Shaun Celebrates Mad Max Fury Road and its Feminism in Disguise

Mad Max: Fury Road is the best movie of 2015 and one of the best action movies of all time.  A majority out there, while not necessarily agreeing with that statement fully, will nod their heads in understanding for where that sentiment comes from.  But, when a film gets the kind of praise Fury Road has since its release it will have its fair share of backlash.  It’s understandable.  Part of human nature is to feel unique and contrary opinions are one way to achieve that.  A person can be in a bad mood upon first seeing a film most love.  Then there’s the fact that the hype surrounding some films (as well as bands, books, foods, and nearly anything one can have a positive feeling toward) is so intense that nothing can ultimately live up it.  This could very well be the case where Fury Road is concerned.

To explain at least partially what I love so much about Mad Max: Fury Road, I’ve realized while trying to organize my thoughts on the movie I could probably write a novella length piece about it and no one wants that, I’ve taken some of the most common complaints I’ve heard aimed at the movie in an attempt to replace some of the negativity with appreciation.  I don’t expect to convert anyone through this article as film appreciation is such a subjective endeavor, but I can at least hope for understanding.

Fury Road is just a two hour long car chase

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This complaint is the one I hear perhaps the most, and it’s also a great place to start since it sets up a discussion of why Fury Road is such a unique film.  I often respond to this complaint when I’m in one of my more snide mood with, “Yes.  That’s the point.”  I think this complaint comes from people who are more comfortable with and find more enjoyment in story telling which relies on dialogue.

The word “movies”, though, is a shortened slang word derived from what they were originally called – moving pictures.  Movies as a storytelling device was a happy accident (though, possibly an inevitable one) as the original intent for the invention of film was closer to a photograph than a novel or a play.  The earliest movies created to tell a story were silent, and therefore had to rely entirely on visuals to get their account across.  Eventually someone came up with the idea of using title cards for dialogue, and shortly after that sound-on-film was invented, but at its core movies are moving pictures.

Mad Max: Fury Road isn’t a silent picture by any stretch of the imagination, it’s actually quite noisy, but it uses dialogue sparsely relying primarily on images and action to tell its story.  In making Fury Road George Miller understood that while there are many ways to create a narrative, only film can use images captured over large and myriad areas from any angle as a means of depicting his.  His being said two hour long car chase.

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There are many reasons to tell a story which is essentially just one long action sequence, the first of which being exactly that.  How cool is it to craft one long action sequence?  The story is driven not by what people say, but by what people do.  Talk is cheap, and a picture is worth a thousand words, and all that.   Sure, occasionally a command is barked but little time is wasted on people speaking about their feelings or their motivations, those are shown in the most direct way possible – through the actions the characters take.

Beyond the fact that Mad Max: Fury Road fully takes advantage of the medium of film by being almost entirely composed of action, there is also the fact that making an entire film from what is normally a single beat in a standard film adds up to a truly unique experience.  It makes for a film that, in a literal sense, very rarely slows down.  The start, the finish, and during the act breaks we get an opportunity to leave the vehicles and get a little expository and character building dialogue in, but outside of those four short sections the characters, the story, and thus our attention never slows down.

This a brave decision because it had the chance to alienate a good part of its intended audience (and, I think it actually did do just that which is part of the reason I felt compelled to write this piece) and it forced the writers to get across character development and themes in the middle of a whirlwind with little speech.  The fact that they not only accomplished that, but did so in a manner more loud and clear than a great many character pieces let alone action films, is a great testament to their talent.

There is one more very important reason the film makers made the movie one long car chase.  But, that reason ties in more closely with my discussion of themes which will come along a little later.

Everyone in in the post-apocalyptic world has great hair and make-up

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The Mad Max movies portray a world in which the last humans are trying to survive on an Earth with little food and water left, in which gasoline is more valuable than any precious metal or gem, and where gangs impose their power on the weak where they can and join together with would be dictators when they become the weak themselves.  They also all apparently have attended cosmetology school and have access to whatever makeup and hair styling tools they want.

Or do they?

If you remember, when Max is discovered at the start of the film, his hair and beard are overgrown, tangled, and matted.  He’s dirty and I imagine if a film could convey smell we’d all be grateful that the opening scene is over quickly.  Once he’s captured, the first thing the War Boys do to him is shave him, wash him, and brand him and once the action starts in earnest he’s freshly cleaned up.

Furiosa has lived most of her life in The Citadel as one of Immortan Joe’s lieutenants, and so has had access to plenty of clean water to wash with.  Plus, she shaves her head so hair isn’t an issue and she doesn’t wear make up.  She just happens to be played by Charlize Theron, so of course she’s incredibly beautiful even without the normal trappings, but that’s bone structure and other genetics, not the result of being dolled up.

The War Boys, Immortan Joe, Nux, and the other denizens of The Citadel all exist in various states of ragged dress, skin disease, and uncleanliness depending on their position within the society and their age.  The young War Boys look the most fit, but even they shave their heads completely and cover themselves in a white chalk.  The elder leaders of The Citadel have boils, cysts, and oozing sores.  The commoners in The Citadel have it worst of all, bent over, covered in grime, skinny, overgrown, the throngs of The Citadel not able to fight for Immortan Joe exist in state which can barely be considered human by the standards of here and now.

Which brings us to Toast, Splendid, Capable, and The Dag collectively known as “The Wives” who are the real target of this complaint.  The Wives do have impeccable hair, make-up, and skin.  This is because until the start of the film they were considered the property of Immortan Joe, the god-king of The Citadel and controller of the entire region’s water supply.  He makes sure they have the best, but he also makes sure they look the best since they are his personal baby factories.  Sex slaves.  Their appearance is essential to several Mad Max: Fury Road‘s themes, plus it just makes sense that the people of The Citadel would make absolutely sure the Wives always looked the best the possibly can to keep their master Immortan Joe pleased with them.

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So it’s not that everyone has hair stylists and make-up artists on their personal payroll.  It’s that Fury Road understands and has something to say about social classes.  It’s not something I’m going into any more detail in this particular article, but the reason people look so good post-apocalypse is George Miller saying in effect the more things change the more they stay the same.  The rich and powerful keep people as toys, and they want their toys kept in peak condition.

It is weird that with so many high-powered, large-tired motor vehicles moving at top speed through the desert that every single character isn’t covered in sand and dirt a few minutes into the chase.  If you want to make that complaint, I’ll give you a side eye for nitpicking but will grudgingly agree.

The movie is named Mad Max: Fury Road, but Max doesn’t do much

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Max has not been the focal character in any of the Mad Max films since the very first installment, and even that one could be up for debate.  The Mad Max films are more about the world they take place in and why George Miller feels that is a world we are hurtling toward if we don’t change our ways than they are about any of the people inhabiting that world.  Max has always been closer to a very active narrator than a protagonist, he brings us to the stories, tells them, but they are not his stories.

The popular opinion is that Furiosa is the main character in Mad Max: Fury Road.  It is she who who rescues the Wives, she who steals the War Rig, she who teaches the Wives to be strong, she who leads the group, makes the deals, and she who ultimately kills Immortan Joe and becomes the leader of The Citadel after great personal sacrifice. Those are all the traits of a hero, and normally the hero is also the protagonist.  But, while she is a paragon and of utmost importance to the film’s themes she is not the main character, either, as she doesn’t have a character arc.  She begins and ends the movie in the same place, literally and figuratively, and she makes that place better for everyone around her.

My more unpopular opinion is that the War Boy Nux is the main character in Mad Max: Fury Road.  Nux begins the movie an aggressive man-child eager to be noticed by Immortan Joe who has promised his War Boys a place in Valhalla if they fight well for him.  Nux is told to stay home by his superiors instead of joining the war party going after Furiosa because he is not well (for some unrevealed reason).  Nux, however, insists that his newly captured blood bag, Max, has strong blood and as long as Max can keep giving him his blood infusion (against Max’s will) he’ll be fine to join the party seeking to recapture their god-king’s sex slaves back from the evil woman who stole them.

Nux finishes the movie sacrificing his own life to be sure the horde of hyper-aggressive men he was once proud to be a part of won’t be able to capture the women whom he now loves and respects so they can retake The Citadel now empty of the warmongering horde and turn it into the paradise they were seeking elsewhere.  Now that’s a character arc, and it is all handled organically through visually focused story telling.

Why Mad Max: Fury Road is a movie worth celebrating

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As I in my opening, I could go on and on about Fury Road.  I haven’t mentioned its spectacular, Oscar winning art direction.  I could put an entire section on how in an age of CGI laden visuals Fury Road returned to stunt work and practical effects.  Fury Road out actions most action movies without cheating (okay, CGI isn’t cheating, but you get the idea), but what really sets it apart is what it has to say and how it says it.

We have a film in which powerful men control the world’s most important resources and dish out just enough of them to the people to keep them from revolting while also controlling the masses through false proverbs and promises of an afterlife.  These lords are powerful enough that they naturally feel entitled to anything they want, including other people, and they pass this sense of entitlement on to those closest to them in their hierarchy.  A powerful woman who was stolen as a child from her clan of all women who lived in a paradise is now mature and experienced enough to see the evil her master is doing, and decides to free the women he keeps as sex slaves and take them away with her to the green place of her childhood where they can join and be protected by the matriarchy rather than mistreated by the patriarchy.

She means to sneak away, but she’s found out and every man able to drive a war vehicle and fight soon comes after her.  One of these men brought along against his will joins her crew, and soon after one of the War Boys also joins her after disappointing the lord who promised him rewards after death and finding he respects the people in this band more than those he grew up with as they are kind, forgiving, and thoughtful in addition to also being strong willed survivors.

When the woman and her crew find that the green place no longer exists and barely a fraction of the matriarchy are still left, they decide to go back to The Citadel from whence they started and take it over for themselves now that the warmongers in charge are all outside The Citadel chasing them.  The sex slaves learn they can fight against their captors and the woman and former War Boy make sacrifices, the War Boy the ultimate sacrifice, to stop the war party and their leader in its tracks.

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So, put that all together and what we have is a film about literally and metaphorically removing the toxic masculinity from a society, and replacing it with more feminine ideals to heal the damage done to it by aggression and entitlement over the decades.  It shows us this through the state things have declined to under the men who lie, coerce, and bully to get their way and contrasting that with a woman who is just as powerful but was brainwashed from childhood to believe what the rest of society believes and now realizes the error of those beliefs.  It gives us a boy who is just another cog in a machine to be used by his master, and thus is filled with this contagious toxic masculinity, but who becomes loved and respected once he is able recognize the poison inside of him and release himself from it, and revered when he acts out of love instead of out of greed and entitlement for the first time in his life.

Mad Max: Fury Road tells us that the green place actually is within our grasp, and it’s closer than we think.  It’s right here.  But, to get to it, we have to remove the toxic masculinity which has been controlling our religions, our governments, our economics, and our entire way of life for centuries and embrace the feminine.  It’s not about hating men.  Men are essential to the human race’s success.  It’s about letting the women have at least an equal voice, maybe more until we can achieve some type of balance between the masculine and feminine voices.

Mad Max: Fury Road gives us the most feminist of messages wrapped up in a style and genre which most appeals to the hyper-masculine.  It uses action and visuals, not words.  It uses spears, and fast cars, and amazing stunts instead of soliloquies and serious facial expressions.  Mad Max: Fury Road is a feminist film masquerading as the toxic, supposed alpha male’s most desired fantasy.  It delivers its message not to the choir, but to those who most need to hear it, and in a way in which they want to listen.  That’s what makes Fury Road so brilliant and worth celebrating.

 

Marvel Studios: 11 Years and 21 Movies Ranked

With Avengers: Endgame just about to hit theaters, I and everyone else obsessed with movies whether professionally or otherwise have decided to look back to the beginning in 2008 and rank and talk about the 21 movies which have been released prior to the epic finale of phase 3 and of the entire Marvel story line thus far.   The feature films in the MCU could arguably be the most consistently entertaining, crowd pleasing group of movies ever released by a studio, but that doesn’t mean they are all equal nor that they don’t have their share of issues.

The secret to Marvel’s success and consistency, in my opinion, is a deep understanding of their characters and themes.  While they have had an issue giving life to their villains at times (and certainly not all the time, there are a few great villains in their canon), they otherwise give us three dimensional, exciting, witty people we can get deeply invested in.  Where they fail is in lack of stakes and in being so true to visual and storytelling formulas that all their films look and feel far too similar, creativity gets lost to what is seemingly studio mandate.

From their worst to their best, here is how I feel about the pre-Endgame MCU feature films.

21.  Thor: The Dark World (Taylor; 2013)

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Underwhelming writing, dull cinematography, and a cast which doesn’t seem to want to be there make for Marvel Studio’s worst film by a rather large margin.

If any of the MCU films can be called downright bad, it would be Thor: The Dark World. The villain problems extant in much of the MCU is at its worst here with a villain so basic, so lacking in any personality or distinguishing traits that he’s nearly impossible to remember for most.  The heroes aren’t much better with Chris Hemsworth not being used to the best of his ability, yet, and obvious lack of chemistry between most of the cast, and supporting characters who don’t seem to have much of a reason to be in the film beyond exposition and snark.  Even Tom Hiddleston, the best part of the first two Thor movies, is somewhat wasted here as Loki is only in half the film and his character is written inconsistently.

 

20.  Iron Man 3 (Black; 2013)

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Much like Thor: The Dark World, Iron Man 3 is a mess of a movie with dull villains and an unnecessarily complicated story line.  The exploration of Tony Stark’s PTSD after the events of The Avengers is a fantastic idea, but the idea is poorly executed and diluted by too many unrelated subplots.

Iron Man 3 does take its fair share of risks, something I wish more Marvel Studio’s films would do, but in this particular case those risks don’t pay off and can be actively aggravating.

I admit to this low of a ranking being subjective.  I did not see Iron Man 3 until many years after its release by which time I had seen a few MCU films which already grappled some with Stark’s PTSD and so the impact wasn’t as great as it could have been had I seen the films in order.  I decided to not take that into account in my rankings, however, as this demonstrates one of the many ways personal experience can impact one’s investment into and enjoyment of art.

19. The Incredible Hulk (Leterrier; 2008)

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The Incredible Hulk is sort of the poster child for what makes a bad MCU film.  It understands the character of its protagonists well enough, but it again has dull villains (yes, that will be said a lot throughout this list), is predictable, takes no risks with its story, and outside of its action sequences has little creativity in its technical aspects.  The tensions between Edward Norton and the studio are also well known, and almost certainly played a part in The Incredible Hulk‘s lack of inspiration.

William Hurt’s role as General Ross was arguably the movie’s highlight, and his return in later films was appreciated.  Hulk – not a smash.

18.  Iron Man 2 (Favreau; 2010)

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Iron Man 2 is undeniably a mess.  It touches on Tony Stark’s irresponsibility and alcoholism, but not to the degree necessary for those themes to contain any weight.  Its story line is a little all over the place trying to grapple with more conflicts and character arcs than its running time can reasonably allow.  And, its action sequences are arguably the hardest to follow in the entire MCU.

It does have two often forgotten saving graces, however, in Mickey Rourke and Sam Rockwell as well thought out, well acted villains.  Mickey Rourke famously hated working on the film and refuses to return to the MCU, which is too bad because his professionalism still allowed him to give a captivating turn as Whiplash, but the fact that Rockwell has never returned as Justin Hammer is a little bewildering as he was excellent as well.

17.  Thor (Branagh; 2011)

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Thor’s origin movie suffers from the same problems as its sequel where the cast chemistry is concerned, but has the advantage of Hemsworth being allowed to flex is comedic muscle a bit more and Tom Hiddleston has a much larger role.  The film does suffer from pacing issues, and the fact that Hiddleston and Hemsworth are separate for the majority of the film means we are stuck with Hemsworth and Portman’s comedically bad rapport for most of Thor.

The screenplay does do an excellent job of getting the primary characters personalities down, Branagh’s direction does add a distinction most MCU movies don’t contain, and Hiddleston was so great that I believe he is the reason Rourke and Rockwell were all but forgotten about from Iron Man 2.  Thor has more positive than negative, but is still far too inconsistent and rocky to be considered among even the more moderate movies of the MCU.

16.  Captain America: The First Avenger (Johnston; 2011)

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By the time the first Captain America movie came along, Marvel Studios had a plan and it showed.  However, it did not have a complete formula and that also shows for better or worse.

When Chris Evans was chosen to play Captain America the general consensus was that he looked perfect for the part, but since he was just coming off of a short run as The Human Torch in the not so great Fantastic Four movies many were dubious as to his being able to give the role the calm charisma needed.  We know now that he perfectly embodied the role to the same degree Hugh Jackman embodied Wolverine, Ron Perlman did Hellboy, or Ryan Reynolds Deadpool.

The rest of the film is not quite as great.  Cap’s relationship with Bucky is near perfect, but the rest of the characters don’t fare quite as well.  His chemistry with Peggy is certainly better than Thor’s with Jane, but it’s still not stellar, and Hugo Weaving gives a so-so performance as Red Skull.  Overall, a solid, but slightly underwhelming entry into the Marvel canon.

15.  Ant-Man and the Wasp (Reed; 2018)

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Ant-Man and the Wasp is a film which may epitomize both the best and the worst parts of the MCU in one film.  On the one hand, it understands the majority of its characters intimately, nailing their relationships with one another, the positives and negatives of their personalities, and what their talents and abilities allow them to accomplish on both a practical level and in a fun for the audience way.  It’s humorous without devolving into pure camp, its action is creative and exciting, and its dialogue witty but light and unpretentious.

However, it suffers from having a truly underwhelming and underwritten villain in Ghost (which is particularly annoying here since the last few Marvel films had gotten past this flaw), and it’s primary plot shows that stakes in Marvel films are not just light, but non-existent.  It’s a running gag that people never die in the comics, but the Marvel films could fix that since actors have contracts and while Spider-Man in the comics has to survive for decades to sell books, the movies not only don’t have that problem, they can’t even if they wanted to.  So, to have the Marvel films constantly resurrect their dead protagonists lowers the stakes when we know it isn’t ever permanent, to have a plot which revolves around essentially bringing a character back from a point of no return epitomizes and exacerbates that.

14.  Avengers: Age of Ultron (Whedon; 2015)

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What Marvel having a cinematic universe allows it to do better than any series of films before or since is have large event films with dozens of characters and gigantic action scenes which don’t need the usual exposition and set up since this has already been done in other movies.  Personally, I enjoy these large event movies more than the smaller films (spoiler alert as to which films are going to be toward the top of this list) as they allow me to see something on an epic scale done in a manner few if any films prior to the MCU have been able to accomplish.

Avengers: Age of Ultron most definitely has the touch of its director Joss Whedon with witty dialogue, a light tone which uses self awareness and verbal prestigitation, and death to evoke an emotional reaction.  Unfortunately, these very qualities undercut the film’s tone giving us a villain more snarky than scary (though not dull, at least), a film with emotional beats more manufactured than earned, and an action movie which depends more on what the characters say than what they do.

Add to all that inconsistent tone and many scenes which have little to do with the main story and break the narrative flow, and that makes Avengers: Age of Ultron the worst of these large event films.

13.  Ant-Man (Reed; 2015)

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One thing Marvel did in its second phase of films is start branching off into different genres than straight comic book action dramas.  In Ant-Man we got Marvel’s first heist movie with all the fun and large supporting cast heist movies generally entail.

Going with the Scott Lang version of Ant-Man rather than the original Hank Pym version was a bit inspired as it allowed Ant-Man to be portrayed by Paul Rudd with his “aw shucks” brand of hilarious charisma rather than an Ant-Man who is incredibly intelligent but otherwise bland as Pym is in the comics.  It also created a far more interesting character dynamic than Pym’s origin had in the printed version.

Unfortunately, Ant-Man was severely hampered by a plot far too similar to the other Marvel origin movies, including the usual lackluster villain, and the comic, light-hearted tone means the film didn’t even have high stakes tension to lean on for excitement factor.

12.  Dr. Strange (Derrickson; 2016)

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The fact that a movie as solid as Dr. Strange is this far down the list speaks to why the Marvel Cinematic Universe has struck such a chord with general audiences.  We’re not even halfway through the list and we’re to films that aren’t just good, but have positive qualities which far outweigh their negatives.

Dr. Strange is nearly perfectly cast, it has trippy, creative visuals, it separates the magic of the Marvel world from the fantasy magic we are used to from traditional fantasy films, and it is written with a deep understanding of its characters without being afraid to change their more problematic elements.

All that being said, Dr. Strange still has horrible villain problems, the only interesting factor involving the villains is how the ultimate enemy is finally defeated, and is predictably formulaic to an extreme.  Benedict Cumberbatch is perfect for the role, and Ejiofor as Mordo showed a lot of promise as a future villain, so I have to believe that the second solo Dr. Strange film will be superior.

11.  Spider-Man: Homecoming (Watts; 2017)

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The only entry in the MCU not distributed by Disney/Marvel Studio’s, Spider-Man: Homecoming is a solid entry for Sony, one of the best of the Spider-Man films, but not quite good enough to break into the top 10.  Sony made the very intelligent choice to not make Spider-Man: Homecoming and origin story, figuring most likely correctly that its audience already knows this story and more than a little sick of it.  Another aspect of Spider-Man: Homecoming which demonstrates a lot of intelligence on the part of its creators is a phenomenal cast including the rare for Marvel movies fantastic villain Vulture played by Michael Keaton and Tom Holland as Spider-Man the first person to take on the role who is excellent as both Spider-Man and Peter Parker.

The very personal story line of Spider-Man: Homecoming allows for one of the most intimate character studies in a Marvel movie to date of both Peter Parker and Adrian Toomes (Vulture) but it also makes for much smaller stakes than we are used to in an MCU film.  I do like the fact that this means for his first MCU feature we get a “friendly neighborhood” Spider-Man, I don’t like that this makes for a movie which has very little to say beyond its surface.

Still, what we get is enough to make it a strong entry in the MCU, the second best live action Spider-Man film after Spider-Man 2, and while its themes of working class man who gets screwed over by the powers that be are shallow, they are enough to make for a bit more than just surface level investment.

10.  Thor: Ragnarok (Waititi; 2017)

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I’ve stated that Marvel has never made a truly bad movie, except possibly for Thor: The Dark World, but past this point we go beyond mediocre and good into exceptional.  Which if you have already calculated the very simple math means I believe that nearly half of the output of Marvel Studios enters the exceptional category (though, I don’t believe any approach anything resembling a masterpiece).

Thor: Ragnarok is the first Thor film to recognize and utilize Chris Hemsworth’s talent for comedy to its fullest extent, which makes sense since it is directed by Taika Waititi the New Zealander responsible for What We Do in the Shadows.  What doesn’t make sense, yet absolutely works anyway, is that this comedic tone is taken in a film which focuses on gladiatorial combat, the end of the universe, and the goddess of death.

The first Marvel Universe film which is a straight-up comedy also deals with its darkest subject matter (until we get to Infinity War) but Waititi somehow manages to balance the light tone with the heavy stakes without turning to cynical dark comedy.  It’s an amazing feat, and I hope that Waititi and Marvel Studios can somehow find a way to work together again sometime down the line.

9.  Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (Gunn; 2017)

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This was perhaps the most difficult film for me to place on this list as it does the thing I love most in a film better than any other Marvel movie, and that’s use the fictional and the fantastic to grapple with a theme relevant to reality.  In Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2‘s case its using superhero space opera to cast the light from a semi-warped mirror onto the dysfunctions present in most every family on Earth.  It sheds that light primarily onto those with “daddy issues”, but it also tackles sibling rivalry, being overly attached to a parent, and issues prevalent in foster families.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 also has the best cinematography of any MCU film.  Somehow, Gunn managed to get away with more than just the standard practical but farthest away from anything which could be considered art cinematography of the other Marvel Studio’s films and gave us a few scenes, in particular the opening credits scene of all things, which have a definite artistic personal style to them.

Even though GoG 2 does two things better than any other MCU entry, though, I can not rank it any higher than this because it suffers from the same villain problems as most other Marvel films (though not quite to the usual degree) and its comic tone never finds a true balance and is often downright distracting in it inability to just let a tender emotion sit and stew with the audience.

8.  Black Panther (Coogler; 2018)

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There is one reason and only one reason that Black Panther isn’t far enough up on the list to make it the best of the Marvel solo origin movies, and that reason is that starting with Iron Man we had already seen this film 5 times before in the MCU.  Man lives morally questionable lifestyle, said lifestyle threatens man’s life, man makes better choices and acquires superpowers simultaneously, man meets his villainous mirror image, man overcomes villainous mirror image in final battle to make up for past self is the Marvel solo movie formula, each one having one variation on the theme, and Black Panther is no different.  But, this no different is the 6th time it was no different.

Beyond that, though, Black Panther is brilliant.  There’s the obvious fact that it highlights a continent and a culture which too much of the world is largely ignorant of.  While T’challa may not be the first black superhero to lead a film, not even the first time for a Marvel movie, Black Panther is the first superhero film to have a very predominantly black cast and, in my opinion even more importantly, crew.   It has a solidly African American message, too, which may be handled with the subtlety of a jackhammer, but not every movie needs to be subtle, and it being primarily a big budget, epic scale, superhero action movie I can definitely forgive it not making its audience discover its themes.  In fact, that was absolutely the right way to go in a film of this sort.

Black Panther is also the very rare Marvel movie which has a villain more interesting than its hero.  Its costumes won it an Academy Award, every aspect of its production design was incredible, and even its soundtrack was excellent and original.  Except for its way too derivative plot, Black Panther is top notch superhero origin movie material.

7.  Captain Marvel (Boden & Fleck; 2019)

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Captain Marvel is far from a perfect movie.  It tries to do too much in its just over 2 hour running time to maintain consistency.  Its tone is a little all over the place, its humor is inconsistent, and its the rare Marvel movie which neglects protagonist characters as well as its villains.  But, this all occurs because Captain Marvel is an incredibly ambitious, risk taking movie – a quality far, far too rare in Marvel films – and those risks make for a unique experience among the MCU, and while that uniqueness occasionally is discordant, it more often adds up to a very powerful experience.

The risk that always works is its overtly, and also sometimes not so overtly, feminist themes.  Wonder Woman was an inspirational film, and it was wonderful to see a well made movie about a woman with godlike powers finally do well with both audiences and critics, but Captain Marvel not only has all those same qualities, but it also intelligently scrutinizes the way women are treated by their male peers (lest anyone think that means this movie “hates men”, may I point out her closest companion throughout the movie is a man).

But, what sets Captain Marvel just ever so slightly above Black Panther in my esteem is the fact that it finally breaks the MCU solo origin movie formula.  Rather than show a man overcome his past both literally and metaphorically, we get to see a woman gain power through her own heroism, then realize there is nothing wrong with fully embracing that power despite what the men around her whisper in her ear.

6.  Avengers: Infinity War (Russo & Russo; 2018)

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This is the ultimate example of what the Marvel Universe was created to do.  It would be impossible in any other circumstance to make a movie with dozens of protagonists all with established personalities, motivations, and backgrounds.  Even a television show, which in many ways the MCU resembles more than any other series of films, would take multiple seasons to establish a cast of characters as Marvel has, and a television series wouldn’t have anywhere near the budget a feature film has.

Avengers: Infinity War‘s genius is that it does even one better than would seem necessary, though.  Not only did Marvel studios have the patience to wait for 20 films so that it could tell a story so epic in scale without having to use the majority of its running time for exposition and character development, it wrote its villain as its protagonist so that we still do have that exposition and character development for a singular character for which it’s most important.  This also has the not incidental side effect of making it so Avengers: Infinity War does not have the MCU’s usual villain problem.

Avengers: Infinity War is not the smartest, most emotional, most artistic movie in Marvel Studio’s canon.  But its epic scale, particularly where the sheer number of characters is concerned, has arguably never been matched in any film before.  It does that without sacrificing cohesion or audience investment, and that’s damn impressive.

5.  Iron Man (Favreau; 2008)

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The movie that established the MCU is still one of its very best.  Prior to 2008, Iron Man was at best a third stringer superhero.  If you said the name people had heard of it, though it’s just as likely it was because of the Black Sabbath song as the comic character, but they probably couldn’t say much more.  As someone who collected comics for a while in my teen years, I still had never bought a title in which he was a main character. But, post 2008 Tony Stark is a household name just as much as Clark Kent or Bruce Wayne.

The secret to Iron Man‘s success (and Dr. Strange‘s, and Thor‘s, and Ant-Man‘s, and Black Panther‘s, and The Incredible Hulk‘s if it can be considered a success) was that the story came from the character and his growth and experience rather than the other way around.  Tony Stark isn’t a man reacting to circumstances beyond his control, he’s engineering his own fate and everything that happens to him from his accident, to his change of heart, to his battle with his former partner comes naturally as an extension of who he is.

Iron Man is not just the first of the Marvel movies, it’s still the best of the origin movies and it’s the movie that defined what the Marvel formula was to be (at least until Captain Marvel – we shall see what happens from here).

4.  Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Russo & Russo; 2014)

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Captain America: The Winter Soldier has as much, if not more, in common with The Bourne Identity as it does with other superhero movies.  This, the second Captain America movie, was the first of the Marvel movies to play around with genre by giving its audience a political spy thriller instead of straight comic book action/adventure.  Its success both with audiences and with critics meant it wouldn’t be the last Marvel film to incorporate different genres into its story and tone.

What made the success of The Winter Soldier more surprising than perhaps any other factor, was its directors.  Prior to this movie, Joe and Anthony Russo were known for directing comedies.  Television situation comedies for that most part, at that.  Many thought prior to The Winter Soldier‘s release that the heads at Marvel Studios had lost their marbles and had made their first major, possibly studio ending, mistake.  What the heads at Marvel had actually done was demonstrate their genius, or at least their luck, in a grander fashion than ever before.

The Winter Soldier is a fantastic film on its own merit even if none of the other Marvel Studios films had ever existed, but it ended up being more as much of the storyline still going on derives from this movie.  The first Captain America movie defined his character, but this is the movie that defined his place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and thus the path of the MCU in general to a very large degree.

3.  Marvel’s The Avengers (Whedon; 2012)

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The first big Marvel event movie had huge expectations partially due to the quality of the films leading up to it, partially due to Joss Whedon helming the project, and partially just from pure hope that it could be as much fun as the idea seemed.  It not only met those expectations, it exceeded them and became one of the top grossing movies of all time as well as a critical success.

It was made in the days before Marvel Studios forced the same visual style on all of its directors, and so had some truly fantastic visuals including a long, unbroken shot during its final fight scene which has been equalled in artistic and technical merit only by the opening credit sequence of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 mentioned earlier.  It also had Joss Whedon’s style tattooed all over it from its witty dialogue, to its subversion of both character and genre, to its use of humor and drama when least expected to heighten the impact of each.

Marvel’s The Avengers created the template for the huge event movie of today, and remains one of its best examples still.

2.  Guardians of the Galaxy (Gunn; 2014)

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Guardians of the Galaxy was Marvel’s greatest risk not only because it was a property which not even die hard comic book nerds had much familiarity with let alone the majority of its potential audience whom had never heard of it at all, but also because it had to be an origin story for an entire group, not just a single person, and could thus very easily have lost focus. done a disservice to its characters, or more likely both for a movie this large in scale with this many moving parts.

It not only pulled off giving us five fully fleshed out, engaging, charming protagonists within an epically scaled space opera along with just as fully formed side characters, Guardians of the Galaxy and director James Gunn created the tone which would propel forward not only the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but which would also be copied by movies such as Baby Driver, Suicide Squad, Atomic Blonde, and many more.

It broke the mold on Marvel movies and action movies in general, created a new one which everyone wanted to get their hands on, made household names of characters whom nearly no one had heard before, and did it all in a movie seemingly cram packed with too much material for anything to get the attention it deserved, yet somehow was actually perfectly paced.  Its only real glaring problem was, say it with me, the villain, whom even by Marvel standards was especially bland.

1.   Captain America: Civil War (Russo & Russo; 2017)

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Like Guardians of the Galaxy, Captain America: Civil War somehow managed to have its cake and eat it too by being both one of Marvel’s epic event movies and a piece which was personal in scale by focusing more on character than on plot.  It has the large scale action and fight sequences with many characters and moving parts to keep your heart racing and your eyes glued to the screen, but at its heart is a movie about duty, friendship, and responsibility and what those values mean to different people.

Captain America: Civil War‘s secret to success was to focus not on the accords nor the assassination attempt, those were merely excuses to move forward the action, but on Captain America’s friendships with both Bucky and Tony Stark and the lengths to which he’ll go to protect those people and ideals which mean the most to him.

Everything great about any individual Marvel movie is present in Captain America: Civil War, except for the occasional brilliant camera work.  It has relatable, engaging characters who change and grow throughout the movie, it takes risks in making those we’ve always seen as heroes before into the villains here, it has some of the greatest action sequences ever put into a Marvel movie which means they are in the running for greatest of all time, period, and it does all this while also having themes with far more depth than all but a handful of the other Marvel films and it introduces two characters brand new to the MCU on top of all of that.  If Marvel ever manages to top this movie, it will only be because they somehow managed to add art to their formula, because aside from that missing factor Captain America: Civil War is a near perfect comic book movie.

 

The Post (Spielberg; 2017)

The story I’ve heard is that Stephen Spielberg had always wanted to make a film based on The Pentagon Papers.  As one of the most important events in 20th Century American History, it’s been a story Speilberg felt deserved a big screen treatment.  On election night 2016 when Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, though, due to Trump’s constant attack on the American press and by extension the First Amendment of the American Bill of Rights it went from a story he wanted to make to a story that needed to be told so the American public could be alerted to the purpose of the American press and the dangers of an Executive Branch which portrays it as an enemy.

The film he came up with in that year is The Post.  It’s a straightforward telling of the story behind The Pentagon Papers and particularly The Washington Post’s role in their publishing.  The Washington Post was a third-rate newspaper in the early 1970s, and the paper’s owner had committed suicide not long before the film’s events leaving his wife, and the daughter of the paper’s founder, in charge.  That woman was Kay Graham (Meryl Streep), and while The Washington Post had nowhere near the prestige of a New York Times or a Boston Globe at the time, it was still unusual for a woman to hold a position that lofty for any length of time.   Spielberg starts the story with someone working at the Department of Defense making the decision to get top secret documents showing that the US government has been lying to the public for decades about the Vietnam War to the New York Times for publication.  When the New York Times publishes just the first few pages of the Pentagon Papers, the White House orders them to cease publishing anything more on the leaked documents or face legal consequences.   Soon afterward, editor in chief of The Washington Post Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) finds himself in possession of more of The Pentagon Papers and he and Kay have to make the choice whether to publish and risk going to prison for doing so.

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The Post is far from the most impressive film of the year, the most impressive element of its creation is the fact that it took just barely more than a year to create from germination of the idea to its being projected on screens, but it is a film very obviously made by seasoned professionals.  The cast are all excellent, but the most stand out performance is definitely Meryl Streeps’.  She gives us a Kay Graham who is very much a woman right out of her time and place.  She acts as a woman who loves running a newspaper, who realizes the power she has, but also realizes that she cannot alienate the powerful men in her life.  She’s not afraid to make difficult decisions, but it almost seems as if she’s seeking the permission and blessing of those around her whenever she does, and I like that authenticity to the time period in her portrayal.  As to the rest, Bruce Greenwood gives an excellent Robert McNamara impersonation, Bob Odenkirk continues to show that he’s more than just a good comedian, and if anyone is slightly miscast here it would have to be Tom Hanks, who is just too much of his normal nice guy persona to really sell the fact that he’s the template of the modern hard-nosed editor stereotype who is Ben Bradlee.

Aside from the acting, the rest of the production is what we’ve come to rely on from Stephen Spielberg, but will certainly never be considered one of the most impressive in his catalog.  The art direction and cinematography are both by the book but still appealing.  The script is straightforward, but still with snappy dialogue, excellent focus, and great pacing.  The most prominent element of the screenplay, though, is its razor-sharp focus.  There are no subplots in The Post to speak of, other than relationships which have a direct connection to how The Pentagon Papers’ story plays out, and even the dialogue is almost entirely focused on the unfolding story save for a handful of jokes here and there to keep things from getting too intense.

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So, The Post is a well-made film, but wouldn’t be truly notable outside Streep’s performance if it weren’t for the film’s purpose.  Spielberg had seen the parallels between Nixon’s attacks on the press and Trump’s attacks during his campaign.  We now know those attacks have continued proving Spielberg’s (and a large chunk of the world’s population) forboding correct so Spielberg used this story to show the ability and purpose of the press to speak truth to power.   Even if Trump hadn’t shown himself to be so adversarial to a free press as he was when campaigning, it’s still an important lesson for the American public.  Since he has, it’s not only an important lesson but one with parallels to one of the darkest times in American political history.

It’s easy to compare The Post to the Best Picture winner for 2015 Spotlight.  Both are films about the power of the press which rely on a taut script and powerful performances for their impact, the major difference being The Post is about abuse of political power while Spotlight centers on abuse of power by the church.  The Post is not quite the film Spotlight was – it doesn’t have the same level of intricacy in plot and character – but that doesn’t mean that its tight focus doesn’t have merit or purpose.

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Final verdict:  The Post is a film that relies heavily on the talent and experience of its cast and crew.  The fact that a film of this caliber could be put together so quickly is a true testament to those involved, particularly Meryl Streep who gives us a performance worthy of award mention in a year filled with incredible performances by strong woman leads.   Also worthy of mention is the screenplay by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer due to its incredible ability to teach while it entertains.  The Post is not the most entertaining, most nuanced, nor the most artistic film of the year, but it is the most important.