Monday, April 29, 2019

Avengers: Endgame

About a week ago, critic Todd VanDerWerff published an interesting article about spoiler culture and how it has changed, and been changed by corporate interests. His argument—which I find indisputable—is that companies have started using spoiler-mania as a way of drumming up enthusiasm for their products, creating the impression that you must watch a movie or a TV episode immediately, or risk losing all enjoyment from it through spoilers. What's particularly odd about this phenomenon, as VanDerWerff observes, is that it's often deployed to talk up works that aren't particularly spoilable—no major plot twists, no sudden betrayals or revelations, just the normal progression of story—to the point where even anodyne reactions like "there's a great fight scene!" or "I liked it" are perceived as something that can ruin your viewing experience. And that, ultimately, is what these works become. Not a story, not a chapter in a narrative, but an experience.

It's obvious why VanDerWerff published his essay last week, just days before the release of Avengers: Endgame, which is being billed as the concluding chapter of what is now apparently called the Infinity Saga (I am never calling it that, FYI). For weeks now, news stories have been coming out about the lengths to which directors Joe and Anthony Russo went to prevent plot details from the movie from leaking out, down to withholding the full script from most of the cast, and even giving some actors pages that only contained their lines, and only a few hours before shooting[1]. If you're like me, and you thought Avengers: Infinity War was, to quote myself, "barely even a movie", this probably wasn't the most enticing news. You probably went into Endgame thinking of it as the sort of experience you just want to get through.

Which turns out to be unfair, because Endgame might just be the least experience-esque of the Avengers movies. To be clear, I'm not saying that it is a great, or even particularly good, movie. Quality-wise, Endgame is... nice. It's better than most Avengers movies, maybe even better than the first (though I'm going to have to think about that, and I suspect I'll end up ranking it lower), but that still leaves it in the lower tiers of MCU movies. But it is by far the most plot-oriented of the team-ups—this is, for example, one of only a handful of MCU films to have a middle act. There are a lot of problems with it, including major plot holes, mishandled themes, an unwieldy running time, a deeply problematic ending, and one character death that is unbelievably misjudged. But unlike every other Avengers movie, Endgame doesn't feel like an excuse to spend tons of money to recreate the thrill of pounding your action figures together. You go into this movie expecting an experience, and instead you get a story.

One might argue we should have seen this coming. Infinity War was a relentless slog with too many characters and plotlines, but it left the MCU in the perfect position to tell an interesting story in its sequel. Not only are there fewer characters to keep track of[2], but for the first time, an Avengers film doesn't turn on destruction, on smashing big things into other, bigger things, but on finding a way to repair what has been broken. Perhaps the cleverest thing that Endgame does—and it is, I want to stress, quite shocking to me that I am using the word "clever" in the context of any MCU movie's plot—is to immediately get out of the way the most obvious response to Thanos erasing half the life in the universe. The solution that we all immediately thought of—steal the gauntlet from Thanos and use it to bring everyone back and defeat him—is prevented because Thanos predicted it, and used the gauntlet to rob the infinity stones of their power[3]. All that's left for the Avengers to do is fulfill Tony's promise to Loki from the first team-up film, killing Thanos in a completely insufficient act of revenge, after which they go home.

Flash-forward five years, and our heroes, nursing their grief and guilt, have mostly settled into post-snap lives. Some of these are genuinely affecting—Steve is working as a counselor for the still-shellshocked survivors; Natasha is coordinating intergalactic peacekeeping with the help of Nebula, Rocket, Okoye, Captain Marvel, and Rhodey while barely holding it together over the loss of friends and the weight of the responsibility on her shoulders; and Tony, having had a breakdown after his failure to defeat Thanos, has achieved a measure of peace, starting a family with Pepper and decisively putting the task of saving the world behind him. Others are gags that work to greater or lesser degrees—I was genuinely charmed by Professor Hulk, a midpoint between Banner and the smashier version of the Hulk who is surprisingly chill and happy-go-lucky; but I could have lived with a great deal less of depressed Thor, who has grown an epic beer belly and spends most of his days playing video games with some of his Thor: Ragnarok pals. And some are simply inexplicable—I don't think anyone, including quite possibly Jeremy Renner himself, was clamoring for a major Hawkeye subplot in which he becomes a vigilante who roams the world, murdering criminals who had the temerity to survive the snap while his family perished.[4]

Into this new normal erupts Scott Lang, who has finally emerged from the quantum zone where he ended up stuck at the end of Ant-Man and the Wasp. Scott believes that he traveled through time, and that the same technology can be used to steal the infinity stones from the past and create a new gauntlet that could undo Thanos's snap. There follow some getting-the-band-back-together shenanigans, and some handwaving about the particular form of time travel the film has invented and its implications—the latter probably doesn't entirely hold together but also doesn't feel worth investigating. In general, these scenes embody the strengths and weaknesses of the movie. On the one hand, this is a much looser effort than previous Avengers films, and the extra breathing room does the story and characters good—watching everyone brainstorm the places in time where the infinity stones can be snatched is the most fun and most natural these characters have felt together since the party scene in Age of Ultron. But on the other hand, the impossibly high stakes, and the audience's awareness that for some of these characters, this is going to be the final adventure, give writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely permission to be sloppy. Endgame is overlong to the point of self-indulgence, and while we might forgive the film the desire to spend more time than it absolutely needs with characters who are about to be sent off, a lot of that extraneous runtime is instead expended on increasingly unfunny jokes about Thor's weight, or Hawkeye's journey into darkness.

All of this, however, is in service of getting us to what is clearly the film's heart (and yet another reason why the spoiler-mania surrounding it is absurd, because it should have been one of the film's main marketing points), a journey back through the Avengers' greatest hits, as our heroes travel back in time to events in Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Thor: The Dark World in order to grab the infinity stones. This is such an established story beat that there's probably a TV Tropes page for it, and it's kind of exciting watching the MCU reach for this type of storytelling—as if we were watching proper science fiction. But the execution is of variable quality. I've already made my views on the Thor subplot known, so the fact that his journey back to his least successful movie is designed to let his mother give him a pep talk about being himself and reaching for his inner goodness and heroism (in other words, the exact same character arc he's had three times already) did very little for me. On the other hand, I enjoyed some of the scenes in the background of Avengers, particularly a completely over-it Steve brawling with his earlier, more stuffed-shirt self. The joke about Professor Hulk having to pretend to be regular Hulk, and half-heartedly smashing things while complaining that it seems gratuitous, was also delightful. And since the Guardians movies have never given either character enough room to be a real person, it was good to see a more evolved, more confident Nebula trying to talk a Gamora who is still under Thanos's thumb into rebellion.

But this sequence also includes the film's absolute nadir, and what I truly believe is the most misbegotten storytelling choice in all the MCU. Anyone who remembers Infinity War will have already pricked up their ears during the planning sessions of the infinity stone heist, wondering what our heroes were planning to do about the pesky requirement to sacrifice a life in order to gain the soul stone. It's a reasonably smart decision to dispatch Clint and Natasha on that mission—the two Avengers who have the fewest immediate personal connections except with one another—and it comes as no surprise when they get into a fight over which one of them gets to sacrifice themselves.[5] But the thing is, who in their right mind would want Natasha to win (or rather lose) that fight?  Natasha is a founding Avenger, one of the MCU's most magnetic characters, and oh yeah, one of only a handful of female MCU headliners. Clint is... Clint. It would be one thing for Natasha to die saving the world. But to save Hawkeye?

And look, even if you're not as down on Hawkeye as I am, surely it's obvious how creepy and wrong everything about this scene is. To go back to the place where, a year ago, Gamora was sacrificed, and recreate that sequence, right down to the disturbingly romanticized image of Natasha's broken body—it filled me with disgust. I think it's clear that Endgame intends for there to be a contrast between the two deaths—Gamora is murdered in the pursuit of a goal she vehemently opposes; Natasha sacrifices herself in order to save her friend and the universe. But like so much else about this perennially mishandled character, the writing isn't there to support it. I don't think anyone involved in making Infinity War understood how viscerally disturbing Gamora's death was, especially for women in the audience—to be murdered by your abuser in what he claims to be proof of his love, and to have the universe itself validate that proof by giving him what he wants in exchange. Not enough work is done to differentiate Natasha's death from that earlier one. Like so much else that has been tried with the character since Age of Ultron, there's a solid idea there on paper that becomes horrifying in the execution because no one involved (except maybe the actress) really understands how any of these tropes play when they're applied to a female character. And the fact that unlike Gamora, there isn't even a woman left to mourn Natasha only drives home how much she has been instrumentalized for the sake of her male counterparts, and how little room was left for her own humanity.[6]

That bit of unpleasantness done away with, however, the Avengers return to the present with the infinity stones. And then Endgame does a second genuinely clever thing: the Avengers' plan works. They complete the gauntlet (along the way revealing that it takes great strength to activate and that anyone who isn't Thor or the Hulk would probably die from it; which seems pretty random, but, again, whatever) and with a snap of the finger everyone who was dusted by Thanos's snap is returned to existence. Only then does the shit hit the fan—Thanos of 2014, having discovered the time traveling Nebula and replaced her with his own, loyal version, has traveled to 2023 to attack our heroes, take the completed gauntlet from them, and start the whole thing all over again. And just as our heroes think that all is lost, a million portals open, as Stephen Strange teleports all the heroes who have been returned to existence, as well as the Wakandan army, the surviving Asgardians, the monks of Kamar-Taj, and Captain Marvel herself, to kick Thanos's ass.

And look, I'm not made of stone. It is genuinely moving when literally every superpowered person we've ever met in the MCU shows up to save the day. It's even more moving when Thanos nevertheless gains hold of the gauntlet and is about to destroy the whole universe with it, so Tony Stark grabs it from him and uses it to dust Thanos and his army at the cost of his own life, completing the self-sacrifice he attempted in Avengers. And this is the point where you have to decide what kind of fan you are, what kind of viewer you are. Taken on its own terms, this is a perfectly serviceable ending. It has grandeur, stakes, consequences. There are elegiac farewells and bittersweet partings. There is the promise of a bright future. It's a very appropriate chapter ending for the MCU and its eleven-year, 22-film project.  You could just leave it at that.

But if you're like me, you won't. At some point—maybe the next day, maybe on the way home from the movie theater, maybe even in the moment it happens—you'll have to wonder: wait, this was it? Isn't the way the Avengers defeat Thanos in Endgame basically identical to the way they lost to him in Infinity War, except with better logistics the second time around? And isn't logistics what Stephen Strange, who had the time stone and the ability to teleport people in Infinity War, would be perfect at? Wasn't this entire adventure just an awfully roundabout way of getting to a place where two beloved characters had to die in order to achieve something that was apparently just as achievable last year, before all this pain and suffering happened?

Once you start asking those questions, it's hard to stop. The fact is, once the gauntlet is assembled and in our heroes' hands, the film faces massive ethical and practical dilemmas that it is neither equipped to, nor particularly interested in, addressing. Why should the gauntlet only be used to resurrect those who vanished in the snap, for example? When Thor travels to his past and meets his mother hours before she's due to die in The Dark World, Rocket dissuades him from saving her by arguing that Frigga is "really dead", while the people who disappeared in the snap are only "sort of dead". Is that sort of hair-splitting really something we're comfortable with? What makes the people Thanos caused to crumble into dust more deserving of life than the ones he simply murdered, like Drax's family, Gamora's people, or the Asgardians? And even if you accept that you can't cancel every tragic death in history, what about the people who died as a result of the snap? As everyone pointed out after Infinity War, the consequences of suddenly removing half the people in the universe (or, as later statements from Marvel had it, half the biomass—so, animals, plants, insects, bacteria, etc.) would be a catastrophe almost equal to the snap itself. People would die in the millions, maybe even billions, from accidents, starvation, industrial collapse, wars, refugee crises, suicide. How do our heroes justify not bringing any of them back?

And finally, what about the consequences of simply restoring everyone removed by the snap, to a world that has only just figured out how to feed, supply, and house the people it has left? Wouldn't the result, once again, be accidents[7], starvation, industrial collapse, wars, refugee crises, and probably also suicides, of people overcome by the cruelty and capriciousness of the ridiculous universe they live in? Obviously, a better use of the gauntlet would be to cancel out the last five years (which we know is possible because that's how Thanos was able to get the mind stone even after Wanda killed Vision to destroy it at the end of Infinity War). But that entire realm of possibilities is closed off by Tony, who doesn't want his daughter to be wished out of existence. Which is a sympathetic motivation, obviously, but not one that should be accepted without any discussion, as the film does.

When I wrote about Infinity War, I complained that its ending, in which the heroes fail with horrifying consequences, was clearly little more than sequel bait. The whole thing, including the deaths that took place in it, was obviously going to be rolled back in the next chapter. I wasn't alone in making that prediction, and I have to wonder if Markus and McFeely anticipated those criticisms, because they have clearly worked hard to make sure that the method they came up with to undo Thanos's evil leaves noticeable consequences on the world. It's just that those consequences are much greater, and more horrific, than the film is willing to acknowledge. The world that the Avengers "save" is possibly even more broken than it was before, and the note of triumph that concludes Endgame can only feel earned if you ignore that.[8] It only takes a bit of craning past the frame the film imposes, with its elegiac, extremely well-attended funeral for Tony Stark, to wonder whether the entire exercise wasn't more about salving our heroes' wounded pride than actually doing the most good.

Does this make Endgame a bad movie? I have no idea. I think we all know that going forward, the MCU isn't going to acknowledge any of the inherent problems with the film's ending, or even the trauma that the world endured during those five years that everyone was missing. Hell, it's kind of doubtful whether it's even going to come up that half the world is five years younger than they should be—how is it that all of Peter Parker's schoolfriends appear to be the same age in the Spider-Man: Far From Home trailer, for example? It is possible to simply roll with what the film wants us to believe, not ask too many questions, and accept that most of it won't matter in the long run. I just think that maybe the MCU, and these characters, deserved better. When Infinity War ended, I just wanted to forget its existence and pretend that none of the team-up movies were real. But Endgame is something else. It's probably the best version of what an Avengers movie can be. And even that turns out to be silly, sloppily written, and to require massive amount of suspension of disbelief. Is it really too much to hope that Marvel stops debasing its characters and stories with events that can never live up to the MCU's individual pieces?[9]

[1] I can't decide if it's a testament to how well the impeccably cast roster of MCU stars know their characters that the film doesn't feel as cobbled-together and emotionally incoherent as this approach would seem to guarantee, or if it's a sign of how little the acting or dialogue matter to making these movies, and especially the more action-oriented team-ups, work.

[2] Though, as Samira Nadkarni points out, this also makes Endgame one of the whitest, most male-dominated MCU movies in some time.

[3] In other words, the resolution of a very similar storyline in the second season of DC's Legends of Tomorrow. Which I mention mainly because it gives me the opportunity to say that Legends has been firing on all cylinders for several seasons now and is a ton of fun. Also, that the DC superhero shows usually do a much better job of superhero team-ups featuring interesting plots, coherent character arcs, and palpable stakes than the Avengers movies.

[4] This is apparently a comics storyline, but in the context of the film, not nearly enough time is spent addressing the fact that Hawkeye has apparently become such a vicious murderer that Rhodey and Natasha start to seriously consider taking him out. When he inevitably rejoins the fold, his murderous past is barely brought up again, as if it were little more than a costume, an excuse for Hawkeye to get tattoos and an undercut. And, to quote Samira again, it feels very telling that this walk on the dark side involves Hawkeye traveling to Japan to kill non-white people.

[5] I'm not sure this is how the soul stone works, but whatever. Also, remember how the leitmotif of Infinity War was "we don't trade lives", in stark contrast with Thanos, who did sacrifice a woman he claimed to love as a daughter in order to achieve his monstrous goals, and everyone assumed that that difference was going to be crucial to how our heroes would defeat him? I guess we're just not doing that anymore.

[6] But hey, later in the movie there's a scene of the surviving female MCU heroines surrounding Captain Marvel as she prepares to fight Thanos, so girl power! This type of empty-calorie signaling is rather typical of Endgame, which has also been patting itself on the back for a scene in which a nameless one-off character mentions that he dates men, even as it features two exchanges—one between Nebula and Gamora, another between Sam and Steve—that basically amount to "as we both know, you're straight".

[7] Remember all those cars and planes crashing in the final minutes of Infinity War? Now imagine the people who disappeared from those vehicles reappearing, in the middle of highways, or 30,000 feet in the air.

[8] As does Steve's decision to take a well-earned rest and spend his life in the past, reuiniting with Peggy Carter. I am, however, mostly pleased by this development, because I've been predicting it for months, but I imagine the Steve/Bucky shippers must be royally pissed.

[9] Yes.  Yes it is.

Friday, April 05, 2019

A Political History of the Future: A People's Future of the United States, edited by Victor LaValle and John Joseph Adams, at Lawyers, Guns & Money

After a few months off, my series A Political History of the Future is back at Lawyers, Guns & Money.  My first column of 2019 discusses Victor LaValle and John Joseph Adams's anthology A People's Future of the United States, in which some of the top names in genre writing are invited to imagine the future of America.
In his introduction to A People's Future (excerpted in The Paris Review) [LaValle] writes about his feeling that America is being poisoned by the stories it tells itself about itself, and of the need for different kinds of stories if it’s to imagine and bring forth a different kind of future. As its title suggests, LaValle offers up A People's Future as an homage to Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States (1980 and subsequent editions), which was itself an attempt to change the American narrative. LaValle and Adams have assembled a roster of some the hottest names in genre, people like N.K. Jemisin and Charlie Jane Anders whose writing has always been strongly political and inflected by the issues of the day, and charged them with imagining America's future along lines that acknowledge its current problems.
The results veer in a lot of different directions, and as I write in the piece the story I ended up liking the best was the one that actually felt the most rooted in the present.  But it's still a worthwhile read if, like me, you want your science fiction to address the many burning political issues we're faced with.

Tuesday, April 02, 2019

Review: Theory of Bastards by Audrey Schulman, at Strange Horizons

My first Strange Horizons review of 2019 looks at Theory of Bastards by Audrey Schulman, a near-future-set novel of science and research in the vein of Gwyneth Jones's Life.  As I write in the review, Schulman covers a wide range of subjects, but while each is fascinating in its own right, she struggles to tie them all together into a single theme.
In the appendix to her fourth novel, Theory of Bastards, Audrey Schulman lists the many scholarly works she consulted in the course of her writing. These cover a wide range of subjects, from the lives and communities of great apes, to the study of flint-knapping, to research into pain and the medical community's attitude towards it. It's an eclectic bunch of topics that epitomizes both the novel's charms and its frustrations. Theory of Bastards is about so many fascinating things that one can't help being carried along by them (and by Schulman's gift for dramatizing these subjects and fitting them into her story's framework). But eventually one comes to wonder what the novel itself is trying to say with all its erudition. This is a question that becomes even more pressing when Theory of Bastards reinvents itself halfway through, becoming something completely different than what it started as.
Despite this scattershot quality (and despite the sudden lurch into post-apocalypse in its second half), Theory of Bastards is worth looking out for, especially if you're interested in the too-small category of books about female scientists, about women's struggles with the medical establishment, and about women whom reviewers tend to dub "unlikable".