For the most part, blogging about movies is a ton of fun. Vomiting your opinion all over the internet is of course a millennials favorite pastime, and when I get to do it in honor of a medium I love as much as film, even more so. However, the gig does have its drawbacks — mainly in the form of a disheveled, hungry Kevin Feige coming to my home in the middle of the night and demanding a ritual sacrifice of Marvel movie rankings come next Avengers Eve.
Yes, I’ve heard rumblings for years that Kevin Feige installs a curse on all movie bloggers to write detailed, thousand words essays on the various films that make up the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And, sure, I’ve heard rumblings of the cruel, perverse punishment that’s instilled upon those who don’t present their work to the internet in time to tie into the release of Avengers: Infinity War (a 24 hour, back-to-back marathon of Inhumans AND Iron Fist…in 4DX! *shiver*) And, to be fair, when I registered this domain, I read the terms and conditions, which specifically pointed out I was obligated to present my thoughts on how The Incredible Hulk and Thor: The Dark World compare to each other to, like, no one in particular at some point in the near future. I knew what I was getting myself into by creating this blog, but that still didn’t prepare me for the horrifying image of a withering Feige pressing his palm to my face, whispering “RANKER!,” and scurrying off into the night.
Regardless, the mark of the beast is now upon me, and it is my obligation to feed him in the only way I can — meaningless organization and endless bloviating. Those are my two true superpowers, and like a certain Marvel character said, with great power comes…well, he never said it in the MCU, so who the hell can remember anyways?
Without further ado, let’s get this show on the road. Here are all 18 current MCU movies, ranked.
18. The Incredible Hulk
Of all the MCU films so far, The Incredible Hulk is the only one I would say has aged poorly. At the time, I rather enjoyed the reboot (and felt it an improvement over Ang Lee’s disastrous Hulk), but upon re-watching it earlier this year…oh boy. Not only does it now feel out of place within the rest of the universe (Edward Norton as Bruce Banner makes the whole thing feel very much “out of canon,”), but it also feels stunningly old-fashioned. While conceptualizing the Hulk story as a Bourne-esque chase thriller was a novel concept in 2008…it’s mostly just dreadfully boring now. There’s some fun to be had in the smash em’ up action of the climactic scene, but even that feels rather retro in a cinematic world that includes The Battle of New York and Sokovia. There’s simply nothing fresh or, hell, even interesting about The Incredible Hulk, which has only become even more apparent in the decade since its release.
17. Iron Man 2
For years, I thought Iron Man 2 was the nadir of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But in my MCU rewatch, I realize it was not…but only because The Incredible Hulk aged worse, not because Iron Man 2 aged better. No, Tony’s Starks second adventure is as messy and unfocused as I remember it being, a cacophony of chaos that, ultimately, leads to not much of anything. It routinely whiffs on every single plot development it comes across, and not even Robert Downey Jr.’s aggressive charm can make something like the mindless, ugly climax any more interesting. Years ago, I thought my lack of passion for Iron Man 2 was because it tried to squeeze in to much Avengers set-up (like the completely boring version of Black Widow that shows up for no goddamn reason.) But now that we’re 18 films into this series…nah. Even on its own merits, the film just isn’t very good.
Ant-Man is…fine. Paul Rudd gives it his all in the central role, and some of the shrinking mechanics leads to inspiring places. But the heist movie concept never really pans out conceptually, with the superhero movie failing to ever feel like anything else but, well, a superhero movie…and a rather bland one at that. And yes, I will never not be able to think about what Edgar Wright could have done with his version of the film every damn time I think about it. Unfair, maybe. But if the film itself was more interesting, I like to imagine it wouldn’t even be an issue to begin with.
Luis is cool, though.
15. Thor: The Dark World
Thor: The Dark World isn’t as bad as everyone says it is. But that is mostly due to the fact that everyone thinks its REALLY bad. In my mind though, the film is just pretty mediocre. I like how it expanded the scope of the Thor universe, and I think the ending action sequence is a lot of fun, but the worst villain in the MCU really kills the momentum of the film dead. That being said, there’s a lot of great Thor/Loki work here, and I do appreciate the film on that front. But after the release of last Thor movie, let’s just say this one suffers by comparison.
Yes, the first two Thor movies are really close in my mind, and I think the original is only a smidge better than The Dark World at the end of the day. While the sequel improved on the action and scope front, the original far better handles the dramatic moments, most likely due to director Kenneth Brannaugh’s experience behind the camera. While the Shakespearean tone ultimately proved to be too limiting for the character and his world in the long run, as a way of establishing his origin and setting up the tragedy of his and Loki’s relationship? It does the trick quite well. Too bad the superhero stuff surrounding it is rather weak. Even as a New Mexican who craves every ounce of acknowledgment possible, I can’t quite figure out where the decision to throw the Asgardian god of freaking thunder in Nowheresberg, New Mexico came from.
13. Doctor Strange
Doctor Strange has some really neat visuals. And, as always, I applaud Marvel on its casting of Benedict Cumberbatch as the central hero (they really know how to cast their iconic characters, don’t they?) But, man, as an origin story, this one might fall more flat than any of the other ones in the entirety of the MCU. Stephen Strange’s journey to becoming the Sorcerer Supreme is both unoriginal AND poorly defined, with a lack of real growth plaguing the character’s transformation at every turn. There’s a lot of cool abilities and skills that Doctor Strange has in his arsenal, and seeing him learn how to harness such abilities would be really fun…if the film gave a crap about that at all. Instead, Doctor Strange seems determined to plow through the character’s origins as quickly as possible, taking the titular character from asshole doctor to THE BEST SORCERER OF ALL TIME in the span of one shaving sequence (if any film is in need of a training montage, it’s this one.) On the one hand, it makes a lot of sense — all the best things in Doctor Strange (namely the inventive action sequences) come AFTER the characters training is concluded, and the movie begins in kind. But because the film failed to lay the foundation for the transformation in its first half, none of it feels as riveting as it should. The arc is simple here (too simple, if we’re being entirely honest): Strange is arrogant at the beginning, and through the course of the film, he becomes humble. Except the film fails to really show its work time and time again, primarily because it wants to squeeze in another cool action scene into the mix. But, man…are those action scenes really damn cool.
12. Iron Man
I like Iron Man! It’s really fun and, re-watching it now, you really do have to commend it on how well it sets up exactly what a Marvel movie is, and what can be done with the universe and its characters. But like all good starting points, it also allowed plenty of room for its follow-ups to grow and become even better. I don’t have any substantial problems with Iron Man, but it’s really a testament to Marvel Studios talent that this film is barely the tip of the iceberg for how great the franchise can be. But, boy, what a fun tip!
11. Iron Man 3
Now, Iron Man 3? Iron Man 3 is dope as hell, and I just want all of you naysayers out there to know how wrong you are, with your naysaying. Sure, the bad guy is a bit weak and some of the plot gets a bit muddy towards the end…but it’s Shane Black directing a Marvel movie. And that’s as positively delightful as I would expect it to be. It’s the best Iron Man movie, hands down.
Also, Trevor Slattery is a Top 5 MCU character. Nothing you can possibly say will convince me otherwise.
10. Spider-Man: Homecoming
I’ve written tons about how much I love Spider-Man as a character, but very little about what I thought about his latest movie outing. To simplify the shit out of it: I thought it was pretty great! Tom Holland is perfect, the film’s version of Peter Parker is perfect, and a lot of what it does with the concept of Spider-Man brings out everything I love about the character. It also features probably my favorite MCU villain in Michael Keaton’s Vulture character — he’s just the right amount of sympathetic and relatable, while reliably nasty and menacing when he needs to be. And the second act twist involving his character is one of the best ones I’ve seen in a blockbuster film in a LONG time (that car scene, my god.)
Honestly, the film would be a lot further down the list if it wasn’t for one element: the action sequences, which were shockingly kind of lame and unexciting. The dynamism and energy of Spider-Man lends himself to amazing set pieces (the train one from Spider-Man 2 is still unmatched in superhero cinema in my eyes), but Spider-Man: Homecoming fails to utilize his skillset to any memorable degree. I mean, the film doesn’t even have any web swinging sequences! I get it was purposely trying to stay focused on the “friendly neighborhood” angle, but having a movie where Spider-Man doesn’t swing across skyscrapers is like having a Superman movie without flying, or a Batman movie without the Batmobile…it’s just unforgivable. I can only hope that the film’s forthcoming sequel will rectify the mistake. The humor and heart of the character is there in spades, though. Throw a little “wow” factor on top, and we can end up with the perfect Spider-Man movie. Next to Spider-Man 2, of course.
9. Avengers: Age of Ultron
Look, I just wrote a fucking treatise on Spider-Man: Homecoming there, so I don’t want to spend a lot of time with Avengers: Age of Ultron. Just know I probably like it a lot more than you do, think the final action sequence is some of Marvel’s best material, and will really miss what Joss Whedon brought to this corner of the franchise. Also, Hawkeye is the MVP of the movie. Hell, the MVP of The Avengers overall, really. Don’t @ me.
8. Guardians of the Galaxy
The Chris Pratt, talking raccoon, anthropomorphic tree movie is so damn good, you guys. And I love the MCU for letting me write that sentence. Much has been said about how miraculously good the Guardians franchise is considering just exactly what it is about, but that’s the charm of the whole thing, isn’t it? The fact James Gunn was able to take this and make it A) uproariously funny B) stylistically unique and C) surprisingly riveting is one of the 21st centuries best unexpected blockbuster stories. I think the first film suffers a bit by its origin nature (and its incredibly weak villain, which comes part and parcel with that element), but boy is Guardians of the Galaxy a hell of a lot of fun. And if that’s not a defining factor in what makes a strong Marvel movie, what the hell are we even doing here?
7. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
But — HOT TAKE — Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is even better. Getting the origin stuff out of the way proved to be a massive boon to the series, as its main story and characters were able to fly far higher without all the set-up baggage. The jokes come faster, the action is bigger, and the emotions hit harder — WAY harder, in fact. There was always a sneaky heart at the center of the first Guardians, but this one’s extend run time and thematic focus allows that heart to come front and center. While the brunt of Guardians of the Galaxy was spent just seeing a bunch of wacky misfits learn to work together, Vol. 2 has something to say about family and relationships and the way in which we chose to focus on the people in our life. It does that through low-brow dick jokes and pop-rock action set pieces, but also through moments of spectacular gravitas and heart. Vol. 2 builds up on what made the first Guardians great, and for that it stands as the superior movie in my mind.
6. Thor: Ragnarok
But as much as I really like the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, the space adventure comedy that really captured my heart is, surprisingly, Thor: Ragnarok. It’s the funniest movie of the MCU, while also serving as its most creative and skillfully created. Taika Waititi is one hell of a director, and in Thor: Ragnarok he finally imbues this sub-section of the MCU with the style and tone it always deserved. It’s the rare third superhero movie that actually works, and works so well that it retroactively made the ones before it worse…and made me regret that this couldn’t have been the tone of the trilogy to begin with. Mostly, I’m sad we didn’t get three movies of Korg. Please, Marvel: give us more Korg. #KorgDiesAndWeRiot
5. Black Panther
What more can be said about Black Panther in 2018 that hasn’t already been said? Undenaibly the cultural event of the year (maybe even more so than Infinity War), the best thing about Black Panther is that its completely deserving of all the hype. Ryan Coogler delivered yet another knockout with this one, and single-handledly upped the dramatic game of the MCU by creating one heck of a dramatic narrative for King T’Challa’s first standalone outing. How it combines Game of Thrones style intrigue with thought-provoking social commentary is a marvel (it’s my first time using that word in this context for the ENTIRETY of the list — give me a break!), and the story that unfolds is completely unique and riveting for the superhero genre. It might lack the strong humor of the other Marvel movies, and doesn’t have the best action set pieces of the MCU…but Black Panther honestly doesn’t need those elements. The story is good enough on its own to still shine amongst its superhero brethren.
4. Captain America: The First Avenger
As you might have noticed, most of the Phase 1 movies are towards the bottom of my rankings, something I didn’t even realize until I kicked off my MCU rewatch in the past few months. It’s not to say those movies are bad (honestly, I don’t think any of the Marvel Studios movies have sunken quite that low yet), but I do think that the MCU has developed and changed mostly for the better since the days of Thor and Iron Man. All that being said? Captain America: The First Avenger still rocks. It’s earnest as all hell and, even at the time, felt rather old-fashioned in its design. But you know what? That just made me love it either more. As you’ll see in the remainder of this list, Captain America is probably my favorite MCU character, and he couldn’t have asked for a more fulfilling start to his journey than this movie. It’s Marvel’s best origin story, and a movie that just fills me with such joy and optimism everytime I see it (even with the fantastically somber ending.) And at the end of the day, those feelings are what makes the entire concept of superheroes so great, aren’t they?
3. The Avengers
The Avengers is great, and everyone in the damn world knows it’s great. The film already has its place in the annals of modern film history, so I doubt anything I write here could do more to increase its status as a cultural milestone. Just know that the Battle of New York is purely perfect blockbuster filmmaking, and I could watch it on repeat forever. And, with luck, I can do just that come Avengers: Infinity War!
2. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
I remember being filled with doubts about Captain America: The Winter Soldier when it was first announced. Despite my love of Captain America: The First Avenger, I was worried that a sequel to the film would could easily go the route of Iron Man 2. After all, without the setting and characters that made the first film such a winner, how could Winter Soldier succeed? Certainly not by having The Russo Brothers at the helm, two TV directors who seemed like the cheap, “work for hire” choices to bring the sequel to life. Obviously, Winter Soldier was doomed to be an inferior superhero sequel, right?
Nope — not even a little bit, in fact. Instead, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is kind of amazing, and The Russo Brothers turned out to be one hell of a movie directing pair. How The Winter Soldier takes the character of Cap and throws him into the modern age is inspired, and the whole Hydra storyline remains one of Marvel’s most captivating plot threads. The Winter Soldier makes for an absolutely spectacular little conspiracy spy thriller, and what it says about government surveillance and our inherent trust in institutions is relevant not just to the character of Captain America and what he represents, but our modern world in general. Throw on some of the best action sequences ever put to film (DAT ELEVATOR FIGHT), and you have the recipe for one of Marvel’s most ably crafted films. But not quite it’s best. As close as Winter Soldier gets to that status, it was bested by a hair just a few years later with…
1. Captain America: Civil War
If there’s any sort of running theme throughout the first ten years of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s this — Marvel Studios is adept at taking things that absolutely should not work, and making them work in ways that you can’t possibly even imagine. Washed up movie star Robert Downey Jr. hunting down terrorists in a rocket suit (while making quips the entire time!) shouldn’t have worked. Throwing said character in a movie with four other huge characters (plus Black Widow and Hawkeye) and telling a strong story utilizing all of them shouldn’t have worked. The aforementioned Chris Pratt talking raccoon anthropomorphic tree movie (yes, I just wanted another excuse to type that phrase, humor me) shouldn’t have worked. The movie about the ant guy who hangs out with Michael Douglas shouldn’t have worked. And combining half a dozen main characters into the film of one main character, whilst making them fight, whilst also continuing the story of two other branches of a franchise DEFINITELY shouldn’t have worked.
But it did. And it did so spectacularly.
I’ve ranted and raved about Captain America: Civil War in the past two years of its release, and there was a small part of me that worried revisiting it now would curb my massive enthusiasm on the superhero epic. But…nope! I’m still as high as ever for this miracle of a movie. What the Russo Brothers created here is astounding: a superhero movie that not only serves as the perfect closing chapter of its main character’s trilogy, but also operates as the dramatic crescendo of the entire damn franchise. Civil War manages to pull on everything we know about the MCU and the characters who populate it, blowing it all up in exciting, often heartbreaking ways.
Much has been said about the grand airport battle at the center of Civil War, and of course I’m not going to disparage it much here (it truly is something to behold, even now.) But for me the real high of the film is its final action sequence, which pits Captain America, Winter Soldier, and Iron Man in a brutal, no holds barred three-way duel. It’s a hell of an action sequence, but also one that pulls on nearly a decades work of character building and relationship work. Marvel knows we love these characters, and seeing them come to blows over real, human conflict is just the kind of sting that only a dozen films worth of set-up and character development can really achieve. Thor: Ragnarok might be fun, The Winter Soldier might be expertly crafted, and Black Panther might have a strong thematic issue at its core. But when I think of just what the Marvel Cinematic Universe can be at its best, and the kind of expert films that only they could possibly craft, Captain America: Civil War absolutely takes the cake.
…But will The Russo Brothers once again be able to top themselves yet again with Avengers: Infinity War? We shall find out this weekend but, if this list is any indication, they have their work cut out for them. That’s just how consistently good the MCU movies are, at the end of the day — they truly make up a league of their own in the world of crowd-pleasing blockbusters. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Also published on Medium.
The Avengers: Endgame Trailer Offers More Questions Than It Does Answers But, To Be Fair, What Did You Expect?
Oh, by the way, it’s called “Endgame.” So that’s something, at least,
Has there ever in the history of time been a trailer more anticipated than the one for the fourth Avengers movie? You could argue the one for Star Wars: The Force Awakens maybe, and The Phantom Menace too. But the former was more a curiosity than anything, and the latter was released before trailers hit the internet so, really, it doesn’t count (sorry, olds!) But after the jaw dropping conclusion to Avengers: Infinity War, pretty much every person on the planet who saw the film is asking themselves one question: “How the FUCK is Donald Trump still president?” But after that, they are kinda curious how the hell all our MCU heroes are going to get out of this one.
And now our first
But before we get into that, the most concrete piece of information:
Except, no, I AM going to dwell on it too much. Because c’mon, guys: I am so tired of respected journalists (like Mike Ryan, in this case) asking filmmakers questions about their movies, and them just completely lying just to hide a secret. It’s a fucked up thing to do to the journalist and to the fans, and completely unnecessary to boot: just say you don’t want to comment! But brazenly dealing with half-truths like this (you see, Endgame might be in the movie, but Avengers: Endgame isn’t! HA HA, FOOLED YOU ALL) is so incredibly annoying. Stop it, filmmakers.
Outside of that specific bubble, though, I will say this about the title: it’s a title, all right. Not as cool as either Age of Ultron or Infinity War, but it gets the job done. Really, it would have been completely acceptable…if Disney and everyone involved didn’t try to hype up the damn thing so much — it’s not a
Now, the trailer itself? Actually pretty great, if you ask me. Though some might be mad about the lack of real clarity on anything within the trailer, I view that far more as a positive than a negative. What this trailer does well is build atmosphere, from the moment we open on Tony Stark alone on the Milano, all the way until the end. That opening monologue from Stark paints a grim portrait of the fate that our heroes have found themselves in and, although it’s pretty damn obvious this whole thing will be reversed within the course of the film, I still think there are some incredible opportunities to play in this post-apocalyptic sandbox before we’re back to the status quo. This trailer does a good job of presenting those opportunities, and truly setting up how screwed our heroes seem to be.
Of course, this isn’t Children of Men — this trailer is certainly starting to lay the groundwork for our heroes prevailing, even if the path ahead is a fraught one. Cap’s line about not knowing “what to do” if their plan goes south is a telling one — this is a latch ditch effort for the Avengers, and I hope desperation is a through-line for the entire film. They don’t know if their plan will work, but they have to try
Now on the subject of that plan? Who knows what the hell it is!
But, ah, that is only one of many questions this trailer presents! Other’s include:
- How did Tony Stark end up alone in space, about to lose all oxygen?
- Who the hell is going to save him? Captain Marvel?
- How did Scott get out of the Quantum Realm?
- Who the hell saved him? Captain Marvel? She can’t save everyone…right?
- Where the hell did Nebula go? Did she abandon him? I mean girl, yeah, I get it, but still: cold.
- Where is Rocket? Did he stick around on Earth with his new pal Thor?
- Speaking of which…where the hell is Thor at? Is that the Raft? Did he put himself in exile after his failure to do the damn job?
- And speaking of
saidjob: how long has it been here? Are we talking weeks? Months? Years? The trailer is extremely vague on that.
- Shuri disappeared? SHURI?! That blows.
- Hawkeye’s a badass now? I mean, thank god (Team #HawkeyeIsTheBestAvenger), but what caused this? I mean, you can fill in the blanks on that one, but still!
But, until then: can we just, like, chill internet? You got
Avengers: Endgame arrives in theaters everywhere April 26, 2019.
Also published on Medium.
The 6 Segments of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Ranked, Because That’s How Film Criticism Works Now (Sorry)
No, really: I’m truly sorry that the only way you’ll read my thoughts on the Coen Brother’s latest is through listicle form, but…nature of the beast, folks.
Having run a marginally successful movie blog in the past (a razor-thin margin, but still), I learned a few things when it comes to crafting things people will actually read on the internet. One of the things I learned? Reviews, for the most part, are not typically something people click on. Yeah, sometimes a fiery enough subhead might get people’s attention for a moment (this one certainly did the trick for me!), but it is usually a rare thing. A run-of-the-mill, standard film review will only gain traction if it’s A) one of the first reviews to be released for the pop culture in question (hard to do when everyone in the bigger markets gets to see things days if not weeks in advanced) or B) it’s from a notable critic with a major following. I am not that, so I (and hundreds like me) have to turn to another avenue to get eyeballs on these things: the tried-and-true listicle! Does a project of such magnificence and craft like The Ballad of Buster Scruggs deserve to be broken down into its base parts and dissected into a silly, arbitrary “rank” system? No, probably not. Will you and many others probably find yourself reading a list like that, solely in the pursuit of getting angry at the rankings I provide? I dunno, you’re still here, so you tell me.
Here’s the six segments of The Coen Brother’s grand Western anthology (formerly believed to be a television series, until it turned out it wasn’t), ranked for your instant disapproval. The assumption here is that you are reading this AFTER watching the film so, be warned, from here on out, we are in FULL SPOILER TOWN FOR EVERY SEGMENT IN The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. Anyways, enjoy…?
6. “Near Algodones”
This is by far the worst segment in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, which is to say it’s really good, just not great. It has a lot of things going for it though, namely in the technical category — there are some stunning shots from cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel here, and the production design of the sparse prairie is stunning, even watching it at home. I also have to fully admit to guffawing at the second-to-last line, which is a prime example of gallows humor at its finest.
But, unfortunately, where this segment falls flat is in its simplicity — it felt like the entire thing was just leading up to that one dark joke and that, ultimately, there just wasn’t a lot more for this segment to do or say. It’s just fifteen minutes of a cowboy getting caught, lucking out of his execution…then two minutes later randomly getting caught again, and getting executed for real this time. Yes, there’s definitely humor to be had in that set up and, once again, I did laugh at the misfortune of it all. But I can’t help but feel like this one was too abbreviated for its on good, and that the irony of its conclusion couldn’t have been better felt if it didn’t arrive so suddenly after what had just happened. If the segment had a little bit more room to breath after James Franco’s cowboy was initially rescued by the secret rustler, the tragedy of what had happened would have hit me a whole lot harder. Also, the last line is a bit nonsensical and unnecessary, while also somewhat deflating the fantastic “First time, huh?” gag before it.
But, hey: this segment does have a crazed Stephen Root wearing armor entirely comprised of kitchen cookware, screaming out “PANSHOT!” as he bum rushes a perplexed James Franco. So clearly anything with a scene like that can’t truly be bad, right?
5. “Meal Ticket”
My god, Meal Ticket is so fucked up, and I love it. It’s one of the slowest segments in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, sure (second only to the my next pick, really), but it’s all worth it for that absolutely haunting conclusion. How the Coen’s so subtly set up what’s about to go down (pretty much wordlessly — the Impresario and the artist never really talk to each other, at least directly) is masterful, and well there’s an angle of dark comedy to the whole proceedings, it’s mostly just a sad and depressing rumination on how artist’s get used and discarded, and that no one will really care about what happens to them once they’ve outstayed their value. It’s basically a little Western-set short version of Inside Llewyn Davis, and since that one is an all-timer amongst the Coen’s oeuvre (for me at least), I was prone to love it. Which I pretty much did.
So why is it my second to last pick for this list? Because I also loved the rest of the segments. Maybe even a smidge more. Or maybe even a smidge less. Who cares, the ranking is unimportant, the fundamental foundation of this very article is a lie, here simply to trap you into my ramblings about my two favorite filmmakers and their new, glorious film.
Let’s press on, shall we?
4. “All Gold Canyon”
“All Gold Canyon” and “Meal Ticket” were basically fighting neck-and-neck for these two spots, and I had a hard time at first deciding which one would outrank the other. But then I realized “Oh, ranking art is pretty much a bankrupt institution, there are no real rules to any of this, and nothing at all about how I decide to organize these segments really, effectively matters.” So that realization certainly moved things along, a bit.
Anyways, “All Gold Canyon”: I love the shit out of this thing. If “Meal Ticket” was the Coen’s playing in their Inside Llewyn Davis mindset, than “All Gold Canyon” is the brother’s back in the saddle of their No Country for Old Men/Blood Simple style. Sparse, procedural, nearly dialogue empty. Just watching one man do his job for like 20 minutes, only breaking away to tell an actual story in its final moments. And well the segment could have easily ended with the bandit killing the old man, rendering everything we saw absolutely pointless (in a cynical, darkly funny matter that is no stranger to the Coens), I love how it chooses to take the more “optimistic” approach, with the old man getting the upper hand, and getting to keep the entirety of Mr. Pocket. Character actor/musician Tom Waits absolutely makes the most of his old prospector character, creating a character you actually root for, in the face of the harshness that comes with life in the West. To give that guy a happy ending is a rare act of mercy for the Coen Brothers, but it left me absolutely beaming as the story concluded. The prospector got the gold he worked so damn hard for, and got to ride off on his little donkey, singing into the sunset. Good for him, I say.
If I have one complaint about “All Gold Canyon” and, hell, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs overall, it’s that it leans a little bit too heavy on the CGI. Frankly, I was surprised how much of that was in this movie, considering the Coen’s usual aversion to it, but there was a good amount here that was, well…rough. I mean, for the love of god Hollywood: STOP PUTTING CGI DEER IN EVERYTHING. It almost never works, and it takes me out of movies completely when they pop up. I’m sure deer, the little bastards they are, probably suck to get correctly in a film, so it’s far easier to either create it with CGI, or pop the dear into place with god awful green screen afterwards (looking at you, Deer from Three Billboards). Either way…please. Stop doing it. Now.
Anyways, onto #3, the titular…
3. “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”
This segment is just god-damn delightful and, really, there’s nothing more to it than that. Tim Blake Nelson is pitch perfect as the fourth wall breaking, surprisingly violent Buster Scruggs, and well there’s little more to this short than watching his antics as he tears apart a small Western town…really, what more could you want? It’s like Deadpool, but with a singing cowboy. And Tim Blake Nelson. What more do you need in life, really? And the fact that it climaxes with an angel version of Buster Scruggs playing a harp as he duets with the man who just gunned him down in battle (a surprisingly beautiful rendition of “When A Cowboy Trades His Spurs For Wings”) is just absurdist icing on the cake.
The fact that the Coen’s decided to open the film with this segment was honestly a ballsy move, as its cartoonish, irreverent tone comes in stark contrast to pretty much every other segment. I could definitely see a subset of people being absolutely turned off by the entire thing, just based on the wackiness of “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.” But I certainly wasn’t! As a huge fan of the Coen’s comedic sensibility (The Big Lebowski is probably my favorite comedy of all time), it was just the right note to remind me “Hey, you’re about to watch a Coen Brothers film — bask in it, buddy.” And boy did I.
2. “The Mortal Remains”
As I said on Twitter shortly after seeing the film, what I loved about The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is how much it captures everything that makes the Coen Brothers the Coen Brothers. How it manages to take their entire filmography, and shorten it down to a half-dozen segments that perfectly illustrate the kind of movies the pair make. That’s not a simple task, either: these are the guys who made Intolerable Cruelty AND No Country for Old Men. Back to back, even! They strike a wide gamut of genres, that’s for damn sure. But if “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” was there comedy piece, and “Meal Ticket” was their tragedy, and “All Gold Canyon” there slow-paced thriller, than “The Mortal Remains” is their strange, disconcerting drama. Think Barton Fink, or A Serious Man. The kinds of films that are kind of funny, but also strange, and dark, and even slightly mythical in a unique, Coen Brothers way. It’s not a tone they don’t very often strike (once in like every decade or so, it seems), but it certainly makes an impact.
But what makes “The Mortal Remains” so fantastic is the way that it slowly conveys just what’s happening, keeping its cards close to the chest until almost the very end of the segment (and, in effect, the movie itself.) Watching these characters go on long Coen Brothers speeches about the nature of humanity is in and of itself is a delight to watch, and I was enraptured the whole way through. But when things turn to the (vaguely) supernatural, the entire thing becomes even more delicious. “The Mortal Remains” goes from an expertly crafted piece of character interaction into this weird, ethereal thing that doesn’t take a lot of energy to explain itself…and never, ever even needs to. It’s kind of like a Ray Bradbury short story I would have read in middle school, mixed with the insanely well crafted dialogue that the Coen’s bring to every single one of their projects. The kind that’s so fucking good, it gives me an inferiority complex just listening to it. But, you know…in a good way.
1. “The Gal Who Got Rattled”
“The Gal Who Got Rattled” is, unequivocally, the best segment in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. I know it, you know it, everyone knows it. Even the Coen’s themselves seem to know it, as its by far the segment that takes up the most time in the entire film (based purely on my gut feeling and not, you know, actual research or journalistic work.) But every moment spent in “The Gal Who Got Rattled” is time well spent, as the segment perfectly lays out a nice little slice of Western romance and, because it’s the Coen Brothers, absolute heartbreak.
Admittedly I’m a sucker for a well-told romance, especially one with as much heart as this one. It’s also a bit of a sneaky romance, as what “The Gal Who Got Rattled” is actually going for isn’t really revealed into a large way into the segment. But it goes to show how good the Coen’s are at just painting an atmosphere that I was just totally okay watching the exploits of this traveling caravan along the Oregon Trail, and the journey of main character Alice Longabaugh. She really is what anchors the segment, with Zoe Kazan doing a fantastic job of painting this quiet, introverted woman alone on her own for the first time in her life. Equally compelling is her screen partner, Billy Knapp, played with gusto by Bill Heck (who I’ve never really seen as a lead in anything, but makes a hell of an impression here.) They make a fantastic pairing, their awkward chemistry thankfully ending up on the more charming than annoying side of the spectrum. The Coen’s usually don’t do straight romance (well, unless you really want to count Intolerable Cruelty), but they pulled it off with warmth and serenity here. Only a few quick scenes between the pair, and I was instantly routing for the two love birds.
…So of course it all has to end so damn tragically, in a way that is so simple in its irony, but a punch in the gut all the same. The sequence that leads to Alice’s suicide is a Coen’s all-timer, though, a perfectly paced bit of action that recalls The Hurt Locker more than anything else (and, like “All Gold Canyon,” shows off how good the duo are at presenting the performance of procedural activity.) Although, on that note, since I expanded the whole “every segment has a Coen Brothers movie parallel” thing, I’m now obligated to stick to it, so this one is most like…True Grit, probably? Has the same forlorn, mournful tone. And both feature a female protagonist, a surprisingly rare thing for a Coen Brothers film. Either way, this segment is going to stick with me for a long time. Damn you Coens, for making me feel something. I hate that!
But I don’t hate The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, that’s for sure. In fact, when added together, I loved the hell out of this anthology. Which is great, since I was not too hot on the Coen’s last one, also an anthology of sorts (in a way that, IMHO, did not serve Hail Caesar! nearly as well.) But I shouldn’t have doubted my favorite filmmakers. Because, believe it or not, they know how to make good movies. Or, in this case — how to make six of them.
Also published on Medium.
The Captain Marvel Teaser Trailer Is Here, And…It’s The First Trailer for A New Marvel Movie, All Right
Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
The release of the Captain Marvel teaser trailer has been pretty hotly anticipated, arguably more so than many of the other Marvel movie trailers that have come before it. The primary reason for the excitement is of course due to the conclusion of Avengers: Infinity War, which I’m going to spoil because come on now, you’re reading this article, I know where your interests lie. Suffice to say, the downer ending of Inifinty War, in which seemingly all of Marvel’s newest characters up and fade away into nothing, has fans buzzing to see what is coming next. And with the trailer for Avengers 4: Titles Are Dumb still many months away, Captain Marvel represents our best shot yet at seeing just what Marvel intends to do with this universe going forward, and how the titular character will ultimately factor into it.
But even removing the snap from the equation, there’s plenty of reason to be eager about Captain Marvel on its own merits. This has been one of those MCU movies that was seemingly announced forever ago, and to paraphrase Marvel’s other big female superhero with her name in the title, it’s about damn time we actually get to see Marvel Studio’s first female-fronted superhero project. It might come as a shock to no one that the trailer shows the answer to that being, well…a Marvel superhero movie. Whether or not that excites you largely depends on your attachment to the brand overall.
Myself? I’m already in the bag for this cinematic universe so, really, this trailer could have been two minutes of Kevin Feige jet-skiing on his bag of money while smoking a very well put together Dollar Bill Blunt™, and I still would have had the movie on my list of most anticipated films of 2019. And with the MCU on a hot streak of, like, ten good-to-great movies in row, I would feel no regrets at all about doing so. As I have written many times in the past, Marvel Studios has earned my trust, in pretty much everything they do.
But to dive into the nitty-gritty of the trailer itself? It’s perfectly fine. It follows the modern blockbuster teaser trailer to a T, with the loud symphonic music playing over a bunch of vague money shots of CGI and action moments, paired with an equally vague but well-delivered monologue about, well, anything really. The fact that said monologue is coming out of the mouth of Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury (as they so often do in the MCU) is extra points, though. Paired on top of that is the fact that said Nick Fury is looking all young and two-eyed, with disturbingly little uncanny effect to speak of in digitally recreating a mid-90’s Samuel L. Jackson. Which I’m aware is ironic, considering that the Uncanny Effect in and of itself speaks to the idea of something being so photo-realistic that the human mind, in turn, perceives it as unnatural. This is so photo-realistic and natural in the moment that, only upon true reflection, do I get really creeped out. Call it the Uncanny Uncanny Valley Effect Effect.
Oh right, the Captain Marvel trailer! So yeah, it’s one of those things where the most noteworthy aspect of the trailer lies in how unnoteworthy it is. Really it’s hard for me to gauge what exactly this movie will be, with the two-minute teaser doing little to fill in the tone or mood of the piece outside of “new superhero movie.” There’s some weird stuff going on timeline wise which, in the movie, might be really cool and unique. In the trailer, however, it’s kind of so jumbled up in editing that I’m not entirely sure what’s going down (so Carol Danvers has amnesia, or…?) Even more disappointing is the lack of a real “trailer moment,” something big and memorable ala Thor’s reaction to Hulk’s arrival in the Thor: Ragnarok tease, or Black Panther’s car flip, or even the lie that was the Avengers running together in the Infinity War trailer. The closest this trailer comes to a noteworthy shot is Carol Danvers sucker punching an old lady which, really, is only memorable for the “WTFness?” alone. I did like the brief image of Captain Marvel running up the side of the train, though, and some of the rotation shots at least point to an interesting style that directors Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden could be employing. That’s really the only hint of a unique approach or style in this trailer, though.
Lack of style isn’t exaclty bad, really, but not exactly fodder for overwhelming excitement either. Compared to something like Guardians of the Galaxy’s first trailer (where the “Hooked on a Feeling” scored edit made clear just exactly what kind of film we were dealing with) or Avengers: Age of Ultron’s first trailer (which wowed through pure mood and imagery alone), Captain Marvel falls short. Not bad, just short.
All that being said, it’s not like being merely “good” puts Captain Marvel significantly behind the first looks of other MCU films. In fact, I would say the majority of first trailers for Marvel Studios films have only been good, with only a few really strong ones being truly excellent in my mind. And with all but a handful of those films being great at the end of the day, I have no doubt Captain Marvel has the goods to keep Marvel’s winning streak going. We’ll find out when the film hits theaters March 8, 2019.
Also published on Medium.
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