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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.

Rogue One

We saw Rogue One on Wednesday, and I thought I didn’t have enough to say about it to be worth writing a review (certainly not as much to say as John Scalzi had), but after a little discussion on Facebook I think I do have a few things to say. But after the jump, as there are spoilers.

Read on, Macduff! »

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!

Read on, Macduff! »

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.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

The first Captain America film was my favorite superhero film to date, but its sequel, The Winter Soldier, has been getting great reviews, and finally we were able to go see it today.

Spoilers ahoy!

Read on, Macduff! »

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.

Star Trek Into Darkness

Before I saw Star Trek Into Darkness I saw someone sum up the film as “A fun film. Not a good film, but fun.” While I tried to avoid learning too much about it before seeing it, I learned things here and there, and was not encouraged by what I’d learned. Finally I saw it last weekend, and I’d say it’s certainly not a good film, but it has its fun moments. It also drags in places, and the screenplay is a complete disaster of plot, pacing and characterization. It’s certainly a big step down from 2009’s Star Trek (which has grown on me since I originally saw it).

Spoilers ahead, Captain.

Read on, Macduff! »

The Dark Knight Rises

Critics gushed over The Dark Knight, I think not entirely justifiably. While Heath Ledger’s performance was a revelation, the script was a little weak, full of gimmicks and with a disappointing climax. On reflection, I think it fundamentally suffers because its theme – the one imparted by its antagonist, the Joker – is one of nihilism. While nihilism can be used effectively as a contrast to the protagonist, The Dark Knight left me feeling a bit like the Joker had won. Contrast this with Batman Begins, which is all about the protagonist finding the meaning in his life, and which has an entirely satisfying conclusion.

The Dark Knight Rises concludes the trilogy, but its opening sequences seem to push The Dark Knight even more to the side: Rather than Batman (Christian Bale) continuing to work against crime from outside the system, he’s retired, and Bruce Wayne has become a recluse. Harvey Dent’s death and Batman’s sacrifice (taking the rap for Dent’s death) lead to a golden age in Gotham City, as the Dent Act puts criminals away for years, at only the cost of Commissioner Gordon’s soul (Gary Oldman), maintaining the lie. Truly, it seems the Joker beat Batman (because why would the Joker care of a bunch of criminals get put away?).

Eight years after the events of the previous film, cat burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) breaks into the private wing of Wayne Manor, setting in motion events which turn Gotham upside-down. The mysterious criminal Bane (Tom Hardy) has his sights set on the city, bringing Batman out of retirement for a showdown.

While also a long film, I felt that Rises moves right along with few slow periods (few times that I was willing to go to the bathroom, for instance). It’s got secrets (who is Bane? Why is he gunning for Gotham?), humor (especially in Batman getting back in the saddle), some tense fights, and characters set low and then fighting to their catharsis. It’s properly a sequel to the first film, with the second just being set-up, and the story is, ultimately, better than either of its predecessors. It ought to hold up on re-watching, too.

More after the cut, but here there being spoilers:

Read on, Macduff! »

Iron Men

Last weekend we watched the two Iron Man films that came out. They’re both enjoyable films, with the first one being the better of the two, and the second maybe a couple of ticks above The Avengers.

Iron Man (2008) benefits greatly from having a simple (and focused) character-driven story: Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is a billionaire playboy who inherited a weapons manufacturing company from his father, Howard. Orphaned as a boy, he’s raised by his father’s friend Obadiah Stane (a nearly-unrecognizable Jeff Bridges) who runs the company until he’s old enough to take it over. But as a man – despite being a genius – Tony is more interested in being a playboy until he’s captured by rebels in Afghanistan with a piece of shrapnel lodged in his chest. Only quick thinking by fellow captured scientist Yinsen (Shaun Toub) saves him, and their pair construct a power source to sit in his chest to keep the shrapnel away from killing him. The power supply also happens to be able to power a suit of armor, and after escaping captivity, Tony refines the armor into a suit that can fly and shoot energy beams, thus becoming Iron Man.

Although Tony is in his 30s (or 40s) when the movie starts, the story is basically about him growing up and taking responsibility for himself and his company. Horrified by what his company’s weapons are used for, he pulls it out of the weapons business and refocuses it on other areas. He struggles with Stane for control of the company as well. He also comes to learn that he has friends who care about him and who can help him, if he reciprocates their loyalty and deals with them as adults rather than as children who aren’t as smart as him.

This is one of the things I like about the better superhero films of the past decade: They’ve moved beyond being about the superpowers and what you can do with them and are rooted in the challenges that the characters face. While the characters are larger-than-life, their challenges are relatable: Both Batman and Iron Man deal with alienation and guilt, while Captain America deals with the conflict of duty vs. love. While the adventure story is of course de rigueur in these films, weaving it and the character drama together is what makes a good film of this sort.

Iron Man 2 (2010) is an enjoyable action film, but is much less interesting than its predecessor. The government is pressing Stark to turn over the “Iron Man weapon” to it, which he resists, claiming it’s not a weapon. His competitor, Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell, playing a thanklessly goofy role), wants to supplant Stark as a supplier to the government. And a Russian scientist, Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), has adapted Stark’s technology and tries to kill him as revenge for the perceived slight Tony’s father perpetrated on Vanko’s father. This story is basically divorced from the character drama, which involves Tony unlearning many of the lessons he learned in the first film, behaving drunkenly irresponsibly as Iron Man, and being stopped by his friend Rhodey (Don Cheadle) who takes another set of armor and then delivers it to the government. Tony also alienates his friends Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Happy Hogan (played by the directory, Jon Favreau). Tony’s backsliding is ostensibly because the device in his chest is gradually killing him, he can’t figure out a solution, and so he gets depressed. SHIELD director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) kicks him in the ass with a video of Tony’s father Howard, but the resolution of these threads all feels slipshod, and utterly divorced from the climactic battle (which itself seems haphazardly staged).

The film might have done better to avoid Tony’s backsliding (though I appreciates that it didn’t fall into the too-often-used-in-the-comics plot device of making him an alcoholic) and instead focused on the father/son relationships which are explored somewhat in Tony’s case, but only superficially in Vanko’s case. The best parts of the film involve Howard Stark – cleverly portrayed in flashback sequences as being a Walt Disney type figure – and Tony’s reactions to the footage he’s shown. But seeing him shut out his friends felt like a betrayal of the first film’s triumphs; it would have been better had Tony brought Pepper and Happy into the fold rather than withdrawing into himself, even if the ultimate solution came from his father.

Though the action sequences are fun, ultimately the film can’t lift itself above the level of an action movie, though it does try.

In both films, though, it’s easy to see why Robert Downey Jr.’s career has lifted off as a result: He plays Tony as a rather manic genius prone to a variety of mood swings, and he pulls it off quite well.

Iron Man 3 is slated for 2013 release, and hopefully it will move the characters forward rather than treading over the same ground a third time.

The Avengers

If you, like me, don’t understand what all the fuss is over Joss Whedon, then be assured that his summer blockbuster film The Avengers (2012) will do nothing at all to enlighten you. It’s near the top end of summer action films, with plenty of action and witty dialogue, but no more than that. “What’s wrong with that?” you might ask. Nothing, really, but it means that it doesn’t challenge the current gold standard of superhero films, held by Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins and The Dark Knight (both of which are more Christopher Nolan films than superhero films), and last year’s Captain America. While it’s better than, say, Independence Day, it’s a close relative of that film. If nothing else, this will guarantee it a lengthy run on commercial cable TV stations (as if its monstrous revenue this month wouldn’t do that).

Okay, to be brief about it: Action film, witty dialog, minimal characterization, nonsensical plot.

The plot is that the Asgardian demigod Loki (Tom Hiddleston, who as my girlfriend points out rather resembles Tim Lincecum) has allied himself with an alien race the Chitauri in order to procure for them the Tesseract (from the Captain America film, and known in the comics as the Cosmic Cube). He will use the Tesseract to allow them to invade Earth, and after they have the thing then he will be left to rule it, as a sort of vengeance against his brother, Thor (Chris Helmsworth).

He shows up and enslaves several humans, including the agent Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and escapes, leaving Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), director of the global peace agency SHIELD, to assemble a team of extraordinary people to oppose him. These include Captain America (Chris Evans), still adjusting to the 21st century after 75 years in suspended animation, Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Thor, the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) and his alter-ego the Hulk. While Loki’s minions assemble a device to precipitate the alien invasion, Loki is captured and works on manipulating the team while in captivity.

The story pretends to be smarter than it is, with a vague notion of punch and counterpunch between Loki and Fury, and Banner, Stark and Cap all suspecting that Fury’s people are using the tesseract for less than noble means. But the plot is really just pretext for a lot of fighting (sometimes among the heroes, sometimes between heroes and villains), and if you think about it much at all, you realize it’s basically people running around without really accomplishing anything (and without anywhere near the panache of Doctor Who, which frequently employed the same approach back in the day).

The film has its good points. Chris Evans has enough weight to pull off being a leader among the rest of the cast, and Downey and Ruffalo are both quite good, especially when they’re appearing together. (I haven’t seen any of the Hulk or Iron Man films that predate this, but I don’t feel like I missed anything crucial.) The actions and special effects are both top-notch, as one expects from a top-tier summer blockbuster. The humor has its hits (the Hulk confronting Loki) and misses (a couple of jokes at Captain America’s expense, as well as Agent Coulson [Clark Gregg]); I suspect Whedon’s sense of humor is a big part of why people like his stuff, but I don’t think it’s any better than other near-the-top summer blockbuster films. Indeed, it often felt like Whedon was basically trying to write a James Bond film. Not a bad thing (I like most of the James Bond films), but nothing special.

You definitely don’t want to think about the mechanics of the plot, which basically involve a lot of stupidity on both sides: Fury being too clever by half in trying to assemble the team while keeping secrets from them, Loki keeping the heroes well appraised of his plan when he could have done nearly everything in secret (I guess one of the rules of the game is that gods never learn from their mistakes), bringing the Hulk onto the SHIELD helicarrier at all (there’s no particular reason anything they were doing needed to be done from a mobile base), and the heroes trying to shut down the Tesseract at the end (why not, I don’t know, cut the power?). And of course, in finest Star Trek: The Next Generation form, the bad guys have a single point of failure. (For a better story with a similar alien-invasion plot, check out Babylon 5: Thirdspace. It’s by no means perfect, but plotwise and thematically it’s steps up from this.)

I think the biggest frustration about the film for me was actually Scarlett Johansson, who I’m not a fan of. The Black Widow has some fairly meaty material here, but I don’t think Johansson really sells it. I wonder what someone like Cate Blanchett would have done in the role. (I think both Johansson and Renner really underplay their roles.)

I went into the film figuring if it was a film about Captain America managing to pull the team together against all odds, then it would be a good film, but if it was Joss Whedon and Robert Downey Jr being amusing then it wouldn’t. And weirdly, it was both. And neither. It didn’t have the heart or weight of Captain America, but you still root for the heroes putting aside their differences to get the job done, even though it’s all staged very haphazardly.

I never saw Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but I did see episodes of Firefly (awful) and Dollhouse (dull), so after The Avengers I still don’t get what the fuss is about Joss Whedon. But I enjoy an action film from time to time, and after the success of this one I imagine we’ll get several sequels in the future. Honestly I’m more looking forward to the next Captain America film.

Oh, and there are two epilogues during the credits: The first one will mean nothing to anyone not familiar with the comics character who shows up, and the second one is not worth the wait.