End Game of Treks: Is Time-Travel Becoming a Storytelling Crutch?

In one of the busiest few months in science-fiction and fantasy popular-culture, the beginning of 2019 has seen three major franchises in cinema and on television become embroiled in what could be rapidly becoming a narrative crutch.

Time-travel.

The lacklustre Season 2 of Star Trek: Discovery (I *really* promise to stop talking about this soon) saw the crew of the Starfleet ship launch themselves almost 1000 into the distant Federation future to prevent a universe-destroying, rampant AI from wiping out all life. The gigantic conclusion to the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first era, Avengers: Endgame, saw our superheroes enter the Quantum Realm and zip backwards across time to recover the universe-shattering Infinity Stones before the Mad Titan, Thanos, can snap his fingers again and wipe out half of all sentient life. And just this week, Game of Thrones saw the ultimate battle with the Night King and his army of the dead, coming to wipe out the living, which all hung on the fate of Bran Stark, a time-travelling tree-wizard.

Anyone noticing a pattern here? Three legendary franchises. Three titanic threats to the fabric of the entire universe. And in each case, the resolution of the paradox has the potential to lie in the bending of time.

We’re in danger of death by temporal mechanics if we’re not careful.

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Avengers: Endgame (2019)

“Part of the journey is the end” says Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark at a key point in Avengers: Endgame, a phrase which could neatly punctuate Marvel Studios’ remarkable conclusion to the first era of their Cinematic Universe.

Endgame is a staggering achievement. It is, without question, *the* biggest superhero movie ever made. It makes last years Infinity War look, at times, like an indie movie. Okay, that’s a bit of an over-exaggeration, but there is one sequence in particular toward the climax of Endgame which is just, quite frankly, jaw-dropping in its ambition and scale. It was one of several moments over the next few minutes which had the audience in my screening cheering, whooping and gasping in joy, surprise and the impact of what Endgame provides, and provides in absolute spades: payoff. Payoff to ten years of narrative and character investment from an audience which has grown, some who have grown *up*, with the Avengers.

It therefore comes as a surprise to report that Endgame, on first blush, is not as solid or accomplished a piece of cinema as Infinity War, or Avengers Assemble, or Black Panther, Thor: Ragnarok and certainly the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie. It easily dwarfs every  single MCU movie to date in scope, without a shadow of a doubt, but by its very nature there are structural issues, and problems with certain beats of characterisation, which are going to become more of a sticking point for critical fans once the euphoria and magic of Marvel’s fan service begins to wear off. This is a euphoria I share, by the way, right now, to the point I am itching to see Endgame again very soon.

Endgame is a film which, certain problems aside, will absolutely make you feel a whole range of emotions by the end. If you’re invested, this is a powerful experience.

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Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (2011)

If you ran a poll asking the average film goer, and indeed the average film critic, which of the Mission Impossible films they considered to be the strongest outing in the franchise, you would have a significant amount point to Ghost Protocol. On the face of it, you can see why. Once you scratch deeper, those reasons become more opaque.

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Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

Say what you like about Avengers: Infinity War but nobody can deny one thing: it is breaking new cinematic ground. For decades there have been sequels. For decades there have been franchises. For decades we have seen continuing universes on both the big and small screens, sometimes overlapping, develop characters and storylines. Marvel Studios differ in their approach. This is the first time anyone has, over a ten-year period, created and structured a cinematic franchise in the narrative style of a ‘season’ of television.

This is something I have discussed when talking about the Marvel Cinematic Universe before because it has cast a shadow over the mainstream cinematic landscape which is likely to stay for years, perhaps even decades, to come. Kevin Feige, producer supremo, has been the constant here; ever since 2008’s Iron Man turned Robert Downey. Jr from disgraced character actor into the biggest movie star in the world, Infinity War has been the goal. While undoubtedly tides have changed, production realities have emerged, and details have altered, Marvel have been working to a decade-long plan to unite the Avengers against Thanos, the Mad Titan, and his plan to wipe out half the universe with the combined Infinity Stones.

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Game of Thrones – ‘Baelor’ (1×09)

NED STARK: You think my life is some precious thing to me? That I would trade my honor for a few more years… of what? I grew up with soldiers. I learned how to die a long time ago.

Numerous precedents are set by Game of Thrones with ‘Baelor’. It is the first episode to be directed by Alan Taylor, who would make his name as one of the key, signature directors of the first two seasons. It is the first penultimate episode of the series to establish the show’s unique narrative style of delivering a blockbuster climactic tale just before the season finale. And it is the episode which killed off not only the biggest name actor in the series, but the character everyone began watching Game of Thrones convinced was the protagonist. By now we knew Game of Thrones had its own set of rules. ‘Baelor’ confirms it.

As I’ve discussed in my breakdowns of the previous episodes this season, Ned Stark has been heading for the chopping block since the moment he arrived in Kings Landing, and there has always been a sense in Sean Bean’s weight-of-the-world performance that Ned knew it. This was a noble character in a world without nobility, a feudal system which may ostensibly be ridden with stories of dashing, daring, brave heroes, but is shot through with a realistic, cynical modern day sensibility in George R.R. Martin’s world-building which often heaps scorn on the kind of characters who would try and live by rules of courtly, honourable behaviour.

Cersei Lannister told Ned just a few episodes that you either win at “the game” or you die, but Ned never really knew how to play that game at all. He was a character straight out of a different world, which was precisely the point; the moment he concedes he may have to start playing, not to win but rather to survive, his life is quite ceremoniously cut short. It’s just one of the stark (pun intended) ironies of Game of Thrones.

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Cinematic Universes: the divisive wave of cinema’s future

With the advent of Justice League, many fans and commentators are once again discussing the concept of the ‘Cinematic Universe’, given the formative attempts by DC Comics over the last several years to emulate the rampant success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the first truly successful and revolutionary cinematic model of an overarching mythological world of characters and narratives informing one another. Inevitably with the internet, it’s leading to a war of trolls – Marvelita haters and DC sceptics waging a pointless conflict over territorial ownership and trying the answer the utterly subjective question – ‘which is better?’. For every critic who tells you the MCU is technically stronger as a tapestry, you’ll easily find more than enough ‘DCEU’ defenders to race in with their Amazonian swords and claim everything Marvel has done is powerfully overrated. There can be no victor in such a battle.

In truth, discussion of the Cinematic Universe has never gone away. Hollywood and the blockbuster movie system has been utterly consumed and dominated by the power of a connected storytelling model, following the template Marvel Studios laid down. It has arguably changed the very fabric of the cinematic franchise. Following the essential advent of the ‘blockbuster’ in the mid-1970’s with Jaws and of course Star Wars, it took Hollywood a while to truly embrace the idea of creating what we accept as a ‘franchise’. Sequels had always existed – we can go back as far as 1916 indeed for the first recognised follow up, Thomas Dixon Jr’s The Fall of a Nation, which carried on the story from DW Griffith’s historically polarising The Birth of a Nation – but it was truly the 1980’s that gave birth to the notion of a franchise, once Star Wars developed sequels to George Lucas’ game-changing original movie and developed an entire cinematic eco-system around the property.

Sequels, nonetheless, remained *sequels*. Film number two. Taking the characters and situations from the first successful picture and moving them in new directions, though not always. Many sequels in the 80’s and 1990’s simply re-trod all of the same beats people loved about the first movies, mostly with diminishing returns. That’s what made The Empire Strikes Back so powerful; it took Star Wars and those characters truly in new, challenging directions and forever altered their destinations. Not every sequel took such a bold leap forward for its characters and narrative. Many played it safe, an accusation oddly levelled at some of the recent cinematic universes which were born out of the ashes of continuing storylines.

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