Despite the fact that I believe “pure objectivity” in criticizing films, entertainment or anything else is impossible, largely useless as a pursuit and shouldn’t be of primary import either to critics or people reading them; I do worry about times when my own biases might get in the way of things. Not because I might violate some nimrod’s vision of “ethics” (whatever the hell that means anymore) but because I don’t want to write anything I’ll be embarrassed about a year or so later.
Hey! Haven’t done one of these in awhile, and now is as good a time as any. We’re between Marvel Cinematic Universe movies right now, and while it’s possible that ANT-MAN is going to drop some kind of important Universe-altering plot point, I wouldn’t call it likely. Whatever really got between Edgar Wright and Marvel, everything about the production of this I’ve heard is that a big part of Marvel’s solution to “what do we do with what pieces are already assembled from this movie?” will have been to frontload it with Continuity-Lover Cookies relating to the backstories of the other franchises; the gamble being that making this film/character “essential” to a completist’s understanding of The Lore will overshadow any potential letdown feelings among the core fandom; whose inter-film chattering (yes, like pieces like this) the generation of is part of the MCU’s long-term marketing aparatus.
And with the “things to come” tease from AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON being effectively the same as the one from AVENGERS (“That beefy purple guy is up to something!”), that effectively leaves the “where is everything going?” stuff up to rampant speculation until the trailers start hitting for CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR. But! These things are planned both long-term and with a lot of wiggle room for potentially go-nowhere threads (where’s The Leader right now, again?), and with that plus a working knowledge of Marvel Comics history, it’s occasionally been possible to work out where things are going.
So let’s try some of that out. Obviously, everything from this point on (i.e. “after the jump”) is chock full of **SPOILERS** for the existing Marvel movies and potential-spoilers for the ones that don’t exist yet:
Okay! In list form:
1. CIVIL WAR WILL NOT BE VERY SIMILAR TO THE COMICS:
If there’s a working comics-to-screen adaptation “formula” for the Marvel movies thus far, it’s this: Silver Age style/theme + Title/noteworthy character/macguffin from recent modern “event” book + original/”re-imagined” story = $$$. See: AGE OF ULTRON, which is as nutty as the nuttiest Lee/Kirby joint (killer robot exists for a few days, makes “logical” plan to levitate a country and drop it on Earth to simulate an extinction-level asteroid impact, this can be solved via men and women in Halloween costumes punching robots) and shares a name (and only a name) with a popular recent Ultron-centric comic miniseries but is otherwise a story original to the Cinematic Universe.
Thusly, I’d say it’s fairly unlikely that CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR will follow the storyline of the “Civil War” comics event very closely. I imagine there will be marketing-friendly similarities (good guys fighting good guys, I bet they’ll do some variation on the infamous “Who’s Side Are You On?” campaign with the licensing – do you want Cap’s Pizza Hut deal or Iron Man’s!!??) mainly centered on Cap and Iron Man as enemies; but it won’t be about a superhero version of gun control and I can even imagine there not being two “teams” of heroes arguing over whether or not to register their secret identities. Hell, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if the “teams” are Captain America as leader of “all” superheroes versus Iron Man and The Government/Military.
That said: There’s a wild-card here: AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D, which has introduced three Big Ideas to the MCU (1. S.H.I.E.L.D is reborn, but now they’re operations are even more secretive, 2. Coulson is building a “Secret Avengers” of superhumans, 3. An unknown but substantial number of humans on Earth are actually Inhumans whose latent powers can only be unlocked by exposure to crystals, a cache of which is unaccounted for and a rogue batch of which has accidentally been released into the world’s oceanic food/drug supply) any one of which could be a tie-in to CW’s plot if the positive reception for the series’ second season means the Marvel TV/movie wall is about to come down.
2. CIVIL WAR WILL ALSO NOT BE “AVENGERS 2.5”
The handwringing about the CAPTAIN AMERICA series’ own storylines being derailed by what feels like a chance to squeeze an extra AVENGERS midquel is justified, theoretically, but I’ve yet to see/hear anything that convinces me that many/most of the “cameo” characters will be just that.
I can see the New (as of AGE OF ULTRON) Avengers team – Widow, War Machine, Scarlet Witch, Vision and Falcon – being main support-players, but Black Panther? He’s a head of state in addition to being a hero, so it’s sensible he’d have a presence for a scene or two in a movie about an “international incident;” but he doesn’t need to be a featured player. Spider-Man? Well, they’ll want him onscreen for at least one or two BIG pops, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s mainly there to share an exchange with one of the Big Guns and maybe relate a quickie version of his basic origin to somebody so they don’t have to do it in his own movie… But! I can easily imagine “Peter Parker, nosy freelance news photographer” being a major side-character. Also: A storyline about things breaking down between the government/military and the superhero community would be a fine place for an Officer/Agent/whatever Carol Danvers to either acquire (or turn out to have always had) the powers of CAPTAIN MARVEL.
3. CAPTAIN AMERICA WILL “DIE” IN CIVIL WAR
Why is there a new Avengers team at the end of ULTRON? Because most of the Original Six are almost done with their mandatory-appearances under the original contracts, and Marvel wants two AVENGERS movies before they say goodbye instead of just one – so the various storylines (allegedly) are conspiring to ensure that said O.G. Avengers sit out INFINITY WAR: PART I so they can make an epic One Last Ride return in INFINITY WAR: PART II.
As of now: The Hulk is MIA (we’ll come back to that). Iron Man is semi-retired and likely to be further ostracized after CIVIL WAR. Hawkeye has (literally) been sent away to live on a happy farm somewhere upstate. Black Widow was partially ready to bolt in ULTRON, could easily do so post-CW. Thor can always be easily sidelined by “He’s busy. Asgard stuff,” and the title of his next movie refers to the literal Apocalypse for the Norse Gods. That leaves Captain America, and if there’s one Big Deal thing to keep from the “Civil War” comics apart from Steve vs. Tony it’s that Cap ends up taking a bullet for his stand.
Furthermore: I’d bet that the “search for Bucky” part of this story ends more quickly than many are expecting. We know from the end of WINTER SOLDIER that he’s at least somewhat “better,” so it’s not outside the realm of possibility that he shows up in CIVIL WAR long enough to complicate things (or maybe he and/or Daniel Bruhl’s Baron Zemo are at the center of the “incident” that starts the war?), have it out heart-to-heart with Steve and then take his first step to becoming the new Captain America after Steve dies. Hell, the setup there writes itself: Cap and Bucky find themselves in other scenario where he (Bucky) is in mortal danger, and this time it’s Cap who makes the ultimate sacrifice to save his buddy. Boom. Bucky becomes the new Cap, joining whatever The Avengers are post-WAR. Steve Rogers, of course, will still come back for INFINITY WAR: PART II. How? Well…
4. DOCTOR STRANGE WILL BE A MOVIE ABOUT DEATH
THOR did an adequate job introducing the one-sentence version of how mystical/magic stuff works in the MCU: “Magic and crazy comic-book super-science? Same thing.” But apart from establishing that the Norse Gods were real but actually a race of super-strong, long-lived interdimensional aliens it didn’t really go into any of the bigger questions that raises: What about ghosts? Demons? Other religious/supernatural things a lot of present-day people believe in? If Odin is (was?) a real guy, what about Zeus? Vishnu? Yahweh?
It makes logical sense that DOCTOR STRANGE (the next release after CIVIL WAR) will be the movie to answer (or at least visualize) that stuff. Oh – I don’t think the religious stuff will be addressed: Marvel is cautious when it comes to “real world” potential offense (look how much time the first CAPTAIN AMERICA spends making sure HYDRA and Red Skull can exist as bad guys with as little Nazi/swastika presence as possible) and the presence of supernatural stuff explicitly tied to currently-practiced world religions could be problematic in the Red States and render the film potentially unreleaseable in, say, China, which has strict rules about portraying mysticism and religion in film.
But! With the more D&D/LOTR/Potter-esque fantasy/magic stuff already being all over THOR and GUARDIANS now primed to handle the various space-beings and starchildren, Stephen Strange is going to need to need a unique Cosmic Marvel “niche” to set himself apart. Paying lip-service to the fact that he can also keep company with Asgardians and the cosmic-personifications of Infinity and Eternity (and Death, but we’ll get to that) but mainly focusing him in the direction (at least for a debut) of the Marvel Universe’s less-explainable (outside of “Magic, okay?”) phenomena – two major aspects of which have already winked at the camera over on DAREDEVIL, incidentally.
Basically, I think they’ll pitch Strange as an exorcist, but a non-denominational, more “wizardy” one; and that his first adventure will involve establishing (in safe, broad strokes) a non-denominational, possibly “everyone sees what they want to” MCU-version of The Afterlife as yet another plane for these stories to exist on… and a way for killed-off characters to still pop up as ghosts or even straight-up come back to life without needing half a season of a TV show to explain how.
Million dollar question: What does this mean about Thanos? For those who still haven’t had a comic fan talk their ear off about this, the “to court death” line in AVENGERS is meant literally: In the Marvel Universe, sufficiently powerful/cosmically-aware beings can actually perceive and interact with personifications of esoteric concepts up to and including Death. Thanos is not only “aware” of Death, he has a literal romantic fixation on “her” and wants to massacre the universe as a token of romantic affection – that’s, literally, his entire “thing.” Do I imagine we’ll see Death “herself” in this movie? Sort of… but only as a tease for a more important role later.
5. NOTHING LONG-TERM IMPORTANT WILL HAPPEN IN SPIDER-MAN
Whatever reputation-solidifying (for Amy Pascal) niceties are on paper, the new SPIDER-MAN solo movie (the next “canon” Marvel movie after STRANGE) is a Marvel Studios production being undertaken “offsite” by Sony but still under orders from Kevin Feige and company.
Even still, given that they’d already started production on several subsequent Disney-branded Marvel movies before adding this one to the roster, I doubt this will connect to the “big doings” other than through references and guest-appearances (the prominent rumor is that the title is “SPIDER-MAN: THE NEW/NEXT/YOUNG AVENGER” and that the plot involves the high-school aged hero bugging Tony Stark for an “official” tryout) and if so I think that’s for the best. Spider-Man is a street-level hero, he has no business involved in Thanos/Infinity/End-of-The-World level stuff unless it spills into his area and he becomes the “stand when others won’t” guy. I’d be surprised (and disappointed, frankly) if Norman Osborn is walking around with an Infinity Stone in his lapel or something.
Honestly, though? The only “bigger MCU” person I’m really aching to see Spidey meet is The Kingpin. D’Onofrio is Marvel’s new best villain, and he needs to meet the hero he originated with just once.
6. THE GUARDIANS WILL MEET THE HULK
I feel much, much less confident about this than anything else in all this speculation, but I’m putting it here anyway. AGE OF ULTRON ends with The Hulk shooting himself… somewhere on a Quinjet. Supposedly, the plan was originally to make it clear that he’s shot himself off the planet Earth itself to allow for PLANET HULK sometime down the line, but that plan changed and it’s now unclear if Marvel has yet re-acquired the rights to solo HULK movies. That all seems fishy, and either way the possibility for Hulk to be in space is still right there.
So call this one a Hail Mary guess: Marvel knows that GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY is, however unplanned-for, it’s second hottest solo property outside of IRON MAN, and they know people love Hulk. It makes sense to have them cross-over as a way of getting halfway to a solo HULK feature, at least for now. I doubt it’d be the plot of the entire GUARDIANS 2, but since the first movie used Sakkarans (natives of the planet “Planet Hulk” took place on) the door is already open for Starlord etc. to find themselves in, say, a Sakkaran gladiatorial arena and forced to fight… The Hulk!
People would go nuts – you know they would, especially if they kept it a secret – and it would only take one quick narrated flashback for Banner to explain that he crashed on this planet. There’s also a more pertinent reason for them to meet up: Banner has information The Guardians will want – there’s an Infinity Stone on Earth, which means Thanos is going there. Remember, if you’re Marvel your top priority should be figuring out how to the mega-popular Starlord etc onto the same screen-space as The Avengers.
7. THOR: RAGNAROK WILL BE THE MOST IMPORTANT PRE-INFINITY WAR MOVIE
THOR’s main job in Phase I outside of introducing its title character was kick-starting awareness of the “cosmic” side of the MCU. It’s roll as the hub of cosmic worldbuilding in these films has likely been passed to the (unexpectedly) much more popular GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY), but the big strokes of this project were mapped out long in advance: Marvel wheeled out the full prop of The Infinity Gauntlet at SDCC a year before THOR or CAPTAIN AMERICA came out and then stuck it into Odin’s vault as a background detail, for example (apparently it’s not the same one Thanos has at the end of ULTRON), which suggests that Thor was originally going to be the vessel through which Big Cosmic Evil fell onto the rest of The Cinematic Universe… and I think it still will be. Partially.
“Ragnarok” is classical Norse mythology’s version of The Apocalypse – a combination of wars, betrayals and natural disasters that will result in the death of most of the important gods (including Thor, Odin, Loki and Heimdall) and the destruction/rebirth of the human world. In the Comics Universe, Ragnarok is (generally, they’ve retconned this a few times) a prophecy that hasn’t come true yet, but they keep coming close: A Godzilla-scale demon called Surtur nearly pulled it off in the middle of New York during Walt Simonson’s legendary 80s “Thor” run, ultimately turned back by Thor himself leading the combined forces of Asgard and the U.S. Army against him. Surtur is slated to turn up in THOR: RAGNAROK, so… do the math: Whatever happens in the third THOR installment is going to be really big and really bad.
However! Thor’s series also has plenty of loose threads to handle already: “Odin” is actually Loki in disguise, which (along with its own obvious problems) could mean that Odin is dead. In AGE OF ULTRON, Thor has a vision of himself (and others) in either a literal or metaphorical “Hell;” and though cut down to the point of incoherence in the theatrical release, it feels like Thor’s return to the death-world “vision” to become the first (non-Guardian) MCU figure to know that the MacGuffins they’ve been chasing are actually Infinity Stones was meant to tie the two together.
Why is that important? Because in Norse mythology, Hel (single “l”) is the Realm of The Dead – The Afterlife – for pretty-much anyone who isn’t fit for Valhalla. And the god-figured tasked with ruling over it – “Hela” – is both a big recurring villain for the Marvel version of Thor etc… and also happens to be female. Get the picture? Marvel has gone pretty far in getting the weirdest parts of their Universe onscreen, but Thanos making goo-goo eyes at a vaugely female-looking black-robed skeleton is probably the one step too far. But a female Asgardian equivalent to the same basic idea… a “Goddess of Death” instead of an esoteric personification of the same (with some semantic “rose by any other name” handwaves courtesy of DOCTOR STRANGE if she does a walk-on in his movie first)? Audiences would probably swallow that much more readily.
So yeah – that’s my Big Guess here: DOCTOR STRANGE confirms that there’s an Afterlife/Beyond/whatever in the Cinematic Universe. THOR: RAGNAROK will involve Thor having/choosing to go to Hel – possibly to retrieve or converse with the presumed-dead Odin and opening the door for other “dead” characters to remain in the mix somehow – and meeting/clashing with Hela (traditionally she’s Loki’s daughter, by the way) who will turn out to be the MCU version of the paramour Thanos is scheming to woo by collecting Infinity Stones and doing… something bad with them; which will lead us right into AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR – PART I.
Agree? Disagree? We’ll all find out over the course of the next few years… but I think when all is said and done I’ll have more of this right than wrong.
All the world is gasoline, and Eli Roth is the guy who just can’t stop flicking his cigarettes…
So it’s FUNNY GAMES if FUNNY GAMES wasn’t pretentious self-fellating bullshit – color me onboard.
The hook this time is that Roth is (supposedly) dialing back on the gore in favor psychological torment, which I don’t think the radical prospect it’ll likely be treated as by mainstream critics: Roth’s secret has never been his willingness to spill blood, but his willingness to spill it in defiance of audiences’ expectations of narrative “rightness.” The notorious blood-bathing sequence in HOSTEL II isn’t just horrifying because of what’s happening, but because it’s happening completely without reason to the most likable/vulnerable character in the film without even the fig-leaf of “the naughty kids die first” perverse cosmic justice of the FRIDAY THE 13TH or NIGHTMARE cycles. Which, unfortunately, means that French bulldog is probably toast 😦
He’s also insidiously skilled at breaking movie-taboos you don’t realize are taboos until you see them broken: the shots showing the girls’ (apparently?) destroying his wife and childrens’ belongings just to fuck with him are for some reason so much more distrubing conceptually than the torture shots. He’s also delightfully unafraid to follow the story to a logical point without caring if there’s a “bad” message you could take away – it’s easy to imagine a version of this premise framing the home-invaders’ as sort-of righteous (“angy angels of vengeance punishing a suburban patriarch for adulterous Skinemax-fantasy indulgence”) but you can likely count on Roth to stick with his favorite themes of innate human shittiness and evil existing for its own sake.
Either way, we’ll find out whenever Lionsgate decides to release this. I imagine it’s going to be a limited-theatrical/VOD thing like most semi-indie horror these days, but I’d hope the studio who knew a phenomenon when they saw it in the original SAW would understand what they’ve potentially got here. Keanu is very much “back” in the wake of JOHN WICK, and even if Roth’s name doesn’t carry the cache with mainstream audiences it does with horror fans the “Every dude’s fantasy goes baaaaaad!” hook in the trailers could easily turn this into “see it to discuss it” phenomenon like FATAL ATTRACTION (or, more recently, GONE GIRL.)
Okay, you’re in charge. I just really didn’t expect this to be the second most-request thing to see written up. But, okay. Here’s how I’d pitch a hypothetical re-invention of CAPTAIN PLANET to a movie studio.
To be fair, this one presents a different challenge from MEGA MAN: Instead of trying to stretch a plot out of a fairly simple (storywise) set of video games, the goal here is not simply to turn a superhero cartoon into a feature film but to “retool” the mythos of the franchise itself from the ground up. To put it charitably, CAPTAIN PLANET was a weird creature – ostensibly an bit of well-intentioned ecological-proselytizing aimed at 90s schoolkids, it was also filtered through the… interesting prism of creator/back Ted Turner’s eccentric personal take on the subject and the genre. On top of all that, a lot of it’s then-relevant political/social/scientific context has shifted over the decades and likely needs a second look.
Here we go:
OPEN on pre-historic Earth. We witness the animal residents of a small island frantically fleeing what at first appears to be a huge earthquake.
The “quake” is actually the arrival of ZARM, an absolutely massive creature moving across the ocean and soon overtaking and obliterating the island. Zarm is pure Lovecraftian nightmare-fuel: Tall as a mountain and wide as a continent, so big it’s almost impossible to comprehend. What of it is visible above the ocean surface (presumably it’s “legs” go all the way down to the sea floor) is a mass of heaving, slime-covered bulk, with seemingly thousands of eyes, hundreds of “mouths” and dozens of huge arms, all ranging in shape from resembling the limbs of humans, mammals, reptiles, insects, even tentacles. It’s very presence is toxic – the sea boils for miles around it, and “vents” in its body spews clouds noxious smoke into the air… and it is heading for the mainland.
On a cliff overlooking the sea stand four SHAMANS (think wizards, but as cavemen) staring out at the approaching Zarm with grim determination. Each holds a staff topped with CRYSTAL representing (respectively) Earth, Wind, Water and Fire.
The Shamans exchange a look and raises their staffs in unison, creating an energy-storm over the water from which emerges CAPTAIN PLANET…
…but not the one we know (and not called that yet – if the Shamans spoke, they’d call him “The Champion.”) This guy looks more like Zeus: Burly, bearded and wearing a toga (the blue skin/green hair look is in effect, but with an “inner glow” – think Doctor Manhattan.)
The Champion engages Zarm, firing energy-blasts, calling down lightning, summoning wind conjuring tidal-waves and even heaving massive chunks of earth; but none of it is effective. The monster cannot be stopped.
At the cliffs, one of the Shamans notices a fifth man (looking similar to the others) crouched amid some rocks away from them, also watching the action. Whoever this is, he’s recently lost a fight: covered in bruises, cuts and blood; he watches the battle with a mysterious, dark gaze.
The Champion sees something on one of the island-size mounds of rock he’s unsuccessfully tossed into Zarm’s path: The revealed fossilized skeleton of a Dinosaur. It gives him an idea.
Using what appears to be an utterly tremendous reserve of his strength, The Champion takes command of gravity itself, willing Zarm almost completely out of the water and manipulating huge energy fields to compress and crush the creature alive. It roars in anger and (maybe?) pain, which thrills the Shamans but seems to concern the mysterious fifth man.
With the last of his power, The Champion forces Zarm (now compressed almost-entirely into a churning mass of viscous liquid) down through the water and into the crust of the Earth itself, using the last of his power to seal the somehow still-living beast there for good. Exhausted to the point of breaking, The Champion sagely intones (in caveman-speak) “The Power is Yours!” before once again becoming energy and scattering to oblivion.
Victorious, the four Shamans walk away from the cliffs. They pass by the fifth man in the distance, deliberately paying him no mind. Lingering, we now see that he, too is a Shaman – or at least was: We see that his Staff is broken in two, and he carries pieces a broken Crystal.
We cut to The Present, HOPE ISLAND – in this version a small privately-owned island in general area of MICRONESIA.
There is no (real) incarnation of Gaia in this version. Hope Island, we soon learn, is owned by movie star BAMBI BLYTHE and serves as a fully-staffed research facility for Bambi’s scientist sister DR. BARBARA BLYTHE, who oversees a staff conducting experiments in geo-engineering and environmental science.
Blythe (Barbara) is brilliant and cares sincerely about saving the planet, but is a figure of controversy, viewed as the walking symbol of the “Silicon Valley-ification” of environmentalism by supporters and enemies alike for her willingness to embrace unorthodox chemical and technological solutions to pollution-reduction. Detractors in both mainstream and radical-but-in-the-other-direction environmentalism have nicknamed her “Doctor Blight.”
Most controversial are implications that she supports radical approaches to ecological-restoration, such as forced-relocation of human populations to “re-wild” key areas and reducing aid to both at-risk people and animals in order to encourage eco-beneficial population-reduction in the long-term. Privately, Blight is adherent of the Earth-Echinus Hypothesis or “Gaia Theory,” a belief that Earth itself is a sentient organism which she hopes to communicate with. She shares this extent of her philosophy only with MAL, an artificial intelligence program similar to IRON MAN’s J.A.R.V.I.S.
This information is conveyed during a charity event on the island, which includes the introduction of four exceptional teenagers from around the world who have been selected as Blythe’s top interns (a public-goodwill stunt mostly of Bambi’s design that Barbara essentially tolerates). Yup, this is where our re-imagined PLANETEERS will come from:
WHEELER: On the series he was the dumb, boorish, conspicuously-consumptive American who was wrong about everything (so lessons could be learned). This Wheeler is an entirely new guy: A crunchy, dreadlocked, stoner-affecting skateboard enthusiast from Portland. A good guy and smarter than he lets on, but it’s clear that his environmentalism (like his vegetarianism and “spirituality”) are things he first came to for very surface-level reasons.
SABIYA: A bookish, self-consciously serious woman of Saudi Arab descent and of Muslim heritage, replacing Linka because it’s no longer “novel” in 2015 for a Russian to be on the same team as an American and inexcusable for an “international” team to not feature any membership from the Middle East. The “hardcase” of the team.
KWAME: The oldest (but only by a few years) of the team, the son of a wealthy Rwandan businessman who instead wishes to study geology and worked for a time fighting poachers in wildlife preserves. Kind and generous, but also a reflexively skeptic who does not fully trust Blythe.
GI: Effectively the same character as the series, but definitively from China instead of “Asia.” Physical and fun-loving, the most outgoing and “social” of the group; but also the most reflexively loyal to Dr. Blythe, whom she idolizes more like a rock star than a scientist (or a boss.)
We witness Gi’s devotion firsthand when she (nearly) physically assaults a JOURNALIST who corners Blythe with “gotcha” questions at the event. Specifically, why have geologists traceable to her been seen around an (allegedly) grossly-exploitative mining operation run by the notoriously-unethical minerals-speculator LUTIN PLUNDER in South America?
The reason? Well, as far as the press and her interns known, Blythe is merely trying to conduct a secret survey of pollution caused by Plunder’s mining. But in reality, Blythe believes that Plunder has unwittingly unearthed evidence of… “something” tied to an old legend about Shamanic crystals that could summon an Earth Spirit, which she believes to be tied to her Gaia Theory fixation. You see where this is going.
Blythe and the interns travel to the mine, ostensibly so that they (the interns) can collect samples but mainly so that she can try to purchase Plunder’s aid in looking for “her” crystals.
A protest group of locals shows up (flanked by a NEWS TEAM) to cause unrest at the mine, inadvertently drawing the interns into a messy brawl. In the chaos, one of the protesters – a young teenaged boy named Ma-Ti – manages to fall into a deep pit, so the interns work together to get him out.
While extracting Ma-Ti, the team serendipitously discovers the hiding place of The Crystals, which Gi discreetly takes away to Blythe (but not so discreetly that Ma-Ti doesn’t notice.)
At her “pop-up” camp/lab nearby, Blythe explains to the interns what’s what: The Crystals are part of a legend about a Shamanic order on pre-historic Earth that could call on the elements to conjur a Champion who would fight for the Planet. She hopes to awaken their power and use The Champion’s power to save Earth.
Wheeler notes that some of the “evidence” (mainly scans of cave drawings and old tablets) shows five Shamans, not four. Apparently, part of the legend involves the excommunication of a “betrayer” Shaman whose fifth crystal was a corrupting force that led him to side with The Destroyer (Zarm.) Final victory came only when he was cast out and his crystal neutralized.
Everything is interupted by an explosion at Plunder’s mine that shakes the area, causing Ma-Ti (who’d been on the roof) to fall into the room.
Blythe and the Interns go to the mine (Ma-Ti chases after), where they discover that Plunder’s cut-rate techniques have set an underground gas pocket on fire, which has set off multiple fires around the mine and threatens to blow up Ma-Ti’s village nearby.
An explosion causes Blythe to drop the case with the crystals, scattering them. By happenstance, Gi picks up the Water Crystal and accidentally conjures a blast of water that douses a nearby fire.
The other Interns (and Blythe) exchange glances and get to work, haphazardly claiming the Crystals analagous to their powers from the series (Sabiya takes “Wind”) and set about using them to contain the chaos… with mixed success. Frantically pulling old translations of the legend out of Mal, Blythe instructs them to do the “Let our powers combine” routine, summoning The Champion.
The Champion appears as before, but only at first – his physical form shifts around based on which power he’s using or which Intern is calling out commands. He contains the explosions and secures the area, but while the others are impressed, Ma-Ti takes notice that The Champion appears indifferent to the humans or property amid what he’s “saving.”
The Champion senses that the gas pocket is still burning, set to cause another explosion “near the lake” and takes off. Ma-Ti tells the others that’s where his village is, and they need to go control his (demonstrably) actions so he doesn’t destroy it trying to save everything else.
Plunder boards his escape helicopter, ordering his underlings to “destroy the files, remove all traces.” His assistant, already on the chopper, informs him that they should head out to sea because “Sludge has made a find.”
The Champion wants to prevent the animals in the lake from being hurt by the explosion under the surface, and is blasting an “escape channel” for the water – right through the village, with only a cursory order for the people to get out of the way. The Interns arrive as the makeshift “river” ferries the fish etc into a temporary new pond, but the gas-explosion sends rocks and fire raining down on the village.
Ma-Ti and the Interns secure/evacuate the village (Ma-Ti rescues his pet monkey, SUCHI) while The Champion subdues the explosion and returns the lake to it’s place, departing when the work is done. The villagers are confused and upset, and the News Team from before is capturing images that make the ostensible heroes look less than heroic by the time Blythe arrives – explaining to an questioning Mal that the best way to come out on top here is “Publicity.”
Ma-Ti catches a fleeting glimpse of a strange figure (the “Betrayer” Shaman?) watching the scene, then vanishing.
At a huge press event on Hope Island, Blythe rolls out “THE PLANETEERS” (the Interns in modern variations on their uniforms from the series) as an initiative of her foundation, also revealing the conversion of the Crystals into RINGS and an intent to “re-brand” The Champion (“a manifestation of both The Elements and The Planeteers’ collective will,”) as CAPTAIN PLANET (“Superheroes are very big right now.”) Furthermore, Ma-Ti has been brought-on as an “honorary” Planeteer for his heroics at the mine (and a face-saving gesture.)
But privately, Blythe has kept fragments of the Crystals left over from the Rings, and has Mal constructing a machine she believes will let her communicate with The Earth itself – not just the “avatar” her interns can now summon.
Plunder meets with his associate, SLY SLUDGE, on an oil-scouting ship in the middle of the ocean. Sludge reveals that he has discovered “seismic evidence” of a massive oil deposit in place under the seabed where “no oil has any business being, geographically speaking.” Plunder orders his lackeys to start securing drilling rights to the area and to “Call the pig man.”
You see where this is going: The “oil” Sludge has discovered is the spot where the remains of Zarm are still trapped.
On Hope Island, The Planeteers train to understand their new powers and to get “in sync” to better command Captain Planet when summoned. Officially, Ma-Ti’s “honorary” job is to help them help Planet act with greater empathy, but Blythe is more interested in them getting Planet to manifest in the form that “tested well” (read: the version from the show.)
During this training, The Planeteers’ personalities and relationships develop. Wheeler thinks it’s a big game, and bonds with Ma-Ti through shared (relative) immaturity and Ma-Ti’s ability to detect his (Wheeler’s) growing, akward crush on Sabiya – who has become fixated on doing her own studies of the legends they’ve now found themselves participating in. Kwame emerges as the presumed team leader, but also bonds with Ma-Ti over similar family backgrounds.
Only Gi is cold to the younger member, owing to her unquestioning loyalty to Blythe; whom she hopes to impress with her creation of a supersonic, solar-fueled transport vehicle (The GEO-CRUISER.)
We also witness broadcasts (from the PLUNDER NEWS CHANNEL – Fox News, basically) of an editorial show hosted by DUKE NEWCOMB, a blustering bully in the Hannity/O’Reilly/Limbaugh mold who wears a Hawaiian shirt and rails against environmentalists in general and Blythe’s Planeteer Initiative specifically; even taking exception to their use of “pagan witchcraft” re: the Rings. He also reports (unfavorably) on international political movements attempting (with little success) to stop Plunder Inc. (“Damn right he’s my boss – he’s a lot of people’s bosses, because Looten Plunder is a job creator!”) from buying the previously mentioned drilling rights.
Ma-Ti has a nightmare-within-a-nightmare wherein he sees a glimpse of Zarm, “wakes” to see The Betrayer standing over his bed, then wakes up for real.
Plunder begins construction on an oil-drilling platform, overseen by his underling HOGGISH GREEDLY, who is indeed pig-like in appearance.
Ma-Ti questions Sabiya about The Betrayer’s role in the legends, which all appear to say the same thing: The Betrayer’s Crystal held a non-elemental power, and whatever it was was “corrupt” and led him to side with “The Destroyer” (Zarm) over Earth; leading him to be cast out and enabling Earth to be saved. The translations are all rough, but they call this fifth power “HEART” (“What kind of stupid power is ‘Heart?'” asks Wheeler) which most scholars have taken to mean that it had emotion or mind-control functions.
The Planeteers and Blythe watch Newcomb report on a protest against an aging nuclear power plant in the American Midwest. The protesters believe that the plant had a near-meltdown days ago, and that repairs are being covered up “in house” to avoid inspection. Blythe decides that investigating this issue could be a perfect opportunity to introduce Captain Planet to the public, and over Ma-Ti’s concerns dispatches The Planeteers to the scene.
At the plant protest, Kwame and Sabiya’s powers detect irregularities in the air/earth that indicate something has indeed gone wrong at the plant. Inside, we see that the containment systems are failing and the workers are furious that they are being prevented from summoning more substantial help.
Over Ma-Ti’s protestations (too soon, not ready, etc) they summon Captain Planet – this time looking like the one you remember from the show but affecting a patronizing “50s Superman” overconfidence – to go investigate/help the situation. Seeing Planet fly into the plant, Duke orders his camera-crew to follow him into the buildings.
Planet begins to secure the core from meltdown, but the Planeteers (prodded by Ma-Ti) entreat him to rescue the workers first. He does, but only after prodding and it’s clearly not his first priority: When he attempts to extract Newcomb, the bigmouthed journalist scoffs and feigns resistance… and Planet lets him be and immediately moves on – leaving Duke incredulous.
The workers are safe (but no one can find Newcomb…), but the meltdown begins to occur anyway. The Captain prevents mass-disaster by drawing all radiation and fallout into himself and expelling the energy as a concentrated beam safely into the sun. It works, but he collapses and returns to the Rings; explaining that prolonged contact with pollution/impurities can weaken him.
None the less, Captain Planet & The Planeteers are heroes. We see them hit the talk show circuit, parade and sports-event appearances, multiple vignettes of Captain Planet and his “pals” fighting back against various ecological calamities: Forest-fires, drought-blighted cities, chemical spills, dust-storms, garbage overflow, e-waste dumping, etc. The public loves it – and even Plunder News is getting rich off anti-Planeteer stories and the “mystery” of the still-missing Duke Newcomb.
Amid the world-saving, we also see the Planeteers adjusting to their new roles: Wheeler takes to celebrity like he was born into it, and when the press zeroes in on the obvious chemistry between him and Sabiya she finds herself coming out of her shell, too. Kwame is the “serious” face of the team, appearing on news shows, speaking at graduations, meeting with fundraisers and businessmen, etc; but he’s also bonding more strongly with Ma-Ti (who, incidentally, still finds himself glimpsing “The Betrayer” in crowds and shadows.) Gi is also friendly with Ma-Ti, and confides in the boy that she’s confused by numbers and data Blythe now has her crunching and testing without any research context…
Meanwhile, the countdown to completion continues at Plunder’s oil platform, with a test-probe finding access to the Zarm “oil” – a bit of which leaks into the water, mutating some small sea-bugs into dog-sized insect creatures that climb up onto the platform, only to be driven off by Greedly’s mercenaries in a brief action beat. Plunder orders it covered up, and also receives “big news.”
Plunder News broadcasts “recently recovered” footage uploaded to their servers automatically by Duke Newcomb’s remote cameras, showing Cap leaving Newcomb to die edited to remove Newcomb making a scene just beforehand. The media turns against The Planeteers.
An argument breaks out, wherein Ma-Ti angrily tells his older friends that they ARE partly to blame, because Captain Planet follows their lead and they have not given sufficient care to make him empathetic. He runs away.
The older Planeteers go to Doctor Blythe, inadvertently interupting her in the midst of “secret research” – they discover that she has used leftover material from converting the Crystals to Rings to build a device through which she is trying to communicate with Earth itself… and what communicating she’s done has driven her a bit mad: She’s been purposefully avoiding overly-humanitarian missions for the team, because she now firmly believes that saving The Planet at the expense of human life/safety is the PROPER course of action because drastic population-reduction is the only long-term solution to reverse ecological decline.
The Planeteers (especially an enraged/betrayed Gi) demand to know whether she planned to use Captain Planet AGAINST humankind, but her answer (which was feeling like a “yes”) is interupted by Plunder News running “shocking footage” of the aftermath of the mutant-critter attack on the oil platform with the heavy implication that the creatures could have been called forth by The Planeteers. Lutin Plunder himself appears and announces (along with the activation of the oil platform) that armed troops under orders from Interpol are heading to secure Hope Island and “question” the now-hated Planeteers and Blythe.
The troops arrive. The Planeteers decided against summoning Captain Planet, instead using their Ring powers to subdue but not harm the attackers while they try to escape.
Ma-Ti is injured amid the chaos but is saved from capture by… The Betrayer, who “teleports” himself, the boy and Suchi away.
Blythe is too immersed in her Earth-communing machine to even try escaping, but when troops enter to take her she throws a fit – setting off a chain-reaction that overloads the equipment and triggers an electrical explosion.
The Planeteers hide out in the underground launch-platform of the Geo-Cruiser, which they conceal themselves inside by way of the craft’s cloaking technology.
Ma-Ti finds himself recupperating in a mysterious cave with The Betrayer, who shows him a strange pool of water that shows images of his thoughts.
Plunder holds a gala press-event for the activation of his platform (with Greedly out of sight), but after the initial burst of proper oil something strange begins to happen: The liquid coming up isn’t “normal” oil, and it’s moving on it’s own! Down below, the familiar tendrils and arms of Zarm – but now “made of” oil – are punching up through the sea bed.
From inside the Cruiser, the Planeteers observe international news reports of a “monster” attacking the drill platform, with Sabiya recognizing Zarm from the legends. They decide they have to go and use Captain Planet to stop it, even with Ma-Ti still missing.
Blythe – not dead, but with a horrible burn-scar now covering one side of her face – is shocked awake within the rubble of her lab by the same reports appearing on Mal’s screen. She also recognizes “The Destroyer,” but looks perversely glad about it.
The Betrayer shows Ma-Ti the truth of his own story via the pool: His Heart powers led him to understand “something” about Zarm that others didn’t…
The Planeteers arrive at the oil platform, hovering over the scene as the writhing mass of oil continues to take Zarm’s original form to a greater and greater degree – so massive they can’t even begin to imagine how to beat it.
The oil workers and Greedly’s mercs scatter and flee in terror. So does Greedly, but a spellbound Plunder holds him back: “Do you realize what that is? Living oil! Endlessly renewable… not that the customers need to know that! And it could be mine – all mine!” He’s gone mad.
The Planeteers summon Captain Planet, who immediately glitches back into his earlier “Champion” form upon recognizing Zarm. He engages the monster like a “man” possessed – recognizing no commands from the Planeteers. “I hope he knows what he’s doing…”
Scattered fire and energy blasts cause the oil platform to become unstable and catch fire. The Planeteers argue over aiding the escape of the workers or trying to reason with Captain Planet – who Sabiya argues will NOT be convinced to put a rescue over the battle.
Calling “Enough!” to the argument, Kwame grabs the Cruiser controls and steers for the platform – “Because that’s what Ma-Ti would want.”
Back in the cave, Ma-Ti’s visions become clearer as he suddenly finds himself glimpsing the “origin” of Zarm: A seemingly harmless moss-like organism that crashes to prehistoric Earth attached to a meteorite and grows rapidly after exposure to the planet’s resources.
On the platform, Wheeler and Sabiya use their powers to mitigate the fires while Kwame and Gi use theirs to create a combination land-bridge/parted-sea for the escaping workers to flee on, with Gi raising several sunken ships to use as lifeboats.
Sabiya is attacked by Greedly, who overpowers her until Wheeler knocks him away using an equipment dolly as a makeshift skateboard. They wrestle, eventually tumbling to a lower part of the platform. Sabiya tries to aim her Ring at them…
…but Plunder sneaks up and whacks her hand with his cane, causing her Ring to fall off!
Planet/”Champion” is thusly robbed of his power to fly – he tumbles down to the ocean and is promply smashed by one of Zarm’s increasingly-solid tentacles. He explodes – the energy dissapating back to the Rings.
The workers arrive at the mainland. Kwame and Gi turn the Cruiser back to the battle, unsure what comes next.
Wheeler breaks free of Greedly, but the pig-man deftly avoids his fire blasts: “Are you insane? You should be helping us fight that monster!”
Back at the cave, Ma-Ti’s visions crystalize as he begins to see the original battle, but from Zarm’s perspective – complete with The Champion calling it “monster.” Ma-Ti wakes up in a fit, shouting “I AM NOT A MONSTER!!!” Then, to The Betrayer: “You saw. You understood it… and they didn’t want to listen.”
The Betrayer nods, hands Ma-Ti the broken Crystals… which magically transform into a Planeteer HEART Ring in his hand. The Betrayer turns into a spinning column of smoke, which engulfs Ma-Ti…
On the platform, Plunder pulls a SWORD from his cane and swings it at a diving Sabiya, keeping her from her Ring and ranting about his “right” and “destiny” to control Zarm.
Greedly nearly crushes Wheeler by throwing a heavy iron box at him, but the timely re-arrival of the Geo-Cruiser knocks him off the platform and into the ocean below. Kwame, Wheeler and Gi assemble to help Sabiya… but are stopped when Ma-Ti materializes in from of them! “Geez! You almost gave me a heart attack!” “Funny you should say that…”
Plunder prepares a killing blow for Sabiya, who rolls out of the way, grabs the other half of his cane and engages him to a near standstill… until the others arrive.
Ma-Ti (having arrived with the others) shouts Plunder’s name, subsequently blasting him with energy from the Heart Ring: Plunder is struck by a vision of himself as a child living in poverty in rural Australia. As he longingly eyes the shiny, stuff-packed car of a wealthy family driving past, he asks his (saintly-looking) mother why must they have so little; with her cautioning that “Some folks need to have much because no matter what they get, they’ll always want more. Think how sad that must be.” Shell-shocked, as if in a teary-eyed daze, the adult Plunder drops his sword and staggers away, mumbling “What have I done?” to himself.
The Planeteers – at last including Ma-Ti – assemble, with Ma-Ti explaining to the others what he’s learned: “Heart” power grants him (among other things) the ability to feel the emotions of all things… including Zarm!
“It’s not a monster or a destroyer… or at least it doesn’t mean to be! It’s an animal – meant to live in deep space, but it fell here! It’s frightened, confused, just trying to survive – and it just keeps growing because nothing on Earth can kill it. The fifth Shaman tried to tell the others… but they didn’t understand. They thought he betrayed them…”
The other Planeteers exchange looks, understanding that they cannot make this mistake again. They summon Captain Planet again (with Kwame finally saying “Let our powers combine!” for the first time) …and this time (at last!) it’s fully the Captain you remember from the show – with the sunny personality and the punny wisecracks.
Planet engages Zarm, but this time fighting to control instead of harm. Unloading all his various powers in well-timed combinations to weaken the creature and ultimately calm it down. Summoning the power of gravity, he returns Zarm to outer space where it belongs, with Ma-Ti informing the others “I think it is… happy.”
As a final touch, Planet rounds up Greedly and Plunder, depositing them in front of The Planeteers before returning to the Rings with “The Power is Yours!”
News reports worldwide herald the vindication of The Planeteers and the heroism of Captain Planet. Hoggish Greedly and Sly Sludge are sentenced to prison, but legal manuvering keeps the (evil again) Looten Plunder free to continue aquiring wealth (and obsessing about Captain Planet…)
Bambi Blythe apologizes to the team for the behavior of her sister (who is still “missing”) and announces that she intends to continue funding Hope Island; but as a base of operations for The Planeteers and their missions – in fact, a lot of other famous donors have stepped up to help as well (read: cameo-time for Ted Turner, Jane Fonda and whichever of the original “all-star” vocal cast wants to show up.)
EPILOGUE: The site of the power-planet meltdown, night, months later. Someone in a biohazard suit is examining the wreckage with a geiger-counter hooked up to an iPad. There’s a rumbling, and up from the crumbled concrete emerges… Duke Newcomb – alive, but transformed into the familiar rock-skinned glowing DUKE NUKEM from the cartoon!
“Who are you?”
There’s laughing: “Who indeed?” It’s MAL’s voice – he’s on the iPad. The mask comes off the biohazard suit, revealing Dr. Blythe now wearing her hair to cover her facial-scar.
“Blight. DOCTOR BLIGHT.”
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For the first time in a long time, I feel like I’ve been derelict in my duties as a Generation X film geek. Oh sure, me and my kind have done a fine job making sure that STAR WARS, RAIDERS, GOONIES, EVIL DEAD, RAMBO the collective John Carpenter and even fucking TRON remained at the ubiquitous forefront of pop-culture to such a degree that our Millennial ascendants couldn’t have avoided absorbing their supposed import if they wanted to… but I now realize we kinda forgot to tell you how great the MAD MAX movies were. Which means a lot of my audience probably only knows legendary Australian filmmaker George Miller as the guy behind… eh, well, a string a beloved childhood classics – but still! He did also invent the post-apocalyptic automotive warfare movie.
So… sorry about that, but in our defense the guy who played “Mad Max” went all cuckoo for Christ and then just plain cuckoo and everything he was associated with got kinda uncomfortable to talk about. But whatever! Now Tom Hardy is playing Mad Max, so it’s all good again.
If you’ve never seen a MAD MAX movie before… well, it’s the future, we’ve almost run out of oil but instead of being in any way responsible about that we’ve basically let the entire planet go to shit except for all the gas-guzzling jacked-up cars on which we now rely more than ever and… egh, look, back in the 80s this sounded like ca-raaazy Science Fiction instead of an eventuality potentially only ONE more Bush Administration away.
But whatever! We rejoin mentally-unhinged wasteland-wandering hardcase Max Rockatansky doing what he does best: Getting swept up into chaotic events he wants no part of but can’t bring himself to abandon. As the film opens, he’s captured to be used as a human bloodbank for a heavily-armed death cult led by the bizarre tyrant Immorten Joe. But no sooner does Max get there than all-out war breaks out when Joe’s general Imperator Furiosa is revealed to have helped The Immorten’s private harem of breeding wives escape to the open road; triggering an extended (and I do mean across the entire length of the film) combat car-chase – with Max finding himself reluctantly joining Furiosa’s quest and helping her fend off the three or four maniacal factions pursuing them across the desert.
Yeah. That’s pretty much the movie: The good guys are driving a truckload of hotties across the apocalyptic outback, Death Metal Darth Vader and his skinhead-tweaker suicide army want them back, and they all chase eachother around in crazy customized battle-cars wailing on eachother with insane weapons and nature occasionally intervening in the form of a death-trap marsh and a sandstorm lightning-hurricane. The result is an action film the likes of which you’ve largely never seen before, a seamless fusion of the old-fashioned gritty lunacy Miller made famous in the original films and cutting-edge 21st Century digital technology and editing techniques that looks even better in the hands of a seasoned master – action filmmaking that blows by so fast and so confidently you almost don’t realize how hard it hits until a bit later; when the real depth beneath its deceptive simplicitly of storytelling.
It’s a conceit of both prior sequels in the franchise that Max is a charismatic candide-like figure who stumbles into other people’s adventures, but in FURY ROAD it’s more apparent than ever: This is very much Furiosa’s movie – she takes all the initiative, drives all the plot, has all the skin in the game, she even gets to drive the big main battle-truck and have the cool robot arm! Max spends most of the first hour with his mouth muzzled so he can barely speak, and even once he’s free he doesn’t talk all that much. This isn’t one of those movies where the title character is the only person on Earth who can save us all because the movie says so – he’s capable and good to have around (and, for the record, Hardy is a commanding enough presence as to make you forget the role was ever recast), but you get the sense Furiosa would’ve worked this one out okay enough on her own.
Theron proved herself a fearlessly great actress a long time ago, but Furiosa is a revelation – there likely won’t be a more strikingly original hero onscreen this year. Attention also needs to be paid to a revelatory strong turn by a commanding Rosie Huntington-Whitely, and a nuanced showing from Nicholas Hoult as a luckless would-be foot-soldier whose arc forms the philosophical spine of the story – and yes, I said philosophical!
While the subsequent-superstardom of Mel Gibson and the endlessly ripped-off popularity of the wacky custom cars have been the most enduring elements of the original MAD MAX movies, Miller’s *truly* fascinating conceit was imagining what a future of newly re-barbarianized humanity trying to assemble new cultures and civilizations out of the half-remembered remains of our own might look like. This time, though, there’s actually a big, loud, radical point being made; in a manner that would probably seem overly blunt and on the nose but feels downright subtle in a movie where one of Immorten Joe’s war rigs comes with an array of speakers and a guy with a flame-throwing guitar strapped to it like a human hood-ornament because why wouldn’t he have one of those?
See, Furiosa isn’t simply helping The Immorten’s wives get away from HIM, she’s helping them escape to her own homeland – a far-flung Matriarchy reigned over by grandmotherly Amazonian motorcyclists who follow a gentle path of nurture and nature-cultivation (but, y’know, with sniper-rifles and dirtbikes because this is a MAD MAX movie) where they hope to raise their offspring as anything BUT warlords, under a philosophical rallying cry of “Who killed the world?” asked in a way that leaves no doubt as to what the answer is. By contrast, the obscenely evil Immorten Joe rules over his subjects by way of a self-conjured religion comprised of equal parts car-culture, gun-worship, repurposed Viking mythology other and uber-masculine “honor culture” staples that’s yielded (among other things) an army of Skinhead suicide-soldiers called “Warboys” eager to die in battle for their surrogate daddy’s approval.
Yes, this time it’s a battle for the future course of human civilization, with the heavy implication that it’s stern father-figure patriarchs like Immorten Joe that got the world into this mess while Furiosa’s Amazon naturalists represent hope and progress. These are the kind of weighty ruminations you don’t generally expect from movies where flame-thrower guitarists are part of the set decoration.
Bottom line: This time, you can believe the hype. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD is one of the most brutal, bone-crunching action films recent memory, one of the boldest most original visual experiences of the year and – improbably – one of the smartest works of dystopian scifi to emerge from the current deluge. I know the film critic collective has overhyped this sucker to kingdom come, but… seriously, just go see it anyway – it kicks ass.
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Guys… I’ve got feelings. So many feelings.
AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D apparently did well enough in its second season to earn a third, but I feel like the news of just how good the show has gotten (within the realm of a medium-camp network sci-fi/action series, at least) has been a phenomenon centered mainly around TV writers and Marvel die-hards than general tube-junkies. My hope is that, now that Season 2 has concluded, the binge-watch set will discover it – and not just because the reveal of… the stuff I’m still electing to keep for after the jump has made it mandatory viewing (or, at least, mandatory wiki-ing) for Marvel Cinematic Universe completists.
No, I’d rather people “discover” that AGENTS got really good in Season 2 because it’s now a damn solid bit of television; with memorable characters and a twisty “anything goes yet somehow adheres to an internal logic” ongoing story that in some ways makes better use of being in The Marvel Cinematic Universe than the more prestigious movies do – where AGE OF ULTRON occasionally seemed to be quietly resentful of its brief detours for people/places set to pay off in future movies, S.H.I.E.L.D seems to relish the prospect of pit stops involving aliens, Asgardians, HYDRA, mad scientists etc. Season 2 was full of moments where the series (as personified by Clark Gregg’s Director Coulson) seemed barely able to contain shouting “Look at all this STUFF we get to play with!!!”
And yet, it also managed (with a few exceptions) to be a more serious, dramatic series than anything with so much built-in silliness really had any right to be; ironically excelling in many key areas where folks have (rightly) found the movie side of the Marvel experiment lacking: AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D runs on complex character dynamics, features an embarassment of riches in terms of diversity and strong female characters in particular and has the television-specific luxury of being able to chill out and let a character-arc breathe across multiple episodes. Yes, fine, DAREDEVIL (and Vincent D’onofrio’s Kingpin in particular) was “the story” of Marvel on TV this year, but AGENTS turning itself into something vital deserves to be part of that discussion as well.
Anyway, onto “S.O.S.” and SPOILERS…
Among Season 2’s many impressive features has been the way it’s handled huge changes to characters and relationships (by my count the “status quo” was upended at least 3-5 times over 22 episodes) mainly by stating “this is what’s going on now” and relying on the actors to sell it. AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D is an FX-heavy production, but when it came to “shit just got real” moments it was all about delivery. Nowhere was that more apparent than the way it hid its cards on who/what would actually be the big existential threat of the finale – largely by relying on audiences to assume “No they wouldn’t” in regards to Jaiying, aka “Skye’s Mom.”
For as long as we knew she existed, Jaiying was presented as Season 2’s martyr-in-chief: Her (non)-existence as a tangible person finally made Skye’s “little girl lost” persona stick, helped us understand Cal/Mr. Hyde as well as could be expected, and our main source for regarding first-half fake-out villain Daniel Whitehall as evil incarnate was the knowledge that he’d butchered her alive to attain immortality. If Skye (aka “Daisy”) is AGENTS’ ” chosen one/redeemer figure, then Jaiying has effectively been its Virgin Mary.
So to have her turn out to not only be the season’s surprise Big Bad but in many ways the reigning Big Bad of the series’ “lore” so far (in as much as she ordered Cal to become Mr. Hyde, making her the leader of the “Two Monsters” whom Skye’s faked-orphan backstory was designed to protect her from) and have it both make since and feel right over the course of only three episodes (this being a two-parter) is good writing and good acting, no magic trick – though the reveal that she’s not “immortal” but actually has to drain life from others (it used to be done through elective self-sacrifice by Inhuman elders, now she’s more-or-less a vampire) feels like it maybe could’ve been tipped a bit earlier.
It also serves to make her (and to a lesser extent Cal) two of the darkest villains Marvel has concocted of late: here’s two decent, damn near saint-like people (the protector/nurturer of an entire culture and a Doctors Without Borders volunteer for crissakes!) who have something unimaginably evil done to them entirely unjustly. Near-miraculously, he manages to bring her back from the brink… but the damage is done, the experience has broken her mind/soul permanently and she’s evil now – strongarming him into becoming evil, too. And there’s no fixing her, no coming back, no switch to flip back to “good” because some scars don’t heal. No justice, no cosmic balancing-out, no way out but for Cal having been . That’s fucking DARK.
The rest of the show? Pretty good, too.
The Inhumans are getting introduced here, 4-5 years in advance of their self-titled movie, because Marvel needs them to replace The X-Men and that’s a lot of audience-familiarity time to make up. “S.O.S.” is, clearly, meant to serve as a test-run for how that’s going to work: It’s straight-up, no-bullshit an X-Men story without the X-Men; with a small community of
Mutants Inhumans (fully-revealed, Jaiying’s sanctuary-dwellers are more like the Morlocks than anything else) are tricked/pushed into declaring war on humans by a pathologically-paranoid leader, resulting in a showdown between the powered-people and human authority-figures while a “good” Mutant Inhuman with a personal connection to the leader (Skye) tries to stop the fighting.
Does it work? Hell yeah. Everything involving the raid on The Icarus was awesome (good fight scenes, good action, good tension, nice mix of powers and characters) in the exact same way that the best X-Men versions of the same scenario are. It’s a bummer that Wolverine etc won’t even scrap with The Avengers, and I think it’s pretty lame that Marvel is poised to send the comic-book X-Men packing just to fuck with Fox, sure. But if the question is “can Marvel Studios tell good ‘superheroes-as-metaphor-for-racial/cultural-discord’ stories using The Inhumans?” then the answer is yes – especially since, if this stuff works within AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D’s modest means, it’ll likely look gangbusters up onscreen.
For a minute there I wasn’t fully sold on the turnaround with Cal, and I still sort-of wish his full “Mr. Hyde” form was a little more Hulk and a little less Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer. But Season 2 MVP Kyle MacLachlan is just so goddamn fun in the part he sold it anyway and (intentional or not) the low-tech “strong monster guy” staging had pleasing echoes of the old HULK show (holy shit, why haven’t they found an excuse for Lou Ferrigno to be on this show yet!?) I’m not sure that Coulson being able to talk him down into switching sides for Skye’s sake makes a lot of sense, but MacLachlan’s big hyperemotive constant-breakdown overracting sold it – oldschool Universal Monsters “wailing/gnashing bad guy” stuff. Shit, he’s good enough that his “happy” ending even feels earned… I let out an audible “Aw, geez…” when he dropped the “magical place” line, revealing what had to be done to “free” him. Ouch.
Another “one take” fight scene for Skye? Okay, cool. Bennett is more convincing using guns or her whooshy earthquake powers than the hand-to-hand stuff, but it’s fun and keeps us rooting for the character. The big final confrontation between Skye, Jaiying and Cal forced her to act against two of the most capable performers on the show (playing characters who’re allowed to be much more broadly-interpreted) and she held her own admirably. In a way, “coming out” as Inhuman has made Skye more relatable – Bennett (and the writers, to be fair) never quite found the comfortable spot between “unsure neophyte” and “scary-efficient computer genius;” but having been reborn as a Marvel Speciality “superhero as metaphor for young-person in life-transition?” NOW she makes a lot more sense.
As ever, going back to a Ward subplot is where the episode suffered. There’s too much going on with too high of stakes for Bobbi/Hunter vs Ward/Agent 33 to be worth pulling our focus, and it’s painfully obvious that this is only happening to set up the MOCKINGBIRD spin-off that’s no longer going forward. Granted, the meat of it was solid (great double turnaround on the torture stuff, clever subversion of the “girl tied to a chair” routine, LOVED May’s nasty-as-hell gotcha to 33) and it’s not like the Marvel movies don’t frequently overcome distracting detours into setups for other things, but it felt somewhat pointless and having him elect himself leader of “HYDRA, but as a street gang” is not going to be enough to fix Ward’s not-in-any-way-interesting problem.
And hey, how about finally letting Mack do some action stuff? Him, Coulson and Fitz’s fight with Gordon was a great action beat in a finale that had many.
And then there’s Coulson’s story…
The other thing “S.O.S” crystallizes about why Season 2 worked is the way the series finally settled in to having it’s cake and eating it regarding how it “works” in its own universe. The season had a lot of mysteries, but really only one question: Is Coulson, now Director of S.H.I.E.L.D 2.0 by Nick Fury’s hand, actually a good leader? Even before Gonzales and “real S.H.I.E.L.D” turned up, this was the question because of the Alien Writing situation.
The logical/rational answer, of course, is NO he absolutely isn’t. He’s overly emotional, he plays favorites and follows personal biases/hangups, he’s inquisitive about “cool” or nostalgiac things to the point of recklessness and he wants to run a paramilitary/spy organization like a family camping trip. He’s the last person who should be the guiding hand of a TV procedural drama, wherein problems are invariably solved through logic and rationality. But other procedural dramas aren’t set in the Marvel Universe, and Coulson’s eccentricities generally make perfect sense if you’re living in a comic-book. Which everyone on this show basically is. Coulson’s repeating-arc throughout Season 2 has been about his Fanboy Logic (“Super-powers are awesome!” “We need to chase down this alien stuff!” “Let’s upgrade Deathlok!” “Maybe we can flip this villain to work for us!”), framed as pure and noble, coming up against “real” logic… and coming out on top. Pandering? Little bit, but it works.
As such, it makes “Marvel sense” for him to come out of all this minus an arm (no, I don’t think they’ll have him commission one from Iron Man) but otherwise still in charge of both S.H.I.E.L.D and a new initiative to draft a “covert” version of The Avengers from the world’s population of powered-people (one imagines that this is where a lot of Season 3’s story is going to come from, in tandem with Jaiying’s counterfeit Terrigen material being dispersed into the ocean.) Curious to see who/what they pull from the canon to fill those slots – I imagine “newly-activated Inhuman” will be the shortform origin for some, but I don’t think we’ll hear from The Inhumans-plural again until things get closer to the movie. Big question, of course, becomes is THIS part of where CIVIL WAR will come from?
As for that final stinger? Eh… what can be said other than, “we’ll see?” This makes two seasons in a row where they’ve seemingly taken unique pleasure in building up Fitz/Simmons shippers only to kick them in the gut at the last second. I doubt getting absorbed by the big stone whatsit has “killed” Simmons, and while I’m sure it’s going to be the popular fan-theory… NO, I’d say there’s a zero-percent chance that it’s going to spit her back out as Captain Marvel. More likely? If The Inhumans were afraid of that thing, I could see her emerging with the ability (directly or indirectly) to hurt Inhumans specifically (maybe by neutralizing their powers?), maybe dredging back up her anti-superhuman leanings from earlier in the season? That would be an interesting wrinkle.
Overall, a great end to a good Season. Here’s to hoping they can maintain this momentum heading into Season 3.
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The reviews are starting to hit for MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (I’m seeing it myself later today) and they’re pretty-much over the moon among the big online-presence critics: Faraci likes it, Tapley like it, the links to Drew McWeeny’s piece keep coming back broken but he’s apparently onboard, McCarthy likes it, Kohn likes it, Duralde is into it and Chang digs it. But much of the ecstasy comes (at least on social media) tempered by a certain amount of bittnerness: Film Twitter has been convinced that this is The New Hotness all year, and now it’s convinced that the film is going to “underperform” – in as much as action films generally need to open in first place now to be considered a “hit” by entertainment reporters, and FURY ROAD is tracking to open behind PITCH PERFECT 2 and maybe also (depending on who you ask) AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON in its third week.
The prospect of this makes me want to quit The Internet, my chosen vocation and the planet Earth for a month. Not because I’m going to be super-bummed about the film’s success – my “investment” in MAD MAX is that I want George Miller to keep getting big director gigs and it’s got cars and explosions, so it’s going to tear shit up at the China/Pan-Asia boxoffice regardless what it does here – but I’m already pre-tired of hearing about what the “failure” (cultural, not necessarily financial) “means.” An actioner equally beloved by “I remember REAL movies!” againg-boomer critics and Gen-X film-geek tastemakers eating it against a Girl Movie (“Eeeeeeew!”) about pop-music (“EEEEEEEWWWW!!!!!”) and the most-recent superhero entry? Welcome to Thinkpiece Hell. Yeech!
I almost want to play “movie journalism predictability bingo” with the results. Who’s going to be first out of the gate with “REAL MEN are OVER at the boxoffice!”? How soon do we get the counter-clickbait “Real Men are OVER at the boxoffice – good riddance!”? Who’ll be the champ of sniffing about arbitrary action-genre “cred” (“Pffff! Maybe they should’ve called it MARVEL’S Mad Max, eh?”)? Screw Bingo, maybe it’s time to invent Movie Critic Clue – I’ll take Jeff Wells in The Starbucks with “Hispanic party-elephants.”
Here’s what I’d like to know: If and when FURY ROAD “fails” to leap whatever stupidly high bar has been set for an R-rated reboot of a franchise that sputtered out back in ’85 and largely vanished under a sea of inferior knock-offs and endless present-era homages like DOOMSDAY (meanwhile, KINGSMEN, another “disappointment” has spun it’s modest-but-steady boxoffice placing into becoming one of the year’s biggest hits with a sequel on the way) and we’re all looking for someone to blame, is anyone going to point the finger at the guy who’s probably more responsible for this franchise not maintaining its once-thought garaunteed cultural capital…
Let’s not mince words: FURY ROAD’s “glorious” marketing campaign isn’t selling this movie to anyone who hasn’t been onboard since the pitch. It has TRON LEGACY’s trailers – zero plot (until Trailer #3), tons of mood and visuals, all hinged on “That you loved? It’s back!!!!” Fine, fair enough, it IS a nostalgia-reboot property, after all, and that’s big business right now. Want a likely big return? Sell Generation X it’s pre-High School viewing years back to it – and invite everyone younger who’s had to grow up with Gen-X tastemakers beating it into their skulls that This Stuff was The Best Stuff.
Except unlike STAR WARS, GHOSTBUSTERS, INDIANA JONES, ROCKY, RAMBO, STAR TREK, the Marvel canon, perennial “Give us a sequel!!!!” mainstays like GOONIES, MONSTER SQUAD, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, etc even BATMAN and SUPERMAN to a certain extent… the MAD MAX movies have not spent the last decade being re-enshrined, revisited and kept vital in the pop-consciousness. The dubious identifiers of what has and hasn’t “lasted” (in no particular order: routines by pop-reference comedians, FAMILY GUY cutaway parodies, YouTube/meme fixations, Lego revivals) have largely ignored it. Right now, Mad Max as a franchise/character probably has less nostalgia/recieved-nostalgia cache going for it than EVIL DEAD/ARMY OF DARKNESS, which doesn’t feel… right, if you remember how large it used to loom – and I sincerely think it’s all-but entirely due to the fact that the character/franchise is inextricably tied to Mel Gibson – an actor who has effectively poisoned everything associated with him to a genuinely stunning degree.
Ever since Gibson effectively came out as “mean-spirited, self-torturing, kinda-sad crazy” instead of “fun crazy” as was his earlier reputation during the making and release of PASSION OF THE CHRIST, he’s been on a cultural downward spiral that took most of his clout with it. PASSION’s percieved (by many, including me) eye-popping anti-semitism made him an industry pariah, which in turn meant he had no “cover” when a whole mess of other scary/unpleasant stuff hit the headlines about him between ’04 and recently. He’s basically been a joke that quickly became to depressing to keep telling for a solid decade; and I doubt it’s a coincidence that while damn near every other fragment of 80s pop-ephemera has gotten a reboot, a revival or at least endless positive reappraisal (do I need to remind you that Howard the Duck now counts as an applause-drawing cameo?) both MAD MAX and LETHAL WEAPON have been allowed to lie fallow?
Again, let’s talk turkey: ROCKY and RAMBO both got to come back (Rocky is even coming back again for the new spin-off, CREED) not necessarily because they or their respective subgenres were particularly relevant at the time, but because the names Rocky Balboa and John J. Rambo had been burned into the pop-consciousness even of people who never saw the originals as Important Institutions in the intervening years. “Mad” Max Rockatansky hasn’t had that luxury, his lot in the same amount of time has been: “Yeah, those were awesome. Too bad about Mel, huh?”
I hope the movie is good. It looks good. Hell, I’m cutting this a bit short so I can get on the train to go watch it. But if the now-expected “underperformance” (which really won’t be, since it’s rated R in May and this is 2015) happens, I wonder who else will look past slinging mud at PITCH PERFECT (“Fuckin’ feminized American Idol-watching Tumblrina millennial brats!!!!”) and/or geek-bloggers “in the tank” for the Marvel Machine (“Haw haw! Yeah, maybe we should tell the Nerd Herd there was a stinger about Max having the next one of those stupid rocks!”) to ask if Mad Mel should take the lion’s share of the lashings for kneecapping this franchise before it even ever got up to walk?
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