who have lost trust in their politicians and law enforcement to protect them. By rooting out the underlying causes of social dysfunction, the hero attempts to clear the way for good governance to be restored.

In the show Gotham, the whole system is so corrupt that cops happily work with known murderers without giving it a second thought. It is the perfect example of a Corrupt World. The same is true of the first season of Arrow where Starling City is under the thumb of a long list of powerful moguls with little value for human life. In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, we similarly see the deep corruption of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s operations to the point that the whole organization must be dismantled in spectacular fashion.

Superheroes enter these two worlds as reluctant saviors. They do not come to upend the social order but are accepted as a last resort to preserve lives and restore the balance of justice. Using a clever sort of moral gymnastics, we grant these heroes something akin to temporary wartime powers. This extralegal power is given to them to apprehend criminals, infiltrate their operations, and capture top level leaders by any force necessary. When things go south, we accept the resulting human casualties and property damage incurred as the price of doing business in desperate times. It is unpleasant work, but sometimes a villain will get thrown off the top of a building.

So why do we accept the inherent immorality of fictional superheroes who work outside the law, employ violent force, and are accountable to no one, all actions which would never be condoned in real life? If real people began engaging in such vigilantism, they would be swifted punished to the full extent of the law. Despite the billion dollar box office grosses and impressive Nielsen ratings, we would neither accept nor want heroes in the real world.

Superheroes do not answer to any authority other than themselves. Consider. Even wartime soldiers authorized to kill have to answer to someone. No one is so perfect and good that they do not benefit from moral accountability to a larger body. Even when our institutions and authority figures fail, we still trust in them to ward off the worst forms of evil, injustice, and anarchy.

Humans, especially empowered entitled vigilantes operating on their own, are easily susceptible to hubris and misuse of power. Just rewatch Iron Man 2 and you’ll get a realistic picture of this eventuality. We don’t trust any one person, even the President, to have our best interests in mind. In America we trust in a complex set of checks and balances, executive, legislative, and judicial power, democratic process and republican representation, and a mix of municipal, state, and federal authority. The point is not that our modern form of government is so wonderful, but that there are good reasons we should hesitate before handing over our fate to the whims of a lone individual with an axe to grind and a propensity for doing things their own way.

The real reason we champion our fictional superheroes is because we intrinsically believe they are incorruptible. They may make mistakes, but somehow we have faith that their hearts are pure. We know them to be sacrificial and brave, serving the greater good. Unlike Caesar we know that they will lay down their extraordinary extrajudicial powers once the threat has passed. They are a temporary solution and once the last villain is locked away, they will step back and get out of the way. They can never become evil. And in the end, they will always win.

They may go outside the system to pursue justice. They may on occasion kill a bad guy by accident. But we never doubt that they are necessary for the particular world in which they inhabit. Superheroes embody the best that humanity has to offer, not the worst, and that is why we put our trust in them.

We don’t need real life superheroes nor do we want them. However we do want fictional ones. In whatever small way, they inspire us by their example of dedication. They demonstrate the importance of self-sacrifice. They are an extreme measure needed in extreme times.

In the show Arrow, Oliver Queen makes a decision not to kill any longer in his pursuit of justice after an entire season of indiscriminately killing bad guys. He realizes that he has become his own sort of villain. A murderer. In season two in order to honor the memory of a lost loved one, Oliver vows to only kill as a last defense. He chooses to keep criminals alive. In a symbolic gesture, his name is changed from the Vigilante to the Arrow. Although this new policy is heavily tested and not always with positive results, the plausibility of maintaining this evolving sort of ethic can only exist in Corrupt and Helpless Worlds. In the real world, not killing anyone should be considered a very low bar to jump over, not the cornerstone of our ethics.

The Next Cinematic Universe: The Justice League

justice league trinity

This week Warner Bros. announced to its shareholders the impending reality of the Justice League film series which will immediately follow Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice. I don’t write normally about news items but this is a major step forward for the under-served DC  superhero universe. We’ve been waiting years for a Justice League movie and now there is not one but two on the way.

All of this has been made possible by Marvel’s unqualified box office success. It’s no accident that Warner Bros. decided to announce this not via press release or at Comic Con but to its shareholders. Fans may feel slighted but it’s the shareholders who will fronting the costs for this huge multi-billion dollar endeavour. By proving that such a massive interconnected superhero universe can lead to great financial returns, Iron Man and his friends have opened the door to a new world for Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Cyborg, Aquaman, Shazam, Deadshot, Green Lantern, and the Flash. Thank you Kevin Feige and RDJ.

While there is already a growing chorus of voices claiming that DC is simply cashing in on the trend that Marvel started, the truth is that there is plenty of room for new (and better) takes on the superhero genre. Although Marvel has been careful to take their time getting their universe started and has developed an enormous worldwide fan base, it perhaps tempting to overlook the growing number of flaws in their execution.

Consider The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, and Thor, all middling entries that kept the franchise going without making much of an impression. While all of their latest films have been crowd-pleasing, there seems to be a growing problem with the connective tissues tying these wildly different films together. The worst example  is their curious dependency on the infinity stones, a seemingly unrelated collection of MacGuffins that theoretically have some kind of payoff in Avengers 3.

Marvel is leading by example but they are also falling into classic comic book pitfalls like endlessly bringing people back from the dead (Agent Coulson, Loki, Nick Fury) and relying on cliffhanger-style teaser endings instead of a proper narrative conclusion (just go watch the last secene in Thor: The Dark World and Captain America: The Winter Soldier). Stringing people along like this will eventually backfire on people who want to a complete and satisfying movie experience.

But my real point is not that I don’t like Marvel. I actually really like what they’ve done, popularizing characters I’ve never cared about before and investing me in their stories. But Iron Man and Cap are no Batman and Superman. The fact is, I grew up with the World’s Finest. They are the world’s most popular, enduring, and beloved superheroes. And no matter how Feige tries, the World’s Second Best Team of Superheroes can never be first best.

And whether or not you agree with this statement, the bigger picture is that more superhero movies from different studios raises the probabilities that we will get more good films. A Marvel monopoly is not beneficial for moviegoers at large. The post-Avengers Marvel films have been critically and commerical successful, but it doesn’t take Howard the Duck to remind us that fans and critics alike will be vicious at the first sign of franchise fatigue. It’s hard to get to the top, but it’s even harder to stay there.

Being the first cinematic universe is nice, but as Marvel plows ahead into the unknown there are bound to be even more bumps ahead. The rampant speculation about Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evan’s expiring contracts give us just one glimpse of the serious limitations involved in these lengthy endeavors.

But this is perhaps where Warner Bros. has an advantage. They have seen Marvel drag their feet with repetitive and less-than-enthusiastic origin stories. They have seen how Marvel’s top stars demand more and more money. They have seen how intense studio oversight drives away directors like Edgar Wright and Jon Favreau. And most of all, they have seen how audiences respond to a semi-cohesive interconnected film universe.

Warner Bros. has the chance to do it better, do it different, and do it in such a way that proves that the Justice League really is the best superhero team in the world. They don’t need to copy Marvel’s offbeat humor, strange mix of fantasy and technology, or their one-note villains. If Warner Bros. are lucky, they might even just pull it off.

So here is the grand lineup scheduled for the next six years:

  • Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)
  • Suicide Squad (2016)
  • Wonder Woman (2017)
  • Justice League Part One (2017)
  • The Flash (2018)
  • Aquaman (2018)
  • Shazam (2019)
  • Justice League Part Two (2019)
  • Cyborg (2020)
  • Green Lantern (2020)

People can claim all they want that Warner Bros. is rushing it, but some things don’t need a hundred years to brew. We are not starting from scratch with these characters. These are established, well-loved, well-versed heroes with decades of material to draw from. They also have a successful movie studio with tons of cash and talent that it can use to attract great writers, stars, and directors. Movies take a while to make, but they don’t take forever.

And despite Marvel’s unique pioneering spirit, they have yet to deliver n their first dozen movies to give us two crucial things: a superhero team up movie and a proper female superhero movie. Batman V Superman is the first superhero film to examine the relationship between two top tier heroes. If it does a good job handling that dynamic between these two very different but equally ubiquitous vigilantes, it will be a defining moment for a genre that is perhaps nearing its creative peak. The Avengers was a hallmark and truly remarkable achievement but was also hindered by its comic book roots and odd mix of second tier heroes.

The Justice League is comprised of at least three undeniable quantifiable heroes: Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman. Each one has been featured in multiple movies and tv shows and are known widely across pop culture and the world. It’s totally possible that Snyder’s team could botch the whole thing up, but there is enough financial incentive for the production team to get it right, if not near perfect.

Do I have concerns?

Sure I do. I am concerned that Zack Snyder is the man carrying the primary directorial duties over the success or failure of this new universe. While his visual acumen is absolutely awe-inspiring and his action scenes are more impressive than almost any other living director, he needs major help with making his characters feel fully formed and three-dimensional emotional beings. His characters feel like representative ideas, not people. I like some of those ideas, but I think more audiences will respond to characters who are heartfelt and relatable in a way that most Snyder characters are not.

I get weary of reading complaints that Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice is a dumb title. We all know it’s a dumb title, but what concerns me is whether or not it’s a dumb movie. And I have faith that Warner Brothers and their team can pull it off. They don’t just have a star in Ben Affleck but an accomplished director in his own right. They don’t just have heroes, they have the Joker, Lex Luthor, Brainiac, and Darkseid. So far I just don’t see Marvel’s many forgettable antagonists able to fill those shoes.

When I think about the future of the Justice League universe, I don’t expect perfect movies, just good ones. If they can shoot for something spectacular, something bigger than a motley collection of second tier heroes, and if they can transcend the lazy narrative shortcuts that define so many comic book movies, we really could be on the edge of something wonderful.

No matter what these films are going to be divisive. They will receive a heavy dose of criticism for coming in second. Critics and fans will not hold back any of their strong opinions. People will nitpick, probably myself included.

But ultimately I think we’re in for a great ride. These are characters from which all other superheroes in part are derived. It’s not unreasonable to expect that Warner Bros. will in fact produce 10 good-to-excellent superhero movies by 2020, do so profitably, tell some amazing stories along the way, and introduce a new generation to some of the world’s most beloved characters. Let’s wait and see.

Guardians of the Galaxy and Why It’s Okay to Praise Marvel Movies

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Zach (aka Evil Genius) over at Stand By For Mind Control posted his thoughts today about Guardians of the Galaxy in response to a tweet by Kumail Nanjiani that I had retweeted. Specifically he questions the sonorous acclaim that has accompanied Marvel’s latest film. While recognizing GOTG’s entertainment value, he adds, “But it is in no way good enough to even shine the shoes of Raiders of the Lost Ark, one of the most satisfying adventure films ever made.”

I take his main point to be, how does an absolute classic and wholly satisfying experience like Raiders of the Lost Ark (95% Rotten Tomatoes) suddenly end up hanging out at the same party with a factory-made and purposely silly superhero adaptation like GOTG (92% Rotten Tomatoes)?

After all, he comments, “it is a film about really, really, really stupid things.”

It’s true. I’m not a huge fan Marvel’s films for exactly that reason. The franchise’s mythology is impossibly vague and consistently shallow, strewn together by as-yet-to-be-explained infinity stones and an as-yet-to-be-fully-introduced purple titan. But while the series sports its share of flaws, it is fast approaching the honor of becoming the most financially successful string of movies of all time (currently trailing only the Harry Potter series).

It’s not the great plots that earn a film like GOTG a host of defenders and worshippers. (No one liked The Avengers because the Tesseract was such a great MacGuffin.) It’s not the cookie cutter villains and tired plot devices. It’s assuredly not the inner machinations of H.Y.D.R.A. nor the Middle-Earth-with-lasers vibe of the nine realms.

The reason we are all over the moon for GOTG and Marvel stuff in general is much simpler. Marvel’s real strength lies less in creating Spielbergian inertia or knitting together Nolanesque intricacies than in simply hunkering down and setting up a deep bench of unlikely but inherently likeable characters.

Time and again, Marvel gives us characters we can root for.

We as a planet collectively shell out billions of dollars because we have a fairly consequential attachment to a narcissistic inventor, an old fashioned supersoldier, a brash deity, and a host of comic book ancillaries. We keep liking these characters and stay invested in their stories.

And in GOTG’s case, it introduces five of them. Five new reasons to watch, enjoy, and rewatch these movies.

No one cared about this team before but upon leaving the theater, a lot of people in a lot of places around the world now recognize these characters, feel for them, perhaps love them, and will most definitely arrive at conventions dressed as them.

Movies don’t have be high art and be directed by the master of their craft for them to matter. As wonderful as Indiana Jones is as both a character and a franchise, many kids today will know him better as a ride at Disneyland than a swashbuckling tomb-raiding adventurer on a movie screen. But many kids today (or perhaps teenagers) are going to remember their first experience with Rocket and Groot. They will remember laughing with an irreverent raccoon and his unflinchingly loyal tree companion.

Just because GOTG is not super deep doesn’t mean that it’s meaningless. It’s a pretty good parable of friendship. It achieves the difficult narrative goal of banding together a group of misfits and gives each character a serious emotional stake in their common struggle against Ronin the Blue Face. It anchors us of in a relatable story where 80’s pop music is the closest thing to feeling like the world makes sense again.

Movies don’t have to be perfect to make things a little brighter. The theater I attended was full of laughter, applause, and maybe even a little delight. If 30 years fron now I don’t remember the set pieces or the plot details, at least I know the hard work of director James Gunn and his crew meant something to the hundreds of people in that dark room one midnight on August 1.

The End of the Movie and Its Narrative Purpose

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Spoilers for many recent films below!

The ending of a movie wraps up both the final moments of the story as well as all its major thematic elements. A story’s conclusion offers a brief emotional summary of everything that been said throughout the course of the narrative. What the audience walks away with in those few minutes is a reminder of what this whole endeavor has all been about.

The ending is our final destination. It is where we’ve been headed from the start even if we were unaware of where exactly we were off to. Here we see with clear perspective the precise reason for how the story began and what its real purpose was. Like the conclusion to a college essay, most endings do not contain new information or surprising changes in opinion. Rather, they are the summation of all that has come before. Endings are a tiny moment of catharsis that wraps up that great turbulence that has just transpired in a tender moment of reflection and understanding. By tender, I don’t mean boring. I mean something meaningful, something with firm intention.

Endings are also a bold statement. Although during the narrative is it okay to play with ambiguity, wrestle over what is right and wrong, compare two opposite ways of doing something, at some point you have to take a stand. The end is a good place for that to happen. And in order to build to a satisfying conclusion, a story better achieve some kind of lasting resolution.

Some movies pull this off really well, leaving you with a sense of accomplishment and definitive proof that the central characters and the overall story have arrived at new stage of awareness and growth. Other movies really botch this up, somehow undoing and unsaying the very things they promised they would do and say.

Let’s look through some popular films from this past year and evaluate how well their endings deliver a satisfying unifying thematic message. Of course, beware of spoilers.

Pacific Rim

How it ends: Raleigh and Mako survive the first triple Kaiju attack and close the rift between worlds. They float together on the ocean, powerfully embracing but without a hint of romance.

What it means: This entire Kaiju war has been about the outmatched Pacific nations coming together against the odds to prevent the extinction of the human race. Raleigh and Mako are the prime example of this, their teamwork and mutual trust becoming the decisive factor in both the battle of Tokyo and the closure of the rift. They have been inside each other’s heads and learned how to work in harmony, an experience as intimate as the closest of human relationships. What need is there for kissing when they have so much respect, understanding, and compassion for one another. Saving the world from destruction calls for a hug.

Verdict: A little thin, but definitely classy.

Thor: The Dark World

How it ends: Thor tells his father Odin that he does not want to rule Asgard as king, preferring to return to Midgard and Jane Foster. It is revealed that Odin is actually Loki in disguise.

What it means: All of Loki’s character development was actually a ruse, a trick to escape prison and take over Asgard. His alliance with Thor and his heartfelt sacrifice were just more trickery. He has only changed his status, not his nature. The fate of Odin is unknown. This twist uproots the relationship we have just seen nurtured for two hours.

What made Thor and Loki’s fraternal struggle so moving was that here at the loss of their mother facing down a terrible evil, Thor and Loki are forced to trust each other again. Unlike Iron Man 3 or even The Avengers, the ENTIRE universe is at stake. Yet the impact on the characters and scenery is so minimal. Loki is still the trickster. Thor is still the exiled son. Asgard is still the shining city. We’re left unsure of how Malekith’s devastation affects anybody in any significant way, save for Thor’s unsurprising abandonment of the throne and Loki’s unsurprising grab for power. This ending comes across as nothing more than an advertisement for more Marvel movies.

Verdict: A comic book ending full of comic book nonsense.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

How it ends: Katniss wakes up in an aircraft, dazed and weak. Haymitch and Plutarch are there, explaining that the games were staged as part of an elaborate plan to rescue Katniss and groom her as the new leader of the revolution. Also, everyone was in on the plan except her.

What it means: Not only had Katniss been manipulated by President Snow and the Capitol, but also her friends. They neither trusted her nor sought her consent in events that deeply affect her. Their plan not only requires her to become the face of their revolution, but also has resulted in the decimation of her entire district. Essentially everything that has happened has happened outside the control of the main character. Her courageous actions in the Hunger Games are seemingly nullified as her agency as a character are stripped from her. Katniss comes across as a political pawn not a rebel leader.

Verdict: Are we watching the same movie, people?

Frozen

How it ends: Princess Anna freezes over trying to save her estranged sister, Queen Elsa. Her act of true love melts the curse and thaws the permanent winter over the kingdom of Arendelle.

What it means: Sacrificial love is of higher value than romantic “love”. Separated from her sister for so long, Anna demonstrates the lengths to which she would go for Elsa by running out onto the ice, her body consumed by ice. With no thought for her personal safety, she goes to rescue the sister who has shunned her at at every turn. Sacrificial love becomes Anna’s salvation.

This runs parallel to Anna’s experiences with Hans and Kristoff. Although Anna believed she loved Hans, that superficial feeling faded away once his true intentions were revealed. On the other hand, Kristoff accompanied Anna on her search and proved himself a faithful friend, an act far greater than demonstrating attraction or romantic fancy. A proven friend who has learned sacrificial love is a far better illustration of love than a handsome charmer who dazzles the senses.

Verdict: A truly valiant effort, but one that doesn’t quite gel for some reason. The story tried too hard to avoid the true love’s kiss trope without really earning the emotional revelation needed. Perhaps if the entire main cast, Elsa, Hans, Olaf, and Sven also all sacrificed themselves it would have resonated more deeply.

Gravity

How it ends: Dr. Ryan Stone makes it back to Earth, her pod crashes into a lake and the control panel catches on fire. Forced to evacuate the pod, she struggles to escape the submerged vessel. Finally she swims to the surface and pulls herself to the muddy shore and takes her first step back on earth.

What it means: Stone has finally found a reason to live. After the initial catastrophe, Stone reveals that her desire to stop living began long before she was stranded in space. Her entire journey throughout the film is about recovering her purpose, overcoming her grief over her daughter, and deciding to survive. The audience knows that Stone won’t drown in that lake because she has already made the decision to live. The lake scene simply reminds us that her decision is permanent. Stone has already been reborn.

Verdict: Extremely effective.

Monsters University

How it ends: After discovering he did not legitimately win the Scare Games, Mike travels to the human world and finds that children are not scared of him. Sully goes after him and together they find a way to generate the biggest scare on record. Although they still get kicked out of Monsters University, their newfound confidence allows them to work their way up the corporate ladder to finally become professional scarers.

What it means: This entire movie is rebuttal to the idea that you can accomplish your dreams simply because you are special. Most movies would have ended at the final scaring contest when Mike outscared the other team through sheer willpower. That ending was completely hollow because it felt untrue. Willpower was never going to get Mike into the scaring major. Dreams don’t always come true.

However sometimes there is another way. At the end of the movie, Mike and Sully sort through mail and mop floors as they dedicate themselves to working at Monsters Inc. They succeed not because they are somehow uniquely gifted or because they got a lucky break at the Scare Games. They succeed because 1) they have managed to become legitimately scary in their own way, 2) they don’t give up, and 3) they work really hard to earn a spot in a highly competitive field. In essence, the ending tells us that “thinking you are special” is nothing compared to “knowing your true strengths, having determination, overcoming setbacks, and working hard until one day the right opportunity opens up.” Not a simple message, but a beautifully stated and deeply resonant truth.

Verdict: Best ending of 2013.

A Special Case: The Superhero Ending

Let’s talk about a special type of ending unique to the superhero genre. Recently superhero films have made an effort to add weight to their endings by concluding with a moment that signals either the beginning or end of the hero’s career to save the world. It’s so prevalent these days that this phenomenon crops in almost every superhero film. Look at the ending of these fairly recent superhero films:

The Dark Knight: Hero quits.
The Dark Knight Rises: Hero quits again.
The Avengers: Heroes start.
Iron Man 3: Hero quits.
Man of Steel: Hero starts.
The Wolverine: Hero starts gain.
Thor: The Dark World: Hero quits.

Whether it’s Tony Stark shedding his many suits or Clark Kent joining the the Daily Planet staff, superhero films like to end with a larger statement about their hero’s development. Heroes might sacrifice themselves like Batman or take up their mantle again like Wolverine, but either way it drives home the point of the entire story. Whether the hero returns to civilian life or comes back with renewed resolve for their mission, it attempts to give the narrative a lasting impact on that hero’s goals, identity, and future.

Does it always work? Not really. But sometimes it is used to great effect. It all depends on if the big decision is backed up by the actual narrative or not. When Batman flees at the end of The Dark Knight, there is no way he is coming back without some serious consequences and a real explanation. When Wolverine decides that he can move on from Jean and overcome his fear of hurting people for the sake of stopping bad guys, it feels right. But when Tony ditches his whole superhero gig at the end of Iron Man 3, is there really any doubt that he won’t be back in the suit once Downey and Marvel sign a new contract?

As long as the decision to don or shed the cape falls in with the major themes of the movie, it can really work. But when it feels tacked on or not truly life-altering, that’s when it comes across as tired and tropey. The ending should convince us that this whole thing had a point. A solid ending is not new information or a clever plot twist or an advertisement for the next film, but rather serves as a lasting moment of closure that ties everything up with a sense of finality and progress. It should both release us from the story and yet continue to haunt us long afterward.