Movies: Avengers: Endgame, Mission Impossible: Fallout
Avengers: Endgame [spoilers]
This is the 2019 film that concludes the current phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Our heroes assemble one last time to take on Thanos and save the world.
I felt sad coming out of this movie.
Some of that's to be expected. The movie's climax kills off a beloved character, and everything from there on out is elegiac. And outside the story, it's sad to see this decade-long cinematic rollercoaster come to an end for these actors.
But I felt sad for other reasons, too.
Foremost among them... I find myself thinking of that old Maya Angelou quote: "When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time." I feel like the MCU had shown me what it is. At its core, you're going to see a white dude, probably played by a Chris, who starts out as kind of a jerk, who gains some crazy powers, and then is still kind of a jerk but is helpful. You're going to see ordinary-looking settings with drab color palettes. Every ten minutes there will be a fight scene that you can fast-forward without missing anything story-relevant. There will be a villain you will forget even while you are watching them. One good thing: there will be *exceptionally* good acting, from a cast of beloved character actors and brilliant indie-film types. The actors will elevate the dialog, which is mostly very well-written sitcom badinage, and tease out good character arcs for the story, which is mostly fight, prepare for fight, fight, prepare for fight, giant fight, done. It ends, and it's not really *about* anything, but it was solid and workmanlike.
Now let's be clear. Maybe half the MCU films find some element to elevate beyond this. Doctor Strange has its trippy special effects. Black Panther brings surprisingly thoughtful social engagement to the table. Captain Marvel steadily beats the shit out of the patriarchy. And so on. But when you sit down to an MCU movie, you're expecting the Average MCU Movie.
When I sat down to Infinity War a couple of months ago, I was expecting the Average MCU Movie. And I *got* the Average MCU Movie. But it was still delightful, because I was watching them solve this impossible puzzle of "how do we incorporate these fifty-odd characters into a single storyline?", crossed with "how do we make this movie pull in all the dangling story threads from every movie we've seen so far?" Watching the film trammel everything together was delightful, and the fact that it was mostly average in other respects was fine.
But for Endgame, I thought I'd get something more. I thought the MCU would reveal itself to be something deeper than a machine that produces solid collections of action scenes. This was its last chance to outdo its journeyman efforts.
They came really close.
I was amused that they basically copied the plot conceit of Infinity War: "we have to gather all six stones *again*, only 𝖙𝖍𝖎𝖘 𝖙𝖎𝖒𝖊 𝖜𝖎𝖙𝖍 𝖙𝖎𝖒𝖊 𝖙𝖗𝖆𝖛𝖊𝖑!" Sure, it's kinda "been there done that", but it is a reliable way to get a bunch of independent storylines that bring in all these disparate characters (including characters from the past [!]) on one last adventure. And the timeline-skipping gave several characters quick shortcuts to emotional closure — Tony got to meet his dad; Thor got to meet his mom; Steve got to see Peggy.
But deep down, I think they were hamstrung by what Infinity War set up. That first movie was not *about* anything, emotionally. Yes, it was a very impressive sudoku solution that got nearly the entire MCU into one movie. But it was devoted to that *logistical* goal — there wasn't any kind of theme underlying the whole thing. And, like I said before, that meant that we had an unimaginably dumb villain: movie has no theme, villain cannot reflect the theme; ergo, villain just wants to kill everybody For Reasons.
So that means that going into Endgame they're set up great in terms of plot: the stakes are impossibly high, the heroes seem absolutely beat, and they've got a "set of stones" mechanism in place that can spin off a whole bunch of different stories. But they don't have anything that the two-film story is really *about*. So with Endgame, where, as the finale, it should have this heavy emotional resonance and weight, it instead feels scattered and floaty. After its three-plus-hour running time is up, it doesn't feel like an ending. It only feels like it's over because all its plot gewgaws stopped spinning.
Its fight scenes still didn't interest me much — which is odd, because there was a lot of it. Not a lot of fight scenes, but the fights they had, threw a lot onscreen. Giant armies of CGI fighting other giant armies of CGI. You were happy seeing all these beloved characters reappear, but the fights themselves felt kind of like video-game cut-scenes — the bits where you disengage and wait for the interesting stuff to resume.
Endgame also nailed down perfectly just how inept the Russos are at creating a strong sense of place. I mean my god. Give a designer the prompt of "post-apocalyptic San Francisco," and they will go wild. They will create wonders, that will feel as distinct as one of the country's most unique cities and as strange as civilization-threatening disasters can make it. What we got? A street of single-family homes with vines growing on them. I mean, just... how? How do you make that boring?
But as with Infinity War, they were buttressed by better directors. Taika Waititi and James Gunn, for example, had created a psychedelic, candy-colored universe for the MCU in space, and even the Russo's best blandification couldn't rub that out.
I want to be clear: this *was* a very solid way to end this phase of the MCU. It brought closure to all the heroes. It created a massive storyline that swept up absolutely everybody from the previous twenty-odd films. It created poetic endings for arguably their central two heroes, Iron Man and Captain America. It was impressive in that it was an effective solution to an almost intractable narrative problem.
And I want to single out the endpoint they found for Thor. I love that they gave the character closure on what his journey was all about: trying to prove himself worthy to his parents. By the end, whether it was earned or not, Thor felt like he had closed the book on that. But then, before we're done with him, Thor mentions that, through all of his quests before, he never really had a chance to figure out who *he* was. And that's what he wanted to do now.
Yes, I know they're doing this so that they can spin Thor off into the Guardians-verse. But even if Endgame were an entirely self-contained movie, that's a wonderful move — it's not "and then he solved his <x> problem and lived happily ever after." It's instead "he solved his <x> problem and then *started* on a quest for <y>." The same way that you want to feel like the movie world extends beyond the frame, it's lovely to feel like the story extends beyond the end of the film. The outward trajectory they give him makes you feel, during the credits, like there are more stories out there for him.
Let a thousand fanfics bloom.
But I am greedy. I wish I'd seen *more* moments of affecting beauty like that. I wish I'd seen more than just solving the math problem, and bringing this massive machine in for a landing.
And with that, I suppose I'm done with superhero movies for a while.
P.S. I adore Stan Lee's last cameo saying "Make Love, Not War".
Mission: Impossible — Fallout
This is the sixth entry in the Mission: Impossible franchise, from 201x. This time, Ethan Hunt has to track down some plutonium.
You can tell you're falling out of love with an art form when you watch something, and intellectually it registers that this is about as well as that art form can be done, and yet you watch it and you feel almost nothing.
This latest Mission: Impossible has some absolutely perfect action sequences. They're slick and they're riveting. They're directed with flawless clarity — you always know where the participants are, what they're doing, and why. The story overmatches our heroes, and requires them to be clever and resourceful at key moments. When one of them got going, I couldn't look away. At the same time, it felt like a chore — okay, let's watch the punching until somebody wins, and then we can move on with the story — which is just awful, knowing the artistry and craft (and dollars) that went into this.
And I'm not sure why I felt like that. Maybe it's just too many consecutive Mission: Impossibles movies for me.
Honestly, it might be the underlying problems with the film. Like with MI5, it doesn't feel very strongly like it's *about* anything. They make a half-hearted character arc for Ethan about him coming to terms with being separated from Julia, but that only surfaces with a dream sequence at the start, a damn good monolog from Luther, and an interaction with Julia at the end. The rest of the movie is kind of free floating, divorced of any meaning beyond the plot.
And this is, of course, why the villain is so vacuous. If there isn't a theme, the villain can't reflect that theme, and so you default to "he wants to blow up the world! because... reasons!" And that's fine for setting the stakes (although, really, you can set the stakes too *high* to be relatable). But it makes the proceedings feel kind of vacuous — like you've brought in a crazy Roger Moore bond villain, but your Super Evil Guy isn't even taking any delight in his evil plans, because this movie is terrified of looking silly.
And the movie falls down a little bit on its plotting — i.e., the clothesline that gets us from one expertly-crafted action scene to the next. If I were elected king of movies, I would pass one edict about the spy genre: "Spy plots really aren't that complicated." Yeah, when you think "spy plot", you think that there are double-crosses, and then double-crosses to the double-crosses, but then that triple-cross was just a ruse to draw out the people doing the double-cross who are actually not who they say they are and and and...
In truth, a spy story, done well, is simple. There's a clear mission — Martin has to gather intel from a high-ranking general. Leamas has to frame an enemy spy. Or, in this series, Ethan has to track down a device. There aren't a lot of M. Night Shyamalan-style "everything you know is wroooong" twists. Instead, there's maybe one heel turn. Apart from that, the mission stays the same, and the players stay the same, and the situation stays the same. The plot progresses instead by *complications* — the simple, clear thing they're trying to do get harder and harder to do because of unforeseen circumstances.
Fallout indulges in too many plot curlicues. They're trying to find John Lark, and oh, maybe this person *wasn't* John Lark, and now Ethan is pretending to be John Lark, and no it's actually this person here, and why are they even trying to get this plutonium anyway? For a good chunk of this movie, you don't really know who's doing what and to whom. And a better movie would have been able to ground all of this plot-tap-dancing, and make everything read, instead of just turning into a mush of "weird stuff is going on". But a better movie would have streamlined its plot.
And lastly, in a weird way, none of the action sequences *matter*.
Now, obviously, in a literal way they do: the action sequences are easily the best part of this film. You could just make a half-hour highlight reel of "the action scenes from MI6," and it'd be about as good as the movie itself. But the weird way is this: if you can replace an action sequence with a title card that says "they fight; the hero wins" or "they fight; the hero loses" — if you can do that, and the story loses absolutely nothing... then something's wrong, in my opinion. Action should tell us about character. Things should happen in the action that affect the story. Action should be part of the emotional arc of a story. It's not just "John McClane has to get to location x", it's "John McClane has to walk across broken glass, after every other goddamn thing that's happened today, and let's see how he handles it."
Roger Ebert was fond of comparing action scenes to the dance numbers in movie musicals — the plot stops, and we just see a display of dazzling skill for a while. But I think this ignores how good dance is at conveying emotion. And the best actioners *do* accomplish the same thing: Jackie Chan fighting a bunch of bad guys has as many character beats as physical punches. But Fallout was bizarre in performing the *business* of action so precisely, while making the experience feel so... empty.
But Fallout feels oddly right for the way to close to my time with the Mission: Impossible franchise. It's been a fun roller-coaster ride from the early-90s to today. It started with a simple, community-theater-esque riff on the TV show, whose biggest selling point was "we can use CGI to imitate taking off a crazy mask". Then there was the (hilariously) ill-fated John Woo sequel. Then J. J. Abrams somehow brought it roaring back with one of the best action movies of the last twenty years.
Then, in a way, the franchise retired. Brad Bird aimed to just make a simple story with fun action sequences. And then with 5 and now 6 it morphed into the platonic blockbuster, with slick and expensive set-pieces, strung together with a story that makes a few feints at emotional impact, but is generally just... practical. It's a clothesline. It does the job.
And I think I'm good with no more action movies for a while.
For next week: I'm watching season one of One Day at a Time and season one of Westworld. I'm reading some Spanish-language Marvel comics and listening to an audiocourse about linguistics.
 Further things I would add to the list: the interrogation of the "lovable male doofus as hero" trope in Guardians; the few bits of Edgar-Wright whimsy they couldn't rub out of Ant-Man.
 Okay, lengthy sidebar. I swear to god, the longer you think about Thanos's plan, the more gobsmackingly dumb it is. For starters, if the problem is that a runaway population growth is threatening an ecosystem with collapse, that's not a problem per se — that's usually a sign that something *else* has gone haywire. i.e., if you're a European settler and you see bison absolutely everywhere, that *might* be because smallpox recently killed the entire native population and now things are out of whack. So: it's not a common condition. And if you wanted to correct it, halving the populations wouldn't solve the underlying problem — in fact, just leaving the system *alone* would make it self-correct. But wait: it's worse. Halving all the populations is bound to *cause* these sorts of "everything is unstable" problems, leading to *more* population blooms. *And* you're doing a whole bunch of slaughter in stable ecosystems, which means everything is far, far, worse *after* you do this than before. Plus you just turned half the ecosystem's biomass into disappearing ash, so *shrug* you think *that* might fuck things up? I mean, at the very least, wouldn't you just sterilize half the individuals in exploding populations?
 What would Miyazaki do with that? Or David Lynch? Or Sofia Coppola?
 Or more properly: "𝕚𝕟 𝕤𝕡𝕒𝕒𝕒𝕒𝕒𝕒𝕔𝕖."
 And *injuries*.
 "Missions: Impossible"