Marvel Cinematic Universe

Now that I’ve seen Avengers: Endgame and I’m all caught up on them, I thought I’d survey all of the films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Endgame marks the end of the 22 films which Marvel claims are collectively titled “The Infinity Saga”, though I think that’s meant to sound more impressive than it is: The films are linked, to be sure, but the link is for some films pretty tenuous, and the overall story certainly could have been condensed down to no more than six movies as there’s a lot of material superfluous to what one might call the main story.

Still, despite this posturing, it’s been an enjoyable run, albeit with its ups and downs..

To start with, I put together a ranking of all of the films, with letter grades. There are some I might move up a little or down a little depending on my mood – especially the ones in the C range which are all very similar in quality – but in the large here’s where I put them:

And now I’ll briefly – and chronologically – run through all of the films with some expanded thoughts on them.

Spoilers ahoy!

Iron Man (2008) and Iron Man 2 (2010)

I didn’t see these when they first came out – I didn’t see them until after The Avengers – and I wrote a joint review of them. It’s hard not to think of them as linked, since they’re very similar films. Iron Man has better character bits but a disappointing finale (“hero runs out of power but triumphs anyway” is never a satisfying finish), while Iron Man 2 has a lot of dead air leading up to a much more satisfying climax. Both films hold up pretty well today, and it’s really hard to say which one I like more. Their biggest weakness is that Tony’s friends can’t convincingly stand up to him (Nick Fury’s appearance in Iron Man 2 is a breath of fresh air in this regard), and so the story often feels like it’s a man’s internal struggles made external, but kind of ham-fistedly so. Unfortunately, the MCU never did learn to apply nuance to Tony’s character or struggles.

The Incredible Hulk (2008)

Not a sequel to the 2003 film Hulk (which I haven’t seen), this one is only tenuously connected to the rest of the series. Edward Norton does a terrific version of Bill Bixby’s Bruce (David) Banner from the 1970s TV series, reinforced by the opening credits which seems to recreate the origin from that series. (Apparently they filmed 70 minutes worth of origin footage! Then wisely decided to just use it as credits visuals.) The movie plays more like a horror film than a superhero film, and its best scene is the army facing the Hulk on a college campus, which is perhaps the single most effective scene for showing what a completely terrifying experience the Hulk would really be. The film is majorly let down by its special effects, which would have seemed dated 5 years earlier when The Lord of the Rings finished its trilogy. The story is kind of dumb and since there never was a sequel one of the major loose ends never gets resolved, but there is lots of smashing.

Thor (2011)

Somehow directed by Kenneth Branagh and featuring a fantastic cast, Thor is unfortunately a rather tedious film due to a by-the-numbers story of Thor learning responsibility and how to (sometimes) see through his brother Loki’s machinations. Chris Hemsworth made the role of Thor his own, but is overshadowed by Tom Hiddleston’s Loki. The film only has one truly great scene, where Thor gets his hammer back and faces the Destroyer.

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

The first MCU film I saw in the theater, you can read my full review from that time. I thoroughly enjoyed this film and it holds up wonderfully. Chris Evans is picture-perfect as Cap, making him more than a naive do-gooder, convincing us that he has deep-seated beliefs motivating his actions. His conversations with Erskine are both amusing and moving. The moment when Cap and Bucky and the soldiers walk back into camp after Cap rescues them is the single best scene in any film in this list. Even the ending works perfectly – although it maybe works a little better after seeing the later films since it makes it not quite so bittersweet.

The Avengers (2012)

I saw this one in the theater too, and here’s my review. The Avengers holds up better than I would have guessed at the time: The wheel-spinning plot of act two works a bit better as character-building now that we have a better idea of what characters were built. Joss Whedon’s cutesy dialogue hasn’t aged as well, nor has his ham-handed scripting of the Black Widow. And then the whole point of the invasion is questionable given what we know from Infinity War and Endgame (why does Thanos bother with all of this?). But there are several great scenes, and the whole final battle is the gold standard for staging a complex superhero fight. Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner is very different from Edward Norton’s, but it works well for how his character develops. But the film really belongs to Cap and Iron Man as the big two of the MCU.

Iron Man 3 (2013)

Many people hate this film. I’m not going to die on a hill defending it, but I think it’s better than some think. The film works with an interesting premise: What can Tony Stark do if he can’t be Iron Man? And there are some fun scenes built around that, (very) loosely inspired by a few similar moments from some comic books. The rescue of the President’s aides is pretty great, too. But the story overall is a mess, the Mandarin is a tremendous disappointment (they got Ben Kingsley and wasted him on this?), and the final battle is a lot of flash but is basically kind of silly.

Thor: The Dark World (2013)

Award winner in the category of “most criminal underuse of Christopher Eccleston” right here. The Dark World is incomprehensible nonsense almost from start to finish, punctuated by cringeworthy scenes that I guess are supposed to be funny (especially those involving Erik Selvig). The scene where Thor and Loki put one over on Malekith is pretty good, but otherwise this one has nothing to contribute to the series except another Infinity Stone.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

The first two Captain America films are neck-and-neck as my favorite superhero films, but when pressed I think the first one is just a little bit better. Still, I loved The Winter Soldier, as I wrote in my original review. While the high-level story involving “the algorithm” and the plot device “we must put our chip in all three carriers or it’s all for naught” is basically ridiculous, the story works very well the rest of the way, especially the sense of paranoia Hydra engenders, and the sheer hopelessness Cap feels when confronting Bucky. Black Widow gets her best characterization here, and it feels like the directors brought a great performance out of Scarlett Johansson where Joss Whedon couldn’t. Anthony Mackie is immediately terrific as the Falcon. Finally, the action scenes are amazing, like The Matrix on caffeine and speed.

My biggest regret in this film is that they planted several seeds of future Cap movies (Bucky, Sharon Carter, Nick Fury going walkabout) which got sacrificed on the altar of Age of Ultron and Civil War, and frankly it just wasn’t worth it.

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

Some people love this film, thinking it’s in the upper echelon of the series. I think it’s practically the epitome of an average action film, with a cardboard villain, a lot of fine action scenes, heavy on the humor, and a pretty standard story arc. The emotional center of the film – Quill and Gamora – suffers a lot in that I think Zoe Saldana is a pretty wooden actress. By contrast Bradley Cooper’s Rocket – despite being a voice actor over a CGI raccoon – is the most sympathetic and engaging of the characters. I’m reasonably happy to watch this when it comes on TV and I want something on in the background, but it’s not going to displace a Red Sox game.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

Things start to go wrong here, and I’m not sure whether it’s because of Joss Whedon’s script and direction, or if it’s instructions from higher up about where the characters should go which gets in the way. Ultron is an embarrassingly dumb villain – quite a change from his comics persona where he’s one of the five scariest villains in the Marvel Universe – and there are just too many characters here with too much running around, complete with a second-act fight which is even more pointless than in the first movie, as much fun as it might be to see the Hulk run crazy. The Vision is tragically underused in this film and in later ones. At best this film is moving the chess pieces around for later films, but it’s not a fun experience. It also suffers from not having Alan Silvestri score the music as he did for the other Avengers films.

Ant-Man (2015)

A charming little caper film, Paul Rudd and Michael Douglas are both at the top of their games in this film about a retired hero (a contemporary of Howard Stark) recruiting a small-time thief to help take back his company. For comics fans it’s a fun re-mixing of comics elements into the MCU, but it works fine on its own too. The best scenes involve Scott and his daughter Cassie, as Rudd completely sells Scott’s love for his daughter and how that relationship guides him when it really matters.

Captain America: Civil War (2016)

And here’s where the wheels fall off on the overall story. First of all, this should have been the third Avengers film because it’s not really a Cap film. Second, it cements Tony Stark’s place as the greatest villain of the MCU (well okay, maybe Thanos passes him later on, in results if nothing else). It’s a nice introduction for the Black Panther, who’s the only character who comes out of this having gone anywhere, but they could have accomplished that in a much narrowed Cap film which also developed his relationship with Bucky reasonably. Turning Tony into a man-child and basically undoing all of his earlier character development was just awful. It’s always fun to see Chris Evans as Cap, but he deserved a lot better than this.

Doctor Strange (2016)

It’s decidedly weird to see Benedict Cumberbatch with an American accent, but that aside he was quite well cast as Doctor Strange, who has his own personal hubris and downfall to overcome, not entirely unlike that of Tony Stark, albeit with a more transformational result. I didn’t completely buy that Strange had truly become the “master of the mystic arts” by the end of the film, but it was close enough. I also appreciated that they didn’t go “the full Ditko” with the CGI dreamscapes. There are a lot of directions they can take Doc in future films, and I hope they choose the “sorcerer supreme” direction rather than the “loses his powers and has to soldier on somehow” direction.

Guardians of the Galaxy vol 2 (2017)

It seems like big fans of the first Guardians film felt this was a disappointment, but I think it’s only a small step down. I’m not sure whether they could have come up with a truly satisfying reveal for Quill’s father, and this was a pretty good try. It’s his relationship with Yondu which works best, though. Nebula and Gamora’s reconciliation works pretty well too.

Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

I’m probably in the minority here, but I did not like this film. I thought Tom Holland was fine as Peter Parker and great as Spider-Man, and the fight scenes were excellent. But the high school scenes were painfully awkward, Tony Stark’s patronizing lack of trust in Peter is another big strike against his character, and Peter’s desperate attempts to make a difference early in the film are both cringeworthy and feel very out-of-character for him. Spider-Man’s character works best as a young man who’s responsible beyond his years, and while they’re trying to make him a more fallible hero, I don’t think they thread that needle. I haven’t seen most of the earlier Spider-Man films, but I’d take the first Tobey Maguire one over this one.

Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

Another film that some people adore and which I think is just okay. I appreciated the opening sequence where we see how far Thor has come since his first film, yet we see later that he’s learned some of the wrong lessons, that he’s still a little too full of himself even though he’s much more wise and capable than he once was. The scenes on Sakaar are fairly entertaining, but most of the stuff on Asgard is dull, and the final battle feels pretty disappointing, like there wasn’t really a victory there, yet not much processing of what was lost either. I guess Chris Hemsworth has been enjoying the comic side of his later MCU movies, but I think it’s consistently some of the weakest stuff in them. Kudos to the writers and director for trying some off-the-wall stuff, but it was pretty hit-or-miss overall.

Black Panther (2018)

I don’t think it’s possible for me to like this film as much as some people do, but I do think it’s a good film. The acting is great across-the-board (honestly Martin Freeman is probably the weak link here and he’s still fine), and it represents a new step forward in staging complex battle scenes. That said, T’challa’s character arc straight out of Rocky is a little meh, and the big fight at the end feels a bit too manufactured. I preferred the first half where it was a sort of superhero James Bond film.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

A two-and-a-half hour set-up for Endgame, I didn’t see this in the theater and once I saw it I didn’t feel like I missed much. It really has only two great scenes – when Cap and company show up to rescue Vision and the Scarlet Witch, and when Thor arrives to fight Thanos. The film otherwise was just overstuffed with characters, none of whom displayed any real character. The directors have said that Thanos is the film’s protagonist, which explains a lot about why it doesn’t work: His motivations make no sense, he doesn’t grow or change as a character, he’s utterly unsympathetic and is in a way the ultimate generic villain. Not quite as big a flub as Galactus in Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, but up there. The film sort of tried to pay off the tragedy of the Avengers being broken up and unable to work together after Civil War, but it’s a subtheme at best. The best part of the film is Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner, who fills the “everyman” role in the story, just kind of amazed at everything going on around him. He gets the single best line in the film, too: “You guys are so screwed!”

Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)

Another fine caper film, maybe a little better than the original: The villain was more interesting, and the spectacle was more entertaining. The Ant-Man films are not tremendously ambitious, but I don’t think they’re meant to be. If you liked the first one, you should enjoy this one.

Captain Marvel (2019)

I wasn’t sure what to expect going into this film – which I did see on the big screen, and it was worth it – since the comic book version of Captain Marvel has a long and complex backstory which I didn’t see them translating to the MCU. Quite sensibly they kept the bare bones of her origin and jettisoned almost everything else in favor of a new story about a woman on a journey of self-discovery. The film is quite clever with some fun twists and turns and entertaining fight scenes at the end. Brie Larson plays Cap with a mood that switches between intense and ethereal, and though she’s cut from similar cloth as Captain America she comes across very differently from Chris Evans’ aw-shucks Brooklyn demeanor. I’m a little sorry we (probably) won’t get to see them appear together in a significant way.

Anyway, after thinking about it I realized that I enjoyed this film more than any in the series except the first two Captain America films, and I’m eager to see more. I rather hope the next film explores what she’s been doing in space for 25 years before returning to Earth, and why it seems none of the other space-based characters (Thanos, the Guardians) have heard of her, since she’s able to take down a star destroyer without working up a sweat. Figuring out how to challenge a character with that level of power is also going to be a good trick for her future writers.

Avengers: Endgame (2019)

Probably easier for you to just read my full review, since it was just a couple of weeks ago. But in brief it was a much more enjoyable film than Infinity War, with stronger characterization. It would have been nice if the whole third act hadn’t only been an extended fight scene, and I think the ending could have been a bit better, but as a farewell to Chris Evans and Robert Downey Jr. in their superhero roles it was enjoyable enough.

Looking Forward and Backward

What made these movies enjoyable for me is that the core characters were true to their comic book versions, and the stories effectively remixed many comic book elements to create engaging new versions. Sometimes this worked better than other times: Winter Soldier pulled together several disparate comics plots into an enjoyable whole, while Iron Man 3 didn’t really get it. But in the end when we saw the Avengers fighting Loki and his alien army, they were the characters we wanted to see. This isn’t the way superhero movies have to be done – Christopher Nolan demonstrated that in his Batman trilogy – but it was made this series work.

The question is where the series goes from here with Captain America and Iron Man being written out, and Thor probably moving into more of a supporting role (Chris Hemsworth is apparently willing to do more Thor films, but with a more comedic bent). It sure looks like Captain Marvel, Black Panther and Doctor Strange are likely to be the core characters for the next decade or so of films, which is a mix we haven’t really seen in the comics, so we’ll see whether the studio forms them into a new team (the Defenders would be the logical choice if they decide to jettison or merge the Netflix characters into the MCU). But with Disney buying Fox it sounds like the X-Men will be arriving in the MCU soon, and perhaps the Fantastic Four after that. And then there are the rumored TV series (Vision and the Scarlet Witch, Falcon & Winter Soldier) – but I have a hard time seeing them tightly integrate those with the movies, much as Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has largely been its own thing separate from the films.

Honestly I hope they move away from trying together all of the movies and instead focus on developing story arcs for each of the major characters, the sort of thing that Captain America was denied.

My guess is that the MCU as currently constructed will probably start to break down when the main stars of the next 5 years start to leave, and then we’ll see Marvel reboot the franchise in new films. That’s not the worst thing – either through hard or soft reboots most of these characters have been changing for new generations over the decades anyway, so a new Cap, Iron Man and Thor for a new generation would make sense.

Avengers: Endgame

Avengers: Endgame poster
(click for larger image)

Last weekend we finally saw Avengers: Endgame, which wraps up the Avengers series of movies as they’ve been set up since Iron Man back in 2008, and is basically the second half of the movie started in last year’s Infinity War.

Before I get to the spoilers I’ll say this: Infinity War was basically 2-1/2 hours of set-up, was way overstuffed with too many characters, and Thanos was a pretty limp villain, not strong enough to carry the movie, and with basically unbelievable motivations. Endgame benefits from a much smaller cast (for most of the movie) and more room to breathe, but at 3 hours long also contains a lot of material that could have just been cut, or replaced with better material. Still, it’s a fairly satisfying wrap-up to the story, and has a number of great scenes (which were sorely lacking in Infinity War).

Now, on to the spoilers:

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The Last Jedi Redux

I’m not a fan of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, but lots of people are. I find this odd, but enh, I don’t have a deep love of Star Wars generally. Still, sometimes people I follow post how much they like this film and it makes me think:

Toy with tropes? Subvert expectations? Did we see the same film? I found its storytelling ham-handed and elliptical, struggling to find its meaning and message. But Rachel’s hardly the only person who sees meaning in what I see as clumsiness. Is this just a matter of different peoples’ minds seeing different patterns in the same content?

I’m not going to try to answer that question here (speaking of elliptical). Rather, her tweet made me think further about what sort of meaning there is for me in the film, inasmuch as I think Star Wars is not generally a deep franchise, and it’s generally pretty simplistic in both world building and storytelling. This led me in a roundabout way (which is code for “I don’t remember all the details of how I got to this point”) to thinking that the end game for this trilogy could be something different from what people are expecting. To wit:

The Force Awakens contained a lot of beats that seemed lifted from the original Star Wars, and The Last Jedi drew some comparison to The Empire Strikes Back, which perhaps leads people to conclude that the next film will evoke Return of the Jedi, and in particular an expectation that the trilogy is going to wrap things up in a fairly conclusive manner. After all not only did Jedi do so, but there’s likely still a lot of fanthink that these three movies are going to finish off the 9-film arc that George Lucas had teased decades ago.

But it’s pretty clear to me that Disney has strayed far from that path already, since Force and Last Jedi build upon, but don’t really continue, the arc of the six Lucas films. So what if the goal here is to not evoke the closure of Return of the Jedi?

What if the endpoint is instead to have our heroes suffer a crushing and total defeat, as happened at the end of the prequel trilogy?

After all, we didn’t really “get to” experience the shock of the heroes utterly losing in the prequel trilogy, because we all knew it was coming, but this is an opportunity to surprise and shock the viewers.

I’m skeptical that this is what would really happen, since it’s not very Disney-esque, and J.J. Abrams’ work doesn’t indicate that this is the direction he’s likely to take the final film. But it could be quite effective, and could lead in to another trilogy, maybe a couple more decades down the timeline, with a new group of characters trying to put things back together. (Finn: “It’s all true: Kylo Ren, Poe Dameron, the Skywalkers, all of it.”)

The Last Jedi ended on a pretty grim note, so how much worse can things get? Well, just as one possibility, which seems entirely plausible based on how the story’s been going, I have two words:

Empreror Rey.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

We went to see Star Wars: The Last Jedi this week. I see this is the third consecutive Star Wars film in which I led with wondering whether I have enough to say about it to be worth writing a review, so I think I won’t lead with that this time, and instead just jump to the spoilers (after the cut).

Continue reading “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”

Ranking the Star Wars Films

Okay, a little more Star Wars for this year. Here’s how I would order the films, and rate them on a scale of 1 to 10:

  1. Star Wars (9/10): Engaging, evocative setting, enjoyable characters. Despite its derivative roots and difficult gestation, the novelty and exuberance of what made it to the screen is still admirable almost 40 years later.
  2. The Empire Strikes Back (8/10): Better written, better dialogue, better-delineated characters, better special effects. Doesn’t really have an ending (since it’s the first half of a two-film story) and doesn’t have the gosh-wow factor of the first film.
  3. Rogue One (8/10): Extremely well produced, satisfying (if a bit depressing) story, effective backstory to the first film.
  4. Return of the Jedi (6/10): The opening sequence is excellent, Luke’s story arc comes to a satisfying conclusion. However, the Ewoks are somewhat annoying, the revelation about Luke’s family is utterly ridiculous, and geez, didn’t we already see a Death Star?
  5. The Force Awakens (6/10): Too self-consciously a rehash of the plot of the first film, too much of the setting that doesn’t make sense (is the Resistance part of the new Republic? Why are they operating like the Rebellion was?). Still, Finn is a great down-to-earth (or wherever) protagonist, the dialogue and action sequences are great, and seeing the original cast is fun.
  6. Revenge of the Sith (2/10): The only actor who gets out of the prequels not having his acting skills obliterated by Lucas’ direction is Ewan McGregor. Which arguably qualifies him as one of the greatest actors of all time, even before considering his uncanny embodiment of Alec Guinness.
  7. Attack of the Clones (2/10): This film is better than the next one on this list, and that’s all I have to say about it.
  8. The Phantom Menace (1/10): This film was completely unnecessary. Even the title is unnecessary. You have to work really hard to be a film with any production values at all and still earn a 1/10.

I started to write a piece about where the Star Wars franchise collapsed under its own weight, but it turns out I wrote such a piece two years ago. I think at this point one must come to Star Wars expecting action, special effects, and witty dialogue, and anything more is gravy. That’s mostly what Return of the Jedi was, and the later films, including the new Disney ones, are in that vein as well. I definitely do not come to them expecting deep philosophical themes or interesting world-building, since the franchise gave up on any hope of coherently working out its timeline, universe, or fantastic phenomena decades ago.

But that’s okay; there are worse sources of mindless entertainment. After all, this formula has worked for James Bond for over 50 years.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

We finally went to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens today. It’s fun! Action-packed. Great special effects. And Max Von Sydow!

But it’s by no means a perfect film. I wonder if it’s even worth reviewing a Star Wars film, because historically they’ve been either fun-but-not-very-deep, or utter crap. But I’m not going to let that stop me, so: Spoilers ahoy!

Continue reading “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”

Three Disney Films

Recently we watched the three most recent Disney animated films, and I wanted to write a few words about them.

The Princess and the Frog (2009), based on the fairy tale “The Frog Prince”, takes place in New Orleans in the 1920s where Tiana (Anika Nona Rose) wants to open the restaurant her father – who died in World War I – always dreamed of. Her plans are derailed when Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos) comes to town intent on marrying into money, and the villain, Dr. Facilier (Keith David) turns him into a frog in a scheme to get rich himself. The twist is that when Tiana kisses Naveen, she too turns into a frog, and the pair embark on a quest of personal and mutual discovery as they try to get changed back.

This film has bold and flamboyant characters somewhat reminiscent of Aladdin – particularly the jazz-playing alligator Louis (Michael-Leon Wooley) – and the dialog crackles effectively. Debbi liked the music a lot, and I enjoy it but felt they were bending over backwards a bit far to cover all the kinds of music in New Orleans and Cajun territory. I also felt there was a little too much “frog time” and not enough “people time”. I kind of felt like there was a story about Tiana as an adult woman rather than a transformed frog which I’d rather have seen. But it’s an enjoyable film, and the climax and denouement are both worth cheering for.

(I did wonder a few times during the film about how it willfully ignores the fact that slavery would have been in the living memory of people in the 20s, and the film’s awkward predecessor among Disney films with black characters, Song of the South. But of course it’s not in Disney’s nature to consider such things.)

Tangled (2010) is probably the weakest of the three films. Based on the fairy tale “Rapunzel”, it features the character of that name (Mandy Moore) being the daughter of a king and queen who is spirited away by Mother Gothel (Donna Murphy) who is using the magical properties of her hair to keep herself young. She keeps Rapunzel trapped in a tower at the edge of the kingdom, where Rapunzel sees the floating lanterns released each year on her birthday, and she longs to go see them up close. One day a thief, Flynn (Zachary Levi), stumbles upon her tower while on the run from both the law and his partners whom he’d double-crossed, and she captures him. She then extracts a promise from him to take her to see the lanterns, and they set out on a journey pursued by his ex-partners, by Mother Gothel, and by the King’s men.

Worst things first, I felt the songs in this film fell flat. None of them stood out to me or really stuck in my head after watching it. I also felt the villains were pretty weak, in particular Mother Gothel needed to be more of a big bad than just a schemer and manipulator. Not that seeing her defeat wasn’t satisfying, but she just didn’t feel very threatening. Maybe if she’d been a true wizard, or even the queen of a rival kingdom she might have had the necessary weight.

Flynn and Rapunzel are both fun characters, but the story ultimately belongs to Flynn. Partly because it’s the more flamboyant character, but also because he’s the one who grows and changes and gains redemption – and who ultimately is the one who makes the big sacrifice in rode to thwart the villain. Rapunzel is on a quest to discover who she is – because at the beginning she isn’t anyone – but the growth of a more complex character like Flynn just flat overshadows her arc.

The highlights of the film are generally the action sequences, which are very well-staged. Also Flynn’s act of sacrifice. But while it’s worth watching, it’s not one of the classics.

Then there’s the surprise breakout animated film of recent years, Frozen (2013), inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s story “The Snow Queen”. A pair of princesses, Anna (Kristen Bell) and Elsa (Idina Menzel) are best friends as children, but Elsa was born with the power to generate cold and snow. After almost accidentally killing Anna, Elsa is put into seclusion by their parents, and Anna’s memories of Elsa’s powers are removed. Alas, their parents die at sea and Elsa grows up to become the new queen, but she’s unable to control her powers during her coronation, and takes herself into exile, also inadvertently dropping a magical winter over the land. Anna heads out to find her, and is helped by an ice farmer, Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), and an animated snowman, Olaf (Josh Gadd). Elsa’s powers again threaten Anna’s life, and a plot to take over the kingdom threatens all of them.

Frozen captured peoples’ attention partly for its soundtrack, which is surely very good. “Let It Go” has been almost unescapable in pop culture over the last nine months, and “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” has also been popular. (For my money, the best song behind “Let It Go” is “Fixer-Upper”.) The other songs, and the orchestral music, are also quite good. If anything I think some of the tracks are a little under-orchestrated – one can rarely say that anything in a Disney film isn’t enough over-the-top.

It also grabbed some headlines because both main characters are female, and ultimately they solve their own problems (though Kristoff helps a little). The characterizations suffer some from both of the women being relative ciphers. To some extent they suffer from the same problem as Rapunzel, since both have grown up in isolation and they don’t have much in the way of backstory or personality. Anna’s central conflict prior to the coronation is that she wants something – anything – to happen to her. Elsa just wants to be normal and is frightened by who she is. This is enough to drive the plot, but it makes their motivations and characters pretty one-dimensional.

Like Tangled, Frozen involves a lot of running around, and at least the running around is fun and well-staged, which is good because there’s just not that much to the plot. But as with the other two films Frozen does stick the climax and resolution (even if its “true love conquers all” approach to solving Elsa’s dilemma doesn’t make any more sense than it usually does).

Reading about the film’s development, it does sound like fundamentally it suffered from not knowing what kind of story it was telling, and changing direction along he way. Even the core story between the sisters changed (for a while Elsa was apparently going to be a flat-out villain). It might have felt like a deeper film is Elsa had already become queen and something went wrong with her powers (a villain exposing her for his own gain, perhaps), adding more sophisticated elements to Anna’s coming-of-age story (because the coming-of-age story doesn’t really seem to fit Elsa).

I feel like I’m only saying bad things about Frozen, but it’s certainly not a bad film. It’s just kind of strange from a story construction perspective, but it is trying something outside of Disney’s usual comfort zone so perhaps it’s not surprising that it feels awkward (the supposed villains, for instance, feel basically bolted on, if not outright redundant). Anna’s quest and growth along the way are enjoyable and work fairly well, and have a number of entertaining set-pieces.

If you’re curious about the difference between a Tony-award-winning Broadway singer and a Disney pop princess, compare the cinematic version of “Let It Go” sung by Menzel and the music video sung by Demi Lovato.

Oh, on the Blu-Ray release don’t miss “The Making of Frozen”. Really, don’t miss it. Really.

Anyway, three Disney films. All of them flawed, two of them trying substantially new things for Disney’s oeuvre, and both feeling not entirely comfortable in doing so, but the more traditional one (Tangled) feels less artistically successful than those other two. But they’re all worth watching. Worth watching, that is, if you enjoy Disney films, because the stretching that the two films do isn’t enough to make them feel substantially different from what we’re used to from a Disney animated feature.

Looking Back at Star Wars

I saw the original Star Wars when it first came out in the theater. I was 8. Years later my Dad told me that his reaction to the Imperial ship that appears in the first scene was that “it just kept going on and on.” To me, it didn’t seem like anything special. Wasn’t this how science fiction was supposed to be?

Star Wars is the first great triumph of action and visuals over story. In that way it’s truly the film that separates the movies that preceded it from the movies that followed it. This is not to say there’s nothing else to it: There’s plenty of fine acting (alongside some truly terrible acting) – some of it perhaps all the more fine because they manage to turn some pretty awful dialogue into memorable lines and scenes. For all his flaws – on ample display in the prequel films – George Lucas hits the right notes in both writing and direction: The visuals are not quite up to 2001 standards (we’d have to wait for The Empire Strikes Back for that), but they’re still impressive for the era. The pacing is just right, moving the story along to keep getting back to the action and dialogue; despite that, there’s plenty of room for the setting to breathe, perhaps only getting bogged down in the Mos Eisley sequence. The extra footage in the special edition – especially the Han/Jabba sequence – is completely superfluous and was correctly left on the cutting room floor.

I think it’s fair to take everything in the original film at face value, and indeed one of the film’s strengths is that it suggests a lot without digging into it. There’s a rebellion against the Empire which has just won its first major victory. Leia is a princess of Alderaan whose father is backing the rebellion. Luke’s father was killed by Darth Vader when he was a boy. There’s no reason to believe Luke, Leia and Vader are related.

I’m never sure what to think of Lucas claiming to have been influenced by Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth; does it really matter? Storytelling is storytelling, and the film’s visceral impact, as far as the story goes, has more to do with the colorful characters, and the fact that Luke is so readily identifiable by the viewer as the hero. (Luke’s whininess early in the film is often mocked, but it’s essential to making him someone we feel for.

I also generally reject claims that Lucas had much of anything beyond the first film planned out ahead of time. Much like J.K. Rowling’s claims decades later of having concocted the entire Harry Potter arc up-front, it feels like after-the-fact rationalization (or mythologicization), trying to fit the tap-dancing after the property became big into a bigger framework. I think fans of these franchises are too willing to believe that the creators had a grand plan which they neatly executed. I think it’s all hogwash.

Nonetheless, Star Wars is a story of redemption, just not of Luke redeeming the sins of his father Anakin. Rather, in the first movie Obi-Wan meets the son of the man who died because he failed to train Vader appropriately, and he sees the opportunity to give Luke the ability to avenge his father and follow his dream of fighting for the rebellion. Luke is redeeming Obi-Wan. Obi-Wan even gives up his life to afford Luke this opportunity.

While Star Wars is the story of a boy becoming a man, The Empire Strikes Back is the story of that man learning that the reality behind his boyhood dreams is much darker and more serious than he’d believed. It’s an adult story with adults doing adult things (I didn’t appreciate the interplay between Han and Leia when I was 11, but it’s one of the best parts of the film to me as an adult.) It’s a much better crafted film than the first one, with fewer of the storytelling glitches that we were cheerfully overlooking the first time around. (To my mind the biggest glitch is a subtle one: The Leia/Han story thread appears to take place over a few days – maybe a couple of weeks once they get to the cloud city, while Luke seems to spend months – maybe even a year – on Dagobah being trained by Yoda.) It doesn’t quite have the thrill of the first film, and of course it ends on a down note. I vacillate between the two films and which one I like more.

Unfortunately Empire was also the start of the cracks in the franchise. The main in-story crack is the revelation that Vader is Luke’s father. When I first saw the film, I felt this was a stretch. But maybe they could pull it off. Maybe Obi-Wan didn’t know, that he’d been tricked or something, or maybe there was something even more sinister going on. Or maybe Vader was just lying – he’s the villain, of course he could be lying. Given the way things played out, the revelation was a short-term shock was ended up being a story disaster. They should have just gone with “Vader was lying”.

Outside the story was the indication of how marketing and merchandising was going to disrupt the franchise. I remember the action figures being highly desirable at the time, and the Boba Fett action figure was given heavy promotion. I didn’t understand it at the time (remember, I was 11) – why should I care about this character I hadn’t even seen yet? And then he had a negligible role in the film. In hindsight, this was one of the early signs of Lucasfilm and its allies making a big cash grab. Boba Fett was a disposable character who didn’t even look very cool, but he was hyped up to make some money. This was the future of the franchise.

As far as I’m concerned, Return of the Jedi was functionally the end of the franchise. Indeed, after the opening sequence where Han is rescued – which may be the single best set-piece in the whole series – the film starts going downhill and then picks up speed. Actually the film starts off on a low point, with the creatively-bankrupt introduction of a second Death Star. Lucas was pretty clearly out of ideas, and consequently the film’s best sequence is just the payoff of the cliffhanger from the previous film. From there we have way too many made-up aliens, ridiculously complicated space battles, Ewoks (which should have been Wookees), and of course the ludicrous revelation that Luke and Leia are siblings (thus undercutting most of the dramatic tension of the protagonist’s romance). As a series of fight scenes, Jedi is decent enough, but as the capstone of a three-part story, it’s a mess.

Around that time there were rumors that Lucas was planning to do a 9-episode arc, filming the three prequel films next, and then three more films afterwards. I remember reading how old the actors would be if they continued to release a film every 3 years – by 2001, Alec Guinness would be 87 years old (in fact he died in 2000). After the disappointment of Jedi (particularly in contrast to the tremendously rewarding Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan the year before), it was kind of a relief at the time to learn there would be no more Star Wars films. The term “jumping the shark” hadn’t been coined yet, but the franchise had pretty clearly done it – really, it had just barely limped to the finish line under the collective weight of its implausible backstory and increasingly-grandiose special effects. Ultimately, the series would have done better to have disposed of the shocking revelations and just focused on straightforward action and suspense.

In the early 90s, Dark Horse Comics got the license to produce Star Wars comics (the largely-forgettable Marvel Comics series having been cancelled a few years earlier). At the time Star Wars felt like an enjoyable childhood adventure film, but did anyone really care 10 years after the last film enough to buy any comic books? Apparently they did. I wondered a few years later of this was the leading edge of Lucasfilms getting Star Wars back in the public consciousness in advance of the prequel series. (Now, 20 years later, Disney owns both Marvel Comics and Lucasfilm, and is pulling the license back from Dark Horse.) The “special edition” versions of the original trilogy came out not long after, with their newer-technology special effects that stripped some of the charm from the original films.

I have little to say about the prequels. I was moderately enthusiastic about The Phantom Menace, but it was godawful. I wasn’t very excited about the next two, and indeed all three are basically forgettable. They’re not even like some recent action films where there are a few good scenes worth watching if you turn in on TV at the right time – they’re just soulless and bad.

Over time, I’m less and less a fan of “franchises”. It feels like most of the DC and Marvel comic book characters are long past their sell-by date. These days Superman and Batman feel more like parodies of their original (or their most popular) incarnations. Star Wars seems no different. I often wonder what keeps its fans enthused about the franchise, but I guess I just don’t understand since I think he franchise has had negligible entertainment value since Return of the Jedi. I really have very little interest in the about-to-start-filming Episode VII. Though based on Star Trek Into Darkness, it seems likely that J.J. Abrams should be able to follow the “series of action set-pieces with limited story content” formula. I also secretly hope that Mark Hamill will speak all of his lines in the voice of The Joker.

Watching the original film, as I have been while typing this, it still stands up as an entertaining action film, with snappy dialogue and a little heart. But compared to the Star Wars franchise today, it also feels like it was made a long time ago, in a galaxy far far away.