Star Trek: Voyager

As long as I signed up for CBS All Access to watch Star Trek: Picard, something made me decide to watch Star Trek: Voyager. Longtime readers may recall that I was not a fan of The Next Generation, and I only made it through a season and a half of Deep Space Nine before I hit the eject button, as by that time Babylon 5 had sucked all the air out of the room for television science fiction. (It’s still the best SF series I’ve ever seen.) So I had little interest in Voyager when it debuted in 1995.

I think what made me decide to watch it this time was hearing that it had a bunch of time travel episodes, and I’m a sucker for a good time travel episode. Once I decided to watch that many episodes, I figured I’d draw up a list of the supposed best episodes and go through those. I didn’t really have the interest or patience to watch the whole thing, and while I assumed I’d miss out on some nuance of character development over the full 7 seasons, I also figured – based on the other “NuTrek” series between 1987 and 2005 – that characterization would not be the series’ strong suit. If the episodes I came up with ended up being surprisingly great, then I could branch out to some second-tier episodes.

We powered through the 48 episodes on my list (plus one we watched by accident) throughout June and July, and the verdict is: It was okay. Not great. Most episodes were watchable, none were great, none were outright awful. Definitely some disappointments, though. But I doubt I’ll watch any more than this. (It’s over a quarter of the series, which seems sufficient.)

Anyway, spoilers for a 20-year-old TV show in case you care about such things.

Here are the ones we watched, with my grades (on an A-F scale):

  • Caretaker (season 1 episodes 1-2) C+
  • Parallax (S1 E3) C
  • Time and Again (S1 E4) C-
  • Eye of the Needle (S1 E7) B
  • Non Sequitur (S2 E5) D+
  • Deadlock (S2 E21) B-
  • Flashback (S3 E2) C
  • Future’s End (S3 E8-9) D
  • Unity (S3 E17) C+
  • Before and After (S3 E21) B+
  • Worst Case Scenario (S3 E25) D
  • Scorpion (S3 E26, S4 E1) B
  • The Gift (S4 E2) C
  • Year of Hell (S4 E8-9) D
  • Message in a Bottle (S4 E14) B-
  • Hunters (S4 E15) C
  • Prey (S4 E16) C+
  • Living Witness (S4 E23) B
  • Demon (S4 E24) C-
  • One (S4 E25) C
  • Hope and Fear (S4, E26) C
  • Drone (S5 E2) B-
  • In The Flesh (S5 E4) C
  • Timeless (S5 E6) C
  • Dark Frontier (S5 E15-16) B
  • Course: Oblivion (S5 E18) D+
  • The Fight (S5 E19) D (this is the one we watched by accident)
  • Relativity (S5 E23) C+
  • Equinox (S5 E26, S6 E1) C+
  • Survival Instinct (S6 E2) B
  • The Voyager Conspiracy (S6 E9) B-
  • Pathfinder (S6 E10) C-
  • Blink of an Eye (S6 E12) B-
  • Memorial (S6 E14) B-
  • Collective (S6 E16) C
  • Unimatrix Zero (S6 E26, S7 E1) C+
  • Repression (S7 E4) C
  • Shattered (S7 E11) B+
  • The Void (S7 E15) B-
  • Homestead (S7 E23) C-
  • Endgame (S7 E25-26) B

I also erratically live tweeted watching these episodes, and if you care you can read my at-the-moment reactions in this thread.

For those unfamiliar with Voyager, the premise is that the USS Voyager is captured and taken to the Delta Quadrant by an alien called the Caretaker, along with a ship of insurgents from a group called the Maquis. The ships end up stranded there, with casualties on both, and integrate into a single crew on the Voyager, captained by Katherine Janeway (Kate Mulgrew), who makes the Maquis captain Chakotay (Robert Beltran) her first officer. 75,000 light years away from the Federation, it will take them 75 years to get home, through entirely unknown territory.

“Caretaker” appeared on several best-of-the-series lists, and while it wasn’t a bad episode, I figured if it ended up among the ten best of the series then I was going to be glad I didn’t watch the whole series. Having not watched deep (heh) enough into Deep Space Nine I didn’t have any knowledge of the Maquis, but I could take them on principle. So the first half of the episode was mostly based around Tom Paris (Maquis) and Harry Kim (Starfleet ensign), which was enjoyable enough, but once the Doctor showed up, he overshadowed everyone else as a character.

I didn’t have many episodes in the first 3 seasons in my list, and what I did have wasn’t great. Despite being a bit padded, “Eye of the Needle” was the best episode of the first 2 seasons, with a nifty kicker which I wondered whether it would become relevant near the series’ end (it didn’t). “Before and After” was a touching episode which foreshadowed some future events, but unfortunately those didn’t really play out very satisfyingly either. The other time travel episodes were pretty mediocre. “Future’s End” was sort of the centerpiece of these three seasons, I guess, but it was basically another dumb “go back to the 20th century” yarn.

Maybe the best episode of the whole series was “Scorpion”, which introduced Seven of Nine. It was a solid adventure, gripping at times, with a fairly smart interaction between Voyager and the Borg. Species 8472 is (briefly) a breath of fresh air in introducing aliens which look and feel alien compared to the typical Star Trek fare, and it’s just about the only episode of the series which has a genuine “yeah!” moment when Janeway tells Chakotay to execute “scorpion”.

It’s not exactly all downhill from here, but it’s a bumpy ride from here. The biggest change is that Seven of Nine sucks most of the oxygen from the room as far as characterization goes, as she far overshadows almost everyone else in interest and development. Tom Paris had been nominally the point-of-view character (certainly he seemed to be the one with the best mix of practicality and moral compass), but he gets smothered by Seven. I guess there’s a subplot which leads to him and B’Elanna Torres getting married, but Torres was not a very interesting character to me.

The biggest disappointment of the series was “Year of Hell”, touted as the best episode of the show in at least one list, and teased in “Before and After”. It was basically a big waste of time, the dumbest of time travel episodes (everything gets reset at the end), with lots of questionable decisions by Janeway and others. I guess it was trying to ramp up the tension and the stakes, but it was all so artificial and manipulative it was hard to take it seriously. And of course it didn’t track with “Before and After” at all.

“Living Witness” was a nice little surprise in the middle of a bunch of otherwise unremarkable episodes, feature the Doctor being revived 700 years later to help set straight what happened when the Voyager encountered a particular planet on their journey. While not an entirely original premise, it was one of the best executed of its type. I certainly enjoyed it more than the maudlin NextGen episode “The Inner Light”.

The biggest disappointment of Voyager was without a doubt the portrayal of Captain Janeway. While I guess they were aiming to show her as less perfect than Kirk or Picard, in a different way from Sisko, she was written very erratically, often headstrong and stubborn and honestly something of a tin dictator at times. “Year of Hell” had some of this, but the peak of Janeway stupidity was “Equinox”, in which the Voyager encountered another Federation ship, the Equinox, which had also been pulled to the Delta Quadrant by the Caretaker and had been trying to get home despite being a short-term research vessel. That ship ended up making some morally reprehensible choices to try to get home, which by the end of the first half left the Voyager in a bad spot. But in the second half Janeway goes around the bed, engaging in her own morally disgusting actions, and everything comes to an end when the Equinox captain has a change of heart for no apparent reason. A great set-up wasted by lousy writing in the second half.

(Several Equinox crew end up joining the Voyager, and I assume are never mentioned again – they weren’t in any of the episodes I watched.)

Though if she was frustrating as a Captain, her interactions with Seven and Chakotay were her high points. I suspect I missed the full nuance of her mentoring Seven to become a functioning human being, but even the glimpses I got were engaging. Jeri Ryan’s portrayal of Seven as imperious and haughty felt a bit off in her debut as a full Borg, but seemed more and more spot-on as Seven’s personality developed. Seven got many excellent moments, disagreeing with Janeway, confronting other Borg, interacting with one of the few children on the ship. She was surely the high point of the season.

Then, Chakotay ended up filling Tom Paris’ role from the first 3 seasons, as the ship’s even keel and moral compass. One of the final season episodes, “Shattered”, was a clever way of revisiting a number of key moments from the series without doing a clip show, but it was Chakotay as the featured character who held it all together, recruiting and convincing a much younger Janeway to help.

One interesting dynamic was Janeway and Chakotay meeting privately, since they were effectively the only people on the ship who were truly equals. They could air their differences, and argue all they wanted, as long as it was behind closed doors where their reports couldn’t see. This was one of those bits where the show almost seemed to understand what it had – a chance to show the power dynamics among Starfleet personnel, especially in a high-stake scenario – but it mostly treated it as an opportunity for NuTrek’s patented irrelevant character moments, showing things the character liked or remembered or experienced without really giving us a reason to care about it.

What about the rest of the cast? Well, in true NuTrek fashion there were just too many characters for all of them to be treated as major characters. The aliens Neelix and Kes were both somewhere between “just there” and outright annoying (though Kes at least got a good story in “Before and After”). Most of the rest just never really grabbed me, either. Torres was the typical “grumpy former rebel”. Paris also kind of filled that role, but with a vaguely self-destructive, sarcastic attitude, but I wish they’d played up a lot more. Ensign Harry Kim seemed like a cousin to Geordi LaForge, especially in that both of them were a little too earnest and a little too underdeveloped. The real missed opportunity was Tuvok, in whom Tim Russ turned in a pretty good Vulcan performance in the style of Leonard Nimoy, but the character himself was quite generic, and could have just been “Vulcan Science Officer #1”.

The only other character that worked for me was the Doctor, as Robert Picardo immediately brought humanity and humor to the role of the ship’s artificially intelligent medical officer. He got several good stories to play off of characters other than the main cast, including off of himself in “Equinox”. He was also the best part of “Blink of an Eye”, which was a fairly routine “this planet is in a faster time frame than our heroes” story elevated primarily by his performance.

Watching Voyager in 2020, it seems like a series of missed opportunities for story and character development: The ship just flits from place to place with no continuity. When the Equinox showed up I wondered just how they were able to make it through the obstacles Voyager had just barely cleared with far fewer resources. Sometimes they’re badly outclassed by the Borg, other times they’re willing to face them directly. The characters change in very small increments, but mostly there’s no character development here. All of this was par for the course for The Next Generation, making Voyager a natural successor to it, but it’s also very much an 80s/90s series with storytelling that seems shallow by today’s standards. It shows just how far ahead of its time Babylon 5 was compared to Star Trek.

The series finale, “Endgame”, is one of the very few episodes I’d seen before. When I did, I was glad I didn’t sit through 7 years of stories just for that. Watching it again, it works to the extent it does largely because of Kate Mulgrew’s performance as Admiral Janeway, who is driven to save her old crew but is also convinced by her old self to try something different. The story ends very abruptly, with no denouement, no winding down of the characters after they make it back to Earth, despite the backstories they’d all built up. It was pretty disappointing, and other than a brief appearance by Janeway in a NextGen film, and Seven appearing in Picard, I don’t think we learn anything about what happened to the others. (I imagine other media covered this, but I don’t care about anything other than what’s shown in TV and movies.)

So am I glad I watched it? Glad enough, I suppose. It wasn’t bad, but it always felt like the really good stuff was right around the corner… right up until the end, when it still felt that way.

Star Trek: Discovery: Seasons 1 & 2

If Picard represented a brave new world of solid storytelling for Star Trek after more than 35 years, Discovery is, well, the same old thing, lightly refurbished to meet modern dramatic television sensibilities. Since I subscribed to CBS All Access to watch Picard, I decided to give Discovery another try, despite the first episode having been so bad that I mocked it live on Twitter.

Overall the show is, well, better than that first episode, but not very good. The first season is very hard going, partly focused around a war with the Klingons, but also spending several episodes in a strange digression. The second season is more coherent and generally improved, but still kind of disappointing. The general feel of the series is one of flamboyant and nonsensical plotting, without much of a message. The characters are generally pretty flat. Overall it feels very much of a piece with NextGen and the later series, albeit with a rougher edge, but that’s not really a good thing.

Lots more – with spoilers – after the cut:

Continue reading “Star Trek: Discovery: Seasons 1 & 2”

Doctor Who, Season Twelve

Jodie Whittaker’s second season as the Doctor was an incremental improvement over her first, and while it introduced a big mystery into the Time Lord’s existence, the show seemed reluctant to go all in on that to craft a full story out of it, opting instead to have pieces at the beginning, middle, and end, and otherwise make the season another set of standalone episodes. Much like last season, the stories were enjoyable enough but kind of nondescript and thus forgettable.

And as for that big mystery, well, some of it was carried off quite well, and some of it was not so great. I enjoyed it overall, but it really should have been a lot more than it was, and ultimately while it sets up some interesting stuff for future seasons, if the series continues in this vein I think it’s going to feel more like an afterthought, possibly one thrown away by the next showrunner.

Anyway, if the last five seasons of Doctor Who are the kind of thing you like, then you probably liked this one too.

Spoilers after the cut:

Continue reading “Doctor Who, Season Twelve”

Star Trek: Picard: Emotional Resonance

“Et in Arcadia Ego” part 2 brought the first season of Picard to a close, and overall I’m quite happy with how it turned out. I think the final episode was a little overstuffed so that not everything was as smooth as I’d hoped. In some cases I think they should have restructured the last three episodes a bit to have some threads get resolved earlier, and in others I think they made some poor storytelling decisions. But the most important thing is that I think they got the emotional resonance of the story right, as there was a lot to cheer about.

For convenience here are links to my earlier reviews of the season:

  1. Remembrance (episode 1)
  2. The End is the Beginning (episodes 2 & 3)
  3. Absolute Candor (episodes 4 & 5)
  4. The Impossible Box (episodes 6, 7 & 8)
  5. Et in Arcadia Ego (episode 9)

Now, on to the spoilers!

Continue reading “Star Trek: Picard: Emotional Resonance”

Star Trek: Picard: “Et in Arcadia Ego”

Wo-ow, “Et in Arcadia Ego” part one, the first half of the conclusion to this first season of Star Trek: Picard, was one great hour of television. Past Star Trek series had plenty of visits to idyllic worlds with a dark underbelly, but here we’ve had a season of build-up to visiting the planet of the synthetics, and it doesn’t disappoint.

Google Translate tells me that “Et in Arcadia Ego” means “And in Arcadia I am”, where Arcadia is a poetic term for a utopia, which is certainly appropriate here.

One thing to watch for in this episodes is the spectacular acting by much of the cast; I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such a virtuoso ensemble performance in any episode of Star Trek, where Patrick Stewart might not be delivering the best or even the second-best performance.

I’d originally planned to review the last two episodes together, but this one had enough stuff in it that I decided to cover it separately.

Onwards to the spoilers!

Continue reading “Star Trek: Picard: “Et in Arcadia Ego””

Star Trek: Picard: “The Impossible Box”

Three episodes of Picard this time around, and they’re an odd set to review together:

“The Impossible Box” finishes the second third of the season, as Picard and company make it to the Borg cube and find Soji. It’s the most exciting episode of the season to this point, and starts moving the story into high gear.

So, oddly, the next episode, “Nepenthe”, isn’t really part of any of the three parts of the season (beginning, middle and end). Rather, it’s a pause, a time for the characters (and viewers) to reflect on where we are. While the popular focus has been on the return of Will Riker and Deanne Troi, it also allows Soji and Picard to adjust to recent developments which have left them reeling, while the crew of La Sirena deal with some their own problems.

Finally, “Broken Pieces” resolves several plot points, in a way clearing the decks for the two-part finale, as well as giving us some insight – finally – into Captain Rios.

All three episodes are quite good, and quite different, and everything seems to be coming together. More after the cut:

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Wolf 359: The First Half

I’ve listened to a lot of audio drama podcasts, but none of them has impressed me as much as Wolf 359. Created, co-written and co-produced by Gabriel Urbina, the science fiction adventure-comedy ran for 61 episodes (plus a number of mostly-shorter bonus episodes) between 2014 and 2017 and is – as far as I can tell – one of the most acclaimed audio dramas around. I’m not sure I’ve listened to any other audio dramas as old as this, but it feels as fresh and new and polished as any of the new releases in 2018 and 2019.

I enjoyed the first 25 episodes so much that I stopped there, and went back and started listening again with my wife, who has also been enjoying them. Conveniently, episodes 31 is the halfway point in the show and is also a great point to pause and reflect on the series up to that point, and speculate on where it’s going. And maybe this will encourage a few more people to listen, and perhaps amuse people who have already listened to the whole thing and can chuckle at some of my observations.

I’m going to talk in general terms about the series and its story, and will have a few spoilers from the first season which I think are useful to know since the first season is regarded by some as “something you have to get through to get to the good stuff”. Then I’ll have some more spoilery discussion later a cut.

Wolf 359 takes place aboard the U.S.S. Hephaestus research station, which orbits the red dwarf star of the same name. Said star is 7.9 light-years from Earth, and might be best known on pop culture for being the site of an off-screen space battle in one of the most disappointing stories in Star Trek: The Next Generation.

The show’s protagonist is Communications Officer Doug Eiffel (voiced by Zach Valente, who also co-produces), a lazy, ne’er-do-well who nominally is checking for unusual transmissions from deep space, but who spends a lot of his time trying to smoke cigerettes and avoid work. The station’s commander is Renée Minkowski (Emma Sherr-Ziarko), a by-the-book military officer who is constantly locked in battle trying to get Eiffel to do his job. The station’s science and medical officer is Dr. Alexander Hilbert (also Valente), a Russion mad scientist whose bumbling experiments also threaten everyone’s lives on a regular basis. The station is overseen by an artificial intelligence, Hera (Michaela Swee), who is a little sensitive whenever anything goes wrong around the place.

The show opens about a year and a half into the crew’s 2-year mission, and the first ten episodes are a collection of mostly-humorous vignettes about the crew’s mishaps: Eiffel getting cigarettes from Hilbert, Eiffel staging a revolt to hoard the last tube of toothpaste on the station, the terrifying annual physical exam, and so forth. But there is also real danger, as the station gets rocked by solar radiation, the power goes out and Hera goes down, and a mysterious extra room is found bolted onto the side of the station.

I feel like Wolf 359 has a lot in common with Babylon 5. While it’s common (and sometimes frustrating) for audio dramas to have a slow burn, Wolf 359‘s arc is a lot like B5’s: The first season provides background into how things on the station work (or, often, don’t work), raises several interesting questions and suggests several others, and lets the listener get the lay of the land before things get rolling. While the characters are not without depth, they start out as caricatures, with just a few glimpses of what’s beneath the surface. And that’s the point, because it makes what comes later that much more powerful.

And again like B5, the end of the first season shakes up the status quo and raises a whole bunch of new questions. More crucially, it takes the story from a light comedy to a serious drama with a heavy dollop of suspense and significant character development. Eiffel and Hilbert both turn out to be much more capable than you would have guessed, while Minkowski and Hera are both a lot more fallible than they’d appeared. And the story becomes a series of crises and developments, each time bringing us back to a slightly different status quo than we had before.

Most importantly, the show becomes one of understanding motivations and teasing out background. Eiffel is the perfect character for this, because he’s a big loudmouth and not a very deep thinker by nature, but he also has a sharp sarcastic streak which makes him seem profound when he does figure out what’s going on. As the second season progresses, a number of key questions are suggested:

  • What exactly is the Hephaestus’ mission? It’s pretty clearly more than “sit around and see if anything happens”.
  • Why was the station staffed with this collection of buffoons?
  • Why does the station seem so unreliable?
  • What else are their superiors hiding?

There’s one other point, which might turn out to be nothing, or it might not. Let me get into it this way:

It’s been said that restrictions breed creativity, and the audio medium has its own peculiar set of restrictions. First, there are no images, so the story has to be conveyed through audio. Unlike prose, however, there are sounds as well as words. But there’s a lot less space for words than in prose, so economy of words is valuable. (Consequently, I tend to find most audio dramas which substantial narration to be tedious.) Wolf 359 is outstanding at conveying the action without having long bits of exposition, and even when it does have exposition it feels meaningful and dramatic. But the show also has a terrific array of sound effects, with a very distinct style: They’re generally overly dramatic, and very retro: Mechanical keyboards, bells and whistles, a communications system that signals with a loud buzz, and so forth. It’s wacky.

Or, I thought it was wacky, but there’s something missing from the setting: When exactly does this show take place? The station is 7.9 light years from Earth, but they are able to travel between the two in a few months. And there are loads os pop culture references, but they’re all… contemporary. Entirely from the 20th and early 21st century. Lastly, while I couldn’t easily find the quote, there’s a suggestion at some point that some of the music they listen to is from within the past century by the crew’s time.

Does Wolf 359 take place… in the 2010s? Is this a parallel universe to ours? And does that matter?

Maybe it’s just part of the show’s wacky background, but so much of the story seems carefully assembled, with many deliberate set-ups and payoffs, that it feels like this could be something.

I hope it is.

Anyway, if you enjoy audio dramas, science fiction, comedy, character development, suspense, surprises, or people showing they’re capable of more than you thought they were, I highly recommend Wolf 359. If the second half is as good as the first half, then it’s gonna be fantastic.

A few more comments spoiling season 2 and the beginning of season 3 after the cut:

Continue reading “Wolf 359: The First Half”

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:

Continue reading “Avengers: Endgame”

Outer Darkness

Many years ago when I was still into role-playing games, and in particular into Call of Cthulhu, I came across a magazine (remember those?) with a short adventure investigating a spaceship which crashed on a planetoid and – of course – eldritch horrors were involved. Someone had even created an image for the adventure involving an old Space: 1999 Eagle – an inspired choice since that show had great visual design and was at its (modest) best working the horror genre. I wondered at the time while no one had really mined the potential of Lovecraft and space opera. Of course, lots of people have combined horror and science fiction; even before I saw that magazine we’d already had Alien and George R. R. Martin’s novella “Nightflyers” (which has itself been adapted as a film and a recent TV series on SyFy), and they’re hardly the only examples. But I hadn’t seen instances combining specifically Lovecraft horror with SF.

I’m sure there have been plenty of instances by now of that combination – Lovecraftian fiction is bigger than ever and there has been a lot of it written in the last 35 years – but now we have something resembling it in comic book form: Outer Darkness, by John Layman and Afu Chan. It’s working a more overt form of horror (with large doses of terror), but it is, if you will, a second cousin to that role-playing adventure I came across decades ago. And it’s one of the comics I most look forward to each month.

The comic is on a slow burn to reveal its story, but the basic idea is this: Humanity has reached the stars, and there are horrible nightmarish things out there. Joshua Rigg is a former ship captain in a dead-end career when he’s asked by a fleet admiral to take command of his old ship, the Charon, to head into the outer darkness to retrieve – something. The ship now had a god engine, a ravenous being to which sentient lives have to be sacrificed to make the ship go. This is no Star Trek crew: The officers include an oracle, an exorcist, a mathematician, a mortician (!), and various others of various species. And apparently there’s a war on.

In the second issue, Rigg puts his crew through a brutal exercise to see what they’re capable of. And in the third we meet a couple of junior crew who come to a bad end – or so it seems. But this seems like the kind of universe where if something doesn’t get you in one issue, something else might in the next. The stage is still being set three issues in – we barely know anything about the characters’ pasts, or what’s going on in the universe, or what the Charon is heading out to retrieve. But it’s engaging stuff so far.

I was not a big fan of Layman’s previous long-form comic, Chew – I burned out on the shtick after about 30 issues – but Outer Darkness has a very different tone and is a solid read so far. It’s also got some fine and distinctive artwork by Afu Chan, whom I thought I hadn’t seen before, but it turns out I did buy HaloGen, though I don’t really remember it.

Honestly besides the space opera/horror mash-up, the slow burn resemblance to Babylon 5 is also a draw for me. If Layman wants to make this fan really happy, this series will have the sorts of revelations and changes in direction that were the keynote of that series, so that by the end we’ll be looking back impressed by how the story got from these simple beginnings to wherever it ends up. Here’s hoping!