Agents of SHIELD has a stakes problem

The characters are fun but they can’t get no relief!

he stakes of a story can be a difficult thing to arrange. When we gathered here a month or so ago to talk about Ready Player One one of the primary problems with the film was its lack of stakes. The biggest issue was that in an effort to add more comedy to the film the creators chose to make the antagonists into complete buffoons; this drastically reduced the threat those antagonists represented.

So the trick then is to simply include competent villains, right? Well, sure, but even that doesn’t guarantee success. Another issue that film faced was that the task went from being one that took extreme knowledge and skill to one that took luck and otherwise didn’t make much sense. If the audience can’t follow a logical path from the efforts of the protagonist to their victories then it’s hard for the audience to take it seriously. If the protagonist relies too much on luck – which is more or less what led Parzival to all of his discoveries – then that also makes it difficult for the audience to care.

But even those are just scratching the surface of the kinds of missteps that can reduce the stakes of a story. Take Disney/ABC’s Agents of SHIELD for example. The antagonists in this TV series are frequently competent and sometimes more than competent. But the stakes are still an issue. The first reason is obvious to anyone who both consumes comic book stories and has done any reading on this topic: people coming back to life.

I won’t spend a ton of time on this subject because it’s been pretty extensively covered by other pontificators. I do want to say that there is room in stories for false deaths that still maintain stakes. (I can think of one recent example that still worked pretty well.) Like any story trope they can be overdone but just because there is a fake death or two doesn’t automatically ruin the stakes of a given story; a story can have stakes that are other than those of whether the heroes live or die and if there is foreshadowing that dead characters may return then it can still work out OK. I think death reversals fail primarily when they aren’t foreshadowed in any way and are done just as fanservice rather than in service of the story. SHIELD wouldn’t even exist, after all, if they hadn’t revived the allegedly dead Phil Coulson from his murder in The Avengers. Another terrific example is the characters who have returned from death in a certain HBO series. However, when too many characters – good, evil, or both – come back too many times for too little reason it can begin to wear on the audience’s ability to care about what’s happening through confusion or simple apathy.

The fake deaths aren’t the only problem SHIELD has, however. By far the larger issue lies in the number and depth of the threats the team faces on a regular basis. Just for the sake of comprehension let’s go over every threat faced in just part of this current season of Agents of SHIELD. SPOILERS for the first 17 episodes of the fifth season of SHIELD follow.

Spoiler alert! Turn back if you don't want any spoilers!

  • Time travel to the future
    • Mindless alien predators
    • Intelligent super-powered aliens
    • Greedy humans
    • Scared humans
    • Super-powered humans
    • Betrayal by alleged allies
  • A need to return to the past
  • Imminent alien invasion
  • Other aliens with hidden motives
  • Prophecy of the destruction of the planet.
  • Time loop.
  • The branding of SHIELD as enemies – again.
  • The destruction of multiple obelisks which somehow forms a phenomenon that brings nightmares to life.
  • The return of HYDRA. AGAIN.
  • Multiple superpowered enemies with varying motives.
  • The impending death of the team leader who has already died twice.
  • A prophecy that they must allow their leader to die.
  • Yo-yo has her arms cut off.
  • Fitz has a split personality.
  • Talbot’s impending betrayal

All of those threats or obstacles occur within 17 episodes of this season, usually more than one at a time. And I’m probably forgetting at least some of them. None of these threats are treated as minor and there is absolutely no break between them. The moment they deal with one problem two more sprout in its place. It’s frankly exhausting.

The fact that Agents of SHIELD never allows a moment’s rest for its hero creates a few problems. The most obvious one from a logical standpoint is that it ruins the believability of the story. Whatever superpowers some members of the team have, they’re all still mostly human. That means they need things like food, sleep, rest, and even relaxation. The constant inundation of enemies and disasters means they might get to eat and occasionally sleep but they’re never resting or relaxing. There are always three or more threats that need to be solved RIGHT NOW.

The other issue is probably pretty familiar to people who spend a lot of time writing stories or are knowledgeable about how they are written but might be less so for other people. Stories operate on the idea of building up tension and bring the story to a conclusion. That release of tension allows for catharsis. That’s a technical sounding term but it just basically means the relief of strong emotion or tension. A good climax will build up all kinds of strong emotions and tension in audience members. The conclusion of the story will relieve them – usually replacing them with exhilaration or sadness depending on the kind of story. This is true of a romance where the climax might be the final moment of will-they-won’t-they and it’s true of an action story where the climax is probably the final confrontation between the hero(es) and villain(s).

Because SHIELD has so many concurrent threats there’s never a release of tension. OK, great, they stopped evil villain A over here but there’s still natural disaster B and ticking time bomb C to deal with. But those won’t be solved until two weeks from now and by then we will have introduced threats D, E, and F. In a way this even goes back to another piece I wrote about filler episodes, a few months back. SHIELD hasn’t had a recognizable filler episode in at least a year and it really could use a handful to just let the characters breathe both literally and metaphorically.

The lack of a break between threats also causes them each of them to blend into a kind of white noise. As an audience member, without that catharsis, how can I judge how dangerous the latest HYDRA plan is versus the impending alien invasions versus the prophecies that Daisy will destroy the world? And if I can’t tell how dangerous they are, how can I care at all? Much less take them seriously. It’s all a swirl of loud noises and flashing lights and after a while I’m just blind and deaf instead of terrorized.

SHIELD has tripled down on these issues the last few weeks by having the cast break the fourth wall a bit and make frequent jokes about how they never stop fighting six different kinds of danger at the same time. It’s a bit baffling that the writers clearly understand what it is they’re doing without making any attempt to rectify it.

And, for the record, stakes are a complicated topic and it is possible to have all those threats and still have a strong story. But if you’re going to do that you need to eventually solve all of them and give your heroes a break. The natural point for that to occur is at the end of the season but SHIELD likes to use that time to set up the next huge threat as a cliffhanger. The cliffhanger should probably be dying as a TV trope, anyway, but that’s an entirely different article.

The first season of the show was hardly perfect, but one thing it did do right was deal with threats in a manner that allowed for occasional resolution. There was definitely a serial plot happening in the background but it was broken into episodic stories which allowed for at least a measure resolution at the end of episodes. Yes, the show was a bit campy, but that part hasn’t actually changed. The ways in which the show has improved since then include accepting the campiness and making it a part of its identity instead of trying to pretend it wasn’t there.

It’s unclear how long the show can maintain this break-neck pace without ever providing any resolution to anything and maintain viewership. Honestly, it’s unclear what kind of viewership the show is currently enjoying. It’s in the middle of its fifth season which doesn’t sound like a show that is barely crawling along but I rarely hear people talk about it and it seems entirely possible that Marvel/Disney just might not have noticed the losses they’re taking on it because of the massive profits they’re making everywhere else.

On the other hand, a quick google search of the show suggests multiple outlets were begging people to come back to the show around December of last year because it was good again. So maybe I’m completely off-base. I know I suggested on Twitter that the show was not very good because of the issues I outlined above and received nothing but disagreement. So maybe I’m the clueless one this time.

One thing that should be obvious from my writing about the show at all is that I am absolutely still watching it. It’s one of only two weekly televised shows I keep up with on a semi-regular basis (the other, Once Upon a Time, is approaching its series finale) so that should tell you a little something about how enjoyable it can be beyond the complaints I’ve raised here. The stories may not be well-conceived or always well-written but the characters are charismatic in their own ways and there is absolutely worse dreck on television. If you’re looking for a show with a great deal of technical writing proficiency you probably want to look elsewhere but if you’d like a mindless, campy melodrama then Agents of SHIELD might be just the show you need.

Avengers: Infinity War is not only ambitious, it’s pretty damn good

They did something no other Marvel movie has even attempted.

Avengers: Infinity War is easily the best movie I’ve seen since Thor: Ragnarok. To truly understand the greatness of the movie I think we’ll have to, as usual, go into spoilers. But before we get there let’s get one thing straight. Alan Silvestri is a music scoring god. At the ripe age of 69, he’s still knocking scores out of the park. His work was tremendous in the terrible movie that was Ready Player One where he played up the cheesiness of the film to the hilt, highlighting moments that thematically matched Back to the Future with stings from that score. His work was no less tremendous in this film even though the intent and execution were entirely different where he dealt with a far more serious tone.

The movie is pretty dark, especially for Marvel fare, so you might want to take that into consideration when deciding whether your kid is ready to see it. Or whether you really want to watch it, yourself. The movie earns that darkness with quality writing and there’s still a fair amount of humor but it’s something to keep in mind.

I also want to address the five points from my preview article and I think I can touch on one of them without getting into spoilers. If even that seems like too much for you and you haven’t seen it, yet, turn away now. You have been warned.

I worried that the movie would turn into a Transformers flick with tons of incomprehensible CGI battles. I can assure you now that that is simply not the case. Yeah, there are plenty of CGI battles to be had in this movie but the stakes and players are always crystal clear. The choreographers, costume crew, and animators all do a terrific job highlighting who is who with different costumes, moves, and frequent, brief pauses to allow the audience to reorient themselves. The movie also did a great job varying the scale of the various conflicts so that they didn’t all feel the same and when it goes big they really go all in. That might honestly be the motto of this movie, “Go all in, all the time.”

OK, so let’s hit the spoilers.

Spoiler alert! Turn back if you don't want any spoilers!

I’m already doing these out of order so I’m just going to keep going with that to make things fit the new order I want. Cool? Cool.

Did they kill off characters just do prove Thanos was a badass?

The fear that got me started on the preview article even if it didn’t show up until second on the original list was that lots of characters would die for this reason. And I nailed that one. Heimdall (Idris Elba) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston) die at the beginning of the movie for absolutely that reason and that reason alone. This was incredibly frustrating for me as I had just watched Movies with Mikey about Thor: Ragnarok earlier the day I saw this movie. Mikey goes on at length about how that film eliminates the chaff of the prior two films and reboots it with just the necessary and good characters. And then this film eliminates at least two of them without preamble. So, yeah, two characters – one minor, one major – killed off in the first 10 minutes of the movie and I was prepared to riot before the title had even appeared onscreen.

The good news, however, is that every other character death felt earned. Even the ones in the final moments that will almost certainly be undone by the end of the next film. Particularly moving was Vision’s (Paul Bettany) death – which happened twice. Wanda Maximoff (aka Scarlet Witch) (Elizabeth Olsen) must murder her lover, Vision, in order to prevent Thanos (Josh Brolin) from completing the Infinity Gauntlet by collecting Vision’s Mind Stone. She has spent the entire movie trying to find a way around this but ultimately has failed. Just as she finishes destroying the stone and him he mouths, “I love you.” to her and it’s a gripping moment in a movie that doesn’t otherwise really deal in character drama outside this and a couple other moments. That isn’t the end of the scene though. It leads to the moment when Thanos finally drives the point home that he absolutely cannot be stopped (yet). He uses the Time Stone that he just recently acquired from Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), and company to reverse time until Vision is revived. He then takes the gem and kills him, again, without any hesitation whatsoever.

So you get a nice, strong bit of character drama, you are reminded once last time (in this film, anyway) how terrifyingly unbeatable Thanos is, and you are reminded how utterly ruthless he is when it comes time to kill people in order to achieve his goals. There’s a ton of quality stuff happening in that single moment. And it’s far from the only moment in the film to work that hard or that well.

The movie did chicken out when it was given the easy shot at Iron Man after setting everything up for him to get offed. Though it did it in a way that was traumatizing for the character and offers him new opportunities for growth and/or movement.

Was Wakanda screwed?

One of two climactic, simultaneous battles of the film took place there but it looks like they either never had any intention of allowing my specific fears to come true or they did some serious re-working. For one thing, perhaps the most memorable scene from the trailers, which provided the screenshot that became the headline for last week’s preview article, doesn’t currently appear in the movie. Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and his Wakandan cohorts were given equal billing at the very least when the fight came to their turf. T’Challa actually did lead the fight, Okoye (Danai Gurira) continued to hold her own with superpowered beings all around her, and Shuri (Letitia Wright) had a terrific moment when she mocked the brilliant Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) and Tony Stark for not thinking of something that was blindingly obvious to her as well as having the tech and acumen to pull off a tricky bit of malware removal that they couldn’t have hoped to manage.

The country doesn’t escape unscathed. There are fires and destruction all around the capital but for the most part, they held their own nicely. At least until Thanos used the gauntlet to implement his ultimate plan. When he destroyed half of humanity T’Challa was one of those who was killed. This seems like a huge mistake. T’Challa was already missing for a large chunk of his own movie and now, while it seems unlikely he’ll stay dead permanently, he’s likely to miss at least a large chunk of the next movie. Honestly, I would have been far more interested in seeing Okoye “die” in his arms and how that affected his character as he fights through the next film. It also would have been more believable that she might stay dead.

Wakanda deserved to have their hero be one of those who was front and center in the next film. It’s possible that Shuri, Nakia, or even M’Baku might take over the role. However, Black Panther made that seem like a pretty unlikely outcome. Even if they do choose to go that route or otherwise ensure that Wakanda’s heroes are able to continue the fight without their king in the next film, it’s getting to be a bit frustrating that Marvel can’t seem to let Chadwick Boseman develop any kind of momentum in the role.

Did many (or any) characters get interesting arcs?

This was the biggest question I had to ask myself when I walked out of the theater. Did anyone actually get an arc? The answer turns out to be quite different from anything I’d considered before seeing the movie so let’s break it down into two parts.

For one thing, some heroes were utterly missing. Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Antman (Paul Rudd) got only passing references. Hawkeye is an original Avenger and he merits only a single line about being under house arrest. And he has to share that line with Antman who may or may not even actually have ever been an Avenger. Even worse, to my way of thinking, were the omissions of Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) and Korg (Taika Waititi). Last we saw them they were traveling with Thor. They had just been introduced in his latest film, last year, and it seemed like they were going to be terrific sidekicks going forward for him. It seems unreasonable that they might have perished without even a tiny bit of screen time in this movie but we only ever saw one Asgardian refugee ship and it definitely got blown to pieces. In addition to that, it seems unreasonable that the MCU would want to continue with Thor as the only Asgardian. Hopefully, we’ll discover in the next film that they acquired another ship somewhere and that Valkyrie and Korg were leading the other half of the Asgardian refugees somewhere else.

The other issue with most of the heroes arcs is that they’re either ignored or repeated. Captain America (Chris Evans) has apparently been running his own version of The A-Team (which could have been an interesting stand-alone film) but is more or less the same as we last saw him. He was also, oddly, barely in this film. Tony Stark has reverted to the same argument he’s had with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) in seemingly every film since the second: she wants him to stop being Iron Man and he can’t/won’t do it. Banner has lost control of Hulk, again, though in a different way. Loki betrays everyone he sees, again. Spiderman wants to save the world from threats that probably outclass a high school student and conflicts with Stark’s paternal instincts while he’s at it. The Guardians seem almost dull without their characteristic conflict.

It was a bit jarring to realize that absolutely none of the heroes change in any noticeable way and some reverted a bit. That’s when I realized. This movie isn’t about the heroes at all.

It’s about Thanos.

Someone referred to this movie as “Our generation’s Empire Strikes Back” and I can see why someone would say that. But this movie is far more like the prequels than Empire, except it’s actually pretty good at what it does with a couple notable exceptions. This movie reveals the backstory and motivations of Thanos, which makes him a far more interesting character. Obviously, his motivations are monstrous, he’s cruel, and he’s incredibly ruthless but you can at least see why he’s doing the things he’s doing and it’s for more than just the sake of ruling/destroying the universe. He actually thinks he’s saving it.

The second biggest problem with Thanos is that his plan is, as half of the internet has pointed out by now, pretty dumb. I’d argue that if you have a gauntlet that will allow you to change anything you want to change and you’re worried about the finite resources of the galaxy that it would make far more sense to just use this infinite power to create infinite resources. For one thing, killing half the population of the universe delays the problem rather than eliminating it. Living beings reproduce, that’s how they live. Half of the population of the universe will continue repopulating until they reach this level again. Is Thanos going to just destroy half the universe again, at that point? Also, if you absolutely must destroy half the universe and you have a gauntlet with powers that specifically control minds, souls, time, and reality and you’re “doing it for their own good” maybe you could do it in such a way where everyone forgets all those people were ever alive in the first place instead of in such a way that causes them to watch, horrified, as their loved ones disappear in a puff of ash one by one? Just a thought.

When you introduce an artifact as powerful as the Infinity Gauntlet – or even one as powerful as any of the gems/stones used on it – you’re going to run into plot hole issues like this. It doesn’t make sense that a creature who can control reality itself could ever actually be threatened by any of our heroes and yet he was. You’re just going to have to kind of ignore those if you’re going to enjoy the film so the job of the writers is to make the plot holes as small as possible and then make you want to ignore them. They mostly succeeded in this film.

Did it ignore opportunities to delve deeper when the story offered them?

Yes. Absolutely. Easily the weakest part of the film is the one moment where they try to be a bit deep. Thanos and Gamora (Zoe Saldana) travel to a distant world, I forget the name but it’s unimportant, they run into Red Skull (Ross Marquand, doing a passable Hugo Weaving impression) who informs Thanos that in order to gain the Soul Stone (no, not the World of Warcraft spell) he must sacrifice the one thing he loves the most. A single tear drops from his eye as Gamora taunts him because he has never loved anything in his long life.

Of course, it turns out that Thanos did “love” someone. Despite having dozens of “children” that he forced to fight to the death and otherwise abused physically and emotionally, he apparently “loved” Gamora. She realizes this to her dread just as he decides that his love for her will not allow him to stop his quest to save the galaxy from itself. He throws her from the top of the cliff, she dies from the fall, and he gains the power of the Soul Stone.

I’m sorry, but no. Thanos does not “love” Gamora. He is an abuser and a bully. He has abused and bullied everyone he has ever known. His feelings for Gamora might seem like love in his twisted mind but they absolutely are not. It literally (literally) gave me pain to see Marvel treat whatever he felt for her as if it were the same as love because it categorically was not. She was an object to him. At best, she was an idealization of what he wanted her to be. He never saw her for who she was and most definitely never loved her. They could have had this be a different kind of moment. A realization that what he felt for her wasn’t love after he’d killed her and that he’d have to get the stone another way. ANYTHING except to treat whatever twisted, vile emotions he felt toward her as if they were the same as love. It was gross and more than a little despicable.

The one thing I will allow from that scene that wasn’t wholly terrible is that when Gamora realizes that he thinks he loves her she does not for one instant have an, “Awww. He cared about me the whole time!” reaction. She immediately tries to kill herself to prevent him from using her. Then she fights him tooth and nail until her demise. At no point does she consider for an instant that his “love” might be a good thing or wonder if she should have seen it sooner. Good for her for never losing sight of the one thing the writers did, that he’s terrible and his “love” is not a good thing to have.

This movie tried to do something that had never been done before; make a villain the star. The fact that they even attempted this is impressive. How very well they accomplished it is even more so. I wish I had a time stone so I could go back in time and convince them to clean up a couple of these issues, particularly the Gamora thing which I cannot stress enough is absolutely terrible in every way, but it was a far, far better film that I had feared it would be. It was almost certainly the best of the “Avengers” movies, so far.

Ultimately, the way people perceive the quality of this film will rely heavily on the sequel; this was really just the first half of an incredibly long movie, after all. The number of characters who are returned to life as well as the manner and timing in which it happens will also weigh a great deal on how people ultimately view these two films. If my decades of consuming media have taught me anything one of the hardest things about writing a story is getting the ending right. You can see this in everything from Mass Effect‘s complete audience revolt to George R.R. Martin’s reluctance or difficulty in finishing A Song of Ice and Fire. If Joe and Anthony Russo along with whatever writers they get (Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely did Infinity War, but I can’t find listings for who will be writing the next part) want to really make sure the audience views both films favorably they’ll have to figure out how to stick the landing.

What did you think? Did you enjoy it enough to look past the flaws? Did I miss something? Let me know in the comments below or on Twitter!

 

My top 5 fears for Marvel’s Avengers: Infinity War

I hope it’s really good! But the trailers and previous movies have me convinced it won’t be…

Avengers: Infinity War comes out tomorrow. Technically it comes out Friday, but all the best nerds will be in line tomorrow night to watch it. It will launch the beginning of the 2018 Summer Blockbuster Season. Comic book fans, movie fans, superhero fans, and just random people are super excited for this movie. I am not. Here are the top 5 reasons I’m pretty sure this movie is actually going to suck

It will continue the tradition of paying lip service to depth in storytelling

Remember when in Avengers: Age of Ultron there were a couple of superpowered beings who had been raised and brainwashed by HYDRA, Marvel’s version of super-Nazis? They fight the Avengers at every turn because they want to avenge themselves against Tony Stark – side note why does everyone want revenge against him? Even in Civil War, ostensibly a Captain America vehicle, the bad guy wants Stark at least as much as Cap – but then when Wanda realizes that Ultron actually wants to destroy the world instead of just Stark she and her brother turn on him and decide to join the Avengers. And literally no one questions this. They’re just allowed in.

That could have been a moment for interesting character development between the twins and the original Avengers and it could have been a strong moment of storytelling. We could have seen how the heroes struggled to trust these people who had previously been trying to kill them, how the Maximoff’s dealt with the fact that they’d been so wrong, or explored the folly of following a leader who promises to help you while clearly leading everyone in a direct path to destruction. Instead, all of that was just kind of glossed over because the Maximoffs needed to be good guys for the final battle and the movie couldn’t be bothered to take any time to deal with it.

If you watch closely in the second full trailer for Infinity War you can see Colonel James “Rhodey” Rhodes aka War Machine standing around looking dramatic with several other heroes. You may recall that he was paralyzed during the fight between all the heroes in Civil War. It was a weird, traumatizing moment following the levity of the rest of the fight. By the end of the film they’d already undercut that moment a great deal by showing Rhodey learning to walk again using some Stark-tech leg braces. We also know that the Wakandans have medical technology which very likely could help him walk, again.

The problem with all of this is that we were supposed to be made to feel terrible about the fight that had previously been among the most enjoyable yet produced in the MCU when Rhodey fell. It was supposed to show the “real consequences” of the difference of opinions the heroes were having. But by the end of the same movie the writers were saying, “J/k! He’ll be fine!” and now it’s such a minor point that they show it in the trailers with absolutely no context as if of course Rhodey is not only walking again but capable of resuming his role as War Machine.

If you don’t want characters to deal with traumatic life changes in your movies that’s more than fine. But to introduce these kinds of things then reverse them without ever actually addressing them is something of a slap in the face to the audience. And it looks like that’s the sort of thing we can expect the MCU to continue to do.

At least one character will be killed for no other reason than to “raise the stakes”

In each of the first two Avengers films, we saw a character die in order to make it clear that things were, in fact, quite serious. The first movie saw Agent of SHIELD, Phil Coulson, the only man who had shown up in every MCU movie previous to this one, murdered by Loki in order to inspire the Avengers to actually work together. In Age of Ultron it was Pietro Maximoff because Joss Whedon had so carefully crafted the movie to make it look like Hawkeye was going to die so that he could kill someone else and have it be a surprise. This also served as an impetus for Wanda going crazy and really taking the fight to Ultron.

You’ll hear a lot more from me about character deaths as you read this blog but suffice to say for now that, in general, I think they’re overdone. Too many writers use them as a crutch to raise the stakes or drive the action forward instead of as a logical conclusion to a character arc or to really impact the characters. The best writers can move stories forward, raise stakes, and provide tension and drama without killing people. And the MCU has largely ignored those two deaths since the moment they occurred. No one has referenced either Phil or Pietro since their untimely demises. Pietro was Wanda’s twin brother and we are led to believe they’d probably not often if ever left each other’s sides in their entire lives. This should be a really big deal for her and impact everything she does and thinks for years. But she’s too busy falling in love with Vision to worry about that, right now.

Now it’s true that the first two Avengers movies had Joss Whedon in charge, and he’s infamous for his love of surprising character deaths. But I would still expect at least a minor character or three to bite the dust in this film just to prove that “things are serious” I also wouldn’t be shocked if Iron Man or Captain America are killed in order to show that even the big heroes can be killed in the MCU sometimes, to show that Thanos is a True Threat, and in order to pass their mantles on to presumably cheaper actors as the MCU brings its latest “phase” to a close.

Be on the lookout for renewed emphasis on existing relationships with one or two characters in particular. Or even the introduction of new relationships of backstories. Those character(s) will be the ones with the highest chance of being killed.

There’s no way everyone will get their fair share of screen time

Do you know how many heroes are in the MCU, now? A lot. According to IMDB no fewer than 35 heroes or other prominent non-villains will appear in this film. At least 4 villains are supposed to be present, as well. And I know they don’t have every character listed because, for example, Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie is not named among the cast members even though she has a stunt double credited and has been interviewed about her role in the film. There are probably even more than that. That is a lot of named characters for a movie. And they have already managed to completely forget to include Hawkeye, an original Avenger, in the trailers and posters.

Now, admittedly, plenty of these characters wouldn’t get significant time in plenty of other movies. Hawkeye’s wife, Laura Barton, for example, is listed in the credits. But so far as the narrative is concerned she is only important for how she affects Clint. Dr. Hank Pym, Pepper Potts, and Happy Hogan all probably wouldn’t get to do much in even smaller films, either.

But this movie brings a lot of Type A personalities into the room and wants them to share screen space. Star Lord, Captain America, Black Panther, Iron Man, Dr. Strange, and even Thor are all kind of used to running their own shows. There is no way we’ll see completed character arcs for all of them much less the rest of the heroes. And, given Marvel’s history on this front, I wouldn’t be surprised at all to actually just see fractured character arcs for some of the good guys and many others to be ignored entirely.

Wakanda is probably going to get screwed

We already know from the trailers that at least one major fight will be happening in the fictional African country. But what we also know is that the general assumption among most movie-type people is that movies lead by anyone other than white characters are not as successful. This movie was in production before Black Panther actually came to theaters so it’s entirely possible that the writers both underestimated how well that movie would do and how important that country should be in the narrative as well as how much it means to the audience.

Instead of allowing the scenes in Wakanda to be about the Wakandan people I’m afraid the white heroes are going to take over. This fear stems not just from assumptions about and by movie makers but also by what we saw in the film. As a group of heroes rushes to a battle in Wakanda it isn’t T’Challa as Black Panther who takes the lead, it’s Steve Rogers as Captain America. And they are flanked by Bucky Barnes, Black Widow, The Hulk, and Okoye. Technically the Hulk is green but when he isn’t green he’s very, very white. Where are Shuri, M’Baku, and Nakia? This is their country. They should be the ones leading the way to the fight.

I also worry that it will be their home that is trashed in the upcoming battle because the creators might have considered it the safer city to destroy since it is entirely fictional. It would undo the decision that T’Challa made at the end of Black Panther to step into the light and use their technology and skills to help the rest of humanity by putting them in a position where they would need help, instead.

It’s going to be a Transformers movie

If the movie is light on story, character development, and still lasts two-and-a-half hours or more it’s going to have to be full of something else. That something else is very likely to be incomprehensible CGI battles without nearly enough context. Movie production companies want to make money. That is their reason for existence. Michael Bay has shown that explosions are a universal language that allows for movies to more easily win over a global market and make money not just from the country of origin but from all over the world. Movies have been moving toward this trend a lot, recently, and the trailers for Infinity War certainly do nothing to convince anyone that it’s going to include anything other than a lot of people looking sad or angry and fighting CGI monsters. I suppose it’s possible that the fights will be more interesting than those in the Transformers franchise – at least we’ve had dozens of movies to become attached to these characters and watch them grow before now – but it likely won’t be to the degree we should expect.

So, yeah, I have a lot of worries about this movie as a storytelling vehicle. However, I think the best approach for most viewers going to see this film will be to approach it as if it were a professional wrestling match. They’ll have the faces, they’ll have the heels. There will be some fights that go exactly how you expect and some massive upsets. The action will be fake but the pain will be real. There will be challenges issued and pithy one-liners delivered. It will be a lot of mindless fun. Just sit there in the dark with your popcorn and try not to think too hard and there could still be plenty to enjoy.

What do you think? Are you still looking forward to it or have the other recent team-up films soured you a bit? Let me know in the comments below or on Twitter!

 

Can we get a movie about Black Panther’s Okoye?

The Wakandan General stole the show, for me.

Before I start gushing about how amazing General Okoye was, I want to pause briefly to talk about the movie as a whole. It was really awesome! There. Review over.

No, I’m kidding of course. The action was good, though the opening fight sequence was a bit dark at least in the particular theater I saw it in. The politics were interesting in a way that The Phantom Menace has dreams and nightmares about. The expanded cast of characters – in particular, the aforementioned General, played by Danai Gurira; Wakanda’s top spy and love interest to the titular Black Panther, Lupita Nyong’o’s Nakia; and the kingdom’s super-energetic top tech guru, Princess Shuri as played by Letitia Wright – were all terrific. If you’ve not seen it I definitely recommend it. If you’ve already seen it you should probably watch it again; the more I think about the movie the more the subtexts expand into my mind. That’s a great trait for a movie to have and definitely lends to rewatchability – that’s the technical term, of course.

Now I’ll dig into some spoilers, so you’ve been warned.

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First some nitpicking

OK, I want to take one more tiny detour into Nitpick land before I talk about how awesome the general was. If you don’t want to see any negativity or nitpicking, I don’t blame you at all and please skip on down to the header that says “GENERAL OKOYE IS THE MOST AWESOME!!!!” But I’m a native nitpicker – my sixth post ever on this website was just nitpicking for 4000 words, after all – so y’all are just going to have to get used to this quirk of mine or ignore it, I’m afraid.

I spent the entire second half of the movie annoyed at it to the point that I basically stopped enjoying myself. Killmonger had just killed Klaue and lugged him to Wakanda to use as a kind of party gift in order to convince the Wakandans to hear him out. I had several problems with the plan at this point:

  1. Killmonger obviously knew where Wakanda was and has the resources to go there at any time. If all he needed was Klaue’s body to get in, then there was no reason to go through with the heist, the sale, or the jailbreak. He could have killed him at the start and been done with it.
  2. He already had a royal ring. That seems like it should have been enough to get him in there and questioned about its origin and authenticity all by itself.
  3. There doesn’t seem to be any way Killmonger could have known about the specific internal politics of modern Wakanda in order to think that his plan to give them Klaue was a particularly good one.

I discussed this with my friend and discovered that I had missed a strong possibility on at least the first point: that Killmonger, as a black ops specialist trained in the art of destabilizing governments and by all accounts very good at it, might have gone through with the other stuff in order to make Wakanda/King T’Challa feel or appear weaker in order to give himself a better chance of convincing people to allow his coup attempt. That all seems quite reasonable once it’s explained even though it doesn’t end up mattering in the slightest – only one person is upset by T’Challa’s inability to bring Klaue in and that person would have been just as happy to have Klaue delivered to him without making T’Challa look stupid first. I’m still a bit annoyed I missed it, though. But hey, no one’s perfect.

As to point two, the same friend argued that they would have assumed it was a fake. I still think that it would have been concerning enough to the people in charge to get him an interview/interrogation with high ups – which is ultimately what bringing Klaue earned him – but that part’s a little bit debatable. So, in the interests of fairness, I’ll simply concede that one. Bringing Klaue in the way it was done gave Killmonger a stronger position to deal from than the ring alone would have. Fine.

It’s the third point that I still have trouble with. Killmonger is a master secret agent, fine. But Wakanda is also the most technologically advanced AND most secretive nation on the planet. For decades, centuries, maybe millennia they have been hiding their true nature from the outside world. You can’t accomplish this task for that long without some serious paranoia, tech, and the willingness/competence to use it. And it isn’t like Wakanda’s blood thirst for Klaue was super well-known or even all that wide-spread. As events unfold it becomes clear that exactly one person in the upper levels of Wakanda’s government cares enough about Klaue’s death to escort Killmonger directly to the council of elders and king without passing go or collecting two-hundred dollars: their chief of border security, W’kabi. Every other person at the top of the government wants him dismissed, arrested, or killed even after he brings them Klaue until T’Challa accedes to his request for a formal challenge.

In order for Killmonger’s plan to succeed he either needed high-level, sensitive, personal information about W’Kabi’s state of mind or he had to get incredibly lucky when he guessed that the country would be happy to see Klaue’s corpse and just happened to bring it to the one person for whom that actually happened to be true. I suppose it’s possible that Killmonger did that level of spy work before he formulated his plan, but it’s never once shown, discussed, or even alluded to. I had a long discussion with my friend about whether such a thing was necessary or not and I plan to talk more on that subject, later, but I’ve already spent more words on this subject than I had intended to.

Of course, none of this diminishes Michael B. Jordan’s excellent performance. Any issues here, real or imagined, lie directly at the feet of the writers. This is the kind of tiny thing that many people can and will completely ignore. But, like I said, I’m a nitpicker and I pick nits. As Geico would say, “It’s what he does.”

GENERAL OKOYE IS THE MOST AWESOME!!!!

OK, with the nits picked and out of the way let’s talk about the most awesome character in the movie. Wakanda has an elite force of royal bodyguards made up of women that is known as the Dore Milaje. Of all those badass ladies the most badass of all is their general, Okoye. Despite the fact that she is tasked with guarding a superhuman king who can run faster and jump higher and further than she ever could. The writers made an excellent choice in allowing her to find ways to make things work instead of becoming an annoying nag – think Obi-Wan Kenobi’s relationship to Anakin in The Clone Wars but how much worse that would have felt here – and Ms. Gurira plays it great. From the very start of the movie, she saves the Black Panther in the opening fight when he freezes upon seeing his ex.

Her best moment in the movie, however, comes when she chooses not to fight. After Killmonger appears to kill T’Challa in the ritual combat Nakia rightfully fears for the lives of his mother and sister and rushes them to safety. She sneaks back into the city/palace for supplies and steals one last infusion of Black Panther skills in the form of the heart-shaped plant and then goes to the general to assure her that she has successfully hidden T’Challa’s family and to recruit Okoye for the rebellion she’s plotting.

Keep in mind at this point no one really knows what Killmonger is going to do next, only that he acquired the throne legally according to the Wakandan justice system. And Okoye is forced to choose between her duties and her loyalties. In a move that may have stunned many, she chooses her duties. This reminded me strongly of the early history of the United States. You can read more about it on your own time but in 1801 the US faced its first transition of power from one ruling party to another. This was something that largely wasn’t done, many countries were still using royalty and nobility as their system of governance, and there was a lot of fear that a civil war would break out because of it. Okoye’s choice here was an important one because it meant she was supporting the laws of the country she loved to ensure the stability of her country. Imagine if instead of Killmonger one of the other noble families had challenged T’Challa and beaten him. And that T’Challa’s family and closest friends had started a coup. It would have been a civil war in their country. Okoye was working to ensure that she didn’t help set any such precedent and it was a great moment for her character. It doesn’t hurt at all that Gurira played the conflict and resolve perfectly.

Now, of course, the very instant she saw a way to make the law work to her advantage – T’Challa returned alive and so the duel wasn’t actually completed – she immediately started working against Killmonger, again. She did this even though it meant fighting against someone with superhuman ability. Even more impressively, she did this even though it meant possibly fighting to the death against her lover, W’Kabi, who had gone along with Killmonger’s plans gleefully. It was a re-affirmation of her core character; she never loses sight of her duties and always chooses Wakanda even when it would conflict with her personal feelings. So impressive is her willingness to stand up for what she believes in that W’Kabi doesn’t mess around when she holds her spear to his throat and informs him that she will kill him if he doesn’t lay down his weapons.

I would happily watch a movie that focused on her character more because other than maybe Shuri I felt like she was always the most interesting character on-screen whenever she showed up in a scene. She had to make multiple difficult choices and she got to kick some serious bad guy booty. I’m honestly still shaking my head at how easy she made it look to fight hand-to-hand and with a spear in such close quarters against villains larger than herself and while she was wearing a dress and heels during the casino scene. According to IMDB, she is going to be in Avengers: Infinity War and I can’t wait to see her do more excellent work.

Defender vs Stranger Things 2 Part 3: Parsing Plots

If you think filler in your lunch meat is bad, wait until you see it in your story!

The last two weeks we’ve covered here how The Defenders failed as a television series in visuals and in developing interesting characters or doing anything with those characters – even though it had a head start in using some characters who had already been interesting in other series. We also covered how Stranger Things 2 did both things much better. There were three things in that list, though, and The Defenders has one more way to be a complete disappointment.

SPOILERS follow for The Defenders through its first season and Stranger Things through it’s second.

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If you’ll recall, the first priority of story telling is that the story must make sense. The thing about that statement is it is far more complicated than that single, simple sentence. Different stories have different rules for what makes sense. Nowhere is this more true than in fantasy and science fiction settings. Some people have argued that because those settings make allowances for things that don’t exist in the real world that anything could happen, but it’s actually even more important for those settings to establish and follow rules for their plots to make sense. For example, in a Star Trek story it makes complete sense for characters to teleport from a spaceship to another planet in the blink of an eye. That sort of thing would make far less sense in Lord of the Rings for obvious reasons.

The reason it’s important to follow these rules goes back to the stakes of the story,  a.k.a. the reason anyone cares about it; no stakes means no audience interest means no money for the creators. If anything can happen at any time then there can be no stakes. This is why I railed so hard against the penultimate episode of season 7 of Game of Thrones. Their refusal to obey the rules of the universe as they had been established removed all stakes from what should have been incredibly tense final moments in that episode.

This is actually even more complicated for a comic book story. Comic book stories exist in a universe that includes both fantasy and science fiction where Thor is an example of fantasy – he has magic powers because he’s magic – and Spiderman is an example of science fiction – he has powers given to him by advanced scientific studies which theoretically have some basis in science. Fortunately The Defenders manages to avoid the level of disaster that was that GoT episode. It does have an example of a similar issue on a much lower level in the inexplicable moment in the middle of the final episode of the season where the good guys surprise attack the bad guys in the mine. They use a previously unseen power of Iron Fist’s to knock down everyone but the worst part is that they stand around posing until the bad guys can stand up and charge them again. The only thing worse than introducing a new, inexplicable power at the end of a story is then rendering the entire thing completely pointless. The reason this faux pas is less egregious than the ones we discussed in Game of Thrones is because it has a much smaller impact on the story. If you remove that moment from the story very, very little changes about what happens next whereas everything that happens in the GoT episode relies on breaking the rules it does.

The real problem with The Defenders is – believe it or not – how generic the story is. Shocking after the revelation that the characters were generic and uninspired, right? The first chapter starts out well enough – each of the characters is living their lives when something weird happens and draws them to start investigating. But uh…the earthquake is never explained for the rest of the season. Alexandra acts as if this was the first step in some dastardly plan but it’s never made clear why that earthquake even happened. I’ve tried applying it to anything that happens to the rest of the series and while it might apply to any of them  (does it have to do with reviving Elektra, with breaking through the final layer to the entrance of the area that contains the Substance?) it’s actually just a secondary effect from whatever they’re trying to cause. What I mean is that they didn’t cause an earthquake to strike fear into people, it just resulted from some other plan. There was no real reason for Alexandra to strut around acting like she wanted to terrorize New York because everything that happens later dictates that they really didn’t care if New York even noticed, but less if the people were terrorized. Then, of course, from that point on it is a very straight forward story of villains who want to capture someone but spend very, very little time actively working toward their goal – remember the description of the Fingers from last week? For that matter the heroes actually spend the majority of the season arguing with each other over various and sundry issues instead of pursuing the villains, as well. Including several repeated arguments just to buy time until the next fight sequence.

If you think I take issue with characters having arguments in general, you’d be wrong. There are plenty of arguments to be had in Stranger Things season 2 as well. The difference is that the arguments come from characters and they lead somewhere. The arguments in Defenders don’t really seem to belong to the characters that have them and they certainly don’t lead anywhere.

The most egregious example of pointless bickering in The Defenders is probably the one the villains have shortly after Sowande is captured. All of the remaining Fingers agree that Alexandra has failed as their leader and decide to depose her but then…everything continues exactly as it had, before. None of them put any new plans into action, no one attempts to imprison or kill Alexandra, and she simply continues her plan. On the other hand, in Stranger Things 2, the four boys plus Max have an argument after Dustin introduces them all to D’artagnan. Dustin wants to keep the pet and accuses the other boys of just being jealous – something it makes sense for a kid his age to want and feel. The other three boys worry that this creature is actually an enemy – something that fits the information they have. The argument leads to division within the party and the boys all start making separate plans based on the information and feelings revealed during the course of it. Dustin plots to start hiding the existence of his pet, the divide appears to give Lucas more impetus to break party rules and ignore Dustin’s feelings for Max. It causes Mike to be even more sure that Max is ruining things which makes him lash out at Max even more than he had before. The plot branches from here with each of these characters following new threads based on this interaction. The argument drives the plot, increasing the stakes, and giving the audience a greater sense of satisfaction and fulfillment when those threads reach conclusions – especially including the later resolution of the tensions between party members so that they can once again join forces against The Upside Down.

The conflicts between The Fingers does make sense – of course all of them are self centered enough to believe that they have the best plan. But the conflict isn’t allowed to drive the plot; the plot completely ignores the conflict. The conflict loses any purpose for existing and the plot, without anything to drive it, loses any sense of direction or stakes it might have gained from the conflict. It all just ends up being filler and a waste. One of the worst things for any story is pointless filler. Every moment in a story should be doing something even if it isn’t advancing the plot. Flesh out the characters, the environment, or the rules of the universe. The argument between the Fingers does none of these things while the one between the boys fleshes out their characters, advances the plot, and gives us the information that Will has a special skill to identify the interdimensional monsters by the sounds they make.

So hopefully after you’ve read these three pieces you’ve got a better idea what kinds of things make for good story telling and what makes for bad. This isn’t, by the way, an attempt to tell you that you shouldn’t enjoy The Defenders. I personally enjoy plenty of bad stories. I watch Once Upon a Time and Ghosted. Heck, I even enjoyed Suicide Squad a little bit. A show doesn’t have to be good to be enjoyed and just because a show is well written, acted, directed, and everything else doesn’t mean you have to enjoy it. It’s just kind of nice to know the difference, sometimes.

 

The one about Thor

Did you know Thor: Ragnarok came out last week? Well it did. And despite being the stereotypical nerd who stays at home and never socializes I even went and saw it. With friends and everything. Now me being me two things held true: I thoroughly enjoyed the movie and I have nitpicky things I want to talk about. Since the movie was generally good we will start with the bad things so we can end on a positive note:

SPOILER WARNING: Just gonna spoil everything in this movie.

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Things I didn’t particularly like:

Random Hela decisions. First of all, the Norse goddess of death is named Hel. Never in the history of anything has she been referred to as Hela. Apparently this was not an MCU decision, it was a Marvel Comics decision. That doesn’t make it less dumb. Also the whole battle-mode setup. It’s never explained what this is, how it works, or why it might be important. Without those things it’s just a dumb gimmick for no reason that wastes time. It really doesn’t help that in battle mode they did a little makeup thing under Cate Blanchett’s eyes which gave her a permanent squint and was generally not a good look for the character. The whole get up would have been far superior without that; I was constantly distracted with wondering whether she was supposed to be doing everything with her eyes closed.

The writing decision to kill off every single one of Thor’s male buddies within 5 minutes of Hela’s entrance. These men are supposed to be terrific, deadly warriors in their own right – that is why they’re good enough to go with Thor on his adventures to begin with – but all three died pretty unceremoniously. Heck, Zachary Levi didn’t even get a line before he died and only Hogun (yes, I had to look up the character’s name, too) actually put up any kind of a fight. And…uh…where was Sif? I guess they couldn’t kill her because they needed her for later stuff, but she just wasn’t around at all which was weird. Beyond that, no one ever mentions, considers, or mourns these fellows ever again after these opening scenes. Back in the first movie they fought incredibly bravely to help Thor after his father had cast him out of Asgard. In the second movie they fought valiantly once again in order to help Thor defeat the Dark Elves. But despite this movie improving on almost everything from the first two movies it demoted these stalwart fellows into mere red shirts to be smited in order to impress upon the audience how deadly Hela was.

The re-defined Hulk/Banner relationship. In every movie up until now Hulk could best be described as Banner with homicidal rage and little to no self control. In this movie Hulk has his own personality and Banner acts as if this has always been true, despite going so far in The Avengers to start a sentence as Banner and end it as Hulk. There was also not nearly enough time spent on how Hulk managed to take control from Bruce, why he did it, or any kind of indication about where the character(s) will be going from here. Heck, Bruce worried that if he transformed again he might not be able to return but that plot thread was completely ignored once the final battle was completed. I honestly can’t remember if he managed to transform back into Bruce but if he didn’t everyone was weirdly OK with it. In other words, it didn’t really affect the plot. He still Hulked out when he needed to and no one worried about it after that.

By far the biggest problem with the movie, though, was that it completely wasted a Karl Urban appearance. Karl is easily one of the more underrated actors in Hollywood and Marvel managed to land him in what should have been a fairly interesting role as the viewpoint character to show us what Hela was up to. Traditionally this role would have been one of three types of characters: The good guy who is pretending to go along with the villain in order to find out their weakness, the bad guy who hams it all up and just loves being evil (which is what his expression seemed to indicate in posters), and the good guy who was never that good and never wanted to be quite that bad and dies a heroic death of atonement at the end.

It appears that they were going for the last choice there, but they forgot to ever really put Skurge in a position where he had to make a choice. Or honestly any act at all. He mostly stood around and waited for the next thing to happen. As the description I gave above would indicate this character will usually be a nominal member of team good. He or she will feel underappreciated and then something will happen to exacerbate that feeling. The character will then join team bad, do a bit of evil to people he or she feels have wronged or ignored him or her but will eventually want to draw a line. Usually at this point the character finally resists and dies giving the heroes a chance to escape/resist and save the day.

This script jumped straight from a braggart trying to woo some ladies with his illusory power and intelligence to joining the bad guy without hesitation, despite no additional impetus to do so. Then it jumps again the point where the character worries that things are going too far and just hangs out there for a while without much happening. Finally it jumped from there to the point where the character is asked to decide whether they truly want to be evil. This moment is further under cut by the fact that the character doesn’t ultimately make a decision, a distraction allows him to put it off. Later we see him leading the enemy force against refugees and then attempt a cowardly disguise to join them when it looks like his team might lose. Finally he attempts to complete the redemption arc by sacrificing himself but this, too, is undercut by multiple problems.

The thing about the redemption arc is that you have to believe there’s some good in the character and the only sign we’ve seen of any good has been Urban emoting for everything he is worth that he is really, really uncomfortable with the situation he is in. Also, despite having ranged weapons and everyone who needed to be evacuated already on the ship that he needs to defend he leaps off of it to ensure that he dies in the attempt. Finally, the heroes completely ignore him and even the villain only gives him a cursory glance of contempt before flinging one of her magic stone spears at him and there is the weirdest, most awkward cut to the spear in his chest and he dies without uttering a word or being noticed by the heroes, still.

This is one of those situations like I described in a previous article where going with the established trope would have been better than avoiding it. Whenever they did a close up of Urban’s face you could nearly smell the frustration and indecision of Skurge, but they never gave him an outlet to act those things. It’s glaringly obvious that the problems lay entirely in the writing and direction. There was never a sense of momentum in any particular direction for Skurge – he was never good, evil, cowardly, or brave – he just followed Hela around and waited to die. It’s a damn shame because they could have given that role to a much worse actor and it wouldn’t have made any difference except to prevent me from getting my hopes up.

Things I liked a fair bit

Jeff Goldblum. One of the friends I saw this movie with noted that studios have stopped writing characters for Goldblum, they just give him a script and tell him to be himself. It’s a beautiful thing every time and this movie was no exception. It worked primarily because this movie was much more of a comedy than previous entries in the MCU, more on that in a minute.

The 80’s aesthetic. It was done surprisingly faithfully but also without being insulting, derivative, or devolving into pure 80’s cheese. The movie is a bit corny – as would be any movie that wants to be funny as badly as this one does – but it’s a modern kind of corny that does not grate or draw attention to itself like it would have had the movie gone full 80’s. The music was terrific and especially good in that it included a couple tracks from the inspirational decade  but was primarily brand new synthesizer work – an homage rather than a strict replication. This allowed it to differentiate itself from Guardians of the Galaxy which is made almost entirely of pop hits from the same time period.

Cate Blanchett, aside from her eye problem with the makeup, was delightful as Hela. One of the more interesting Marvel movie villains – which reminds me, I should definitely do a definitive ranking of those at some point. Her motives were delightfully straight-forward and she pursued them with a zeal and glee that made her a joy to watch.

The fight scenes. There was so, so, so, so much CGI in every fight scene. But it all looked great. The visual spectacle of Hela decimating the Asgardian army/guard/whatever was terrific even as it was devastating to someone who hates even red shirt deaths as much as I do. Watching Hulk and Thor go all out against each other was likewise terrific; in retrospect they actually had a very long fight scene, as such things go, but it didn’t feel overly long at all. The only miss was how confused and quick the moments between Hulk and Fenrir were. Fenrir is a pretty big part of Norse mythology and I would have liked to see him have a greater, scarier role in the movie. As it was when Hulk started to fight him it felt a bit awkward because the cuts and acting led one to believe everyone was terrified of this wolf but up to that point he had literally done nothing except be a giant dog.

The humor. I’ve actually seen quite a few people complaining about this, but I think this was a good thing. The first two Thor movies took themselves entirely too seriously at times considering the clumsy bro-god they feature. This movie allowed Chris Hemsworth’s interpretation of the mythological hero to shine much more than in the previous entries. Some people seem to think that the Marvel movies are getting to be too funny but I’m not entirely clear as to why they think that or why it’s supposed to be a bad thing even if it’s true. The only two Marvel movies I would classify as “nearly a comedy” would be Thor: Ragnarok and The Antman. The other movies all have good comedic moments but not nearly to the same degree as those two movies. This was the seventeenth movie in the MCU and that leaves only two comedic endeavors. I think the library can stand that ratio. Neither movie was a dumb comedy in the vein of Will Farrell or Adam Sandler, either. They’re smart, snappy action comedies that move quickly and do lots of good things.

The interconnectedness of the MCU as shown in this movie. I had someone complain about this a little bit, too, but I think this movie did the interconnectedness of the MCU in nearly the perfect way. Frequently for the stand-alone movies everyone asks, “Why didn’t anyone contact the rest of the Avengers?” this movie solves this problem particularly well by never allowing Thor a chance to contact them once it becomes apparent that he’s dealing with a deadly situation. We also got a direct tie-in to Age of Ultron in discovering Hulk’s whereabouts following that movie – admittedly they could have done better with this, as noted earlier – as well as a brief appearance by Dr. Strange that made sense, didn’t overstay it’s welcome, and made sure at least one Avenger knows he’s around and should be contacted when the next movie comes along.

In other words there was enough of the rest of the MCU to this movie to make sure the people paying attention could still feel connected but not so much that the people who weren’t would really feel all that left out. This was basically the promise of the MCU from the start – that it would feel like the comics with crossovers and team-ups being possibilities all the time. It remains unfortunate that this hasn’t extended to the various TV and Netflix series in the same degree, but it’s great to see them continue to follow through at the movie level.

Valkyrie and Tessa Thompson. I’d never heard of Tessa Thompson before seeing this movie but she and the character were both absolutely brilliant. Every single moment she was on screen was terrific – she frequently stole scenes without even chewing up any of the scenery, an astonishing feat – and I really can’t say enough about the actress or the writing for her character. If there is anything I’m more excited for in the future of the MCU than to see her doing more of her thing, I can’t imagine what it is.

The visuals used in depicting Valkyrie’s back story. It was a small thing in a short scene that didn’t tell the audience much they didn’t already know but great things are always built on small things. They were very reminiscent of classical art of valkyries and they looked absolutely terrific. Great decision married to great execution.

Still, the award for “Best Moment of the Movie IMHO” has to go to Hulk running past everyone to fight Surtur after Loki sets him loose on Asgard. I laughed and laughed and laughed even as I wondered if he’d actually succeed in defeating Surtur before the fiery being could destroy Asgard and force them to come up with another plan. Fortunately Thor was able to get his attention, but I chuckled over the bit all through the credit and out of the theater.

Thor: Ragnarok was a terrific movie and a great feature-length MCU debut for director Taika Waititi – who also voiced the loveable rock gladiator, Korg. I am almost as excited for any more work he does in the MCU as I am to see more of Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie. He managed to bring us easily the most enjoyable Thor film to date and despite that being a low bar he aimed high and mostly reached his goal. For the first time in the MCU I enjoyed a movie so much I think I’d be willing to see it in theaters a second time.