I’d subscribed to Disney Plus in order to see “Hamilton,” and I kept it to re-watch the 3 “Star Wars” trilogies in 4K HD and before canceling I decided to watch all those Avengers movies in 4K HD as we. Or at least up to when I started purchasing them on 4K, at which point I move over to my own discs.
All look superb in 4K. And I find watching them in order and close together most rewarding. Herewith, some thoughts.
Great art? Not sure I want to go that far yet. Great entertainment? For me a definite yes.
Shakespeare. Do you think theater-goers in his day thought his plays were great art when they first appeared on stage? I’d suggest they thought them entertainments. And they are that. The man knew how to please an audience. They are accessible in any decent clear production. My first experience with Shakespeare, other than the Classic Comics, was a school trip to see Olivier’s movie of “Hamlet,” when it was fresh and I was in my early teens. I recall coming home and telling my mother that it was so exciting: murder and ghosts and sword fighting and dead bodies all over the place at the end. And Hamlet was funny!
Now my appreciation of that play has deepened over time, and every time I see it in any production I find more in it. But I got the basic plot the first time around.
There is something Shakespearean about the Avengers movies, taken as a whole. Family conflict. Parents and children. Bastard sons. The role of a leader. Rightful succession. Conflict between individual desire and the public weal. Might and right. Friendship and love. I believe that Kenneth Branagh, noted as director of and actor in Shakespeare, was a perfect choice for “Thor,’ in which lots of these themes appear. He has at his disposal two of the great Shakespearean actors of the last decade or more: Anthony Hopkins and Tom Hiddleston. They are surrounded by other fine actors. But the big surprise, possibly, is how Chris Hemsworth holds his own with them.
Hemsworth, with that chest, those shoulders, those arms, that face, looks great. In a way his performance reminds me of Hamlet in the wit of his delivery. He is both dense and intelligent at the same time. He is wonderful in the fish-out-of-water aspects of the movie. His performance, with ample help from his director, no doubt, helps set a tone and a style that sustains the entire epic, something hovering between deadly serious and comic and sometimes at the same time. Like any Shakespeare play, the makers of this series will try anything to catch your attention and keep you entertained. I find myself amazed at how well the makers of the series have managed to do that and maintain coherence. For I do think it coherent. Mostly.
The other night got around to “Black Panther.” I had watched “Captain American” Civil War” the night before news broke of the death of Chadwick Boseman. This was a couple of days after that. I wondered how his death would affect my experience of the movie. Actually it did not. I guess I had already internalized the sorrow of his passing. I did find, however, that it gave added poignancy to T’Challa’s first visit to the Afterlife and his conversation with his father. I did find that I admired his performance more than ever.
Boseman, nicely put together and shapely though he is, is not the beefed-up type of superhero that we had grown used to with the Three Chrisses. He is much more nearly human-scaled. I think it is significant that he is smaller than both of his big challengers for the kingship. His power comes from something other than muscle. It is his suit with its ability to absorb energy from blows, enhance it, and send it back that gives him superpower, a wonderful use of a suit. Sort of like Iron Man’s exoskeleton or Thor’s hammer, in a way. Give me the right suit and I can be a superhero too! The clothes make the man!
One of the best things about the movie is that both our hero and the archvillain Killmonger have defensible points of view. One of the nicest things about our hero is that he sees this and internalizes something of what he learns from his defeated nemesis. He is changed. T’Challa seems to see beyond his emotions better than most of the other heroes. Think of the ending of “Captain America: Civil War.” Iron Man is determined to kill the man who murdered his parents, even though that murderer had done so under the control of someone else. T’Challa spares the life of the man who murdered his father, going beyond the emotional rage that had consumed him for so long and that had him chasing after the same man that Iron Man wished to kill.
Some naysayers insist that “Black Panther” is just another superhero movie that happens to have a Black protagonist. I join in with those who argue that even if it is just another superhero movie, it does feature a Black protagonist and cast and director and other staff and went on to make a whole lot of money at the box office. That in itself makes it possibly the most important movie released ruing its year. I also think it is more than that. The moral conflict at the center troubles in a good way, and its resolution in something of a synthesis resonates. The African settings function well as a contrast to the usual look and feel of the series, as do the costumes and the music. A perfect work of art? No. But neither is “Hamlet.”
The Three Chrisses: Evans, Hemsworth, and Pratt. If I sounded dismissive earlier, I didn’t mean to. I yield to no one in my admiration for those chests, those arms, those shoulders. But each Chris is more than that. It amazes me how Evans portrays goodness and decency without making that a bore and yet without ever cracking a smile delicately suggests something funny under all that. You can see why he is a leader. Henry V redux! Including the speeches! Hemsworth balances the comic and the tragic effortlessly, and Pratt finds deep emotion under a comic surface. All are fine, and fine-looking, actors. This is a series that features tits and abs more than tits and ass. I wonder if someone has made a compilation of all the beefcake scenes. If there’s not a logical case for a shirtless scene the makers throw one in anyway. That’s not a complaint.
The women in the series are more kick-ass than tits-and-ass, although in the earlier career of Tony Stark we do get a share of bimbos. Instead of mere T&A we get CEOs, Valkyries, God of Death, bald warriors, and all sorts of strong women. Smart, too. I love it that T’Challa’s sister is smarter than he. And where would he be without his bald warriors? Who just happen to be the most gorgeous bald-headed women since Ripley in “Alien 3.”
Tony Stark and Captain America. Are they the heroes of the saga? Stark we meet first, and Cap soon after. In “Endgame” they are both removed from the playing field, Stark by a great sacrifice and Cap by a decision to relinquish his power and return to the life he had missed during those 70 years he had been frozen in ice. It was interesting to watch the changes in the 2 men over time. Stark, the ruggedest individualist, me me me, becomes the company man, yielding to corporate control. Cap, originally Mr. Rah Rah America, my country right or wrong because how could my country go wrong, comes to distrust all authority and to rely solely on his own judgment. Does one choose between the two philosophies or does one distrust both in extreme? Of course such a divergence leads to conflict, which in “Captain America: Civil War” comes to a head and breaks our Band of Warriors into 2 opposing factions. Stark had explicitly acknowledged Cap as the leader of the group, but you always sense that he has placed an asterisk beside the label or at least has his fingers crossed behind his back.
The “Civil War” episode is for me interesting and problematic. Interesting because of the conflict coming to a head, yet problematic in how it gets there. Our heroes scream and shot and never listen to each other. You feel that if only they could sit down, have a drink, calm down, and talk calmly they could work a lot of stuff out. We have learned that among humankind that rarely works, but these are superheroes! That they act so crazily serves to diminish their heroism and their intelligence. The same thing occurs in the larger political sphere of this episode. I agree, there was a lot of collateral damage in the alien attack on New York and in the Sokovia disaster, but in the former the world was saved from domination by evil (not to mention saved from a nuclear missile sent by The Politicians) and in the latter Avengers saved many Sokovians, not to mention the entire planet. That was worth something. Total lack of understanding of that by the Powers (non-Avenger) That Be got tiresome, as did the inability of the Avengers to get across what they had accomplished.
In this episode, Tony Stark gets seriously personal. Putting the totally personal ahead of larger goals is a problem for our heroes too often. Note that the disaster at the end of “Infinity War” could have been averted had Quill not reacted solely out of his personal grief. Even Tony was trying to prevent his doing so but it didn’t work. It led right up to the Great Finger Snap.
Mention of Peter Quill brings up “Guardians of the Galaxy,” parts 1 and 2, plus their appearance in “Infinity Wars” and beyond. These guys are the Shakespearean clowns of the saga, even though they do have their sad stories and even, perhaps, a tragedy or so among them with more to come. Both “Guardians” and “Black Panther” serve wonderfully in broadening the look of the opus.
Banner/Hulk pairs nicely with both Tony Stark and Thor. In his Banner mode he is a scientific mind up there with Stark. In his Big Green Giant mode he is a good balance for Thor: both are examples of brute force, totally mad in Hulk’s case, somewhat more constrained in Thor’s. I like it that Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, Nat, is the person best able to calm him back to Bannon. The love between Nat and Bannon is nice, but we know that sexual arousal is one of the things that brings out the monster. Doomed from the start, other than on the spiritual level. Banner/Hulk also adds to the humor of the series, both in his interactions with others and with himself.
A hats off here to T’Challa’s kid sister, who is smarter than both Stark and Banner.
Black Widow has not, I believe, received her due for her importance in the movies. She is human-scaled, kick-ass warrior though she is from her Russian training. Her greatest and most unexpected talent seems to be for deep friendship, and so many of the other heroes profit from that. She supports them, in the best senses of that word, in a way that too often they do not do so with each other. She seems wiser than the men most of the time. And finally she makes a grand sacrifice in a death that, unlike many of the others, cannot be undone. Scarlett Johansson is marvelous in the role.
Which brings me around to “Infinity War” and “Endgame.” I believe this was intended as one movie initially, with the latter title, but there was just too much content. That last one runs something over 3 hours as it is, rightfully so. Breaking them in two allows for the wonderfully moving end to “Infinity Wars,” when with a snap of his fingers Thanos kills off half the living creatures in the universe, including half of our heroes and their buddies. We are so taken aback by the loss of persons we have come to love that it is easy for us to miss the hints of how it will all turn out in the end(game). I did, however, catch a significant pronouncement by Doctor Strange, although events leading up to Thanos’s taking of the last Infinity Stone slipped past me.
That break also allows for the deep sadness we get at the start of “Endgame.” One of the great successes of that movie is how it moves from that sadness into light again before we sink back in to that famous darkness before the dawn. The directors of “Endgame” insert several pauses in the work when the screen goes black for a few moments, daring in such a long movie. But it works.
Endgame: noun, Chess. the final stage of a game, usually following the exchange of queens and the serious reduction of forces
Yes, we saw that at the end of “Infinity War,” and we see more of it as “Endgame” moves along. Stark’s sacrifice and death at the end of the final battle restores the universe and most within it. It is great that the movie doesn’t end there. We get to see his funeral, which becomes a celebration of the Avengers. The movie continues. We get a bit of Stark’s young daughter. We see Cap depart to restore the 6 Infinity Stones to the points from which they had been taken. And we see that he does not return exactly as expected. So the saga, which had begun with Stark, ends with Captain America. They are both the heroes, if flawed at times, of the work.
They are both leaders in their own way. But generals need soldiers. Here I praise both Hawkeye and Black Widow for being that. I started to write “just that,” but such a label should not be applied to valiant soldiers.
I’ve not mentioned “Captain Marvel.” She comes late to the series, right before the two last movies. I’m not sure what to make of here. I’m not certain the movie-makers do either. Perhaps future installments will clarify the matter.
She has got to be dealt with, but somehow she comes across as an afterthought. The movie itself is of course most enjoyable. But Captain Marvel seems to take superheroism to a new level. As the movie progresses she becomes godlike. If she had been there all along, she would have made all our other characters unnecessary. Heck, she’s able to push a crippled spaceship gazillions of light-years away back to the Avengers headquarters after showing up in the absolute nick of time.
But even she does have some difficulty with Thanos at the end.
Thanos: is he the superhero taken to the darkest end? He starts with major powers and gains more as the Infinity Stones come within his grasp. He is calm, measured. He claims to not be motivated by personal emotion, at least until the end, but I suspect he is hiding something from himself. His arguments for destroying half the life in the universe are persuasive. Almost. The matter of ends and means raises its head.
There have been critiques of these movies that complain that question are raised and ideas are thrown about and little of a philosophic nature is resolved. But art (and I include entertainment) is not about answering questions. It is about raising them and making you think about them. If you’ve got the answers, don’t hide them in art: make a list and post on Facebook.
What bothers me most in the series: the violence and death are, for the most part, antiseptic. When half the life in the universe is wiped out, those that perish drift off in little flakes of ash. This is typical of superhero movies, or perhaps I should say with Hollywood movies. Think how the persons disintegrated in Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds” simply vanish, leaving their clothing gently floating down. (Admittedly he does show us, most literally, a bloody landscape later on. And in “Saving Private Ryan” he truly shows some of the damage of war to the human body.) Robot armies and soldiers in white armor regularly get blasted apart in bloodless fashion in the Star Wars movies, with a surprising lack of critical complaint. Does violence shown as antiseptic breed violence more than violence shown as bloody? Good question.
What bothers me least in the series: improbabilities and coincidences and the unexplained. These are comic book movies, for goodness sake, and comic universes have a lot of room for such. That is neither complaint nor criticism. Again I think of Shakespeare and his plays.
I could carry on at great length (what, you haven’t already?) about so much more. Potential topic for investigations include, but are not limited to:
Tin Persons: Iron Man and Nebula, Compare and Contrast.
Sibling Rivalries in the Infinity Universe.
Parents and Children: Mothers and Fathers and Daughters and Sons, Including
Those Not Blood Kin.
Gay Banter and the Superhero.
The Sex Lives of Superheroes.
Drax the Destroyer, Hulk, and Thor: Same Song Different Keys?
Hulk and Rocket: Rage and the Superhero.
Groot and Spider-Man: The Kid as Superhero.
Hawkeye and Black Widow: Learned skills and the Hero.
A Variety of Directors, a (Mostly) Coherent Universe.
The MCU: Tolstoian with a flavoring of Chekov and Dostoevsky,
But chances are I’m unlikely to tackle any of them.
When I was a child back in the middle (actually slightly before) of the last century, comic books were hated vehemently by teachers. Kids shouldn’t be reading this trash when there were books like “Kim” and “Little Women” and “The Little House of the Prairie” or biographies of great Americans scaled down for the young mind (and were those boring? Yes). I thought differently. I believed, and still do, that comic books should have been embraced as a way to grab the child’s mind. Once they got to love these essays in fiction, they would move on to embrace other works. As I did. And like me, they would not lose that early love.
Maybe it a nutshell that’s why I embrace the Avengers movies. The kid still in me, and I hope he never goes away, leaps up and down with glee.