The Power of the Dog

Written by Patrick Hao

90/100

For a film set on the plains of 1925 Montana, and shot against the beautiful wide vistas of Jane Campion’s home country of New Zealand, The Power of the Dog often feels hauntingly constrained. That is because Campion’s film is one of intense emotions caused by the unspoken, whether it is because of social mores or simply because they couldn’t.. The great director is no stranger to such themes in her oeuvre. She literally renders her lead character a mute in The Piano.

Reductively, The Power of the Dog has been described as a movie about toxic masculinity. And while that is true, the film is interested in the greater ways the oppressive forces of systems pray on people. The system at play here is never spoken of but is one of class, money, and gender. The film follows the brutish ranch hand Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his entrepreneurial brother George (Jesse Plemons), although you wouldn’t know they were brothers by looking at them. George is clean-shaven but for his mustache, concerned with respectability instilled by their wealthy parents. Phil is covered head to toe in dirt, and happily so. He is cruel, calling his brother Fatso with glee. While George handles business, Phil handles a group of ranch hands. Phil is concerned by how his men think of him which makes him resentful of the wealth he comes from. The push-pull of these two disparate men is palpable. At one point, Phil even describes their kinship as akin to Romulus and Remus. 

Their business finds them staying in an inn run by Rose (Kirsten Dunst), who along with her son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) serves the brothers and ranchers dinner one night. While George offers Rose kindness, Phil is outright cruel to the socially awkward Peter. Phil is threatened by Peter allowing himself not to be bound by traditional masculinity. This cruelty eventually extends to Rose, who marries George, as Phil becomes resentful to her as well. A psychological cat and mouse game brews between Phil and Rose, leading to Rose finding solace in alcohol. 

One set-piece after the other, Campion unfolds this piece of unnerving cruelty people can inflict on each other. George needs Rose to be a presentable wife to high society. Rose needs to live up to an ideal that she feels unable to reach. Phil too is not entirely the ideal man he wants to be, and as a result, lashes out on everyone around him. Caught in the middle of this struggle is the coming of age tale of Peter. He is intellectual, sweet, and sensitive. But, masculinity threatens to pull him away from his natural disposition. We learn that at one point, Phil used to be an intellectual as well, but strayed away for a life as a cowboy.

Campion moves slowly through these proceedings and it takes a while to truly understand what she is attempting to do. But, Campion is a master of her craft and once she latches on, she does not relent. This is psychological warfare after all, in which the interiority of all these characters gets magnified as the tension ramps. Campion is able to explore a gamut of thoughts just through a simple closeup. This is all underscored by another great score by Jonny Greenwood with his harsh dissonant chords, ratcheting up the tension of these mental tug of wars. 

The four central actors, Cumberbatch, Dunst, Smit-McPhee, and Plemons are all exceptional in this four-hander chamber piece, playing off each other. Cumberbatch in particular is physically rigid like a hardened wood, but when he speaks, his voice coils like a python. It is unnerving. Very soon it becomes a psychological Mexican stand-off between the four. With love, tenderness, bitterness, and resentment being the weapons of choice. 

By the end of The Power of the Dog, it becomes unsuspectingly devastating. It is as if Campion is able to instill in the viewer the same feelings of repressed emotions the characters are facing. The ache lingers long after the credit rolls.

The Power of the Dog Trailer

The Power of the Dog is currently playing in limited theatrical release and will begin streaming on Netflix on December 1st.

You can follow Patrick and his passion for film on Letterboxd and Twitter.

MCU Retrospective: Avengers: Endgame

Written by Anna Harrison

In these retrospectives, Anna will be looking back on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, providing context around the films, criticizing them, pointing out their groundwork for the future, and telling everyone her favorite scene, because her opinion is always correct and therefore her favorite scene should be everyone’s favorite scene. If you heard me crying in the theater every time I watched this, no you didn’t.

80/100

Seeing Avengers: Endgame in theaters was akin to a religious experience (or at least I would imagine, having never had a religious experience myself), but with crowds much rowdier than most congregations: there were cheers, there were gasps, there was a hefty dose crying, there was a palpable sense of excitement and tension that pervaded movie theaters across the globe. Every emotional beat landed, every fan service moment hit just the right notes, every music swell struck the right chords. If The Avengers and Avengers: Infinity War were big, they were nothing—nothing—compared to this. 

Upon retrospection, some—but certainly not all—of that midnight opening magic has waned, as we look back now upon what was ultimately a very large speed bump for the MCU, which took only a slight breather before barreling forwards again. But, like Infinity War before it, like The Avengers before that and Iron Man before that, the fact that Endgame succeeds at all is astonishing. How do you properly conclude a 22-movie arc? How do you end a franchise that has reshaped the very fabric of pop culture?

Well, the real answer is, you don’t—you just keep making movies. But even though the MCU has continued on, Endgame still serves as a monumental, well, endgame, wrapping up loose threads, bidding emotional farewells, and finally letting all those years of buildup pay off.

Structurally speaking, Endgame is much neater than Infinity War, helped, of course, by the fact that nearly every character except the original Avengers and a handful of others got turned to dust by Thanos (Josh Brolin). The latter cut between disparate storylines, and even by the end not all of them had collided; Endgame, on the other hand, clearly divides itself into three acts, each with a proper beginning, middle, and end, and despite its lengthy runtime, this tactic helps the movie go by swiftly.

Act one neatly continues the tone from the end of Infinity War. In other words, it’s bleak. Though its opening should ostensibly be cheery, there is a sense of unease as Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner), on house arrest from the events of Captain America: Civil War, teaches his daughter (Ava Russo, daughter of director Joe and niece of other director Anthony) how to shoot a bow and arrow while his wife, Laura (Linda Cardellini), prepares hot dogs and his other sons play catch. It’s a scene of domestic bliss, but as grizzled survivors of Infinity War, we the audience know better than to trust a scene of happiness, and so the tension continues to mount until the inevitable happens: Clint’s entire family gets dusted. That this is predictable makes it no less harrowing, and so that pit in the stomach, so familiar from Infinity War, settles back in for the ride.

Meanwhile, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Nebula (Karen Gillan), the lone survivors from the battle on the planet Titan, become stranded in space, and we get the first inkling of how important Nebula will become to the film. After all, not everyone is important enough to play paper football in space with Iron Man himself, and even within this brief scene we begin to see Nebula thaw as the two try to cope with their losses by flicking wads of paper at each other. (Nebula’s reaction to being told that she won is perfect: shock and disbelief, then pride, as she’s never won a thing in her life, especially not when compared to her recently-deceased sister, Zoe Saldana’s Gamora.) Yet soon the oxygen runs out, and things look even darker as Tony and Nebula stare down imminent death. Even Tony barely has any snark left in him.

Luckily, Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) shows up to save them and take them to Earth, where they reunite with the remnants: Natasha (Scarlett Johansson), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Bruce (Mark Ruffalo), Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow), Rhodey (Don Cheadle), Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper), and Steve (Chris Evans), who has shaved his glorious beard in a blow to straight women with taste everywhere. The opening two scenes had little dialogue, instead letting mood take precedence; here, when Steve and Tony come face-to-face for the first time since they nearly killed each other in Captain America: Civil War, that silence swiftly breaks. While at first it seems like the events of the past few days may have rectified the yawning gap between the two, soon Tony, looking absolutely terrible and horribly malnourished, lays into Cap: “What we needed was a suit of armor around the world. Remember that? Whether it impacted our precious freedoms or not, that’s what we needed… I said we’d lose. You said, ‘We’ll do that together too.’ Guess what, Cap? We lost, and you weren’t there. But that’s what we do, right? Our best work after the fact? We’re the Avengers, not the Pre-vengers, right?” Though the Avengers are finally back together, Infinity War has only widened the chinks in their armor. While Steve puts on a brave face, this is the most desperate we’ve ever seen Tony, and it’s most certainly the weakest he’s ever looked; Downey Jr. gives a fine performance of a man well past the end of his rope.

But even with the gulf between the Avengers, they manage to band together to track down Thanos and the Stones in an attempt to reverse the Snap. Yet Thanos, as established in Infinity War, isn’t just psychopathic for the sake of being psychopathic: he truly believes in his mission, and he knows the Infinity Stones could cause temptation for beings lesser than him, so he has destroyed the Stones, thus destroying the Avengers’ chance at bringing everyone back. 

When asked by Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) in Infinity War what he will do once he accomplishes his goal, Thanos says, “I finally rest, and watch the sun rise on a grateful universe.” That’s how Infinity War ends, and that’s how we find our villain in Endgame. Driven to a rage fueled by the decimation of his homeworld, the death of his brother, and the culling of his people, Thor goes for the head this time, and with a splatter of blood and a quiet thunk as his head hits the floor, Thanos dies before the title ever flashes on screen. Yet it’s a hollow victory, because our heroes have well and truly lost. If the end of Infinity War was bleak, the beginning of Endgame is worse. 

Cut to five years later, and the Avengers have scattered. Only two remain at the Avengers Compound: Steve leads a therapy group (featuring cameos from Joe Russo and Jim Starlin, the creator of Thanos) and Natasha gathers intelligence from their allies scattered across the universe, including Rocket, Carol, Rhodey, and Okoye (Danai Gurira). Even if things might bear a slight resemblance to normalcy, it’s clear that grief has a stranglehold on everyone. So when Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) shows up when he was presumed snapped, suddenly there is a glimmer of hope. 

Scott, it turns out, wasn’t snapped (as you know if you watched the post-credits scene in Ant-Man and the Wasp), just trapped in the Quantum Realm until a fortuitous rat crawled over the right buttons in his van. Yet while five years passed in the outside world, only five minutes passed in the Quantum Realm, and through the power of some Quantum technobabble, Scott theorizes that time travel could be possible, meaning they could gather the Stones and undo the Snap. The trio brings this theory to Tony, who has retired to a cabin in the woods with Pepper and their new daughter, Morgan (Lexi Rabe), who is quite possibly the cutest, most precocious child to have ever existed. However, Tony has no interest in what they’re selling: he’s failed at saving the universe already, so best to focus on protecting what’s right in front of him. “I got my second chance right here, Cap,” he says.

So instead the team seeks out the next best scientist they know: Bruce Banner, who has come to terms with his Hulk half, becoming what is known as “Professor Hulk” (or “Smart Hulk,” take your pick), which merges Banner’s brain with Hulk’s body. There’s no real explanation for this (though there was a deleted scene about it), though it’s an innocuous enough development that seems to finally end the Banner vs. Hulk war that has been raging since 2008… at least, until Bruce shows up in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings looking one hundred percent human. But in Endgame, at least, there’s no drama surrounding Hulk’s destructive tendencies or the agony Bruce feels about his alter ego, so instead we watch Mark Ruffalo go around in an advanced Shrek cosplay, and luckily Bruce acting like a bit of a stoner and dabbing (no pun intended) with some fans (played by more Russo relations) is a fun enough time.

Unfortunately, Bruce can’t quite crack time travel, resulting in some very fun shenanigans with Scott turning into a teen, an old man, and then a baby. Back in his cabin, though, Tony figures it out, and finds himself torn between the idyllic life he leads and throwing himself back into the fray. “Something tells me that I should put it in a locked box and drop it at the bottom of the lake and go to bed,” he tells Pepper. But Pepper knows him; she knows the weight of that guilt would hang over his head forever, and she knows that he’s really only bringing it up so she can tell him that it’s okay. “But would you be able to rest?” she replies. It’s a brief moment of dialogue, but it perfectly encapsulates why Pepper and Tony work together in a way that precious few MCU couples do: they know each other inside and out, they have from even the first Iron Man, and weren’t simply thrown together because the MCU overlords dictated that the two main hot people of the opposite sex must bone. And so Tony returns to the Avengers Compound and gets to work.

Rhodey, Nebula, and Rocket also arrive to help out, and soon Bruce and Rocket go off to find Thor, who has not been doing so hot; in fact, he’s become a fat, depressed alcoholic who has locked himself in his cabin on New Asgard (aka Tønsberg, a town seen in Captain America: The First Avenger, Thor, and Thor: Ragnarok), the place where the few remaining Asgardians have resettled, to play Fortnite and yell at a teenaged player styling himself “NoobMaster69.” 

In a film series full of some very attractive people, Chris Hemsworth has always stood out—or, at least, he’s had the most shirtless scenes, including this entirely unnecessary, frankly bizarre scene from Thor: The Dark World that exists only to show off Hemsworth’s glistening pectorals. To see him in a fat suit with tangled, unkempt hair and a tangled, unkempt beard is thoroughly shocking. “Fat Thor” tries to strike a balance it cannot always achieve: Thor’s slovenly ways are clearly positioned as funny (and often are), but underneath is a very raw anguish he is attempting to hide through booze and online gaming. Hemsworth, as in Infinity War, proves his dramatic chops here as he lets Thor’s self-hatred at his failings seep through: “Now I know that… guy might scare you,” Bruce begins, talking about Thanos. “Why would I be…? Why would I be scared of that guy? I’m the one who killed that guy, remember?” Thor scoffs, but he’s on the verge of tears as he says it. He dismisses Bruce’s request for help, saying, “Why don’t you ask the Asgardians down there how much my help is worth? The ones that are left, anyway.” Yet this powerful commentary on grief and the strength of Hemsworth’s performance occasionally gets lost underneath the surface-level jokes about Thor’s weight and unhealthy drinking habits (though Tony calling him “Lebowski” is pretty damn funny, to be fair); Thor is at his best in Endgame when we’re allowed to see glimpses of the simmering anger lurking underneath that he’s been trying to drown in beer, but that’s not always the case—he’s played just a little too often for laughs for his depression to be as effective as it could be. Case in point: Thor only agrees to return to the Avengers Compound when Rocket tells him there will be beer there.

Natasha, meanwhile, has gone off to find Clint Barton, who has gone on a killing spree against any sort of ne’er-do-well that survived the Snap, including the Yakuza, in an effort to bring (what he sees as) justice to a world without it. He re-enters the movie through a single take fight scene along the streets of Tokyo, culminating in a standoff against legendary actor Hiroyuki Sanada, who gets nearly nothing to do before Clint slices his throat. It’s a far cry from the family man we got in the first scene: he’s shaved part of his hair, he’s wearing a hood, he’s got a tattoo sleeve now, he’s edgy as all hell. Though no one ever calls him this, Clint’s new style has clearly taken inspiration from his Ronin persona from the comics, and while it’s brutal and a bit weird, it is an interesting path to take an otherwise largely unnoteworthy character from the MCU (at least when compared with his peers). Grief changes people, man.

So now we have now gathered all of our Avengers. Thus act two starts, and here the movie begins to get a little messy, as time travel flicks often do. 

The plan: go back in time and grab each of the Infinity Stones, regroup, and re-Snap. (During the planning sequence, there is an excellent bit of meta humor: when Thor explains the plot of The Dark World and the Reality Stone’s involvement in it, most people start to nod off or look utterly confused. Scott, meanwhile, has no idea what’s happening and is just happy to be involved, bless him.)

The team is split into four: Steve, Scott, Tony, and Bruce go to 2012 New York to nab the Mind Stone (from Loki’s (Tom Hiddleston) scepter), the Space Stone (from the Tesseract in S.H.I.E.LD.’s possession), and and the Time Stone (from the Sorcerer Supreme on Bleecker Street). Rhodey and Nebula go to the planet Morag in 2014 to get the Power Stone and Natasha and Clint go to Vormir to get the Soul Stone, not knowing the sacrifice they will have to make. Thor and Rocket, meanwhile, go to Asgard in 2013 to get the Reality Stone, aka the Aether.

For such a gargantuan movie, Endgame is quiet: the first act saw almost no action, and what action was there did not elicit any fist pumps, the way Marvel action sequences are so often designed to do; act two also sees very little fight scenes, instead bouncing characters off each other in their small groups, focusing less on action and more on problem-solving. While there is good character work here, act two also serves as an excuse to make Marvel’s “Greatest Hits” album and poke good-natured fun at their lesser efforts; it’s almost entirely fanservice, but fanservice that feels well-earned after 11 years of movies, even if it is a little self-congratulatory. To those who have been there since the beginning, your indulgent overlords are here to reward you with easter eggs filled with tasty morsels.

Track number one: The Avengers. As Steve, Scott, Tony, and Bruce arrive in 2012 New York, we get glimpses of Loki, secret Hydra agent Rumlow (Frank Grillo), and Secretary of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Hydra head Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford). Steve, after being objectified by both Tony and Scott, even gets to fight his own 2012, stick-up-the-ass, mischaracterized self so he can grab the Mind Stone, successfully distracting 2012-Steve by telling him that Bucky (Sebastian Stan) lives. (“That is America’s ass,” he proclaims knocking his doppelgänger out.) Bruce goes to find the Time Stone, but instead of running into Stephen Strange, he finds Tilda Swinton’s Ancient One, back for a cameo which forces us once again to question if Swinton is completely human (meant as a compliment). While Bruce gets the Time Stone, a Hulk-sized kerfuffle occurs that ends with Loki escaping with the Tesseract so his mischievous adventures can continue in his own TV show. 

To remedy this, Tony and Steve travel back to Camp Lehigh (where Steve trained as Captain America and where he returned in Captain America: The Winter Soldier) in the 1970s, at a previous point in time where the Tesseract could be easily reached. Tony runs into his father, Howard (John Slattery), and finally comes to terms with his daddy issues, though their interaction leaves Howard a bit confused; we also glimpse a de-aged Michael Douglas as Hank Pym, with peeks at an old-school Ant-Man helmet. Steve stares at Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) through a window, but more on that later. They get the Tesseract easy peasy, and their interactions within this block with the people they’ve lost are poignant and affecting; it’s not all time travel jargon and discussion of Infinity Stones.

Track number two: Thor: The Dark World. On Asgard, Thor runs into his mother, Frigga (Rene Russo), and nearly falls apart when talking to her because he knows that she will die on this day. Yet her advice on failure is sage, and it sets Thor on a better path; when he summons 2013-Mjolnir and rejoices, “I’m still worthy!,” it’s a lovely, genuine moment for a character who is too often used as the butt of the joke in Endgame. Rocket, while Thor has this heart-to-heart, steals the Aether from Jane Foster (Natalie Portman); Portman, having disliked the production experience for The Dark World, appears through a deleted scene from The Dark World grafted onto Endgame, with a CGI raccoon added in the background. Voilà. Space Stone, Time Stone, Reality Stone procured.

So on to track number three: Guardians of the Galaxy. Rhodey and Nebula on Morag give us a chance to relive Peter Quill’s (Chris Pratt) “Come and Get Your Love” dance from Guardians of the Galaxy to excellent results. Good, silly fun. (“So he’s an idiot?” Rhodey asks.) While her sister Gamora was the stealth MVP of Infinity War, here the title passes to Karen Gillan’s Nebula. As Gamora’s role in Infinity War was much bigger than expected, and perhaps even bigger than her role had previously been in the Guardians franchise, so too does sister Nebula play a crucial role in Endgame, and Gillan gives far and away her best performance yet. Nebula and Rhodey prove to be an unusual but strong pairing, both bonding over their physical disabilities: “I wasn’t always like this,” Nebula murmurs as she looks at her robotic hand. “Me either,” Rhodey says, reminding us that the only reason he can walk is some fancy Stark Industries tech. “But we work with what we got, right?” It’s a brief scene but no less affecting because of it, proving that Endgame’s strengths lie in its character beats rather than fight sequences, of which we have had nearly none so far, and its plot, which is about to get a lot more confusing with the introduction of 2014-Gamora, 2014-Nebula, and 2014-Thanos as prominent characters.

Because, of course, Rhodey and Nebula aren’t the only ones hunting the Infinity Stones. Time travel in the MCU is not, as Bruce and Tony inform us, like Back to the Future. Each time you travel back in time, you create a branched timeline: when Steve, Tony, and company travel to 2012, for instance, they make an alternate universe where 2012-Loki escapes with the Tesseract and 2012-Steve knows that Bucky is alive. In the 1970s, there is now a branching timeline where Howard ran into a stranger who encouraged him to be a bit more present with his soon-to-be son, resulting in an alternate Tony who might not be saddled with severe daddy issues. Thor creates an alternate timeline where 2013-Thor doesn’t have Mjolnir (since his other self took it) and 2013-Jane gets the Aether sucked out of her more quickly, and so on.

Through some technological wormholes, 2014-Thanos finds out that our main timeline 2023-Nebula is hunting Infinity Stones and that 2019-Thanos bit it. Determined to win, he captures 2023-Nebula and hatches a plan.

Meanwhile, on Vormir (god, there are so many spinning plates in this movie and it’s not even as many as Infinity War), Clint and Natasha realize that the Soul Stone requires a sacrifice—“A soul for a soul.” As neither of them want the other to die, given their long and storied history, they have a brief scuffle over who gets to be the one to hurl themselves off the edge of a cliff. In the end, it’s Natasha.

Like Gamora before her, she dies to procure an Infinity Stone; unlike Gamora, she does so willingly. This, naturally, made some people very angry. However, here’s the thing: Natasha sacrificing herself for the Avengers, for the family that welcomed her even with her bloody past, is a perfect end to her arc. Of course it’s bad optics that the sole female Avenger kicks the bucket (in the same location one of two female Guardians died to boot), and yes, she did sometimes get the short stick in the MCU (especially in Avengers: Age of Ultron, ugh), but neither of those things negate that this was always how Natasha was going to go. Of course she would hurl herself off a cliff for those she loved—she has always been the kindest, most empathetic Avenger underneath her cool front, and to claim that Endgame fridged” her ignores the fact that her ending stays completely in character, and it ignores the fact that she actively chose to do this and that it wasn’t done to further a man’s tragic story but to save the entire universe. 

Yes, of course Marvel should do better by their female characters, and their oft-talked about “girl power” scene later in the movie feels even stranger than it would otherwise given the fact that they killed their most prominent woman just a half an hour earlier. But those are bigger, systemic problems to be addressed; Natasha’s farewell in Endgame isn’t a sign of the MCU’s mistreatment of women (though that certainly exists), it’s a sign that the writers understood her character, and that is far better than keeping her alive for mere tokenism.

And so, at great personal cost, the Stones are procured, and everyone—except Natasha—comes back intact. Well, except for the fact that 2023-Nebula is still on board 2014-Thanos’ ship, and 2014-Nebula has taken her place in 2023 Earth (like I said, it’s messy). So as the Avengers debate who gets to snap their DIY Infinity Gauntlet, 2014-Nebula helps to prepare for her father’s arrival.

Though Thor lays out a strong, sad case—“Let me. Let me do it. Let me do something good, something right,” he pleads—it’s ultimately Bruce who snaps, because not only is he the strongest Avenger, but because the Gauntlet’s radiation is “mostly gamma. It’s like I was made for this.” Sure? I guess? So he snaps, and the birds come back, and Clint gets a call from his wife: for a moment, all is well.

But then, act three: the battle and its aftermath.

2014-Nebula opens up the Quantum Tunnel and 2014-Thanos’ ship bursts out of it, which then promptly obliterates the Avengers Compound. 

It seems all is lost, especially when 2014-Nebula corners Clint, who is clutching the Gauntlet, and levels her gun at him. Luckily, 2023-Nebula convinced 2014-Gamora to join forces, and 2023-Nebula shoots her alternate timeline past self, a sign not only of her loyalty to the Avengers but also her deep self-loathing. But even if the Gauntlet is safe for now, when Tony, Steve, and Thor go out to face 2014-Thanos, he easily bests them. Knowing that they killed his alternate self in the future, the battle has become charged: “In all my years of conquest, violence, slaughter, it was never personal,” he tells our trio. “But I’ll tell you now, what I’m about to do to your stubborn, annoying little planet… I’m gonna enjoy it. Very, very much.”

But, as Thanos begins to well and truly wreck our heroes, suddenly Mjolnir begins to crackle with electricity and zooms not to Thor’s hands, but to Steve’s—the God of Thunder isn’t the only worthy one here. “I knew it!” Thor exclaims as Steve begins to wield the hammer against 2014-Thanos (it’s sick as hell). But yet again he is bested, and when 2014-Thanos reveals the army waiting in the ships above, any hope we gained quickly deflates. But Steve Rogers does not give up so easily. This shot of Cap standing against Thanos and his army is a beautiful, wordless way to convey this comic panel, but it is a hopeless image.

Then, suddenly, a familiar voice in Steve’s ear says, “On your left,” and, impossibly, things begin to look up. Slowly, and then all at once, everyone Thanos snapped away comes streaming in from sorcerer-conjured portals, and then excitement rushes in like a freight train. It builds, and builds, and builds along with Alan Silvestri’s now-iconic theme from The Avengers, and when Cap, Mjolnir and shield in hand, finally, finally, finally says, “Avengers… assemble!,” it is about the coolest fucking thing you have ever seen in a movie theater (just watch any number of the reaction videos on YouTube). It is pure fanservice, it is pure comic boy joy, it is—whether you like it or not—one of the most emotionally resonant moments for cinema audiences ever, and even years later, it still soars. Nothing either within the MCU or without will ever be able to match the utterly insane hype level for those entrances and that line.

Unfortunately, the battle that follows, like that of Infinity War, isn’t that interesting visually except for a few moments where the characters get to show off their powers in tandem with one another, but even those moments are disappointingly dull to look at. The success of screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely and directors the Russo brothers doesn’t lie in their visuals, but rather in their abilities to balance an assortment of different characters and coax out new sides of the MCU by thrusting said characters into new situations. Another battle hardly treads new ground, but it’s requisite for the MCU, and so here we are.

But it’s still got those requisite cool Marvel fight moments: Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) is an especially fascinating combatant, almost obliterating Thanos before he orders his ship to “rain fire,” and the game of hot potato played with the Infinity Gauntlet certainly keeps viewers engaged. 2014-Gamora, having no knowledge of Peter Quill, knees Chris Pratt twice in the crotch. Captain Marvel also arrives and withstands a headbutt from Thanos, which is cool, but it’s still no visual spectacle.

Of course, at long last, our heroes get the upper hand. Thanos gets the Gauntlet and goes to snap, proclaiming self-righteously, “I am inevitable,” but it doesn’t work, and a split-second later we realize why: Tony managed to steal the Infinity Stones from off the Gauntlet, and as we watch his Iron Man nanotech snake up his arm to form an iron glove, we realize with sudden, terrible comprehension what is about to occur (or at least it was terrible for me). With one last “I am Iron Man,” Tony snaps his fingers, and so the guy who started off as an unsavory, narcissistic arms dealer dies sacrificing himself for the rest of the world. 

And so in an inverse of Infinity War, it’s now Thanos and his lackeys that turn to ash which scatters over the smoking battlefield, yet the moment is not entirely triumphant as the cost of the snap quickly catches up to Tony.

“You can rest now,” Pepper tells him. That one line sums up Tony near perfectly: restless, reckless, prone to bouts of self-destruction under the guise of narcissism, ultimately driven by an obsessive desire to protect the ones he cares about. And now he’s protected the entire universe. He can rest now. It’s a powerful scene made all the better because there are no real last words, no drawn-out death whilst cradled in someone’s arms, no sugarcoating: he is broken and bloodied, he can barely even speak, he just waits long enough to see Pepper and then dies. 

Multiple someones were certainly going to die in Endgame—that was clear from the first. That it’s Tony who makes the sacrifice play lines up perfectly with his arc, and of course it’s our very first hero who does the impossible and stops Thanos, even if he loses his life in the process. This scene and the funeral that follows, where Pepper puts that first arc reactor—the one engraved with “Proof that Tony Stark has a heart”—in the water, and Tony has one final pre-recorded message for his daughter, is a fitting and bittersweet sendoff for the hero who kicked off the Marvel Cinematic Universe all those years ago. Love him or hate him, without Tony Stark, the MCU would not have come to be, and so this funeral is not only a farewell for Tony, but a tribute to the character (and actor) who started it all. All our heroes gather around for one last goodbye, and as the camera pans over the crowd, we see the legacy of not only Iron Man the character, but Iron Man the movie, and the enormous universe it spawned. 

Captain America’s sendoff, however, is a bit like an inverted Sour Patch Kid: it starts off sweet, but the more you suck on it and turn it over in your mind, the more it sours.

Tasked with going back in time to return the Infinity Stones to their rightful place on the timeline, Steve Rogers decides to take the long way ’round and stay a while with old flame Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell); when he comes back, he’s now an old man. Age and time, it seems, finally caught up with Steve, who hands his shield off to Sam to become the next Captain America

Both Sam and Bucky have taken that mantle in the comics, and both would have been good choices here to grapple with the legacy of that shield, each bringing their own unique baggage to the table—Sam as a black man in a world that repeatedly tries to deny him humanity, and Bucky for all the murder and whatnot—but ultimately Sam wins out. It’s a good choice (even if, from a more cynical viewpoint, Marvel only did it to garner brownie points and check off their diversity list), one which will hopefully pay off in the untitled fourth Captain America movie more than it did in Disney+’s The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.

Yet even though Steve and Peggy’s ending tugs at the heartstrings as they finally get their dance, the whole thing sits uneasily. Post-Captain America: The First Avenger, much of Steve’s arc has been devoted to adjusting to the 21st century and all the moral ambiguity he now has to wade through; he mourned and grieved for the loss of his friends and loved ones, but he changed and adapted with the times. Now, suddenly, after we’ve spent so much time watching Steve figure out the modern world, he just ups and leaves?

It would be one thing if the films had shown Steve constantly pining after what he lost when he went into the ice. Of course they do, but only to an extent, and while the pangs of losing everyone he ever knew still hurt occasionally, Steve has moved on. The relationships he has built here, in this timeline, have been given far more weight than the ones he had back in The First Avenger, and to have him completely backtrack on his forward-moving arc to go back in time feels disingenuous and lazy. Christopher Markus himself once said, “He’s the most adaptive man on the planet,” but apparently failed to listen to his own words when writing Endgame.

Three things in particular make Steve’s ending leave a bitter taste in the mouth, with the first being the rules of time travel as established in this movie. As Endgame (and subsequent Marvel properties dealing with time travel) makes clear, travelling back in time creates a branched reality. Once you return to the moment you left in the main timeline, that alternate reality ceases to exist. (By these rules, Steve appearing at the lakeside randomly make any sense: as this is a different timeline from the one he grew old in, he couldn’t have just waited until this precise moment and moseyed on over to the Avengers Compound—he would have had to use the Quantum Tunnel doodad. But I guess it’s too much to ask for consistency, seeing as the writers and directors disagree on that whole alternate timeline thing.) This means that Steve went back in time, reunited with Peggy, presumably had a family, and then promptly erases everyone in that timeline from existence the minute he travels back to the future to give the shield to Sam. That is an incredibly selfish thing to do for someone whose actions, up to this point, have mostly been quite altruistic; even within the branched timeline that Steve creates, questions arise: Does Steve try to avert events like JFK’s assassination, or 9/11? Does he help advance civil rights? Does he rescue Bucky in this timeline before he becomes completely brainwashed? Or does he just sit on the sidelines, content with his own happiness?

Thing number two: Bucky. Whether you’re into “Stucky” or not, you cannot deny that Bucky has been a driving force all throughout Steve’s story. In The First Avenger, it’s the thought of Bucky being tortured in a Hydra prison camp that spurs Steve to truly become Captain America; in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Steve’s world gets turned upside down by the knowledge that Bucky still lives, and he nearly dies trying to save Bucky from himself; in Captain America: Civil War, Steve goes on the run from the United States government (…again) to keep Bucky safe, and then he breaks the Avengers apart for the same reason. You’re telling me that this guy, this guy who has laid it all on the line multiple times out of love for his best and oldest friend, would leave said friend—who is, by the way, still massively traumatized from losing an arm, being brainwashed, and then turned into an assassin for essentially Nazis—for a woman that he knew back in the 1940s for, at best, a year or two? Even earlier in the film, the only thing that broke 2012-Steve’s concentration was the mention that Bucky lived. The two exchange an astonishingly brief goodbye which echoes their one from The First Avenger: “Don’t do anything stupid until I get back,” but now Steve says that to Bucky instead of the other way around. “How can I? You’re taking all the stupid with you,” Bucky replies, but nostalgia can only get so far. They have a quick hug, and that’s it. For a relationship that was previously given so much thematic weight to be tossed aside with such little care is astonishing.

The third thing is the much-maligned Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp), who does not appear in this movie, and no, she is not related to Steve, because in the original timeline she is from, Steve never married Peggy. Everyone needs to stop saying that she’s his niece. She’s not. Pay attention. 

Problems with Sharon, unfortunately, have been building since her introduction in Winter Soldier. Though her comic counterpart has a long and storied history both with and without longtime love interest Steve, Sharon in the MCU movies has been shamefully underused. Initially positioned as a love interest yet given little screentime or character, VanCamp and Chris Evans had precious little time to build chemistry; thus, when Steve and Sharon share a kiss in Civil War, it feels hastily tacked on, as if the only reason the two characters are together is because of their history in the comics, so of course movie fans didn’t take kindly to this development, especially fervent “shippers” of the Stucky and Steggy kind. 

Hayley Atwell herself has done little to help matters, saying, “Well, first of all [Peggy would] be turning over in her grave” at the thought of Steve and Sharon getting together. “She’d be like, ‘no.’ And she’d inject herself with the blue serum and become a super villain. She’d break out of her coffin and ground [Sharon]. She’d ground her. Then she’d kick Steve’s ass as well.” Yes, how feminist to pit two women against each other for the attention of a man! Thank you! Fans across Twitter and Tumblr were atrocious and misogynistic towards both Sharon and VanCamp, and it would have been hard for Markus and McFeely et al. not to notice. 

What follows is, admittedly, pure speculation, but it does not take much to imagine that this backlash—one that the MCU brought upon itself for not giving Sharon her proper due and rushing to throw her together with Steve despite having no buildup—caused Markus, McFeely, and the rest to backtrack and quickly reframe Peggy as the ultimate love of Steve’s life in Endgame, having him pull out his picture of her and make goo goo eyes at her through some blinds while no one mentions Sharon. It’s as if she never existed. It’s only Peggy and Steve, it’s always been Peggy and Steve, no one else has ever been as important in his life as she has (never you mind the fact that Steve—and I am repeating myself—broke the Avengers apart for the sake of Bucky!). Faced with a negative fan reaction, instead of fixing what wasn’t landing, Marvel retreated to something they knew worked, and so Steve goes back in time without ever saying goodbye to Sharon. Even if the writers and directors wanted to move on, it feels wildly out of character for consummate good guy Steve Rogers to just kiss and ditch. 

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier will at least attempt to address some of this, but because Marvel wants us to like Steve Rogers and frames his reunion with Peggy as a morally unambiguous win, it’s never allowed enough leeway to truly tackle the abandonment issues that Steve’s actions would have saddled Sharon and most especially traumatized, formerly brainwashed, currently PTSD-ridden Bucky with because Marvel doesn’t want us to get mad at Captain America. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier at least tries to make Sharon a real character, though it feels like a slap in the face more than anything. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

If anything, Steve should have died and Tony should have retired. Logistically and logically this would have been difficult, as it would have been hard to explain why Tony didn’t show up to whatever world-ending events happen next, and if he did show up, there is the small matter of Robert Downey Jr.’s exorbitant payday. However, as cappers to their characters, it works (at least in my esteemed opinion) better for Tony, always so self-destructive and suicidal, to finally find peace rather than make the sacrifice play (besides, we already did that arc in The Avengers), and for Steve, the forever-soldier, displaced out of time, to lay down his life for the cause in heroic, tragic fashion. Even both of them dying would have been better than this logically flimsy, out of character ending which falls to pieces the minute you examine it more closely; besides, having only two Avengers die in Endgame feels a bit weak. No, more main character death does not make a story better, but thematically appropriate endings do, and Steve’s death would have been exactly that. 

This isn’t to say that Steve and Peggy’s reunion isn’t emotional—there’s a reason they stuck in the minds of fans, and there was nary a dry eye (mine were certainly very, very damp) in theaters upon watching them dance. It’s just a shame that none of it holds up to scrutiny. 

Well. Anyway. To round out the “Big Three,” Thor decides to hand the throne to Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) and go off with the Guardians of the Galaxy. This is fine enough taken alone, and promises plenty of merry mayhem in Thor: Love and Thunder, but when taken in sum with the rest of his films, feels a bit like whiplash. In Thor, he abandons his reckless ways and rises to the task of kingship; in Thor: The Dark World, he abandons said kingship to be with his lady love; in Thor: Ragnarok, he once again takes up the mantle of king and assumes full responsibility for Asgard; in Endgame, he gives it all up again and passes the mantle of monarch to Valkyrie, who, while cool, has not exactly shown how or why she is the right pick to govern an entire race, even one whose population has been decimated. Thor, like Hulk, ping pongs around at the whims of the directors, and him reneging on his kingship feels like a rejection of his entire Ragnarok arc—there is no consistency to his choices, and this lack of consistency doesn’t feel like a purposeful character choice but rather Marvel just shuffling him around wherever they need him to go instead of letting his own arc be the guide. So we beat on, boats against the current… ah, never mind.

And so Endgame concludes: Tony dead, Natasha dead, Steve written off, the other Avengers still continuing to fight the bad guys. Any other film franchise would have called it quits after this: half the original Avengers roster gone, the threat building up for nearly a decade averted, almost all loose ends tied up. That the MCU has continued on afterwards can be viewed as a shallow cash grab that continues to drive out mid-budget films from the theaters, a genuine curiosity to explore as of yet underutilized characters and adapt some more of the rich history of Marvel Comics, or a bit of both. 

One common criticism of the MCU is that there are no proper endings. To some extent, that’s true: each entry acts more as an episode of TV than anything, with its own introduction, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution, but then a little stinger at the end to ensure we tune in next week, and Endgame is no different. It wraps up the stories for many of its characters even as it tantalizes us with what’s to come—ooh, Thor is going with the Guardians, what a fun team that will be; Sam gets to be Captain America, how intriguing; Loki escapes with the Tesseract, what mischief could he get up to next! Everything is designed to keep people buying tickets, and with the cultural dominance of the MCU firmly solidified by now, in order to understand why everyone keeps saying, “I love you 3,000,” you’re going to have to fork over your money to the Mouse. 

Yet for all the griping I have done about this film, nothing can match the magic of that opening night. Endgame, for all its flaws, largely succeeds—and succeeds well—at what it sets out to achieve, and it has that excellent mix of ensemble humor and individual pathos that the Russo brothers balanced so well in their other MCU films and which other Marvel directors often struggle with. Its place in the cultural pantheon is deserved; even if you despise Marvel for ruining cinema, there’s no denying the influence Endgame has had, and that influence only is as big as it is because Endgame is, ultimately, a pretty solid flick which only drops a few balls out of the several hundred that it juggle

It’s hard to quantify, exactly, what impact Endgame made in pop culture. You could count Twitter hashtags or ticket sales (nearly $3 billion made worldwide), but that wouldn’t capture the conversations between acquaintances, the texts sent, the calls made to buzz about some moment from Endgame. For a brief moment, it seemed as if almost everyone in the world spoke the same language. The Red Wedding was a hill, Endgame Mount Everest. So even if Marvel and Disney are helping to strangle independent cinema, for a brief, shining moment, it felt like they had united the world.

Which, I suppose, is actually quite a frightening thought. But I digress.

There was quite a big hullabaloo several months after Endgame came out when Martin Scorsese equated Marvel movies to theme parks, and a bunch of fragile fans began insulting Scorsese’s body of work while trumpeting the MCU as a paragon of art. The thing is, Scorsese is right: Marvel is notoriously risk-averse and it almost always quashes a director’s individual voice—even when half the world was snapped away in Infinity War, you could rest assured that they would all come back in Endgame (lo and behold, they did), and even singular directors like Taika Waititi and Chloé Zhao can only fight so much against the formula. That popular cinema has increasingly become reboots and sequels, and originals are tossed onto streaming services with severely limited theatrical runs, is not entirely Marvel and Disney’s fault, yet they seem to be doing little to mitigate this, instead barreling on with their tried-and-tested formula; it’s always about expanding the universe, it’s always about branding the franchise, it’s all about making that capital, baby, even if they couch this in different terms.

But the reason Endgame was able to have such a strong hold on the collective consciousness wasn’t merely because consumers have all become slaves to the brand. Scorsese is right, but he makes one misstep: when talking about the films he loved as a child, he writes, “It was about characters—the complexity of people and their contradictory and sometimes paradoxical natures, the way they can hurt one another and love one another and suddenly come face to face with themselves,” as if to say that the MCU lacks characters other than stock ones, when in fact the biggest reason for the MCU’s success isn’t its action sequences or aliens, it’s the people at the heart of everything.

No, obviously the MCU is not filled with character-driven dramas, and even its attempts to do that, like WandaVision, have all ultimately devolved into typical Marvel fisticuffs. Yet if you want to see big action setpieces, there are plenty of places to slake your thirst—but no one is talking much about Transformers: The Last Knight years after its release, whereas Endgame remains an easy cultural touchstone. Yes, it helps that Marvel has continued to churn out films, but even after The Avengers in 2012, with only five prior films under its belt, it was clear that these popcorn flicks stayed in the mind a bit longer than the others at the multiplex, and that is all due to the careful character work laid down in the films. When Tony dies, after 11 years on our screens, after 11 years of watching him alternatingly preen and self-destruct, watching him contradict himself and mess up and triumph, it carries weight because we know him, we love him (or hate him, take your pick; I think it’s pretty clear where I fall). If Marvel had not spent so much time making these characters feel like people, albeit hot and superpowered people, the whole endeavor would have failed. People don’t shell out money to see these just because they want to watch people shoot bad guys, but because they care about the characters populating this universe. So, yes, Scorsese is right, but he misses the key point as to why people keep circling back to the MCU time and time again. I guess he’s still pretty alright.

It’s a bit odd to say that Marvel lacks ambition when its very basis was built on risk. Iron Man was a risk. The Avengers was a bigger risk. Only now, with Marvel firmly seated as top dog, can we begin to pick apart the endeavor, poke holes at the formula, and make fun of those with blind brand loyalty. That it’s morphed into what it is today is entirely unprecedented: a connected cinematic universe spanning galaxies, filled with dozens of main characters, stuffed with overlapping and overarching plots that pay off years down the road. Other franchises have tried to emulate Marvel’s success in creating a shared universe (the DCEU, the failed Dark Universe, even now Star Wars), yet none have succeeded in quite the same way because none took the time—and the associated risk—to build from the ground up. So while some claim Marvel has grown complacent, they only have the luxury to do so because they had such sheer guts in the beginning. 

So here we are. Endgame may not be the best MCU entry, but as a cultural and cinematic event, it remains unparalleled; that it doesn’t buckle under the weight of its plot (and runtime), that it gives each character strong emotional beats, that it succeeds in concluding a story that started with a movie about a nobody superhero directed by that guy from Swingers and starring an ex-convict, is nothing short of a miracle.

Well, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration. But it’s still one hell of an achievement.

Captain America vs Thanos Army [3840 x 1608] : r/marvelstudios

Groundwork and stray observations: Marvel has no big master plan; rather, they plant seeds wherever they can in the hopes that some of them might one day germinate. None of these were planned from day one, lest the whole ship sink, but the seeds germinated nonetheless:

  • That iconic “I am Iron Man” line in Endgame came from reshoots.
  • Two more Community alums pop up: Ken Jeong and Yvette Nicole Brown.
  • Okoye mentions an earthquake under the ocean. You know who’s rumored to be the villain of Black Panther 2? Namor the Sub-Mariner of Atlantis.
  • Howard Stark appears as he’s looking for Arnim Zola (Toby Jones), the scientist from The First Avenger who became a Hydra plant within S.H.I.E.L.D.
  • Peter Parker (Tom Holland) not wanting to activate instant kill mode with his suit was a running gag in Spider-Man: Homecoming, but here he actually does activate instant kill mode.
  • James D’Arcy reprising his role as Edwin Jarvis, the Stark family butler (for whom J.A.R.V.I.S. the artificial intelligence was named), from Agent Carter was a completely unexpected cameo that absolutely floored me. Considering that Jeph Loeb’s Marvel Television has been largely ignored by the MCU (though that may change come Hawkeye and Spider-Man: No Way Home…), to have a supporting character from one of the more minor shows cameo, if only for a brief second, felt wonderful. Jarvis rocks.
  • You know, not a whole lot of groundwork for this one, since it’s wrapping up so many things. Well, that’s a lie, it’s just that most of that groundwork hasn’t paid off yet: the Guardians will appear in Thor: Love and Thunder, which will presumably also deal with Valkyrie’s queenship; Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 will deal with the search for 2014 Gamora; there’s going to be Captain America 4 with Sam (Anthony Mackie), etc. etc. We just haven’t seen all that happen.
  • Well, that’s a bit of a fib: Loki stealing the Tesseract did net him his own TV show.
  • The song that Steve and Peggy dance to (“It’s Been a Long, Long Time”) was playing in Steve’s apartment in Winter Soldier when Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) paid him a visit.
  • The Amazon series The Boys did a very excellent parody (or two) of the “he’s got help”/A-Force team-up scene from Endgame, but, honestly, it’s not that bad. I, for one, felt pretty pumped about it in the theater, even if it is a bit ham-fisted. Far, far more egregious things have happened then a bunch of women superheroes teaming up together for lip service. It was clumsy, but there are worse things—like, if you want to take a political issue with Marvel, talk about its weird relationship with the military-industrial complex, or American exceptionalism, or the damage it’s doing to cinema as a whole. This one scene is not the biggest issue at stake here. (Also, is it any worse than Marvel trumpeting the fact that Endgame has the MCU’s first gay character and for that to turn out to be Joe Russo making a cameo?)
  • It was very nice that the MCU remembered Harley Keener (Ty Simpkins) from Iron Man 3. Would be cool to see him again; after all, he’s “connected.” Ironheart or Armor Wars, maybe? The inevitable Young Avengers movie or show? Could be fun.
  • Not to diss Kathryn Newton again (…and again), but Emma Fuhrmann, who has two brief scenes in Endgame as an older Cassie Lang, Scott’s daughter, absolutely kills what little time she has. It’s very unfair she was passed over for someone with more star power.
  • In case anyone was peeved (as I was) at this Daniel Sousa (Enver Gjokaj) from Agent Carter the TV show erasure, never fear: he gets his own happy ending with Daisy Johnson (Chloe Bennet) in the future, in space, presumably working for S.W.O.R.D., except Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. probably wasn’t legally allowed to say that. But, regardless, at least the ABC show universe doesn’t forget about their loose ends (well, most of the time).

Anna’s Favorite Scene: I mean. Come on. It’s the portal scene. It’s “Avengers, assemble.” Come. On. I have never felt that exhilarated watching a movie in my life. (“It’s a baby.” “It’s Scott!” “As a baby.” “He’ll grow!” never fails to tickle me, however.)

MCU Ranking: 1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier, 2. Avengers: Infinity War, 3. Captain America: Civil War, 4. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, 5. Thor: Ragnarok, 6. Avengers: Endgame, 7. Guardians of the Galaxy, 8. The Avengers, 9. Spider-Man: Homecoming, 10. Captain America: The First Avenger, 11. Iron Man 3, 12. Iron Man, 13. Black Panther, 14. Ant-Man and the Wasp, 15. Doctor Strange, 16. Ant-Man, 17. Thor, 18. Avengers: Age of Ultron, 19. Captain Marvel, 20. Thor: The Dark World, 21. Iron Man 2, 22. The Incredible Hulk

Avengers: Endgame Trailer

Avengers: Endgame is currently available to rent and purchase on most digital storefronts, and is streaming on Disney+.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

MCU Retrospective: Avengers: Infinity War

Written by Anna Harrison

In these retrospectives, Anna will be looking back on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, providing context around the films, criticizing them, pointing out their groundwork for the future, and telling everyone her favorite scene, because her opinion is always correct and therefore her favorite scene should be everyone’s favorite scene. Now, the beginning of an end of an era. But not really an end. Like, half an end.

85/100

“Dread it. Run from it. Destiny arrives all the same. And now, it’s here. Or should I say… I am.”

The unbearable anticipation for Avengers: Infinity War made the hype around Joss Whedon’s The Avengers look like child’s play. Ten years after the arrival of Iron Man, the MCU had built its own complicated mythology, weaving in characters and storylines in a way that no other movie franchise had attempted; its characters had become instantly recognizable, the actors who portrayed them became megastars, and its cultural dominance was absolute. Even if you didn’t watch every Marvel film, there was no way to avoid them: the memes, the inside jokes, the lines, the gestures were everywhere. Suddenly your arms crossed in an “X” over your chest meant something greater, and if you said something as innocuous as, “I understood that reference,” you would—intentionally or not—open the door for endless Marvel, well, references. 

Since The Avengers premiered in 2012, the looming threat of Thanos on the horizon had grown ever larger alongside Marvel’s own growing importance. Damion Poitier appeared as the Mad Titan in The Avengers’ post-credits scene as merely a tease, but two years later, in Guardians of the Galaxy, he was in the body of the movie, this time played by Josh Brolin. In Avengers: Age of Ultron, Thanos would again cameo in a post-credits scene, and so by the time he shows up in Infinity War, the audience has been prepared.

With Thanos come the Infinity Stones. First the Space Stone (within the Tesseract) in Captain America: The First Avenger, the Mind Stone (within Loki’s scepter) and the Space Stone again in The Avengers, the Reality Stone (aka the Aether) in Thor: The Dark World, the Power Stone in Guardians of the Galaxy, the Mind Stone again in Avengers: Age of Ultron, and the Time Stone in Doctor Strange. Always there, always waiting for their big payoff. 

And so, at last, Avengers: Infinity War, originally titled Avengers: Infinity War Part 1 but renamed to avoid misconceptions (and presumably to give Avengers: Endgame a more final-sounding name than simply Infinity War Part 2). Joe and Anthony Russo, directors of Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Captain America: Civil War, reunited with writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely to craft the first part of the end of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (or, at least, the MCU as we knew it to that point). Theories were flying on who was going to die, and how, and when, with people hanging onto Kevin Feige’s every word regarding this movie and breaking down the trailers frame-by-frame. Clips shown at San Diego Comic-Con caused the enormous Hall H crowd to lose its collective mind, and the trailer now has well over 100 million views. It was all your favorite characters—even the disparate ones, like the Guardians of the Galaxy—coming together, it was the beginning of the culmination of 18 previous movies, it was all so unbelievably big

But when Infinity War begins, with no fanfare, no music, no images, just the crackling voice of Sir Kenneth Branagh (director of the first Thor movie) pleading for anyone to come help the Asgardian refugee ship last seen in Thor: Ragnarok, all the anticipation of the past ten years becomes swiftly replaced with foreboding. The opening of Avengers: Infinity War hits you like a bus, a train, an expletive, take your pick (I prefer the lattermost, starting with an “m” and ending in an “er”), and the ending only hits harder. 

That refugee vessel slowly comes into view as it floats listlessly in space, dead in the water; soon, the camera begins to survey the wreckage in one long, harrowing take, lingering on the dead civilians that litter the floor of the ship. Then Thanos (Josh Brolin) appears, dragging a beaten and bloodied Thor (Chris Hemsworth) across the wreckage like he weighs nothing. The fight has already happened, and Thor has lost—the triumph and jubilation from Thor: Ragnarok vanishes in an instant as we see how easily Thanos tosses Thor aside, and the dread only rises when even the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), one of the most powerful beings in the MCU, gets bested by Thanos with little more than a flick of the wrist. It rises, and rises, and rises: Heimdall (Idris Elba) sends Hulk to Earth and gets killed for his efforts, Thanos adds the Space Stone to his collection, and finally it all culminates in the Thanos lazily snapping the neck of fan-favorite Loki (Tom Hiddleston). 

It’s a one-two-three-four gut punch: what remains of Asgard decimated, Hulk defeated, Heimdall killed, Loki killed, bam, bam, bam, bam. Loki’s death in particular sends a shock to the system: the formidable villain of the first Avengers movie tossed to the ground like a broken ragdoll, the antihero from the Thor franchise who stole so many scenes he brought that same Hall H to its feet all those years ago merely by shushing them, making one last heroic stand that gets thwarted with astonishing ease. Loki has perhaps the most gruesome, drawn-out death in the MCU, thrashing and writhing wildly about like an animal, blood trickling out of his eyes and ears from the force of Thanos’ meaty hand around his neck before the God of Mischief gets his corpse bodily dumped in front of his defeated, crying brother. It is an utterly bleak opening and unlike any other Marvel movie that came before—there are no quips, there is only defeat and despair as we finally behold the true power of the Mad Titan Thanos.

In short, it’s one hell of an opening, and Infinity War hardly lets up on the gas pedal for the rest of its hefty runtime.

The Hulk conveniently lands in the Sanctum Santorum, the abode of Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and fellow Master of the Mystic Arts Wong (Benedict Wong), and he turns back into Bruce Banner upon landing. (Despite Bruce’s proclamation in Ragnarok that if he turned into the Hulk again he would never turn back, here he is; depending on what the directors need him to be, the relationship between Bruce and the Hulk tends to change at the drop of a hat. Taika Waititi needed Bruce to be Hulked out, but the Russos need Hulk to be beaten down to establish Thanos’ strength and simultaneously leave a powerful player off the battlefield, because otherwise the Avengers might win too easily. Back and forth we go.)

Bruce’s proclamation that “Thanos is coming” spurs Dr. Strange to get the Avenging band back together again. Strange interrupts Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Pepper Potts’ (Gwyneth Paltrow) walk through the park and family planning discussion, and Tony almost swallows his pride and calls Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), but they get interrupted by the arrival of Thanos’ lackeys, the Black Order. (A reminder, in case you forgot: the last time Tony and Steve saw each other, Tony was attempting to kill Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), Steve’s childhood friend, for killing his mom, and Steve was doing his best to give Tony a very severe concussion or twenty.)

Trent Opaloch, the cinematographer for the Russo brothers’ MCU films, has crafted a handful of cool shots for Marvel, but by and large his camera has been workmanlike, favoring function over style. Yet here, like in the opening scene, he employs another long take that works beautifully to ramp up the tension: Tony walks out onto the streets of New York, the wind from the Black Order’s ship sending debris flying, and the chaos that unfolds around him gets no time to breathe or ease up via a cut, it only keeps growing. Someone runs into Tony and falls to the ground, a car hits a lamppost right in front of him, signs are precariously buffeted by the wind, and our trepidation only grows as he picks his way through the chaos to find the threat.

The threat turns out to be Cull Obsidian (Terry Notary) and Ebony Maw (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor), the former of whom is forgettable but the latter of whom proves to be very coldly frightening. Seeing the impending threat from aboard his school bus, Peter Parker (Tom Holland) joins the fight, which ends with Dr. Strange, Tony, and Peter all aboard Ebony Maw’s ship, headed to a rendezvous with Thanos on his home planet of Titan.

Read More of Anna’s Ongoing Marvel Retrospective Series Here

And then, with a needle drop of The Spinners’ “The Rubberband Man,” the Guardians of the Galaxy enter Infinity War. (It’s not all gloom and doom, guys!) Zooming through space to answer a distress signal, they soon realize that they’ve arrived too late: the source of the call, the Asgardian ship from the opening, has splintered apart, and its occupants float eerily through the cosmos, all dead save the one-eyed bodybuilder who lands on their windshield. So, finally, our space misfits get to interact with the Avengers, or at least one. The Guardians bring Thor onto their ship, where Drax (Dave Bautista), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Mantis (Pom Klementieff), and Rocket (Sean Gunn for the motion capture, Bradley Cooper for the voice) ooh and aah over Thor’s significant muscles at the expense of Peter Quill (Chris Pratt). “He is not a dude,” Drax says. “You’re a dude. This… this is a man. A handsome, muscular man.” 

The subsequent interaction between Thor and the Guardians is a moment of immense fun amidst a very heavy movie (at least, heavy for Marvel), and seeing the Guardians finally interact with an MCU character outside of their own franchise sparks great joy. So much of the MCU’s success relies on how well it plays around in its own sandbox: it has established characters you know and love on their own, which is well and good, but when you put them together, it’s double the fun and double the novelty. Plus, the Guardians are such a bizarre bunch that putting them with any character even slightly less weird will pay dividends, and as these characters interact with their hitherto unknown fellows, it can coax out new sides of everyone involved, so not only is it simply fun to watch these worlds collide, it’s good character development, too.

In fact, the combination of Thor and Rocket produces one of the best scenes in Infinity War. The two, along with Groot (Vin Diesel), split off from the Guardians so that Thor can find a weapon strong enough to defeat Thanos, leaving the Guardians to go to the planet Knowhere to speak to the Collector (Benicio del Toro), seen in Thor: The Dark World’s post-credits scene and in Guardians of the Galaxy, who possesses the Reality Stone. Rocket, in a moment of remarkable maturity and empathy for the racoon (Yondu (Michael Rooker) really helped him with his issues in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2), notices Thor is feeling a bit blue, to put it lightly. Where Thor: Ragnarok dealt with its own repercussions a little too glibly, here Markus and McFeely strike a perfect balance between the newfound humor in Thor and the immense trauma he just experienced: there are jokes, but they are laced through with a current of sorrow.

“You know,” Thor tells Rocket, “I’m fifteen-hundred years old. I’ve killed twice as many enemies as that, and every one of them would have rather killed me than not succeeded. I’m only alive because fate wants me alive. Thanos is just the latest in a long line of bastards, and he’ll be the latest to feel my vengeance. Fate wills it so.”

“Mhm. And what if you’re wrong?”

“Well, if I’m wrong, then…” Thor replies, “what more could I lose?”

It’s a standout scene in a standout movie, one elevated by Chris Hemsworth’s standout performance. Thor: Ragnarok leaned overly hard into the comedy, often forgetting Thor’s age and largely ignoring the bigger emotional repercussions from things like his dad dying, his sister getting released from Hel, attempting to kill him, slashing his eye out, and then dying, and his home world getting destroyed; here, you feel the weight of it finally come crashing down.

Elsewhere, yet another thread of the movie gets introduced as we are reacquainted with Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) and the Vision (Paul Bettany), now officially an item. Vision also looks like Paul Bettany for a few minutes, sparing the makeup team several hours of their time and letting everyone know he can change his appearance at will (and probably make it an easier pill to swallow for the audience that Wanda is dating a synthezoid thing). The two had shared moments in Age of Ultron and Civil War hinting at their future as a couple, but they were more snatches of time than anything, so Bettany, Olsen, and the movie have to work overtime to make their relationship believable. Luckily, it largely succeeds; even if Wanda and Vision will not get the limelight they deserve until their titular TV show, Bettany and Olsen’s charm and chemistry help sell their relationship very quickly.

Vision, unfortunately, becomes the target of the other two members of the Black Order, Proxima Midnight (Carrie Coon in a very thankless role, and I would please like Sarah Finn to cast her again as someone bigger, thank you) and Corvus Glaive (Michael Shaw). Vision gets wounded early on, conveniently nerfing (as the kids say) his formidable powers so he and the Mind Stone can’t run around and defeat the Black Order without dropping a sweat (not that Vision would sweat anyway). Luckily for our favorite sitcom couple, Bruce had called Steve, who shows up with Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) and Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) in appropriately dramatic fashion. They decide to take Vision to Wakanda, where T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) and Shuri (Letitia Wright) might be able to patch him up. (Steve, having been on the run since the events of Civil War, also sprouts a beard, a thrilling development everywhere for the female gaze.)

And so we finally have all of our plot threads: Tony, Strange, and Peter heading to Titan, having dispatched Ebony Maw; Thor and Rocket heading to the dwarf home world of Nidavellir to get a weapon; the Guardians off to Knowhere; the earthbound Avengers (now with Don Cheadle’s Rhodey in tow) off to Wakanda, where they also pick up recently de-brainwashed Bucky Barnes

Well, almost all. There’s still Thanos to deal with. Before the Guardians get to Knowhere, Gamora takes Peter aside and makes him swear to kill her if Thanos tries to take her; when the Guardians get to Knowhere, they find the planet burning and Thanos waiting for them, Reality Stone in tow. When Thanos takes Gamora, Peter follows through on his promise and shoots her, but the shot turns to harmless bubbles as Thanos harnesses the power of the Reality Stone. It’s a shocking moment—not the bubbles, but the fact that Peter actually tries to kill Gamora. Nearly every time something similar happens in a movie, the shooter can’t follow through. It’s become trite at this point, but Peter bucks tradition and pulls the trigger, which (conversely) speaks to the strength of his relationship with Gamora and the trust they have built between Vol. 2 and now. Like Olsen and Bettany, Pratt and Saldana have to work hard to sell their characters’ relationship, which was last seen as defined as “some unspoken thing” in Vol. 2, but it works. Saldana in particular turns out her best performance as Gamora yet as she confronts the adoptive father who slaughtered half of her planet, proving to be the unexpected MVP of Infinity War.

So now we finally have all of our plot threads: Tony and company on Titan, the Guardians on Knowhere, Thor and Rocket on Nidavellir, Steve and company in Wakanda, and Thanos on a quest to find the Soul Stone.

It is quite a lot of plates to keep in the air. Frankly, it is a marvel (ha) that Infinity War is even slightly coherent, considering that so many of its pieces stay separated throughout the entire movie. It operates, of course, on the assumption that you have seen at least a handful of the previous eighteen movies: it doesn’t have any pretensions about being able to stand on its own two legs without the foundations laid by its predecessors. It’s a movie that trusts its audiences, that trusts that we know the characters, that we know their relationships to each other, that we’ve been paying attention and understand what Thanos and the Infinity Stones mean to the universe. Taken in a vacuum, this would make Infinity War hugely messy, but it was never meant to be taken in a vacuum. You could count that as a valid flaw, and symptomatic of how the MCU is changing our movie landscape into a monolith, but you could also sit back and joyously watch ten years’ worth of solid character work pay off.

Infinity War marks perhaps the most obvious point in the MCU where it becomes nigh impossible to gauge a Marvel movie on its own: the MCU has built such a twisting mythos for itself that to judge Infinity War without judging what came before simply can’t work. The MCU has taken on a life of its own, and if you want to know what’s going on in pop culture, what’s making the rounds on Twitter, you’re going to have to sink quite a lot of money and time into the MCU just to catch up. There is a very cynical way to look at this, to view this money-making, independent-film-driving-away-ing, Disney-domination-cementing machine as nothing more than a hollow and artless cash grab, but the genuine glee that arises from pushing all these characters together in new ways and writing them into impossible corners is apparent from the care and love with which everyone is handled.

None of our main heroes get much development in Infinity War, per se, with a few exceptions here and there: Tony gets to yet again undergo extraterrestrial trauma, Thor processes his grief through vengeance, Gamora (and, later, Karen Gillan as Nebula) come face-to-face with the sins of their father. But most other characters, including even Steve Rogers, rely on their previous characterization to power them through this movie—luckily, a decade’s worth of content gives quite a lot to go off.

It’s not only the dense plot that forces these characters to the side, nor is it the sheer number of cast members to juggle (there were 23 character posters, which is insane), though those certainly played their part. It’s also the fact that Thanos is the true main character of Infinity War. In order for these stakes to be felt, and for this six-year buildup starting with The Avengers to pay off, Thanos has to be front and center. While all the rest of our characters get split up, he doggedly powers through with one goal in mind, going through his own hero’s journey. He makes pivotal decisions, he makes personal sacrifices, he is the one thread connecting everything—all the others are merely accessories.

Thanos’ goal comes from seeing his own planet, Titan, wither and die from a lack of resources; he had proposed an “at random, dispassionate, fair to rich and poor alike” culling of half of Titan’s population in order to stave off this destruction. Titan refused, and so it crumbled. Convinced he was right, Thanos then set out to eliminate half of the universe’s population to preserve the other half. “This universe is finite, its resources finite,” he tells Gamora. “If life is left unchecked, life will cease to exist. It needs correction.” This argument was so convincing that it spawned a lot of “Thanos did nothing wrong” memes, though they were mostly ironic; still, Brolin makes us feel something almost approaching sympathy for the big purple grape. Thanos is calm and logical, but he isn’t dispassionate, and he sees himself as a maligned hero honorably sacrificing everything for the rest of the world. Brolin does an absolutely tremendous job with the motion-capture and vocal performance, and he imbues Thanos with a tremendous amount of gravitas that has extended well outside the MCU and into pop culture; it’s thanks in large part to him that Infinity War works as well as it does and hits its emotional beats.

It turns out that the reason Thanos took Gamora was not entirely out of fatherly love; rather, it was because she knows where the Soul Stone is, and she reveals its location on Vormir after Thanos begins torturing her adopted sister Nebula (a nice parallel to the opening where Loki gives up the Tesseract and the accompanying Space Stone after witnessing Thor’s torture at the hands of Thanos). After Thanos and Gamora go to Vormir, Nebula escapes and alerts the Guardians to join her on Titan, and our threads slowly begin to coalesce. 

Unfortunately, not all of these threads are equally engaging. While Thor and Rocket have some of the best interactions in the movie, their plotline seems like a minor sidequest, one that ignores that whole moment in Thor: Ragnarok that establishes how Thor doesn’t need a weapon to go around and wreck shit. Ragnarok has him grappling with and overcoming the loss of his hammer, Mjolnir, before realizing that he is the God of Thunder, not the God of Hammers, but Infinity War has him turn right back around and decide that he needs a weapon. (It also gives him a replacement eyeball, which is easier for both Hemsworth and the VFX team, but negates another Ragnarok development.) The Nidavellir plotline seems to exist only to take Thor away from the action until the most opportune time while still giving him something to do, and the introduction of the giant dwarf Eitri (Peter Dinklage) feels like an unnecessary addition in an already-crowded movie. Sure, Thor gets a cool axe, and it’s Peter Dinklage, but… why? Is it really necessary? Not really.

Luckily, though, the Guardians are here to save the day. They arrive on Titan and immediately cross paths with the Avengers, resulting in some very funny misunderstandings and a lot of very tired, very exasperated looks from Tony as he deals with their insanity. Placing all these characters in new situations and letting their personalities clash organically results gives rise to some excellent humor. The Russo brothers’ previous forays into the Marvel world, Winter Soldier and Civil War, are among the most serious MCU titles (Winter Soldier especially), and Infinity War continues that trend while also, for my money, having some of the funniest scenes in the entire MCU, yet it’s not as quip-laden as many other Marvel movies. Markus and McFeely excel at naturally coaxing the humor out of character interactions, something they also did in Civil War; rather than tacking on a joke at the end of a beat, the funny moments are (by and large) seamlessly baked into the dialogue, advancing the plot, giving character depth, and keeping the audience entertained all in one fell swoop. Plus, it’s just so damn satisfying to watch all your favorites finally interact with each other—provided, of course, that you’re already invested in them, but again, the entirety of Infinity War is predicated on the fact that its audience already cares. If you don’t, then why are you watching? (Highlights: “Why is Gamora?,” “Kick ass, take names,” which is coincidentally my Instagram bio, “That’s on Earth, dipshit,” “What master do I serve? What do you want me to say, Jesus?,” and “Please don’t put your eggs in me!”) 

Elsewhere in space, Thanos and Gamora arrive on Vormir, where they are greeted by a familiar face: the Red Skull (formerly Hugo Weaving, now voiced by Ross Marquand in an uncanny imitation), last seen in Captain America: The First Avenger getting sucked into space by the Space Stone and now guardian of the Soul Stone. It’s a bit random, but a neat way to tie together a loose thread and a fun reappearance from an old villain. Vormir is a desolately beautiful place, a properly somber setting for what’s about to occur: to get the Soul Stone, you must sacrifice something you love. The resultant scene serves to heighten Thanos’ villainy, of course, but also his humanity: the horror at what he’s doing and the sheer willpower it takes to sacrifice Gamora plays out in vivid detail across Thanos’ face, turning the scene into a veritable Greek tragedy. The work that Infinity War puts in to build up Gamora and Thanos’ relationship pays off here, though it has no right to: Gamora has been a main character in the Guardians series, but not one who necessarily evokes much pathos, so to successfully build her up in this movie while balancing so many other characters and make her death truly mean something is no small feat. Saldana continues to grow more comfortable with Gamora, and here she turns in an incredibly impressive performance; combined with Brolin’s anguish, the pair expertly sell their twisted relationship, even though they get saddled with some clunky expositional dialogue in the middle, making it the unlikeliest heart of Infinity War. (Or maybe I’m just predisposed to care too much about these Marvel people, who knows.)

And so, now with four Infinity Stones, Thanos sets out to retrieve the Time Stone from Strange on Titan, and the remaining Black Order members go to Wakanda to get the Mind Stone from Visions forehead. The pieces inch ever closer.

The reason for how separate all these pieces are can be found in Civil War. When Steve and Tony broke up, they split the Avengers, and so when a threat like Thanos appears, they can’t band together and stop him. Thanos could divide and conquer because the dividing part was already done for him by the Avengers themselves; without a united front, the chinks in their armor become that much more obvious. See, guys, here are some events in the MCU that actually have ramifications down the line! 

As the climax approaches, we now only have three things (only three, imagine that!) to cut between: Thanos duking it out with the crew on Titan, Thor taking the full force of a star to make his axe, and the Black Order hunting Vision in Wakanda. The fight on Titan is the most interesting of the three plots as it allows Dr. Strange to go ham with his powers and Thanos to utilize the full force of four Infinity Stones, leading to some interesting visuals and downright cool moments; the fight on Wakanda doesn’t have nearly as much going for it, and the enjoyment from that scene comes from simply watching all the different characters’ fighting styles as they face down the Black Order and their unimaginative dog-looking alien things. (Why don’t the Avengers just destroy the Mind Stone and possibly Vision along with it, you ask? “We don’t trade lives,” Steve says, before asking a bunch of Wakandans to trade their lives to defend a synthezoid they have never even met. It’s a good sentiment, Steve, but… you might want to work on your logic a bit there, buddy.) When things seem to be looking dire, Thor arrives in the most triumphant fashion possible and does some very, very cool shit. It is very, very awesome, and the payoff almost makes up for the strange nature of his subplot in this movie. Plus, we get this eloquent exchange between Groot and Steve: “I am Groot,” Groot says as he skewers a bunch of bad guys. “I am Steve Rogers,” Steve says, very politely

Elsewhere on Titan, things seem to be almost looking up, and everyone is working together to restrain Thanos and get the Infinity Gauntlet off, but when Peter Quill learns of Gamora’s death, he discards the plan in favor of trying his best to cave Thanos’ skull in. A lot has been said about this moment and a lot of fingers have been pointed towards Peter as the reason the Avengers lost, and yes, it was a bad move on his part. But it was also completely, 100% in character: Peter is still emotionally stunted from his mother’s death and always incredibly reactive, thinking with his heart instead of his head, so of course he’s going to throw the plan out the window when he hears of the death of the woman he loves. The understandable impulses driving Peter’s actions make it that much more tragic when they allow Thanos to regain control of the Infinity Stones; Peter is, after all, only human (or at least 50% human). Reunited with the Infinity Gauntlet, Thanos handily defeats his foes and stabs Tony with a bit of his own nanotech in a very sudden move that provoked many a gasp in the opening night audience, prompting Dr. Strange to give up the Time Stone. (Tony patches up himself right away, but that scene is the closest I have ever come to having an honest-to-god heart attack.)

From there, Thanos arrives in Wakanda, and with five Infinity Stones in tow, proceeds to completely decimate the remaining Avengers. It’s harrowing to watch when we have become so accustomed to success after success for our heroes (barring Civil War, which had no winners); against Thanos, they’re nothing. Annoying gnats buzzing in his ear. The only one who can put up any fight is Wanda.

Faced with annihilation or the death of one man (robot, android, synthezoid, whatever), the Avengers finally choose the one—or, rather, Vision chooses to sacrifice himself. Alas, the only person able to hurt him is his lady love, and so Wanda gets saddled with the task of killing her boyfriend. Fun! As with Gamora’s (unwilling) sacrifice, this shouldn’t really work, given the limited screentime Wanda and Vision have had, but Olsen and Bettany act the hell out of the scene, a feat made even more impressive when you realize that some of it was improvised. It seems as though, through Wanda and Vision’s sacrifice, crisis was averted.

And then Thanos simply turns back time and takes the Mind Stone out of Vision’s head by force.

But wait! Thor is here to save the day, driving his axe into Thanos’ chest as revenge for everything he has suffered. Our heroes have finally won.

And then Thanos says, “You should have gone for the head,” snaps his fingers, and half the world turns to dust. Thanos vanishes, the music stops, the world stops as we slowly watch some of our favorite characters vanish from sight, disappearing in a puff of ash. If you’ve made it this far in the MCU, if you care in the least about any of these people, this moment should floor you. Indeed, it floored pop culture for quite some time, and you couldn’t move five feet on the internet without bumping into a reference about Thanos’ snap. (There was even a whole subreddit that banned half its community in an attempt to emulate Thanos, attracting the attention of Josh Brolin and Anthony Russo.) 

Peter Parker’s cries of “I don’t wanna go” (also improvised) in particular are gut-wrenching, because for all the ass-kicking he’s been doing over the course of the movie, he’s a 16-year-old kid clinging to his father figure in a desperate attempt to stave off the inevitable. It is incredibly heavy fare for Marvel. “It was the only way,” Dr. Strange tells Tony, but it certainly seems like the end times. Even Steve Rogers can’t think of a rallying cry, as he simply collapses next to Vision’s body and says, “Oh, god.” And Thanos, like he promised earlier, gets to “finally rest and watch the sun rise on a grateful universe.” And so the movie ends with the triumph of the villain.

Of course there’s going to be a sequel, and of course everyone who was snapped away will return, but that knowledge does little to lessen the distress evoked from seeing the utter decimation of the Avengers. Infinity War has some of Marvel’s highest highs (the Guardians meeting everyone else, Thor arriving in Wakanda to much fanfare), but its ending packs a wallop that no other MCU movie has even attempted to. It no doubt has its flaws, but at the end of the day, Infinity War is one of the gutsiest tricks Marvel has ever pulled—there is no reason a movie this crowded, this plot- and MacGuffin-heavy should have worked, and yet it did. It still does, even knowing what comes after. 

Avengers: Infinity War is one very agonizing descent into hell for our favorite characters, an inevitable fall made all the more excruciating because possible wins are presented at every corner before slipping through our heroes’ fingertips. They almost get the Gauntlet off on Titan, and then Quill lets his emotions get the best of him; Vision’s sacrifice seems to make Thanos’ goal impossible before Thanos winds back the clock; Thor’s axe strikes true but his desire to make Thanos suffer before death backfires. And so here we are, and the credits start to roll, and there’s no music playing, and you’re left to rot in the despair left behind in Thanos’ destructive wake. Put simply, there was nothing like Avengers: Infinity War: not because it’s the best movie ever made, or because it’s even the best Marvel movie (though it comes damn close), but because it turns the entire MCU on its head. I don’t think there will be anything like it for quite some time. 

Groundwork and stray observations: Marvel has no big master plan; rather, they plant seeds wherever they can in the hopes that some of them might one day germinate. None of these were planned from day one, lest the whole ship sink, but the seeds germinated nonetheless:

  • The post-credits scene shows Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) paging Captain Marvel so we can all get excited about Marvel’s next movie and give them even more money!
  • Loki’s death sets the tone for the movie quite well, but some fans were upset that the consummate trickster’s big plan to best Thanos was… stab him with a knife. It was so straightforward a plan that people thought Loki would still be alive, and there were theories that he simply cast an illusion and hid himself among the wreckage and went off elsewhere; while this didn’t come to pass, and Thanos even says, “No resurrections this time” to preempt any “Loki lives” discussions, Richard E. Grant’s Classic Loki in the Disney+ show Loki did exactly what was theorized, probably as a nod to how flimsy OG Loki’s “plan” was.
  • There’s a far subtler “girl power” moment here than in Endgame with Wanda, Natasha, and Okoye (Danai Gurira) taking down Proxima Midnight. #girlboss
  • On the different side of the #girlboss spectrum, though, is Shuri making a dig at Bruce for not thinking of some science-y technobabble stuff, which isn’t unfunny but shows a lack of imagination: you shouldn’t have to knock others’ intelligence just to make Shuri look smart, she should simply be doing that on her own. (Game of Thrones fell into that trap all. the. time.)
  • I find it very funny that while T’Challa and Steve show off their superhuman strength and speed by sprinting out in front of everyone during the Wakandan battle, Bucky, who has that same strength and speed (as evidenced in Civil War’s car chase scene), is perfectly content to lag behind with the normies. He’s too old for this shit.
  • The Bruce/Natasha eye contact and Sam muttering, “This is awkward” is the perfect way to move past their misfire of a “relationship.”
  • The Russo brothers love to sneak in references to their past work on Community and Arrested Development in their Marvel movies: Community alums cast throughout, the Bluth staircase car in Civil War, and here, a blue man looking suspiciously like the never-nude Tobias Fünke slumped over in one of the Collector’s cases.
  • Ebony Maw burning his hand on Dr. Strange’s medallion is a nod to Raiders of the Lost Ark, which I learned because I, like all cool people do, watched the entire movie with commentary one afternoon.
  • If Eitri has no use of his hands, how does he pee? How does he do anything, as a matter of fact? How is he still alive? I need answers, Kevin!

Anna’s Favorite Scene: Woof. I have to say, the opening is pretty fantastic, even if it causes me great emotional distress, and Peter’s “I don’t wanna go” kills me every time, but I have to give it to Thor: both his “what more could I lose” scene with Rocket and when he arrives in Wakanda with Stormbreaker are very great scenes for very different reasons.

MCU Ranking: 1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier, 2. Avengers: Infinity War, 3. Captain America: Civil War, 4. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, 5. Thor: Ragnarok, 6. Guardians of the Galaxy, 7. The Avengers, 8. Spider-Man: Homecoming, 9. Captain America: The First Avenger, 10. Iron Man 3, 11. Iron Man, 12. Black Panther, 13. Doctor Strange, 14. Ant-Man, 15. Thor, 16. Avengers: Age of Ultron, 17. Thor: The Dark World, 18. Iron Man 2, 19. The Incredible Hulk

Avengers: Infinity War Trailer

Avengers: Infinity War is currently available to rent and purchase on most digital storefronts, and is streaming on Disney+.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

MCU Retrospective: Thor: Ragnarok

Written by Anna Harrison

In these retrospectives, Anna will be looking back on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, providing context around the films, criticizing them, pointing out their groundwork for the future, and telling everyone her favorite scene, because her opinion is always correct and therefore her favorite scene should be everyone’s favorite scene. And now, for something completely different (again).

80/100

The Thor movies, historically, have been weaker entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe: the first, while very near and dear to my heart, was uneven and showed the MCU’s growing pains, though it certainly had standout moments and performances; the second is widely regarded as one of the worst movies in the MCU. (For what it’s worth, director Alan Taylor doesn’t like it either, saying, “The Marvel experience was particularly wrenching because I was sort of given absolute freedom while we were shooting, and then in post it turned into a different movie,” which seems to be a common refrain among Creative Committee-era Marvel.) Even Chris Hemsworth was feeling burnt out, worried that his character was becoming static and uninteresting. Things were looking, if not dire—by this point, it would take a hell of a lot for any MCU movie to be in truly dire straits—then at least unexciting.

The solution, as it turned out, was to hire a New Zealand director best known for his wacky vampire mockumentary (yes, that’s correct) What We Do in the Shadows, which had a budget of about $1.6 million. Taika Waititi came in with a sizzle reel featuring Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” and suddenly found himself at the helm of a $180 million movie, where he gave the Thor franchise a much-needed makeover and suddenly found himself a bonafide celebrity in the process. Thor: Ragnarok serves as a soft reboot of the franchise, poking fun at its over-dramatic past exploits, introducing new characters for future stories, and injecting an enormous of humor and color into one of the more dour MCU series—to say that Waititi revived Thor both as a character and as a series sounds dramatic but would be entirely correct.

The tone shift becomes apparent from the first moment Thor opens his mouth. Trapped in a cage above a floor of lava, he says, “Now, I know what you’re thinking. Oh no! Thor’s in a cage. How did this happen?” This is a far cry from the exposition-heavy openings of Thor and Thor: The Dark World, which utilized ponderous flashbacks to explain their MacGuffins; instead, we are greeted with Thor talking to a skeleton and offhandedly mumbling about “Infinity Stone things.” No more flowery language, no more self-serious talk of duty and kingship: Waititi wisely lets Hemsworth play to his considerable comedic strengths, and the result is a movie that never lets up on the gas pedal of humor while leaning heavily into Waititi’s off-kilter Kiwi sensibilities. 

And so after Thor gets out of that cage and defeats fire giant Surtur (Clancy Brown), and after he receives ominous warnings about the impending doom of his home from Ragnarok, the apocalypse in Norse mythology, Thor arrives back on Asgard to chat with his father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins), whose mannerisms—and the fact that he’s staging a rather melodramatic play singing Loki’s (Tom Hiddleston) praises—tip off Thor to the fact that this isn’t his father but is, in fact, his adopted brother, who faked his death in The Dark World.

How fitting that Loki, who all his life longed for affection and acceptance he never got, would spend his time as king of Asgard running a PR campaign to make himself look like a hero, all so he can bask in adulation from the masses. As Tony Stark says in The Avengers, “And Loki, he’s a full-tilt diva, right? He wants flowers, he wants parades. He wants a monument built to the skies with his name.” Or, as Mobius puts more succinctly in Loki, “What an incredible seismic narcissist!”

If Thor’s confrontation with Surtur already toed the line of absurdity, we’ve now merrily leaped to the other side: Loki-as-Odin merrily eating grapes as he watches his own death, cameos from Luke Hemsworth, Sam Neill, and Matt Damon as actors in the play, and, as Matt Damon-as-Loki dies, a solemn choir singing Brian Tyler’s score that played as in Thor: The Dark World as the real Loki “died.” It’s fantastically different from anything that came before in Ragnarok’s predecessors: this is not your average Thor movie, and it’s much better for it.

Thor reveals Loki’s trickery, and the two go off to track down Odin with a little help from a certain Sorcerer Supreme (Benedict Cumberbatch in a fun and quick cameo). Odin has been laying low in Norway, his age catching up to him. Atop a stark cliffside, Odin blindsides his sons by revealing that they have a sister, Hela (Cate Blanchett), whom he locked away when she got too bloodthirsty, and then after this revelation, Odin promptly perishes.

It’s a small, intimate scene with beautiful visuals and strong performances, and it’s a good sendoff for Odin as he reminds us that he can have moments of kindness with his sons while also being the shittiest father in the MCU. He includes Loki when he says, “My sons,” which is nice considering that the last time he saw Loki he said, “Your birthright was to die,” but in the same breath divulges that he imprisoned his firstborn and never told his other children. Where the other Thor movies typically tried to pretend that Odin was a good father and a good king, Waititi mostly strips the veneer off him, laying his flaws on thick (though still never quite interrogating them enough).

So Odin dies, but his legacy does not: Hela immediately arrives in all her glory—and there’s a lot of it. Blanchett looks absolutely fabulous, and she chews on scenery with relish; there’s little complexity driving Hela, who simply wants to rule through bloodshed, but Blanchett has such a blast in the role (and, seriously, she looks amazing) that she vaults Hela up into the upper echelon of Marvel villains. If you squint, you can see a commentary on colonization—Waititi himself is half Maōri as well as the MCU’s first non-white director—in Odin and Hela’s conquest of the realms and the subsequent burial of Odin’s sins, and the way Odin and Asgard let the problems rot and fester so they are unprepared when they rears their ugly heads, but as has happened before, audience members are left with only breadcrumbs to form commentary from, though these breadcrumbs are pretty tasty. 

Hela handily destroys Mjolnir, Thor’s hammer, which sends both Loki and Thor into a tailspin; Loki, panicking, calls for the Bifrost to take them back, but Hela grabs ahold and tosses both Loki and Thor out of the Bifrost while she gets taken to Asgard. From there, the story becomes bifurcated: we cut between Loki and Thor navigating the colorful world of Sakaar and Hela beginning her reign of terror on Asgard. 

Read More of Anna’s Ongoing Marvel Retrospective Series Here

While in both Thor and The Dark World the scenes on Asgard stood a step or two above the scenes set elsewhere, here it’s the opposite. The time spent on Asgard with Hela is certainly still enjoyable due to both Blanchett and the addition of Waititi’s fellow Kiwi Karl Urban as Skurge, a lackey who gets roped into Hela’s bloodthirst rather unwillingly. It’s just that there’s not much to do other than reveal once again that Odin was terrible and summarily dispense with the Warriors Three (Zachary Levi, Ray Stevenson, and Tadanobu Asano)—Sif (Jaimie Alexander), it seems, was too busy filming Blindspot to attend the reunion. 

It’s not exactly a heartbreaking moment, as the Warriors Three had precious little screen time before (though Levi certainly hammed up his two minutes in The Dark World), and Hela dispatching them so easily establishes not only her threat but also Waititi’s willingness to turn the Thor world on its head. This disregard for the past is refreshing, and in some cases needed for this particular franchise, but the deaths of three of Thor’s closest friends perhaps should carry a bit more weight. Levi’s Fandral and Stevenson’s Volstagg barely get a word in edgewise before getting stabbed, and Asano’s Hogun fares only a little better before Hela promptly skewers him; Thor, when he does return to Asgard, does not acknowledge any of this, and so the inclusion of the Warriors Three simply to get killed in a very nonchalant manner sits a tad uncomfortably. To quote a different Disney franchise, “Let the past die. Kill it, if you have to,” but maybe not this quickly.

While Hela has been killing his friends, Thor has been having a hell of a day on Sakaar. First, a space wormhole deposits him in a pile of interdimensional trash. Next, an ex-Asgardian Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) shows up and captures him with zero regard for his social standing. Then, he is ushered to the being known as the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum) as an instrumental, hellish version of “Pure Imagination” plays in the background. He learns that he has been dumped on a planet known as Sakaar, where the Grandmaster keeps everyone entertained by having slaves (though he prefers the term “prisoners with jobs”) fight each other to the death, à la panem et circenses; Thor, full of bluster and looking extremely ripped, has the honor to become the Grandmaster’s next pet fighter. Also, Loki has been there for weeks and has already ingratiated himself with the Grandmaster, being the sly trickster that he is, and he declines to assist Thor.

It’s a lot to take in, so Thor is understandably euphoric when he realizes that the ominous “champion” the Grandmaster has been praising and whom he has to fight is none other than the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). But Thor’s “friend from work” has no interest in playing nice, it seems, even smashing Thor up the way he did Loki in The Avengers (“Yes! That’s how it feels!” Loki holleres), though Thor puts up enough of a fight that the Grandmaster has to interfere lest his precious champion lose and become unpopular.

This Sakaar storyline, adapted from the Planet Hulk comics, is immense fun. It’s got Jeff Goldblum melting people with sticks and improvising jazz on an alien piano—what more could you possibly want? It also adds a dash of bright color into the MCU, and while its visuals don’t quite match Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, it’s a refreshing change of pace and shows the dividends that pay when Marvel plays outside its typical sandbox. Waititi’s voice can be heard loud and clear throughout Ragnarok (and not just because he does the voice and motion capture for Thor’s fellow gladiator Korg) in a way that’s hard to imagine happening while the Creative Committee was still around. Large chunks of the movie were improvised, allowing the actors’ natural humor to shine, and directorial freedom was nearly absolute. Oh, it’s definitely a Marvel movie with all the requisite fights and whatnot, but it’s definitely a Taika Waititi movie, too.

The Thor/Hulk buddy comedy that unfurls after their fight is a happy marriage of two characters who have had precious little previous screentime together despite sharing two Avengers movies. Thor tries to badger and pester Hulk into turning back into Bruce Banner, but Hulk, finally having found a group of people that accept and even adore him (as opposed to Earth’s frosty reception after he destroyed Johannesburg in Avengers: Age of Ultron), resists. Hemsworth and Ruffalo spit childish insults at each other with glee, and though the dynamic shifts when Hulk inevitably turns back into Bruce Banner after seeing a clip of Black Widow, it only increases in fun as Ruffalo gazes wild-eyed around at the chaos and stress of Sakaar, marveling at their love for his alter ego.

Thor and Bruce set off to go back to Asgard, and on the way, run into Valkyrie, who’s had a change of heart. She had left Asgard after Hela, years and years ago, slaughtered all her fellow Valkyries; disillusioned with Asgard and lamenting the loss of everyone she loved, this Valkyrie retreated to Sakaar to drink her remaining days away. But, as she says, “I don’t want to forget. I can’t turn away anymore. So, if I’m going to die, well… it may as well be driving my sword through the heart of that murderous hag.” Thompson is a fantastic addition to the MCU, and she and Hemsworth have great chemistry, though thankfully not of the romantic kind. (There is a deleted scene somewhere that reveals Valkyrie to be bisexual, as she is in the comics, and it adds another reason for Valkyrie to hate Hela so vehemently, but it was cut for, uh… reasons, I guess. Sure.)

The unlikely trio dub themselves the Revengers, snag and then lose a certain trickster god after another betrayal, start a revolution in the gladiator pits, steal the Grandmaster’s orgy ship, and head back to Asgard through the Devil’s Anus to stop Hela (imagine saying that sentence back in Phase One!). The confrontation between Hela and Thor in the throne room gets the film tantalizing close to truly dissecting Odin’s faults—“It would seem our father’s solution to every problem was to cover it up,” Hela comments—before brother and sister, the warring sides of Odin’s legacy, duke it out and leave conversation by the wayside.

Hela easily lays waste to Thor, blinding him in his right eye like his father before him, and things seem to be looking very dire for our seductive Lord of Thunder and his fellow Asgardians, who are trapped between Hela’s forces. Luckily for them, Loki, in his fully horned glory, reappears with a ship that dwarfs the Grandmaster’s, proclaiming, “Your savior is here!” It’s a move that redeems Loki while never letting him become a good guy: he’s still devious and narcissistic, but he cares for his brother and he cares for his people at the end of the day. (Of course, the completion of his redemption arc makes him excellent cannon fodder for Avengers: Infinity War.)

“What were you the god of again?” she sneers as her knives pin Thor to a balcony railing. As Thor’s bravado fades, his mind transports him back to Norway, where Odin waits. Falling to his knees, for perhaps the first time in his life Chris Hemsworth looks small(ish). He feels hopeless without Mjolnir and without Odin, but then his father asks him, “Are you Thor, god of hammers?”

What follows is just so damn satisfying. “What were you the god of again?” Well, Hela finds out, and quickly too, as Thor lets loose. Fireworks go off, Hulk fights a giant wolf, Loki flips his helmet in a cool way, and Thor proceeds to absolutely wreck Hela’s minions as Led Zeppelin plays in the background. Other MCU movies play up Thor’s physical strength, and so does Waititi, but he also allows his titular character to run wild with the true power of a god, and hot damn does it feel good. 

This is Thor as we have never seen him: battered and bloody, sans an eyeball, but at the height of his power with lightning crackling all around him, no hammer necessary. Finally, finally, Thor stands on his own two feet as a dynamic character in his own right, stepping out of the shadow cast by his charismatic, scene-stealing brother. It took six years to get there, but what a hell of a payoff.

But his newfound power still isn’t enough to defeat Hela, and Thor realizes that he has to destroy Asgard in order to destroy her, bringing about the Ragnarok he was trying so desperately to avoid. But, as he says, “Asgard is not a place. It’s a people,” and so Loki dashes to Odin’s vault to free Surtur (and steals an Infinity Stone in the process), all the remaining Asgardians are loaded onto a ship, and we all watch as Surtur and Hela obliterate Thor’s home and all its riches, technology, and history. But perhaps, given its bloodied history, it’s “easier to let it burn,” as Loki says earlier in the film. The past caught up, Asgard had to reckon with it, and in this reckoning it gets reborn looking very different, but now free of its past sins.

And then… Korg makes a joke about it, and so we arrive at the crux of the problem with Ragnarok, and why it doesn’t crack my top three: it’s too funny. “Wait,” I hear you clarmoing, “Anna, what’s the problem with that?” The jokes almost always land, after all, and they make Ragnarok one of the most memorable MCU entries with such lines as the improvised, “There was one time my brother transformed himself into a snake, because he knows how much I like snakes, and so I picked the snake up to admire it, but then he turned back and went, ‘Blergh! It’s me!’ And then he stabbed me. We were eight, at the time.” That is an absolute classic.

The problem, however, is that the abundance of jokes hampers the film’s burgeoning commentary on colonization and legacy because it all becomes couched in humor, which can certainly be effective at conveying messages but needs space in order to be so, and Ragnarok has precious little of that. When Waititi goes for the more serious moments, he can land them—both scenes with Odin on the cliffside, Loki saying, “I’m here” at the very end of the film—but the balance here skews far more towards humor, undercutting the emotional impact of, say, your home world getting destroyed by your secret imperialist sister. Waititi can certainly balance comedy with drama, and would go on to take home an Oscar for exactly that skill in Jojo Rabbit, but here the balance is off. There is no time to process anything: the Warriors Three get killed within seconds, a pedestrian reveals that Jane broke up with Thor in an offhand line. None of the mayhem promised by the revelation in The Dark World that Loki is now posing as Odin happens, and instead that and most of his deep-seated family issues get turned into jokes. Asgard gets destroyed, joke. Thor finally takes the throne as his theme from the first Thor movie swells, joke. 

As Marvel movie sins go, this is far from the worst one, and it’s no small feat to go from New Zealand indie movies to successfully revamping the image of one of the world’s most famous superheroes. But just a little more breathing room, just a little more time to get messier with the characters and give the emotional beats all the weight they deserve, would have been nice.

Groundwork and stray observations: Marvel has no big master plan; rather, they plant seeds wherever they can in the hopes that some of them might one day germinate. None of these were planned from day one, lest the whole ship sink, but the seeds germinated nonetheless:

  • Not much groundwork, since the whole point of Ragnarok is to blow up the Thor franchise and start over. The mid-credits scene does nicely set the stage for Infinity War’s opening, though. 
  • Natalie Portman does not appear in this film, presumably because her experience during The Dark World left a bad taste in her mouth, but Waititi’s remodeling of the franchise lured her back in for Thor: Love and Thunder, where she’ll be playing Thor, but also Jane. Jane gets cancer, but she can wield Mjolnir and get superpowers, but then that accelerates her cancer… it gets a bit weird in the comics, but it will be nice to have Portman back and not simply relegated to “love interest.”
  • I didn’t mention Heimdall (Idris Elba) in the bulk of the piece, but it’s very nice to see him get to do something other than ominously judge from afar. Elba is great.
  • When Thor sees Odin in a vision towards the end of the movie, Odin says, “Asgard is not a place. Never was. This could be Asgard.” The “this means Norway, a place which will in fact become Asgard come Avengers: Endgame, with Tønsberg (seen in both Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger) becoming New Asgard.
  • A statue of Beta Ray Bill’s head is on the outside of a building in Sakaar; when Christian Bale was cast for Thor: Love and Thunder, there was a lot of speculation he would play Beta Ray Bill, who has wielded both Mjolnir and Stormbreaker, the axe Peter Dinklage makes for Thor in Infinity War. Bale will instead be playing Gorr the God Butcher.
  • I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the only good thing to come out of Bruce and Natasha’s “relationship” in Age of Ultron is Thor attempting to calm down Hulk in this film by saying, “Sun’s getting real low.”
  • Fun fact for any What We Do in the Shadows fans out there: Carlo van de Roer, who played absolute legend Stu in the movie, helped create the lighting rig that makes this Valkyrie scene so cool.

Anna’s Favorite Scene: I mean… come on, it’s Thor absolutely wrecking shit while “Immigrant Song” plays. Can’t beat that. 

MCU Ranking: 1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier, 2. Captain America: Civil War, 3. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, 4. Thor: Ragnarok, 5. Guardians of the Galaxy, 6. The Avengers, 7. Spider-Man: Homecoming, 8. Captain America: The First Avenger, 9. Iron Man 3, 10. Iron Man, 11. Doctor Strange, 12. Ant-Man, 13. Thor, 14. Avengers: Age of Ultron, 15. Thor: The Dark World, 16. Iron Man 2, 17. The Incredible Hulk

Thor: Ragnarok Trailer

Thor: Ragnarok is currently available to rent and purchase on most digital storefronts, and is streaming on Disney+.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

VIFF 2021 Review: The Electrical Life of Louis Wain

Written by Anna Harrison

75/100

Will Sharpe’s The Electrical Life of Louis Wain has all the features of a typical biopic: a cast of well-respected British thespians, including Benedict Cumberbatch as the titular Louis Wain, a clear life trajectory for our subject to follow, and some nice period costumes to boot. Yet The Electrical Life of Louis Wain, like its protagonist, has something else, too—a certain spark, an unwillingness to entirely play things by the rules—that elevates it above your standard, stuffy British fare.

Louis Wain would go on to become known for his paintings of cats, both anthropomorphized and not, but starts the film doing illustrations of livestock shows for Illustrated London News’ editor, Sir William Ingram (Toby Jones), trying to stretch what he earns far enough to provide for his mother and five sisters while paying the salary of their new governess, Emily (Claire Foy). Louis, whose mind is rather more preoccupied with his illustrations, pending patents, and opera librettos than with the family finances, finds himself drawn to Emily, and Emily likewise to Louis. Their courtship is bumbling and awkward, sweet and charming, but it causes eldest sister Caroline (Andrea Riseborough) to seethe at the impropriety of it all.

Vancouver International Film Festival 2021

The two nonetheless get married and settle into a blissful married life—so blissful, in fact, that many moments of their life rather resemble paintings, and the line between reality and fantasy blurs. Cinematographer Erik Wilson adds to the whimsy, and so despite Louis’ recurring nightmares and troubled mental state, things are cheery and beautiful; however, when Emily finds herself diagnosed with breast cancer, that whimsy begins to fade. To cheer his wife’s spirits, Louis takes to painting pictures of their adoptive stray cat, Peter, and at Emily’s urging, shows his work to Sir William, who takes an immediate liking to the art. Louis’ art begins to take off, but his financial state and mental health decline. 

Cumberbatch plays to his strengths here, though the frequency with which he plays other tortured geniuses means that some of his good work as Wain threatens to become routine or familiar, only because he’s done it so often before. That doesn’t mean he becomes complacent by any means; in fact, he also serves as executive producer, and the passion for this project is palpable. Foy gives an equally compelling performance as Emily, and the rest of the cast proves up to the task as well; simply sit back and watch the rest of the cast, from Nick Cave to Taika Waititi to Olivia Colman, do their work.

Where other biopics might resort to overwrought melodrama as Louis’ circumstances begin to change for the worst, The Electrical Life of Louis Wain keeps no small amount of charm; Louis begins to imagine his cats talk to him, and Sharpe and co-writer Simon Stephenson add subtitles to voice the cats’ thoughts, which are appropriately cat-like in their humor. The film approaches Louis’ worsening mental state with kindness—a change from many Oscar bait biopics, which wring every ounce of misery possible out of their leads—and, while the interludes in which the audience is transported into Louis’ dreams and nightmares might have varying degrees of success, Sharpe always treats his subject with tenderness. It’s this sincerity that picks the film up when it might otherwise stumble; like its protagonist, while it’s not perfect, The Electrical Life of Louis Wain offers something to the world that’s worth having.

The Electrical Life of Louis Wain Clip

The Electrical Life of Louis Wain was screened as part of the Vancouver International Film Festival 2021.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

MCU Retrospective: Doctor Strange

Written by Anna Harrison

In these retrospectives, Anna will be looking back on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, providing context around the films, criticizing them, pointing out their groundwork for the future, and telling everyone her favorite scene, because her opinion is always correct and therefore her favorite scene should be everyone’s favorite scene. And we are back to origin stories… 

70/100

A tortured genius, a bit of an asshole, a lot socially inept—I could be describing any number of the characters Benedict Cumberbatch has played throughout his career, but in this particular case I am describing Stephen Strange, first name-dropped in Captain America: The Winter Soldier and now, two years later, making his big screen debut. Yet while Cumberbatch seems destined for the role, and indeed he was the first actor suggested, scheduling conflicts forced Marvel to look at a whole host of other performers, with everyone from Joaquin Phoenix to Matthew McConaughey apparently in the running, as well as future co-stars of Marvel’s upcoming Moon Knight, Oscar Isaac and Ethan Hawke. But, finally, Cumberbatch sealed the deal, cementing his typecast forever.

There’s a reason, though, that Cumberbatch is so well known for playing these rather callous individuals (a trend which started with Sherlock back in 2010)—he’s damn good at it. Stephen Strange, renowned neurosurgeon, is a huge ass. While he seems to have a decent relationship with his colleagues, he regularly touts how superior a surgeon he is (especially to Michael Stuhlbarg—woefully underused here—as Nicodemus West, a minor antagonist to Strange in the comics); he has an obnoxious collection of rotating watches; he turns down patients because he doesn’t want to mess up his perfect record and treats them as experiments rather than people in need of help. His fear of failure and desire to control everything drive him to extremes, so when he gets into a car crash, it’s not exactly heartbreaking.

It kickstarts an existential crisis for Strange, though, who loses the use of his hands—the hands which gave him his livelihood, which vaulted him to excellence—and, in his despair, pushes away the only person who truly cares about him (and his ex), Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), another in the long line of neglected female love interests. Eventually, he sinks so low that he is willing to seek out solutions that come not from science, but magic. Dr. Strange quickly finds his way to the Kamar-Taj in Nepal, where he meets a group of sorcerers led by the Ancient One, played by Tilda Swinton.

Marvel, as in Iron Man 3, tried to sidestep controversy in casting Swinton, and instead wound up stirring it up as they cast a white woman in a role traditionally occupied by a Tibetan man. Doctor Strange’s director, horror veteran Scott Derrickson, avoided casting an Asian actor in an attempt to steer clear of stereotypes, saying, “In this case, the stereotype of [the Ancient One] had to be undone. I wanted it to be a woman, a middle-aged woman. Every iteration of that script played by an Asian woman felt like a Dragon Lady… Who’s the magical, mystical, woman with secrets that could work in this role? I thought Tilda Swinton.” Co-writer (with Derrickson and Jon Spaihts) C. Robert Cargill called the situation “Marvel’s Kobayashi Maru,” referencing the impossible training situation from Star Trek: have a mustachioed Asian man dispensing “Eastern wisdom” to the white man, or have accusations of appropriation thrown your way by casting a non-Asian.

Yet the choice shouldn’t be between stereotypical representation or no representation at all. As Kevin Feige would later admit, “We thought we were being so smart and so cutting-edge. We’re not going to do the cliché of the wizened, old, wise Asian man. But it was a wake up call to say, ‘Well, wait a minute, is there any other way to figure it out? Is there any other way to both not fall into the cliché and cast an Asian actor?’ And the answer to that, of course, is yes.” (That he declines to elaborate on how he would do this now is perhaps an indicator that he only said this to cover up bad PR from years ago, but…)

Casting Swinton also means that Doctor Strange lacks Asian representation aside from Benedict Wong’s character (named, uh, Wong), something that stings when much of the movie builds itself on Westernized Asian “mysticism,” with monks and magic and chakras and no specificity. The white man goes to Asia, ogles at some things, and finds his spirit healed, hooray! Marvel would have similar problems with Netflix’s critically panned Iron Fist, with Finn Jones’ (white) Danny Rand utilizing his Chi to take down (Asian) bad guys, and to a lesser extent in Daredevil, where season two villainous group The Hand consisted of ninjas that had no characteristics except “foreign/Asian” and “scary.” Daredevil actor Peter Shinkoda would even claim that former Marvel Television head Jeph Loeb said, “Nobody cares about Chinese people and Asian people. There were three previous Marvel movies, a trilogy called Blade that was made where Wesley Snipes killed 200 Asians each movie. Nobody gives a shit.” 

(Loeb, it should be noted, reported to Ike Perlmutter rather than Kevin Feige until Marvel Television shut down in 2019, giving all television powers to Feige. It also should be noted that Marvel Television had Marvel’s first Asian superhero with Chloe Bennet’s Daisy Johnson, aka Quake, in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which also featured Ming-Na Wen’s Melinda May as a main character for all seven seasons, and had an Asian co-showrunner in Maurissa Tancharoen, whose brother Kevin helmed some of the series’ best episodes. S.H.I.E.L.D. is where it’s at, folks.)

In the case of Doctor Strange, there is also the small issue that China does not recognize Tibet as a sovereign state, and Marvel didn’t want to lose out on that sweet, sweet Chinese box office. Cargill explained, “[The Ancient One] originates from Tibet, so if you acknowledge that Tibet is a place and that he’s Tibetan, you risk alienating one billion people who think that that’s bullshit and risk the Chinese government going, ‘Hey, you know one of the biggest film-watching countries in the world? We’re not going to show your movie because you decided to get political.’ If we decide to go the other way and cater to China in particular and have him be in Tibet… if you think it’s a good idea to cast a Chinese actress as a Tibetan character, you are out of your damn fool mind and have no idea what the fuck you’re talking about.” This was not the first time Marvel catered to China and the CCP, nor will it be the last.

Read More of Anna’s Ongoing Marvel Retrospective Series Here

The circumstances around Swinton’s casting (and Marvel’s historically abysmal handling of Asian representation) are unfortunate, as she does a stellar job as the Ancient One, conveying all the wisdom of eternity while still maintaining a sense of playfulness that prevents the character from slipping into caricature or tropes. And, of course, she really looks like she could be an ageless, ancient sorcerer with immense power at her fingertips. “You’re a man looking at the world through a keyhole,” she tells Strange, and then opens the door.

What follows is a very trippy sequence involving Strange travelling through outer space, tumbling through different dimensions, and getting dragged to hell by a horde of hands. Up until this point, the MCU has largely tried to ground itself in some kind of implausible plausibility. Even Asgard’s magic was cloaked as science and handwaved away with Arthur C. Clarke quotes, but in Doctor Strange, we dive headfirst into something that cannot be explained with pure science, as much as its titular character would like to think so, and open up innumerable doors within the MCU sandbox. Strange, the ultimate logician, gets pushed so far that he seeks answers outside of the scientific realm he built his life on. It’s an interesting conundrum for a character to find himself in, though he seems to change course quickly enough, which leaves us wanting a bit more emotional turmoil. The revelation that magic exists should entirely upend Strange’s world, but we have a plot to get through, after all, and so after the initial shock of the Ancient One punching Strange’s astral form out of his body, he gets down to work.

Like Ant-Man before it, Doctor Strange has all the elements required for some very kooky shenanigans, yet plays it disappointingly safe. To Doctor Strange’s credit, none of its predecessors have tiny hands swarming around the main character as he tumbles through a strange LSD trip, but it never truly breaks free of the largely uninspiring Marvel visual palette. There’s always the sense that things could and should go even further, even though it certainly breaks new ground for Marvel. But not everything in this universe should just be good for Marvel (though that has certainly satisfied me plenty of times, don’t get me wrong), it should be bold in its own right, and Doctor Strange never quite goes far enough, leaving us only with weak comparisons to Inception and The Matrix.

As Strange throws himself into his sorcerer training, and his old arrogance begins to return, though it’s tempered with a bit more humility this time around. Still, he sees fit to pocket the Eye of Agamotto, a powerful magical object with the ability to reverse the flow of time, for himself. Control freak to the last, it would seem. 

Trouble comes in the form of Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), a former student bearing striking resemblance in personality to Strange. Kaecilius wants to fold Earth into the Dark Dimension (whatever that is) and Dormammu (whoever that is, though he is also played by Benedict Cumberbatch) to give everyone eternal life (through locking everyone in a place without time), which is not the most exciting motivation for Marvel villain—world annihilation is so overdone these days—but it’s Mads Mikkelsen, and that gives a measure of gravitas to the proceedings. But it’s not just a desire to avoid the ravages of time that drives Kaecilius: in a reveal that bears less weight than it should, given that the Dark Dimension means virtually nothing to the audience, it turns out that the Ancient One can be so ancient because she draws on force from the Dark Dimension to extend her life, and Kaecilius wishes to drag her hypocrisy out into the light.

That he does, disillusioning fellow sorcerer Karl Mordo, played superbly by Chiwetel Ejiofor; though Mordo does not have a whole lot to do here, Ejiofor is magnetic, and poised to become one of the more interesting characters in future entries. Mordo is rigid, unyielding, and has no tolerance for the bending or breaking of rules, especially as the Ancient One made herself the only exception.

Kaecilius succeeds in fatally wounding the Ancient One, but before she dies, she and Strange astral project to have one final conversation on a hospital balcony, watching the snow fall. “We don’t get to choose our time. Death is what gives life meaning: to know your days are numbered, your time is short,” the Ancient One tells Strange. It’s a beautiful moment frozen in time, and Tilda Swinton is phenomenal; unfortunately, the Ancient One’s excuse for utilizing the Dark Dimension—“Sometimes one must break the rules in order to serve the greater good”—rings a bit hollow. Perhaps “hollow” isn’t the right word, but I wish her hypocrisy had been explored more, rather than by and large glossed over, as it adds an interesting dimension to the world Strange now inhabits, the Ancient One, and Kaecilius.

With their leader dead, Strange, Wong, and Mordo set out to stop Kaecilius and Dormammu once and for all. The finale to Doctor Strange serves as one of Marvel’s more unique ones: set in Hong Kong, our sorcerer trio have a relatively small-time fight against Kaecilius and a couple of his lackeys, but what sets it apart is Strange’s use of the Eye of Agamotto, which means that the final showdown happens while everyone around the combatants goes backwards in time. It’s a neat trick that allows for more engagement than, say, Avengers: Age of Ultron’s mind-numbing onslaught of robots. The real kicker comes when Strange enters the Dark Dimension to go toe-to-toe with Dormammu—not with his magical prowess, but with his mind. 

The actual logistics of this sequence don’t entirely hold up to scrutiny (mostly because it’s never really established what the Dark Dimension actually is), but Strange annoying Dormammu to defeat via a time loop and endless repetitions of, “Dormammu, I’ve come to bargain” is certainly a first for the MCU, and maybe cinema as a whole. (It even became a meme!) If the rest of Doctor Strange had shown the originality it does in its finale, the film would be among the best. As it is, there are brief flashes of brilliance amidst an otherwise rote Marvel story that pretends to be breaking new ground.

To be fair, origin stories are hard. Marvel is at its best when playing in an already-established sandbox, playing its characters off each other and letting them marinate in their interwoven world, but it’s much harder to come out of the gate swinging when so much of your success relies on crossovers and cameos (if that’s a good thing on a storytelling level, well…); if the MCU is a glorified television show, origin stories are a bit like bottle episodes, and like bottle episodes, they don’t always work. Doctor Strange is far from bad, and indeed has some stellar moments, but it’s not exactly memorable, either, though it should have had every right to be.

Groundwork and stray observations: Marvel has no big master plan; rather, they plant seeds wherever they can in the hopes that some of them might one day germinate. None of these were planned from day one, lest the whole ship sink, but the seeds germinated nonetheless:

  • Well, uh, that’s another Infinity Stone. Cool.
  • Christine Palmer goes by the Night Nurse in the comics, a moniker which goes to the Netflix character Claire Temple in the MCU, portrayed by Rosario Dawson (if we’re still counting the Netflix shows as canon, that is, but with the rumored appearances of Charlie Cox in Spider-Man: No Way Home and Vincent D’Onofrio in Disney+’s Hawkeye, it seems we are).
  • There were rumors flying that one of the potential patients Strange turns down was Captain Marvel, though this turned out not to be the case.
  • “This universe is only one of an infinite number,” the Ancient One says. You could even say that there’s a multiverse of madness out there!

Anna’s Favorite Scene: Strange and the Ancient One conversing on the astral plane while the latter lays dying on an operating table, but runner up is Strange and Kaecilius’ minion duking it out on the astral plane while Christine operates on Strange in reality.

MCU Ranking: 1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier, 2. Captain America: Civil War, 3. Guardians of the Galaxy, 4. The Avengers, 5. Captain America: The First Avenger, 6. Iron Man 3, 7. Iron Man, 8. Doctor Strange, 9. Ant-Man, 10. Thor, 11. Avengers: Age of Ultron, 12. Thor: The Dark World, 13. Iron Man 2, 14. The Incredible Hulk

Doctor Strange Trailer

Doctor Strange is currently available to rent and purchase on most digital storefronts, and is streaming on Disney+.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.