We Won’t Tell You Who Dies

Avengers: Infinity War

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

Let’s say you recently penned Captain America: Civil War, an exceedingly successful comic book franchise effort weighed down by the mushrooming of heroes. So. Many. Heroes.

And let’s say it went so well that you are now tasked with the new Avengers movie—the film that takes very nearly every hero from your last effort and tacks on, say, 7 or 8 more. You would almost have to immediately think about thinning the herd, right?

Yes.

Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (who’ve penned all three Captain America films) weave a Marvel Universe-spanning tale that asks whether or not things would work out better if we had about half as many people to deal with. That seems like writerly self-reflection right there.

Thanos (Josh Brolin, who villains it up for Deadpool 2 next) believes in balance. He’s been collecting Infinity Stones across all the different Marvel movies so he can create this Justice Friends adventure and rid the universe of half its inhabitants.

Wait, Thanos is a Guardians of the Galaxy villain, right? Does that mean Starlord’s entire rag-tag crew will join the Avengers (and Dr. Strange and Black Panther and Spiderman and on and on)? So, Chris Pratt, Chris Evans and Chris Hemsworth?

Correct.

All we need to defeat Thanos is Chris Pine. No way six Infinity Stones can outshine the wattage of all the Chrisses!

The screenplay offers smart comic moments that suit individual characters (Drax! Teenaged Groot!) and never undermine the drama, of which there is plenty. And balance is clearly on the minds of the writers as well as directors Anthony and Joe Russo (who helmed the last two Captain American films and love Cleveland). The storyline divides up nicely to allow the plethora of personalities to shine, each in their own way.

Though the film runs a full 2 ½ hours with the end-of-credits stinger, it never drags. Plenty happens, all of it rooted in character and held together by Brolin, who gives the film a layered epicenter through his memorable CGI/voice performance.

The Thanos facial effects rank somewhere between Planet of the Apes and Superman’s mustache, while the outlying worlds and creatures sport satisfactory shine.

But we cannot get behind what they’re doing with Hulk. Not digging it.

The very best films in the Marvel universe excel in nuanced big thinking (Black Panther, Winter Soldier) or bullseye tonality (Spider-Man: Homecoming). Infinity War gets close on both battlegrounds, but lays up to bet on its own long game.

True, that sounds like cliched word salad, but we’re steering clear of planet spoiler.

Infinity War tackles some big ideas and makes some brave choices that may cause you to reassess the entire Marvel franchise.

Not everyone will be pleased.

But props to Markus, McFeely and the Russos, for being unmoved by the Last Jedi fanboy uproar and following an ambitious vision. And their film does entertain. There’s not a minute of bloat and there is plenty of thought-provoking story likely to make this a movie earning more respect through time and space.

Say It Loud

Black Panther

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

Ryan Coogler’s stunning first feature, 2013’s Fruitvale Station, proved his instincts as a storyteller. It also made apparent the force of nature that is Michael B. Jordan. That the two could go on just two years later to craft the fresh and vibrant Creed from the tired Rocky franchise showed that the blockbuster was as much in their mastery as the indie drama.

But a Marvel superhero action flagship? That’s Big. Big budgets. Big canvas. And with Black Panther, big expectations. Are Coogler and Jordan up to the challenge?

Hell yes.

Just when you’ve gotten comfortable with the satisfying superhero origin story at work, director/co-writer Coogler, co-star Jordan and the stellar ensemble start thinking much bigger. And now, we need to re-think what these films are capable of.

The action—whether air battles, hand-to-hand or via car chase—is breathtaking.

Wielding a palette of colors and visuals unseen to this point inside the MCU—this set design is glorious, situating a SciFi tech metropolis easily within a world that still embraces ancient tradition, an isolated world that evolved in its own course rather than being led by the evolution of the world outside. Wakanda looks unlike anything we’ve seen in the Marvel Universe or any other.

Not a minute of the film is wasted. Coogler manages to pack each with enough backstory, breathless action, emotional heft and political weight to fill three films.

The cast shines from the top down, but there are some stand-outs.

Chadwick Boseman, all gravitas and elegance, offers the picture perfect king—one who’s respectful of tradition yet still ready to open his eyes to the plight of his brothers outside his hidden nation of Wakanda.

Side note: is there anyone more effortlessly badass than Danai Gurira? Trick question, there is no question—the answer is no. And though she has remarkable range (if you haven’t seen her 2013 indie Mother of George, give yourself that gift today), her General Okoye is here for the beat down.

Lupita Nyong’o is also characteristically excellent in the role of the conscience-driven liberal. In a scene where she expects Gurira’s general to commit what amounts to treason, Coogler expertly reinforces an amazingly well-crafted theme mirrored in other pairings: the friction between surviving by force or by conscience.

This theme is most clearly outlined by the conflict between Boseman’s King T’Challa and his new nemesis, Jordan’s Killmonger.

Michael B. Jordan, people.

Coogler hands this actor all of the most difficult lines. Why? Because it is material a lesser actor would choke on, and Jordan delivers like a perfectly placed gut punch. He sets the screen on fire, and though every single performance in this film is excellent, Jordan exposes the artifice. His castmates are in a Marvel superhero movie. Jordan is not. Instead, he is this rage-filled, broken, vengeful man and he is here to burn this world to the ground.

His scenes with Boseman provide a cunning twist on the battle between a struggling hero and his evil twin. Usually a tired staple of sequeldom, BP adds an undercurrent of Shakespearean drama to the inevitable showdown of two characters who could easily represent the dueling inner conflict of one.

Coogler works with many of these basic themes found in nearly any comic book film—daddy issues, becoming who you are, serving others—but he weaves them into an astonishing look at identity, radicalization, systemic oppression, uprising and countless other urgent yet tragically timeless topics. The writing is layered and meaningful, the execution visionary.

Blistering social commentary, brilliant escapist fantasy, eye-popping visual wonder—Black Panther has it all.

Your move, every other superhero.

 

What We Do on Asgard

Thor: Ragnarok

by Hope Madden

What if the next Avengers movie was a laugh riot? A full-blown comedy—would you be OK with that?

The answer to that question has serious implications for your appreciation of Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok.

You’re familiar with Thor, his brother, his buddies, his hair. But how well do you know Waititi? Because he’s made a handful of really great movies you should see, chief among them What We Do in the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople.

Waititi’s films are charming and funny in that particularly New Zealand way, which is to say equal parts droll and silly. So a total goofus has made our latest superhero movie, is what I’m trying to tell you, and you’ll need to really embrace that to appreciate this film, because Thor: Ragnarok makes the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise seem dour and stiff.

There’s a real Thor movie in here somewhere. Thor (Chris Hemsworth and his abs) learns of his older sister Hela (Cate Blanchett—hela good casting!). Sure, Thor’s the God of Thunder, but Hela’s the Goddess of Death, so her return is not so welcome. But daaayumn, Cate Blanchett makes a kick-ass Goth chick.

Indeed, the film is lousy with female badasses. Tessa Thompson (Dear White People, Creed) proves her status by taking all comers, Thor and Hulk among them.

But can you get behind the idea of Hulk and dialog? Because he has dialog in this movie. Like whole conversations. Dude, I don’t know about that.

Loki (Tom Hiddleston) returns, as does Idris Elba, so this is one bona fide handsome movie. Mark Ruffalo makes an appearance in a vintage Duran Duran tee shirt. It’s like Waititi thought to himself, how many of Hope’s crushes can we squeeze into one film?

One more! Jeff Goldblum (don’t judge me) joins as a charming and hysterical world leader. His banter with his second in command (Rachel House—so hilarious in Wilderpeople) is priceless.

Also very funny, Karl Urban (who brings a nice slap of comic timing to every bloated franchise he joins), Waititi himself (playing a creature made of rocks), and one outstanding cameo I won’t spoil.

Thor: Ragnarock lifts self-parody to goofy heights, and maybe that’s OK. There’s no question the film entertains. Does it add much to the canon? Well, let’s be honest, the Thor stand-alones are not the strongest in the Marvel universe.

You will laugh. You’ll want to hug this movie, it’s so adorable.

Unless you’re totally pissed about the whole thing, which is entirely possible.