Monday, December 19, 2016

Review - Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Warning: Spoilers Ahead!

          We have now arrived at what is perhaps the most anticipated cinematic event of the year. I am normally quick to call out when something has been overly hyped, but I think, in this case, I must make a special exception. 2016 has been an absolutely abysmal year for film (in stark contrast to 2015), so I can excuse the masses for indulging in celebration when a film comes along that offers a much-needed reprieve from what has otherwise been a smorgasbord of torture. I distinctly recall that, back in January, The 5th Wave left a very bitter taste in my mouth, and, in retrospect, served as an omen of things to come. I have since had to endure through the likes of Gods of Egypt, The Boy, Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice, and Ghostbusters (III), with really only Deadpool, The Conjuring 2, and Star Trek Beyond serving as feeble attempts to stop the hemorrhaging (which is to say that, while my attitude towards them was positive, they were unfortunately not enough recompense for how hard everything else failed). It wasn't until last month, in November, when the year is pretty much over, that anything comparable to the cinematic vision of 2015 came along in the form of Doctor Strange. And now, in December, we will be ending the year the same way as 2015, with Star Wars. Particularly, with Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.
          I'm sure that I don't need to remind people how much of a colossal exit The Force Awakens was for 2015. At the beginning of the year, during my review of The 5th Wave, I had questioned whether or not my perception of the early cinematic offerings of 2016 would be tainted by the fact that they came on the heels of The Force Awakens, what I would consider to be one of the largest success stories of 2015, in year that was already stacked with a number of successes (it also turns out that my evaluation of early 2016 wasn't tainted...other critics agree that The 5th Wave, for example, just sucks). Rogue One is Disney's 2016 attempt to top (or, at least, fair comparably to) The Force Awakens. As such, the marketing campaign for Rogue One has paced itself the same way as the marketing for The Force Awakens, with several time-release trailers throughout the year that were careful not to reveal anything of substance and Hasbro releasing all of the relevant toys and collectibles in advance (I will admit that I had already added a Jyn Erso action figure to my collection by the time the film was released). And the surmounting hype surrounding Rogue One illustrates just how successful this marketing campaign was, as anticipation for it had approached levels comparable to the hype for The Force Awakens.
          Rogue One is the first entry in what has been dubbed the "Star Wars Anthology" series, the second entry of which, a stand-alone Han Solo film, is currently in production. The entries in the Anthology series represent a significant break from the traditional Star Wars formula in that they are not intended to focus on the Skywalker family, the Jedi and the Force, nor anything that came before them in the Galactic Republic or The Clone Wars (i.e. the prequel trilogy). Instead, the Anthology series examines the Star Wars universe under a microscope, telling the individual stories that might otherwise get overlooked in the larger picture of the main saga. It is easy, for example, to get so wrapped up in the events of the Galactic Civil War that we never actually stop to ask who Han Solo is and where he came from. We may be so enthralled by Luke Skywalker's Jedi training in the swamps of Dagobah or his daring X-wing flight in the trenches of the Death Star that we never actually wonder how the Rebellion got the information necessary to attack the Death Star in the first place. Perhaps even more intriguing, we know that planets in the Outer Rim serve as nice havens for smugglers, brigands, and other ruffians, and are usually well removed from the conflicts that plague both the Old and New Republics. As such, there could very well be a dashing tale of piracy, action, and romance among the dark underbelly of, say, Jakku just waiting to be told, like the space version of The Count of Monte Cristo. Interestingly, Disney has finally decided to explore these untold stories of a galaxy far, far away, and remind us that, while the events of the The Clone Wars and the Galactic Civil War are still important, there is a lot more to the galaxy than that.
          This is a great idea in theory, and has a lot of potential, but, unfortunately, it looks like Rogue One is only a lukewarm example of it put into practice. Rogue One focuses on the events leading up to the first entry in the Star Wars universe, A New Hope. Set some time after the end of the Clone Wars, it follows a merry band of rebels as they track down the man that designed the Death Star and steal the plans for the Imperial battle station in order to discover any potential weakness. Directed by Gareth Edwards (of Godzilla fame), it stars Felicity Jones as sergeant Jyn Erso, an street-hardened orphan who turns out to be the daughter of Galen Erso, the designer of the Death Star. Speaking of Galen Erso, we yet again see Mads Mikkelsen have another crucial role in one of the largest movies of the year (recall that he portrayed villain Kaecilius in Doctor Strange). Diego Luna portrays Cassian Andor, an intelligence operative for the Rebellion who believes whole-heartedly in the cause, sometimes blindly. Ben Mendelsohn introduces us to Imperial Director Orson Krennic, head of the Imperial Research and Development department, who is overseeing the construction of the Death Star, and is in competition with Grand Moff Tarkin for Imperial military leadership. Forest Whitaker portrays Saw Gerrera, an extremist who believes in direct, violent action against the Empire, and whose followers sometimes find themselves at odds even with the Rebellion. Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen portray Chirrut Imwe and Baze Malbus, respectively, a blind monk with a devotion to the Force (almost Jedi-like) and a trigger-happy mercenary, also respectively. And throughout the remainder of the film, we catch brief glimpses of Mon Mothma, Bail Organa, C-3PO, R2-D2, a (bizarre) CGI version of Grand Moff Tarkin, and, of course, Darth Vader.
          Rogue One opens up with a flashback to Jyn Erso's childhood, where Director Krennic finds her family in hiding from the Empire in order to try and recruit her father to complete his work on the Death Star. Her family resists, at which point her mother is killed and her father abducted, while Jyn escapes capture, eventually being found by Saw Gerrera. Fast forward roughly 15 years. Jyn has assumed a new identity and is now in Imperial custody as a convicted felon and slave. Meanwhile, on a small mining colony in an asteroid field, Rebel spy Cassian Andor hears rumors that an Imperial pilot has defected with an important message from Galen Erso, and that this pilot has made his way into the clutches of extremist Saw Gerrera and his group of militants on the planet of Jedha. The Rebellion also catches wind of the fact that Jyn Erso, the daughter of the man that is designing the new Imperial superweapon, is now an Imperial prisoner and being transferred between prisons. Then, as an additional "meanwhile", Krennic is mining the planet of Jedha, a planet that, in the past, served as an important location for the Jedi Order in the Old Republic, for large amounts of Kyber crystals, which had previously been used in the construction of Jedi lightsabers. In a hit-and-run guerrilla tactic, the Rebellion finds when Jyn Erso is being transported, raids the transport ship, and rescues her (at which point we are introduced to K-2SO, a reprogrammed Imperial security droid). Taken back to the Rebel base on Yavin IV, Mon Mothma and the others in Rebel leadership convince Jyn to work with them on a mission to find Saw Gerrera and the Imperial defector on Jedha with the promise of ultimately finding her father.
          Upon arriving in Jedha, Jyn and Cassian find the capital, Jedha City, fully occupied by Imperials, with a Star Destroyer looming menacingly overhead, overseeing the mining of the Kyber crystals. While trying to covertly blend in and find contacts that will take them to Saw Gerrera, they coincidentally find themselves in the middle of a raid by Saw's space-jihadists on a small Imperial convoy. With the help of Chirrut Imwe and Baze Malbus, Jyn and Cassian are able to avoid capture by the Imperials, but, instead find themselves captured by Saw Gerrera. It's at this point that the Star Destroyer over Jedha City interestingly leaves while the remaining Imperial forces evacuate. Unbeknownst to the city and the Rebellion, the Death Star has been completed over Jedha and Krennic is ready to showcase its abilities to Grand Moff Tarkin. While at Gerrera's base, Jyn and her group come across the defecting Imperial pilot, Bodhi Rook (portrayed by Riz Ahmed), and Jyn has an audience with Saw. Saw reveals a hologram message from Galen, describing that, though he reluctantly had to complete the construction of the Death Star, he also deliberately constructed a weakness: the central core of the Death Star is sensitive to pressure, so the right amount of pressure to the core from a large enough explosion will trigger a chain reaction that will ultimately destroy the Death Star, and that there are exhaust ports on the outside of the battle station that lead directly to the core, but are small enough to avoid detection. Jyn's meeting with Saw and her trip down memory lane, however, are quickly cut short as the Death Star fires on Jedha City, destroying the inhabitants and the remaining Kyber crystals, and starting a planetary cataclysm that quickly rushes to the far outskirts of the city, where Saw's base is located. Jyn, Cassian, Chirrut, Baze, and Bodhi escape with the help of K-2SO, but Saw, and Galen's message, are destroyed in the cataclysm.
          With Galen Erso's message destroyed, and, thus, no evidence on how to defeat the Death Star other than Jyn Erso's vague memory, the group sets out to find Galen Erso himself. They track him down to an Imperial research facility on the storm-ridden Outer Rim planet of Eadu, where Krennic has found him first and learned of his treachery. Having learned the location of Galen Erso, the Rebellion initiates a bombing sortie on the research facility, killing Galen in the process while Krennic escapes. Disenchanted with the Rebellion after watching Rebel bombs kill her father, Jyn confronts Cassian in a rather poignant argument, but is slowly convinced to go before Mon Mothma and the rest of the Rebel command and reveal what she learned about the Death Star. Appraising the situation as hopeless in the face of such odds, and without Galen Erso's hologram, many Rebel commanders vote against striking the Death Star and disband. Determined to not let her father's plan be in vain, Jyn assembles a group of about 20 stalwart volunteers, including Cassian, Chirrut, Baze, Bodhi, and K-2SO to infiltrate and sabotage the Imperial base on the beach planet of Scarif, where the master plans for the Death Star are housed. Using a stolen Imperial cargo shuttle, Jyn and crew manage to land on Scarif, where Jyn and Cassian infiltrate the base to find the plans while the remaining Rebel soldiers lay siege to the base to create a distraction. Incidentally, at the same time, Krennic and his Death Troopers arrive to comb the archives for any communications sent by Galen Erso. With word of the team's landing on Scarif, Mon Mothma and others in the Rebel high command are suddenly motivated to help, sending a portion of the Rebel fleet to Scarif to assist. What ensues is something akin to a large-scale military rescue operation, like the Star Wars version of Behind Enemy Lines or Black Hawk Down, where Krennic hunts down Cassian and Jyn while the Rebel fleet attempts to hold off any Imperial reinforcements. Ultimately, Jyn manages to find the plans, but any means of getting off the planet are destroyed as collateral damage from the battle above. In the end, Jyn has to transmit the plans via satellite to the Rebel fleet, Cassian and Krennic wound each other, and Tarkin shows up with Death Star, firing on the Scarif base, destroying Krennic, Jyn, and Cassian. Our ending scenes are of Darth Vader's arrival to cut-off the escape of the remaining Rebels and retrieve the stolen plans, transitioning into what would be the opening of A New Hope.
          I mentioned above that my attitude towards Rogue One can best be described as "lukewarm"; while it does a number of things well, there are a number of large blunders that simply can't be ignored, and this is important because, as an entry in the Star Wars universe, Rogue One inherently has a certain set of high expectations to meet. When I do my reviews, I usually form my general opinion of a film first and then jot down several notes before I read what others have to say. And while I don't always agree with the evaluations given to a film by most mainstream outlets, I can safely include myself in what appears to be a large consensus about the glaring things that Rogue One misses the mark on: character and dialogue development. Matthew Lickona of the San Diego Reader writes that Rogue One is mostly "a clunky attempt at a coldhearted espionage thriller, full of good characters saddled with bad dialogue, tense scenarios saddled with dumb action, and tolerable storyweaving saddled with bad fan service" [1]. David Sexton of the London Evening Standard mentions that he "can only report that [he] found Rogue One not just a dull but an oppressive experience, being force-fed a corporate product: a film that never comes alive, with none of the characters properly developed, none of the relationships gelling, the very adventure formulaic" [2]. For my evaluation of what Rogue One does well, I am also very much consistent with what other critics are saying, so I defer to Chris Klimik of NPR, who notes that "it's a tense, well-made spacefaring war movie about a desperate and demoralized band of insurgents standing up against a rising authoritarian regime" [3], and Ty Burr of the Boston Globe who mentions that "it offers more details of interoffice politics among the squabbling factions of both the Empire and the Rebel Alliance than probably anyone but a mid-level manager cares for, yet you generally feel you're in good hands" [4].
          Poor dialogue and character development are perhaps the biggest blunders that Rogue One makes, and many of the smaller problems that Rogue One has tend to stem from this. Jyn Erso is described as something of a street-wise orphan, a clever young woman who had to steal what she needed to survive and tried to circumvent anything in her way, and through her actions, which include forging Imperial documents and inciting violence, ended up in Imperial prison. This certainly sounds like an interesting character, particularly for a female protagonist, and having such a character promoted to sergeant in the Rebel Alliance promises a lot of potential. The problem is that we never see any of this - we are simply told she had a rough time on the streets, but never see it. We never see her steal anything, and any time she engages in violence, the scenario is very black-and-white (i.e. Jyn Erso = good, Stormtroopers = bad). We never see Jyn demonstrate the questionable moral compass that someone with a rough upbringing is apt to have. She may say she is a "rebel", but never acts like it. I have in the past mentioned that character development is one of the most important parts of any fiction - it makes the characters relatable and allows the audience to establish an emotional attachment to them, and, when done really well, will even create an emotional investment in an antagonist. None of this is present in Rogue One, however. For example, Galen Erso's character is never really developed - we are given very little of his background and his role in the development of the Death Star is never really elaborated on, other than us simply being told that he is the lead engineer. In fact, he actually has very little screen time when compared to most other characters - we see him in the opening seen for several minutes, in hologram form for about a minute, and then for another two minutes on Eadu before he is killed by the Rebellion. And it is on Eadu that we thus see the result of this poor character development: nobody in the audience ever really cares when he dies. Sure, we can understand that Jyn is upset. But good character development would make the audience feel upset when something happens to a core character - it would elicit a reaction similar to what I am sure most Harry Potter readers felt when Sirius Black was killed in Order of the Phoenix, or Han Solo in The Force Awakens. And this scene undermines what had the potential to be one of the more compelling points to be made in Rogue One: war is never pretty for either side. Galen Erso dying to Alliance bombs had the potential to paint the Rebellion in a different light, which would be a new and profound approach to the Star Wars universe - if only we actually really cared about Galen Erso. In fact, I would have to say the only really memorable characters from Rogue One would be K-2SO and Krennic, K-2SO for having a personality wholly distinct from any other stock character is the film (which is really saying something, considering that K-2SO is a droid), and Krennic for actually displaying any kind of emotional investment into anything.
          Perhaps even worse than the poor character development (in fact, partly contributing to it), the dialogue is cliche, empty, and just generally bad. Far and away, Exhibit A would be Vader's cringe-worthy line "don't choke on your aspirations Krennic" while Force-choking Krennic. Darth Vader doesn't speak in puns. Writing in a pun as one of Darth Vader's lines is nothing short of blasphemy. The word "hope" is thrown around so often towards the end that one might be forgiven for expecting the Rebellion to just start using "hope" as part of their general naming convention, such as the "Hope"-wing fighter or "Hope" base. In fact, there appear to be some points where one might even think that the writers weren't even trying. There is a scene during the final space battle over Scarif, for example, where the editors copy/pasted Red Leader from A New Hope, including his line "get ready to start your attack run" and then simply added "...on the Star Destroyer" to the end of it. And on a side note, the copy/paste of Red Leader and Gold Leader from A New Hope was just kind of weird. To me, it quite literally looked like a new 2016 film where someone had superimposed the film reel from 1977 over it. The whole thing seemed really forced, and made the scene feel a lot like that "I think this might be photoshopped" internet meme [5].
          Of course, Rogue One has its redeeming qualities. The underlying general idea behind the film is already something commendable: a Star Wars film that doesn't focus on the Skywalker family and instead tells one of the many other stories to be told in the Star Wars universe. Edwards had remarked that Rogue One would be more of a war film than previous entries in the Star Wars series [6], and, as such, will perhaps be more suitable for more adult audiences. I can now say that there is plenty of truth to this statement, as the war motifs were a constant element throughout. I thought the surprise raid on the passing Imperial convoy by Saw's forces on Jedha was particularly interesting; I don't think it's a coincidence that Saw's guerrillas just happen to have the aesthetic of scarf-wearing, rag-tag militants in a harsh desert city occupied by an invading force. Likewise, the body count on Scarif during the Rebellion's attempt to rescue Jyn and Cassian was probably the highest we've seen in the Star Wars universe, likely higher than the pile of smoldering Rebel corpses the Empire left in its wake during the siege on Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back. And, while Ty Burr complained of the insight we were given into the "company politics" of both the Empire and the Rebellion, I actually thought that this was one of the things that gave Rogue One a sense of realism, diluting the tiresome black-and-white formula of "Rebellion = good, Empire = bad" that we are used to seeing. Speaking of breaking Star Wars convention, Edwards' attempt to paint the Rebellion in a more ambiguous light, instead of portraying it as the unquestionable force for justice that we are used to seeing, is a commendable attempt to provide a new perspective on the series, even if its execution was handled haphazardly.
          Praise can also be given to the overall effects and aesthetic of Rogue One. The ending scene on Scarif, in particular, deserves special recognition. A beach locale in the Star Wars universe was something not yet explored in the films, and integrating a large-scale tropical beach battle which includes Death Troopers and AT-AT walkers is certainly a first for Star Wars. The attempt to recreate the original look and feel of 1977's A New Hope was also an overall success. Jyn and Cassian, for example, have the same dark blue, black, and khaki wardrobe that we first saw in the opening scenes of A New Hope, while the Imperial army has a weathered, rugged feel to them (for example, the stormtroopers' armor and tanks on Jedha are covered in dirt and wear), more consistent with the DIY aesthetic that we get from the Rebellion and the war-tested feel we get from the Empire in the original trilogy, in stark contrast to the colorful, regal aesthetic we see in the Old Republic and Trade Federation in the prequel trilogy. Speaking of A New Hope from 1977, there seems to be a lot of discussion around the partial CGI recreation of Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin. I will admit, seeing him initially first struck me as kind of weird; I could tell it was CG, but, I must say, it was some rather convincing CG. If this were 1995, someone could very well be fooled into thinking that it was actually Peter Cushing. Others, however, were not able to get past the small "unnatural" feel to the character, but this strikes me as a nit-picky detail. The CG that went in recreating Tarkin was done over an actor serving as a template, so he does not have the overtly cartoonish aesthetic that, say, Jabba the Hutt had when George Lucas re-released A New Hope with bonus scenes. I also found it easy to get over, so after the first few moments of seeing Tarkin, the CGI became a quick footnote.
          Overall, Rogue One is a Star Wars experience worth seeing. It takes risks, which already sets it out from not just other Star Wars films, but most other films of 2016. Granted, its execution of those risks is kind of questionable, but at least it does them at all. This doesn't appear to matter much, though - it already is one of the biggest successes of 2016, and opens the door to other untold stories in the Star Wars universe. In a year with some of the worst movies I have seen in a long time (such as The 5th Wave and Ghostbusters), Rogue One still served as a nice reprieve from the quagmire of silliness that came before it. And Disney doesn't seem to be slowing down here - as mentioned earlier, a Han Solo origin story is in the works, and the surmounting anticipation for Episode VIII grows larger everyday. Looking ahead, the cinematic forecast for 2017, in general, already looks like a large improvement over 2016, with my next big move experience likely being the Chinese-produced film The Great Wall at the beginning of February, and set to end with Episode VIII in December.


Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Review - Doctor Strange

          I have returned! Those who have been following the blog may have noticed that I was eerily absent for September and October, not having posted anything since my review of Star Trek Beyond in August. There are a number of reasons for this. First and foremost, contrary to what I announced at the outset of my Beyond review, I have still been on that kind of personal "vision quest" that I previously talked about - I was lamenting the fact that I am currently stuck in a career field that I have become quite bored with, and I was tearing myself apart trying to figure out whether or not I should embrace it and condemn myself to a life of boredom and security, or if I should still do what I have traditionally done and metaphorically burn it all down, risking everything I have to try and reap the greater reward. Add to that the mounting anxieties that seem to plague this wretched little planet (which I briefly outlined in my "Agoraphobia" article), and one can see that these past couple of months (nay, this entire past summer) has been one of the most maddening in a very long time. I found myself perpetually haunted by that question "what's the point of it all?", that question that I have been asking of the world since I was in high school several years ago. It felt as if I had created my own specter.
          Luckily, this past month has been something of a revelation for me. After several failed job interviews and watching various changes and shifts being made around the office at work, I was once again reminded of how silly everyday life is. Like John the Savage, disgusted with the Soma-suppressed minds of the Brave New World, I again realized I needed an escape from it all. By early October, I knew I had to get back into writing, but the time was not opportune - there were really no interesting films throughout September and October (at least, none worth writing about), and I hadn't researched anything for a philosophical article. Instead, I decided to catch up on some reading, diving into Plato's Republic, which, believe it or not and despite my background in Ancient Greek philosophy, was a work that I had never actually finished before. It didn't take long after embarking on that endeavor that I realized how much more enjoyable the philosophical world is over being a "working professional". Accordingly, I have spent that past couple of weeks entertaining the possibility of going back to grad school to pursue doctoral work as well as trying to secure a teaching position at a community college (the problem with the latter option is that it is very difficult to secure a tenured position in the community college system with a master's degree while there are candidates applying with a PhD). Regardless of how I wanted to pursue things going forward, I knew that the intersection of all of these things would center around my writing. The good news is that, while taking the time to research these options and ponder these ideas, several worthwhile writing topics have presented themselves - the impending release of Doctor Strange and Rogue One, as well as a new philosophical topic that I have been meditating on.
          And here we are, at the review of Doctor Strange. I should point out that, by the time of writing these first few paragraphs, the film hasn't been released to the public yet (it comes out next Friday). But, as one can infer from the above paragraphs, my enthusiasm for philosophy has once again been rekindled and, as we approach the end of October, one of those worthwhile writing topics has appeared in the form of the highly anticipated Doctor Strange. As such, I am once again itching to put fingers to keyboard and start doing the one thing that actually makes life meaningful and productive. And this wouldn't be the first time I have embarked on a film review without having actually seen the film yet - some may recall that I did this very thing with Ant-Man last year (eerily, almost exactly one year ago). Of course, I won't be able to get very far into this review without having seen it yet, but, much like Ant-Man, Doctor Strange will require a little bit of preemptive background that I can at least get out of the way now.
          Doctor Strange will be yet another entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe starring teenage-heartthrob du jour Benedict Cumberbatch. While I have at several points in past articles expressed my overall dissatisfaction with the MCU, if Ant-Man and The Winter Soldier have taught us anything, it's that there can occasionally be fleeting strokes of true genius in an otherwise incoherent clusterfuck. What makes Doctor Strange all the more interesting is that, like Ant-Man, he is a kind of "fringe" character in the Marvel Universe - not of the same mainstream ilk as, say, Captain America or Iron Man, but still having a notable presence in Marvel comics nonetheless. That said, I will admit that I had really only heard of Doctor Strange in the past, having never read the comics as a child (this shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone - I have previously mentioned that I was never really into comics as a child, preferring more to read novels and poetry). As such, I had to do a little bit of research into the character both in anticipation for the film and for writing this piece.
          And it's from this point that I write having seen the film. Remember in the previous paragraphs when I said that there can be occasional strokes of pure genius in the Marvel Universe? This is one of those moments. Doctor Strange is unlike anything previously witnessed in the MCU thus far, bringing us a deeply imaginative character lost in very hypnotizing and bizarre landscapes. And while there are a couple of small misses with the story, this is by far a much more wayward and far-out approach to a superhero films than Captain America: Civil War and Batman vs Superman from earlier this year. Even from a conceptual level (i.e. a renowned neurosurgeon who becomes lost in the teachings of Eastern mysticism), Doctor Strange excels, and this is yet to say anything about the visual landscapes that seem like something out of an M.C. Escher drawing or the great performance by Cumberbatch that may very well rival that of Tom Hiddleston's Loki or Robert Downy Jr.'s Tony Stark.
          Doctor Strange opens up with the sorcerer Kaecilius (portrayed by Mads Mikkelsen), a student of the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), and his followers murdering the librarian at their compound in Nepal and stealing the pages for a dark and forbidden ritual from an ancient tome. Despite attempts by the Ancient One to stop them, Kaecilius and his "zealots", as the film refers to them, escape. Cut to New York City. Famed neurosurgeon Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch) showcases his skills, removing what would have been an otherwise fatal bullet from the brain of a shooting victim. As with any skilled and accomplished person, Strange takes a great degree of pride in his work, though perhaps a little too much as he savagely berates another doctor who had diagnosed this particular case as hopeless. We are also introduced to Strange's co-worker and on-and-off love interest Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), who reminds Stephen of an upcoming Neurological Society banquet event where he is slotted to speak. Again, we are reminded of Strange's high opinion of himself as we watch him prepare for the banquet, with his closet of fine Italian suits, his drawer full of Rolex and Omega watches, and the Lamborghini he just happens to have securely parked somehow at his penthouse suite in New York City. That said, there is quite a reversal of fortune when Strange violently crashes said Lamborghini on his way to the banquet, crippling his hands to the point of no longer being able to do his work.
          Strange tries everything to try and regain the functionality of his hands, from the cutting-edge of neuroscience and nerve restructuring to acupuncture and fringe medicine, again criticizing those who fail to help him, so sure that he would be able to do it better. Out of options, Strange hears of a man who was, at one point, completely paralyzed from the waist down, who is now not only walking again, but doing activities like playing basketball. After finding and speaking to this man, Strange makes his way to Kathmandu, Nepal, were he stumbles across Kamar-Taj, the sanctuary of the Ancient One, where Kaecilius had previously stolen the forbidden ritual. After a phase of doubt and arguing with the Ancient One, she eventually opens his mind, revealing to him the many different possible worlds that both exist and don't exist, the alternate dimensions in which creatures both horrific and beautiful threaten not just Earth, but many other worlds beyond time and space. Having embarked on his path towards enlightenment, Strange then immerses himself in Ancient Indian texts, poring through pages of Classical Sanskrit to learn the mystical ways of the sorcerer. Along the way, he acquires the Eye of Agamotto and the Cloak of Levitation, and learns that the ritual the Kaecilius and his followers stole was a ritual to summon Dormammu, a dark being behind the veil of time that threatens to destroy Earth. As can be imagined, Strange eventually finds himself in the position where he has to stop Kaecilius and at the same time learn the moral lesson that not everything is always about him.
          There are a lot of things that Doctor Strange does well that sets it apart from the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. From a conceptual level, the characters, story, and design are a lot more imaginative and creative than many other MCU offerings. A crippled neurosurgeon who becomes a time sorcerer by learning the ways of Eastern mysticism is a lot more interesting than, say, a guy running around wearing an American flag fighting Nazis, or an engineer who creates a robot suit. It may be worth pointing out that Ant-Man did this too - it is intriguing that the "fringe" characters of the MCU tend to be the most imaginative (such as an ex-con thief who stumbles across a suit that shrinks him down to the size of an ant). And while there may be some questionable aspects to the plot (a point which I will elaborate later), this same degree of imagination is echoed at several points throughout the story. Defeating a cosmic nether-being by putting the entire space-time continuum in an infinite playback loop, like your favorite song on repeat or a broken VCR, takes a larger degree of imagination than the Iron Man approach of firing a thousand rockets at it and hoping it dies.
          And this same degree of imagination is reflected in the special effects for the film. As is to be expected of any entry in the MCU, there is a large degree of CGI in Doctor Strange. But, unlike the CGI of previous installments in the MCU, the special effects produce a somewhat different result. Recall that I once equated the dependence of the MCU on CGI to that of a drug addict passed out on a dirty mattress with used needles strewn about the floor. The underlying strength of that criticism is the implied feeling of pity that one would have if he were to walk into the room to find the miserable wretch sprawled out across the mattress. The same concept can apply to Doctor Strange, but from a different perspective - that of the drug addict. Doctor Strange takes the special effects to an entirely different world, a world where kaleidoscopic hallucinations paint warped perceptions of reality. The special effects compliment the overall whimsy of the character - watching New York City fold and twist, with cars cascading down vertical streets like a waterfall, as Kaecilius tries to destroy the Sanctum Sanctorum, or watching Strange alter the flow of time by manipulating a broken watch highlight his mystery and intrigue.
          Of course, a large portion of credit needs to be afforded the actors in the film. Cumberbatch, for example, does a great job of showcasing a slow, steady, and, most importantly, relatable character shift. At the outset of the film, we are introduced to a doctor who is driven more by a desire to be the best in his discipline, as opposed to being driven by a genuine desire to help those who require his skills. This is in stark contrast to the Doctor Strange we are left with at the end of the film, a sorcerer who has been humbled by the realization that there is a lot more to the world than just his own success. Again, this character shift is steady, not abrupt - I have previously pointed out that there is an alarming trend in modern science fiction cinema where character development consists of simply telling the audience that the character is different, not showing them that the character is different. The unfortunate side effect of this is that the character is not relatable - which is quite a pity because relatable characters make a film a lot more memorable and profound by appealing to the audience's pathos, something that is crucial in any kind of drama. Tilda Swinton's portrayal of the Ancient One also deserves some praise here. The stock character that one would expect for the Ancient One would be some kind of generic sage, who speaks only in profound and epic one-liners, trying to convey a moral lesson even when doing something as mundane as sweeping the kitchen. But the Ancient One turned out to be nothing like this. Swinton's Ancient One was much more relatable, more akin to Morpheus from The Matrix than the cartoonishly epic Zordon from the Power Rangers series. Despite this, I will confess that I was mildly disappointed with Mikkelsen's Kaecilius. Conceptually speaking, Kaecilius is a blind idealist who will resort to violence to realize his ideal - a character archetype that we have seen over and over (see Voldemort, Kylo Ren, Poison Ivy, etc.). Virtually all of Kaecilius' lines consisted of some permutation of the phrase "Dormammu will conquer the world and I need to destroy you to make that happen". One thing that can make a film (or piece of literature, for that matter) even more profound is a villain that the audience can relate to or sympathize with. Kaecilius doesn't do that - what we are left with is a stock character that the protagonist simply just needs to defeat, not another personality that the protagonist has to come to terms with.
          On that note, I suppose now would be a good time to point out the few things in Doctor Strange that could have used improvement. I previously mentioned that the story missed the mark in a few ways. We are yet again presented with the increasingly tiresome story of "good guy defeats bad guy", which, when coupled with my above criticism of Kaecilius, is made all the more tiresome by the fact that the bad guy is a stock villain that was likely pulled out of a grab bag of stock villains. What would really have been a trip is if everything that Kaecilius said about Dormammu was true, and that the dark dimension that Dormammu sought to create was, in fact, a new paradise, a kind of Eden where Dormammu would improve mankind in the same way that Zeus molded man from clay. But alas, such a prospect is far to profound for modern audiences - we are just left to assume that "Dormammu = bad". Related is the cliche moral lesson that Strange has to learn. I had praised Benedict Cumberbatch's acting for his portrayal of a character that learns a valuable moral lesson by the end of the film. However, like the overall plot, this is a moral lesson we have seen before. The "egomaniac humbled by the events of the story" theme isn't new, and, in fact, we have already seen it before in the MCU (if I recall correctly, this is a lesson that Thor had to learn in the first Thor film). In many ways, it feels as if the writers didn't want to take any risks with the story - they wanted to rely on the trusted formula of "good guy defeats bad guy", while, along the way, the good guy learns not to be selfish while saving the world. It's a pity because, out of perhaps the entire Marvel Universe, Doctor Strange would perhaps be the one IP to take risks with. As the creative visuals illustrate, Doctor Strange, by its very nature, is far out, and anything is possible. As such, there is room to iterate on something truly creative when it comes to the story, an opportunity that I think our writers may have missed.
          Despite these points, Doctor Strange is still getting a recommendation. I can be content with a generic plot if the other aspects of the film compensate for it, which, in this case, they do. Conceptually and visually, Doctor Strange leaves one spellbound, a feat that other installments in the Marvel Cinematic Universe have never achieved. The concept of a neurosurgeon who learns the ways of Eastern mysticism and gets lost in a multiverse of infinite dimensions is a lot more captivating than an American supersoldier who punches Nazis, while imagery that can be compared to M.C. Escher drawings being put through the filter of a bad acid trip are certainly a lot less bland than the explosion-riddled clusterfuck that was Age of Ultron. Again, it may be worth pointing out that all of the "fringe" characters of the MCU tend to be the most intriguing. If this trend were to continue, perhaps we will also see this same level of creativity in Black Panther and Captain Marvel.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Review - Star Trek Beyond

          It's finally time to get back in the swing of things. As anyone who follows the blog may have noticed, the past couple of months have been really...weird for me. I didn't have any new reviews or articles in June and my July piece was spawned out of the amalgam of my contempt for the current state of the country, my fear of flying, and further experimentation with philosophical nihilism. There were also several personal reasons that contributed to this, perhaps most glaring of which was my sister's wedding over a week ago. (On a side note, I had never been to a wedding before - are they really supposed to be that short?) There has also been some movement around at work that has affected me, providing me potential avenues of moving up in my current career field, despite my desire to try and move into writing or marketing. I will confess that this caused me to question the fruitfulness and status of the blog for a brief period in time, which, as one can imagine, also contributed to that weird lull over the past couple of months. However, after some reflection, I concluded that the blog is one of my most valuable things, and it allows me to continue to explore that largely uncharted world of Philosophy, despite distancing myself from San Diego State or any philosophical institution. And it is in this vein that I have slightly altered my approach to the blog; I had previously understood it as a tool with which I could publish philosophical essays online without having to go through some kind of academic institution or publisher, but now, I have realized that it is better understood as a kind of journal, I place where I can still pursue the fundamental aims of Philosophy without being confined by the rigors or politics of academic writing. It is both risky and liberating - by acknowledging my own informality in using a blog to pursue the aims of Philosophy, I subsequently concede that my articles here are not spun of the same thread as anything published by a journal or academic institution. At the same time, it's liberating in the sense that I am no longer involved in that parlor game of politics and "who knows who" that academia seems to have become, that "ivory tower" that seems to distance itself from anything of relevance in the lives of most individuals. I pursue Philosophy to genuinely arrive at truths about the world around me, and apply those truths to my day-to-day life, not simply treat it as some discipline that, at the end of the day, gets left in the confines of a classroom.
          Now, moving forward, and despite everything that has happened to me over the summer, I have been actually keeping up with my movies. Since Civil War, I have more or less seen every notable movie that has come out, for better or for worse. The Conjuring 2, despite my cynicism of the modern horror movie, was actually quite good, delivering the same kind of dramatic creepiness of the first one with a significantly different plot and setting. WarCraft, on the other hand, wasn't as great, but, in it's defense, wasn't as bad as many critics made it out to be, and is still strides ahead of my current "Worst Movie of 2016" so far, The 5th Wave. However, Independence Day: Resurgence was absolutely horrible, and easily comes in a close 2nd for "Worst Movie of 2016", if not for the fact that Jeff Goldblum managed to salvage a small fragment of the otherwise awful acting. It's a pity because I am actually a fan of the original Independence Day, complete with all of it's 90s quirks and slightly dated cinematography. The over-hyped Ghostbusters reboot, as was somewhat expected, added to the quagmire of bad movies, parading around as a highly immature comedy movie that just happened to have ghosts in it, as opposed to the supernatural action movie that just happened to have Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd in it that was the original Ghostbusters (and yes, those are two radically different things). If we are looking to place Ghostbusters on the scale of "Bad Movies of 2016" so far, it probably gets the bronze medal after The 5th Wave and Independence Day: Resurgence. Now, however, we get a nice reprieve from the train of bad movies and I am able to continue my film reviews with an entry on something that was actually good: Star Trek Beyond.
          Star Trek Beyond is the third entry in the reboot series initiated by J.J. Abrams in 2009, following 2009's Star Trek and 2013's Star Trek: Into Darkness. The series is notable for cementing Abrams' name as a staple of mainstream science fiction cinema, after an already noteworthy career, having created the television series Lost and produced or directed several more clandestine feature-length entries, such as 2008's Cloverfield and 1998's Armageddon (I call Armageddon "clandestine" insofar as it's that movie that often gets confused with Deep Impact, a movie with virtually the same plot and the same production value from the exact same year, released roughly around the exact same time). The first installment in the series, Star Trek, is often referenced as a formula of how to do a reboot correctly, as well as a standard-bearer of modern sci-fi special effects.
          I will admit that I was never very big into world of Star Trek as a child (I was always more of a Star Wars fan). Granted, I wasn't completely in the dark about the series either - I certainly knew who Captain James Kirk and Commander Spock were (i.e. William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy), and I was perhaps even more familiar with Captain Jean Luc Picard and Data from The Next Generation. It may be somewhat of a pity because, as I would learn far later on in my college career, Star Trek had historically been motivated by many philosophical conundrums, and often used them as underlying themes in the plot points. My first 'real' immersion into Star Trek wouldn't come until the reboot in 2009. I will even confess that my big motivation for going to see the reboot wasn't so much that I thought it looked good so much as the fact that I had already been very familiar with J.J. Abrams' work, having enjoyed Cloverfield and Armageddon. As such, I was only partially surprised with how much I enjoyed 2009's Star Trek, expecting nothing less of Abrams, despite my unfamiliarity with the series. Perhaps the most interesting thing about Star Trek, in general, is the fact that it is wholly unafraid to explore some of the most bizarre, story-changing tropes of science fiction, such as, say, time travel, something that we don't get from Star Wars. That said, and despite my enjoyment of the 2009 reboot, I never actually saw Into Darkness, but, from what I understand, it was just as much a success as the reboot, and thrust Benedict Cumberbatch into the spotlight as the newest teenage girl heartthrob (much like Tom Hiddleston was after The Avengers). And now we have arrived at Star Trek Beyond, the third installment in the series, where we see Abrams shift to a producer position and Justin Lin take the reigns as director. Despite that directorial shift, I must say that Beyond still hits the mark as a good entry in the science fiction genre, contrary to what some critics have said, though perhaps not as much as its predecessor in 2009.
          We open with Captain Kirk at the helm of the USS Enterprise, accompanied by his motley crew of Spock, Dr. Leonard McCoy, Lieutenant Nyota Uhura, Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott, Pilot Hikaru Sulu, and Ensign Pavel Chekov. After making a name for themselves among Star Fleet after previous missions, the Enterprise now spends most of its time exploring the frontiers of space, often finding little more other than, well, space. Eventually, the ship and crew dock at the Federation colony of Yorktown for some much needed R&R. During their stay at Yorktown, the colony receives a distress signal from a nearby escape pod in space and they find a young alien woman name Kalara. Kalara explains to the higher-ups at Yorktown that her ship has crashed on the planet Altamid, an uncharted planet on the other side of a nearby nebula. Kirk and crew are then tasked with the mission of helping Kalara find her crashed ship and rescue her crew. Once they arrive on the other side of the nebula, however, they are attacked by a swarm of alien ships and their commander, Krall, who is in search of an artifact that happens to be aboard the Enterprise. During the ambush, the Enterprise is catastrophically damaged and crashes on Altamid, with most of the crew escaping, however ending up scattered and mostly captured by Krall and his crew. Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scott, and Chekov all manage to evade capture, however, and assume the task of rescuing the rest of the crew and escaping the planet. Scott befriends an alien scavenger by the name of Jaylah who is then able to help him reunite with Kirk and Chekov. They are eventually able to find Spock and McCoy and learn that the artifact that Krall was after is actually a fragment of an ancient weapon that has the power to disintegrate virtually any kind of biological organism. Now, with that fragment, Krall is able to complete that weapon, and intends to use it to destroy Yorktown.
          With help from Jaylah, Kirk et al. manage to find the location of the rest of crew at Krall's hidden base. She also reveals that a former federation ship, the USS Franklin, had previously crashed on the planet as well, and that she had been using it as a home since then. Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and Jaylah embark on the rescue mission to free the rest of the crew, while Scott stays behind to repair the Franklin and get it ready for their escape. Kirk manages to infiltrate Krall's base and free the rest of the crew, who get beamed aboard the Franklin, but not before he can stop Krall from departing towards Yorktown with the bio-weapon. After a slightly rough takeoff, the Franklin then pursues Krall and his swarm back to Yorktown, where Krall begins to bombard the outer shield. Spock quickly deduces that the swarm ships around Krall exhibit behavior similar to that of bees, and that with an appropriate jamming signal, the swarm will become chaotic and scatter, ultimately destroying it. With the help of a boom box that Jaylah salvaged on Altamid, Kirk then uses the Franklin's transmission systems to blast Rage Against the Machine into space, which halts the assault on Yorktown and, sure enough, causes the swarm to either flee into space or crash into each other and be destroyed (no, seriously...Captain Kirk actually stops an alien death fleet from wiping out mankind not with laser beams or advanced technology, but with Rage Against the Machine). However, Krall's ship manages to penetrate into Yorktown, and a hot pursuit unfolds throughout the gravity-warped streets and tunnel-ways of the space station. In the end, Kirk manages to literally cut-off Krall's ship, forcing it to crash into the Franklin. While searching the debris for any bodies, Kirk and crew learn that Krall is actually the physically warped form of former Franklin captain Balthazar Edison, who had become disenchanted with the Federation of Planets and Star Fleet, whom he believed had abandoned him and his crew into the further reaches of space. After landing on Altamid, Edison learned of the ancient technology of the natives to both prolong life and destroy it, motivating his search for this bio-weapon. Edison/Krall manages to sneak past the Yorktown security forces and into the oxygen core for the ventilation system of Yorktown, where he plans to release the bio-weapon and let it spread throughout the city, killing everyone. Kirk quickly catches up to Krall and a fight ensues while Scott manages to override the ventilation control systems, redirecting anything in the core into space, including Kirk and Krall. Sure enough, during the fight, Edison/Krall, Kirk, and the weapon are ejected from the core towards an emergency tunnel that leads directly into space, but Spock and McCoy, having commandeered an alien ship, manage to catch Kirk before being directly sucked out. While Yorktown celebrates, Kirk is offered a position as vice-admiral of Yorktown, which he declines, preferring instead to continue his journey into space with his crew. At a small victory party, Kirk and crew welcome Jaylah into Star Fleet, while they look on as the USS Enterprise-A is constructed.
          I previously expressed my overall satisfaction with the new Star Trek series, and Beyond continues that trend. There are several things that the film does right that make a worthy entry in the science fiction genre. Perhaps most important, it pays homage to the original series without completely ripping it off. Kudos are in line for Karl Urban's portrayal of McCoy, a character that, even in the original series, was very reluctant to "get his hands dirty", so to speak, preferring to stay on the sidelines or aboard the ship while the rest of the crew embarked on their missions. As such, McCoy's reactions when he is asked to accompany Spock and commandeer one of the swarm ships, or when he is tasked as serving as a distraction for Krall's goons before Kirk shows up are a complete throwback to the original. Chris Pine also does a great job of portraying the same kind of hot-headed, daredevil Kirk that William Shatner portrayed in the 60s, but even manages to do it with his own kind of flair and mannerisms. Another thing that the film does well is in invoking the same kind of sci-fi themes, or sci-fi questions, that both the original series and The Next Generation were built on. I mentioned that one of the distinctions between Star Trek and Star Wars is that Star Wars is more built on one long story (or space opera, if you are a proponent of that term), chronicling the hero's journey from novice to master, and, as such, doesn't devote as much time to entertaining the big philosophical questions that really drive science fiction. Star Trek, on the other hand, is much more episodic in its approach (which makes sense, given that Star Trek was originally a TV series), allowing it to explore many different ideas and concepts. How would the space-time continuum change if a Romulan warlord traveled back in time and assassinated a younger version of Spock? If I may invoke The Next Generation, did we really leave the Holodeck? Is the Federation of Planets really a good thing? What if Krall is right, and the Federation is just a cold and corrupt government structure? It's questions like these that fall by the wayside in Star Wars; nobody ever asks whether the Resistance are really the good guys, or why they are resisting the First Order to begin with (granted, it becomes a little more obvious when Starkiller Base just happens to blow up several planets, but it was at least questionable up until that point). In previous installments, Yoda explains that the struggle between the light and dark sides of the Force is not a struggle between good and evil, but a struggle for balance. We never really have another character that seems to embrace this; such an understanding of the Force allows for a kind of moral nihilism, a dissolution of good and evil into a simple conflict between two parties whose ends just happen to be at odds, but this is never played out. Star Trek, however, has historically entertained these ideas, and the new film series, fortunately, continues this tradition. And of course, the special effects were what I would expect for such an installment in science fiction. The gravity-warped Yorktown is a great example of this, as well as the design of Krall and his soldiers.
          All of that said, there are a couple points of criticism that I suppose are due here. First, the character development was lacking in this one, and, at times, appeared to be "forced". Spock's romance with Uhura, for example, was something that was brought up several times throughout the film, but never really played out. The characters just briefly mention that Spock and Uhura had a thing for each other, but neither character every really acted like it - Uhura was locked up for most of the movie, but, even while in captivity, we never see her reminisce on Spock at all, and Spock mentions his feelings for Uhura while stranded on Altamid, but then seems indifferent to her plight when compared to the other captured crew members (and no, this can't simply be chalked up to the cold, calculative nature of Vulcans). Second, and despite my above praise for the film, Beyond seems to be the weaker installment in the series, not achieving the level of depth and immersion as the 2009 reboot. Perhaps this is partially because of my previous criticism. The first installment in the series showed us real character development; we saw a James Kirk trying to live up to the reputation of his father, rebelling against authority as a child who grows up without a family is apt to do, a Spock who witnesses the destruction of his home world, and even a Nero that is passionate about destroying Spock and the Enterprise in order to avenge his own home world (again, are the Romulans really the bad guys?). The plot for Beyond also seems very much like a re-hash of the original plot in a sense: someone is really angry at Star Fleet and wants to destroy it. Granted, Nero was more pointedly upset with Spock in the first installment, but the ultimate destruction of Star Fleet was still his secondary aim. Finally, the last criticism I have of Beyond is more of a warning than a criticism, but is still particularly relevant: care should be given to avoid falling into that viper pit that is empty action sequences without context. Beyond had a notable amount of action in it, from the initial battle sequence between the Enterprise and Krall's swarm to the daring, high-speed motorcycle rescue mission of Kirk on Altamid, to the epic fight scene between Jaylah and Krall's lieutenant, Manas. However, if I may invoke the term "equilibrium", one can slowly see the scales tipping out of balance; notice how, as the complexity of the plot and character development goes down, the amount of action goes up. In the extreme, what we are left with, then, is meaningless action, something akin to the thing that I have been accusing superhero films of for some time. If the ending sequence of either Avengers film teaches us anything, it's that the artistry of character and plot development is secondary to the cash cow that is unabated action sequences. Star Trek should be careful not to fall into that same quagmire, lest it completely abandon the philosophical precepts that motivated its roots.
          Still, Star Trek Beyond has easily made my list of "Best Movies of 2016" so far, an honor it shares with the likes of Deadpool and The Conjuring 2. That said, and now that the summer is coming to a wrap, we are starting to get a sense of how, cinematically speaking, this year will end, and, unfortunately, it's looking like it won't be as spectacular as last year. Fury Road, Jurassic World, and The Force Awakens were indeed monumental pieces of science fiction cinema, and it doesn't quite seem as if 2016 has yet produced anything close to that caliber. Granted, Suicide Squad has been boasted as "the most anticipated movie of the year", and has recently been released, but I hear it sucked, and critics didn't take too kindly to it, which is what I expected insofar as it was produced by DC and, as I have previously written, DC is always extremely late to the party. And so with 2016's cinematic prodigal son, Suicide Squad, out of the way, and doing mediocre at best, what does that leave for the rest of the year? Well, after revisiting my list and double checking it online, the remainder of the year looks pretty stark: Doctor Strange doesn't come out until November, and only Assassin's Creed and Rogue One remain after that, none of which I am expecting to live up to the precedent set by last year. This also leaves very little film material to write on between now and January. Perhaps this isn't necessarily a bad thing, though - instead, I can focus more on philosophical and journalism pieces, something that I have been taking a break from this past summer and that I have been meaning to do more of.

Saturday, July 16, 2016


          I have been in the midst of a kind of existential dilemma. As anyone who has visited my blog has noticed, I didn't publish any new articles last month, and I will admit that I wasn't completely satisfied with my last entry, my review of Captain America: Civil War, despite the fact that many people seemed to have enjoyed it. You see, as is typical with me, I have these strange moments where I fall in a downward spiral, questioning everything I am doing with my life and the world around me. Even now, for example, there is a subtle gnawing in the back of my head wondering why I am taking the time to even write this as opposed to doing something else, like, say, learning yet another language or walking through the park. It's maddening, really, and it makes it difficult for me to stay focused on any endeavor for extended periods of time. But, you see, this is only the tip of the iceberg, and my rabbit hole of problems goes much deeper. This gnawing feeling becomes absolutely heavy, haunting even, when I ask myself what many would consider to be much more "important" questions, such as "Why are you writing articles that most people will likely never read when you could be furthering your career by learning to be an accountant or getting another degree in Business?" or something else along those lines.
          It's at this point that my dilemma becomes much more rudimentary and philosophical. People occasionally ask me questions like the aforementioned examples, and I don't really fault them because I also occasionally ask them of myself. Fortunately, I have a few rather straightforward answers to such questions. Unfortunately, the answers are just as maddening as the questions themselves. For example, one such answer may be "I am not doing those things because that would make me like other people around me, but I don't want to be like other people around me." Other people around me are boring and anti-fun. Art and culture are things that fall by the wayside in the career field I ended up in, and I have little desire to associate with people who underestimate what is truly enjoyable in life. Related to that, another possible answer is "I do the things I do, such as writing, because it is more fun than those things that other people do." I desire to write because words can carry with them the pleasant sensations of art and beauty. As I have said before, experiencing the language of Poe or Milton is much more pleasant than being an accountant and counting other people's money all day (thankfully, I'm not an accountant). But perhaps the most maddening answer of all is "I don't do those other things because those take time to learn, and I don't have a lot of time, nor does anybody else, not to mention the fact that I appear to be naturally talented at Philosophy (or, at least, I think I am)." As I have previously written, humans are doomed to the same fate as every other creature on the planet, and this ultimate end can arrive at any time, in the form of a plane crash, an armed robbery, a tragic accident, suicide, a bloody mess, a stroke, seizure, hemorrhage, a house fire, or just sheer old age. And, as part of that same article, I also argued that life should be spent maximizing pleasures, which can't be done if you are using the time learning to do things that you don't really want to do, or taking the time to catch up on things you don't already know. And there is a distinction to be made between having fun and learning how to have fun. Since I left the master's program at San Diego State, I have reflected on this distinction quite a bit. I already know so much about Philosophy and have been formally trained in it. I was also fortunate enough to grow up with English as my first language, a versatile language with an extreme degree of expression and a large corpus of some of the most brilliant literature on the planet. At this point in my life, these are the tools I know how to use and am equipped with in order to experience the world with what little time I have left. I don't have time to devote to doing things that aren't fun.
          But alas, even trying to have fun is proving to be a difficult endeavor, for, with each passing day, the mountain of things that can go wrong in life seems to become more and more insurmountable, and it's starting to become difficult to make it through even the most menial of tasks. It may seem petty, but a recent example would be from this past weekend. Despite the fact that I haven't written a review since Civil War, I have been keeping up with my movies, having seen WarCraft and The Conjuring 2 over the past couple of weeks. But the experience each time, however, was maddening, particularly for The Conjuring 2. As I have mentioned in previous articles, one of the most enjoyable parts of a film is the level of immersion that one can experience with it. However, the phantasmagoria of a demon possessing the soul of an old man and haunting a British family's house is severely undermined when the drunken fat man in front feels inclined to provide his own idiotic commentary from time to time, or the couple in front of me will not stop muttering to themselves about something totally unrelated to the film, as if they were forced to be there and the film was an inconvenience. The unfortunate thing is that such a scenario seems to be becoming more and more commonplace, and I am left to wonder whether or not investing the time and money in going to a movie and becoming immersed in it, only to be interrupted by some fool who can't appreciate the value of the experience, is better than not going at all.
          Perhaps more depressing is that the above scenario is not strictly limited to movie theaters. I can't seem to escape it - there are distractions everywhere. Within the past several minutes, for example, a man walked in to the coffee shop I am at as I was writing the previous paragraph and proceeded to the counter to place his order, albeit while talking loudly on his cellphone. His voice had this loathsome tone of self-importance, and, when the girl at the counter asked him what he would like, instead of telling her, he raised a finger for her to wait a minute, as if the very coffee shop that he walked into was interrupting his ever-so-important phone call. He just looked like an asshole. Even when I looked away from the scene, I wasn't able to completely escape it, for his smug voice still echoed over me, partially drowning out even the words in my own head. At that point, my only recourse was to plug in my earphones and withdraw to the melodies of "Call the Ships to Port" by Covenant and "Black Star" by David Bowie (fortunately, I am still able to write while listening to music).
          But the concerns only start there. Living and working in a major US city has so much more to offer than living in the suburbs like I was back in California, but there is also something unnerving about it. It goes without saying that major cities tend to attract more crime and conflict, and Seattle, in particular, seems to have a fair bit of stock in the drug addiction market than many other cities. And, these days, it seems as if one can't read the news without hearing about the latest mass shooting in the US. Just about a month ago, for example, one of the worst mass shootings in US history took place at a night club in Florida, killing about 50 people [1]. And it goes without saying that such situations are not limited to the US - there was, of course, the bombing at the airport and metro station in Brussels, Belgium a few months ago in April that shocked an otherwise peaceful city [2], or the bombing at one of the largest train stations in Madrid in 2004 [3]. Moving further east, one of the more frustrating things is that the Middle East has become so concentrated with political turmoil, civil war, terrorism, and international conflict that it has become more or less impossible to visit, despite having its share in some of the most majestic wonders of the world, such as the Pyramids of Giza. In fact, to add insult to injury, some of the greatest artifacts of the Ancient world have been demolished as terrorist groups have destroyed the temples at Palmyra [4].
          And don't think that all of the worries in the world are terror related. It is apparently possible to be on an otherwise straightforward flight from Kuala Lumpur to China and seemingly vanish into thin air, never to be seen or heard from again, such as Malaysia Airlines flight 370 [5]. Or perhaps you can be seen a smoldering pile of charred "trunks, hands, heads, or parts of legs" if you end up on something like American Airlines flight 191, which crashed into a field after an engine failure and immediately exploded into an inferno, killing all 250+ people on board [6]. Or, instead of being part of a plane crash, you might find the burning body of a homeless person in San Diego, as part of the recent string of mysterious attacks on the homeless population in my hometown [7]. And, of course, you may also find yourself turning a street corner in many of the major cities in South America and stumbling into a maze of alleys and streets that constitute the local shantytown, laced with squalor and disease [8].
          Even learning new things about science and the world is becoming more and more difficult and disenchanting. There are two reasons for this. First, strangely, as I have gotten older, I have become increasingly unsettled by imagery and scenes of things like blood and long needles. There's something maddening about imagining a needle being inserted into a vein, stretching up the opposite direction of the blood flow, a small shard of steel sitting in your body. This makes it difficult to read about things like anatomy or medicine, or study things like Biology. When one donates blood, for example, one's veins and arteries empty and their life force drains - one's muscles become weak and feeble, and all color and vivacity seems to fade from one's countenance. Second, to a lesser degree, some aspects of science tend to de-romanticize the world, which is off-putting. Sex, for example, becomes a lot less...interesting...if understood as an activity that mammals do in order to fertilize some eggs and procreate, perpetuating this highly questionable cycle of existence. It becomes more difficult to enjoy a warm meal with a glass of wine by the fireplace when one is analyzing the amount of saturated and monounsaturated fat in each food item, and how each will affect overall cholesterol levels in the bloodstream. A romantic, candlelit dinner for two is suddenly not-so-romantic when you suddenly start wondering whether your date is getting enough sodium for thyroid health. We then come full circle back to my previous point, for, in trying to measure and quantify the overall cholesterol levels in the blood stream, one is forced to image their heart fat-ridden, arteries stiff and clogged, the onset of disease. It's a perpetual cycle. Signs of one's frailty and mortality are ubiquitous, and it truly becomes unnerving. I sometimes find myself curled up on the floor, unable to face it, trying really hard to detach myself from the world. This is why, when studying the sciences, I find myself drawn towards mathematics. Mathematics has the advantage of not directly forcing one to reflect on such unnerving things as the geyser of blood that might erupt from one's neck in the event that one is decapitated, as Biology is apt to do, but yet has the potential to boil the world down to its most rudimentary axioms. Mathematical principles also have the ability to apply to a wider array of scenarios, from explaining the beauty of Beethoven's 5th Symphony, to highlighting the underlying grammatical structure of a foreign language, to helping one establish a connection to a proxy server in order to anonymously surf the Deep Web.
          And, of course, there is that cruel mistress Fate, who, it seems, has been increasingly inclined to demonstrate her dominion over us sad creatures in the world. It's not that difficult to find examples of creatures being victimized by sheer dumb luck - just look to the news. Yesterday, for example, there was a story about two mothers and their children burning alive in a flaming minivan in Los Angeles [9]. There was no scenario that really precluded this; a van breaks down on the side of a freeway, two men get out of the van to examine it, and then a truck accidentally strikes the van and it bursts into flames, roasting two women and their children inside, their curdled cries undoubtedly serving as a painful parting gift to their husbands and fathers. Again, there was no real reason for this; it just happened, a stroke of sheer dumb luck. Of course, many will try to find a place to put the blame. And this is a point I previously tried to make in another article. Humans like to fancy themselves as a kind of creature superior to others, a creature who operates on these arbitrary notions of Justice and Virtue, that reward and punishment should dictate how one progresses through his or her life. This is a foolish assumption, for, try as humans may, Fate cannot be completely escaped, cannot be outmatched, and, often times, has more of a say as to how one's life unfolds than any court or legal system or relationship.
          Another example that better illustrates this was an incident about two weeks ago in Florida when a two year-old boy was eaten and drowned by an alligator [10]. The setting couldn't have been more picturesque, like something out of a movie: a family goes on vacation to Disney World, the supposed "happiest place on Earth". While staying at one of the luxury resorts, they go down to a nearby lagoon for the evening. Their two year-old child, not even old enough to understand the concepts of Justice and Merit and Punishment, proceeds to splash around on the edges of the water. Before long, the boy is snatched by an alligator and dragged underwater where he is drowned. For the next two days, a large-scale search and rescue mission is undertaken to try and recover the boy involving various authorities, including federal law enforcement organizations. To what end all of these various groups were involved is still perplexing. The explanation of the incident was clear from the outset - a boy was more or less snatched by an alligator, likely for food, not unlike when an alligator hunts fowl or rabbits that wander too close to the shore. The child's remains were eventually found, but the aftermath was just as perplexing as the search. Law enforcement vowed to find the perpetrator alligator, religious authorities held public vigils, people raised their hands to the sky wondering "Why? Oh, why?", as if there was some kind of methodical explanation for the event. I wonder what people were expecting to happen after the manhunt and the prayers - were the police planning on arresting the perpetrator alligator? Were the well-wishers expecting God to smite the heathen gator with holy light? Was the community expecting all alligators to come to their senses and abandon their ferocious onslaught in the face of solidarity? Throughout all of this, the simplest and most elegant explanation is overlooked: sheer dumb luck (or, in this case, bad luck). Again, humans like to think themselves above Fate; we like to find someone or something to blame for events that are more or less outside of anyone's control. In each of the above cases, these individuals didn't really do anything to merit their fate (it's unlikely the women and children did anything to deserve perishing in flames, nor did our child in Florida do anything to deserve being attacked by an alligator), but the point here is that, to use a common expression, "sometimes shit happens".
          Is there a solution to all of this? Are there steps that one can take to avoid being the victim of a terrorist shooting, a flaming airplane crash, avoid being exposed to unsettling imagery, such as needles and decay? How can one avoid dealing with all the assholes that seem to be becoming more and more ubiquitous in the world? Or how can one minimize their chances of randomly being hit by a car or being eaten by an alligator? The most apparent answer seems exceedingly simple and ingenious: don't go outside. There is an odd beauty in the logic here - you can't die in a plane crash if you are not on a plane. You won't get killed by terrorists if you don't go to places with suicide bombers and AK-47s. You can't get eaten by an alligator if there are no gators around. You won't have to deal with assholes as long as you don't go to places where assholes are. Granted, it's possible to die in a plane crash if you are on the ground and get hit by a flaming plane, but I find that scenario a lot more far-fetched than being a victim on the aforementioned plane, however unlikely that may be in and of itself. Likewise, it's certainly possible to die in a terrorist attack while being at home, but I can't recall the last time there was a terrorist shooting occurring in someone's house (at least, occurring in someone's house in the US). And, apparently, one's chances of being attacked by an alligator are minimized insofar as one does not travel to Florida. In short, one can avoid becoming a victim of the outside world to the extent that one does not interact with it. Such a course of action seems to become more and more inviting with each passing day - the world becomes increasingly more heart-wrenching every time I read the news, and such reminders of our mortality, and how feeble this crude flesh and bone really are, are increasingly frustrating.
          Sadly, this solution is not foolproof, however. For, try as he may, not even one's house can protect one from Fate. In taking so much care to avoid dying in a plane crash, to avoid aberrant drivers, to avoid the most painful distractions the outside world can present, spending more time in one's house just increases the chances of being destroyed in one's house. A couple years ago, there was a man that was swallowed by the gaping maw of a massive sinkhole that suddenly formed under his bedroom, never to be seen or heard from again (interestingly, this also happened in Florida) [11]. The Chelyabinsk Meteor also had the potential to completely ravage otherwise innocent and peaceful neighborhoods - the shock waves from the passing meteor already shattered windows and injured dozens of people, and, since it was reported that the glow from the meteor was 30 times brighter than the sun, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that one would have quickly gone blind if they looked directly at it [12]. Of course, there are also more sudden things like a brain aneurysm or heart attack that can happen anytime, whether or not one is nestled safely in the privacy of their own home or out and about, exploring the wild dangers of the outside world.
           Such is the dilemma that we are faced with each day, but most people don't realize it. I've realized this for some time and it is, to say the least, maddening. How on earth did our species survive for as long as it has? Again, humans like to elevate themselves above the so-called "lesser" beings, and think themselves capable of outsmarting Fate. Of course, it's at that point that Fate reminds us of the pathetic frailty of this hollow shell and destroys us with anything from a fucking hole in the ground, to being torn apart by an alligator, to burning alive, to cursing us with a galactic event, such as a meteor strike, to suddenly having us drop dead from a stroke. I suppose the real test of human ingenuity would be to escape all of these dangers, all of these worries. But until that happens, all I can do is be reminded of it everyday when I read the news, walk outside, or witness it happen to others. The clock is ticking and, sometimes, the ticking is the only thing that I hear.


Sunday, May 29, 2016

Review - Captain America: Civil War

          If anyone wanted to make the claim that this review is a little late, then I will concede the point, but not without good reason. The past month has been extremely chaotic for me. There has been a lot of shifting in the hierarchy at my day job (remember, I work as a data analyst for a rather well-known coffee company), some of which has affected me, and I had a kind of "falling out" with a certain career prospect about three weeks ago. Perhaps the most glaring hurdle, however, has been my lack of adequate transportation for the past four weeks. The Cliff Notes version of the story is that some out-of-towner in a lifted pickup truck pretty much monster-trucked (yes, that's now a verb) over the front of my car while it was parked out in front of my apartment building. Extensive reparations had to be done, which meant that my car had to be in the auto shop for almost four weeks. Then, as a result of my car being in the shop for almost four weeks, I was more or less stuck in the Eastlake area of Seattle, relying on the bus to get to and from work. The unfortunate thing about the Eastlake area is that, while there are a number of good restaurants, the rest of the neighborhood consists of mostly apartment buildings, with very few actual attractions. So, continuing on in the chain of cause and effect, as a result of me being stuck in the Eastlake area, I wasn't really able to get to a movie theater to see Captain America: Civil War, which was released during the first week of my car being in the auto shop. Fear not, however, for my car has since returned to me and I have been prompted to spring into action yet again, having finally had the chance to make it to the theater to see Civil War.
          My overall impression of Civil War can best be described as "mild satisfaction". Civil War continues the trend of the past few years and perpetuates the popularity of superhero movies, and is yet another installment of the so-called "Marvel Cinematic Universe", which is showing no signs of slowing down in the near future, with Doctor Strange scheduled to be released later this year and another Thor film in the works. Don't let the title fool you - even though Captain America is the supposed centerpiece of the film, Civil War is more or less a showcase of the Marvel All-Star lineup, minus Thor and the Hulk. We are introduced to Black Panther not too far into the movie, Warmachine and Ant-Man make appearances, Hawkeye and the Scarlett Witch (who, I recently learned, is portrayed by one of the Olsen twins, who I though died with the 90s) interestingly pop-up at key points in the movie, and Black Widow and Vision are along for the ride all the way throughout. The end result is something that feels more like "Avengers Light" than a narrative focusing on Captain America. Despite this, Civil War still did a much better job of illustrating the personal narrative of not just Captain America, but several other characters as well, when compared to our most recent installment in the line of superhero films, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
          The film centers on Captain America and his attempts to rescue his buddy, the Winter Soldier, who is accused of bombing a United Nations meeting intended to ratify an agreement that would put heavy regulations on the Avengers. In a show of protest against this agreement, Captain America takes it upon himself to hunt down the Winter Soldier and learn the truth about who bombed the UN meeting himself. With the perception that Steve Rogers has gone rogue, international authorities enlist the help of Iron Man to capture both the Captain and the Winter Soldier. The remaining Avengers are then forced to choose sides - they can either side with the Captain, and help him rescue Bucky and solve this mystery, or they can side with Tony Stark and implicitly acquiesce to the UN agreement. We open up with a flashback to the brainwashing experiments used to train the Winter Soldier in a hidden Hydra base in the former Soviet Union, where we learn that, as part of the experiment, there are certain Russian key words that can be used to control him. Fast-forward to present day Africa. Captain, Black Widow, Falcon, and the Scarlett Witch are hunting an international terrorist and arms dealer, and the ensuing fight ends up destroying part of a building, killing and injuring innocent people. Back in the US, the Avengers are held accountable for this and other incidents, and a treaty is written that is meant to place international regulations on them. Among the Avengers, there are voices of both consent and dissent, spearheaded by both Tony Stark and Steve Rogers, respectively. At the UN meeting where these accords are supposed to be signed and ratified, a bomb goes off, killing many more innocent people, including King T'Chaka, the king of the African nation where the previous incident took place. We quickly find out that security footage reveals that the Winter Soldier is responsible for the bombing (or so it seems), and an international manhunt ensues.
          As news spreads that the UN meeting was bombed and that the Captain is going after the Winter Soldier, our two sides begin to assemble. Falcon, Hawkeye, Ant-Man, and the Scarlett Witch quickly join the Winter Soldier and Team Captain, while Warmachine, Vision, and Black Widow join Team Iron Man, who also enlists the help of Black Panther, i.e. T'Chala (i.e. the son of the murdered King T'Chaka) and the young Spider-Man. The Captain quickly learns that multiple super soldiers were created as part of Hydra's Winter Soldier program, and that a survivor of the incident at the end of Age of Ultron (where the Avengers dropped an entire town from the sky), Zemo, has gotten his hands on the top-secret Soviet training manual with the Russian keywords to control them and is making his way to the base where the remaining soldiers are held in cryogenic sleep. It is also revealed that this is the same man who bombed the UN meeting and framed the Winter Soldier in order to lure him out of hiding. After Bucky reveals the location of the base to Rogers, they quickly make their way to an airfield in Leipzig where they intend to commandeer a jet and cut off our antagonist before he reaches the base first, but not before they themselves are cut off by Team Iron Man. The rest of Team Captain shows up and what ensues is one giant punch-up, reminiscent of the ending sequence of either of the Avengers films. Eventually, Captain America and the Winter Soldier make it onto the jet and head towards the hidden base. Realizing the truth about what happened at the UN meeting and that the Winter Soldier was framed for it, Stark has a change of heart and joins Rogers and Bucky at Hydra's Soviet facility. While investigating, however, they find the other super soldiers have all been shot in the head, as opposed to being woken up and used as weapons, and our antagonist, with Rogers, Bucky, and Stark all in the room, plays a small video clip of Bucky, under the influence of Hydra's brainwashing, killing Stark's parents some decades before. An enraged Iron Man then quickly turns on the Captain and the Winter Soldier and yet another fight ensues, with none of them really coming out as the victor while Black Panther captures Zemo. The film ends with the Winter Soldier willfully going back into cryogenic sleep until a cure is found for his brainwashing, the rest of Team Captain being locked up for a while, and Stark and Rogers reconciling their differences.
          I previously mentioned that my overall impression of Civil War was that of "mild satisfaction". It's certainly a lot more coherent and in-depth than Dawn of Justice (which wouldn't be too particularly difficult to achieve), but it does miss the mark in certain areas. As I've said in the past, story and character development are very important criteria that can mean the difference between success and failure, and Civil War seems to be lacking in this regard. It's a shame because, historically, the Captain America series has been one of the better in the Marvel Cinematic Universe; The Winter Soldier remains towards the top of my list of better films in the Marvel series, and the setting of WWII for The First Avenger provided a nice reprieve from the pseudo-futuristic take on the modern decade seen in the Iron Man films. In Civil War, however, no one character is really developed further than he or she already is, except for, notably, the Winter Soldier himself. This is then ultimately undermined in the end when the Winter Soldier decides to go back into cryogenic sleep, removing a recently developed character from the equation altogether. The Scarlett Witch is another example of a character with a missed opportunity; as a young girl who grew up in Eastern Europe, there was potential to expand on her past as a Hydra research subject and tie her character into the background of the Winter Soldier, but, instead, we didn't even get a mention of her brother, Quicksilver, who was recently killed in Age of Ultron, let alone legitimate character development. Conversely, some of the characters who already had a well-established background in the series seem to have just been thrown into the film without any kind of real explanation at all. Hawkeye, for example, appears halfway through the film by casually walking in to Tony Stark's heavily defended compound to rescue the Scarlett Witch for no apparent reason other than the production team realizing that they ran out of characters to rescue her. Our villain, Zemo, is also a highly questionable character. To be frank, Zemo is literally just some asshole who is mad at the Avengers because his family was collateral damage in Age of Ultron. How Zemo manages to bomb the UN, steal the secret Soviet training manual from ex-Hydra operatives, find the Hydra research base where the other super soldiers are being kept, frame the Winter Soldier for the bombing, and get the Avengers to fight each other, and almost get away with it, not to mention outsmart international intelligence organizations, is beyond me. In previous installments of the Avengers or Captain America films, we at least have villains that pose a believable challenge to the Avengers: a mischievous Norse god, a rogue artificial intelligence, an augmented super soldier, a deformed renegade Nazi. Zemo? Literally just some guy who is mad at the government and the Avengers.
          It seems as if many of the above points are side effects of a larger, over-arching point: Civil War is just too over-crowded with various Marvel All-Stars to really develop any of them in any significant way. This is the same criticism that I have leveled at the Avengers films for some time; much like the two Avengers films, Civil War makes the mistake of bypassing any kind of character development in favor of an action-packed quagmire of special effects and cliche dialogue. And, also much like the two Avengers films, Civil War culminates in one giant brawl at the end, a clusterfuck of superheroes punching each other until Black Widow randomly decides to have a change of heart and tilts the brawl in favor of the Captain. Like the ending fight of Age of Ultron, a lot of our heroes seemed to blend into one of two archetypes: the hero who punches things really hard (i.e. Captain, Black Panther) or the hero who shoots lasers (i.e. Scarlett Witch, Vision, Iron Man). The end result is something along the lines of a cartoon fight; I was half expecting our heroes to be enveloped in a thick dust cloud, complete with Looney Tunes-esque sound effects and words like "POW!" And "BOP!" to flash across the screen. Again, this is in stark contrast to the previous two Captain America films; The Winter Soldier presented us with a Captain that questioned the meaning of "freedom" and "security" as Nick Fury revealed the missile-loaded-death-planes meant to keep America safe. But, alas, we don't get anything like this in Civil War.
          It should be noted that, despite my above points, Civil War wasn't bad - it was merely average. It was a satisfactory installment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and illustrated why the Marvel films set the bar for superhero cinema without actually raising the bar any further. Every so often, there is an entry in the MCU that illustrates a depth of character unprecedented in the series (The Winter Soldier, Thor: The Dark World), but an eerie pattern is beginning to emerge where, once we start gathering the various faces on screen at the same time, things begin to fall apart. That said, there are a number of things that Civil War does well. Though it was somewhat rushed, Black Panther had an otherwise pretty well developed introduction. T'Chala is introduced to us as the prince of the African nation at the beginning of the film and we actually see his father, King T'Chaka, murdered by Zemo in the UN bombing, which motivates him to mistakenly seek vengeance on the Winter Soldier for the bombing as Black Panther. In other words, we see Black Panther's "angle", so to speak: we are given a given a brief overview of where he comes from and what motivates him, and what role he plays in the Avengers. This is in stark contrast to Spider-Man, who was literally thrown into the film for a reason that still eludes me (and by "literally", I mean literally - Tony Stark simply walks into Peter Parker's apartment and says "You're hired" and then suddenly...Spider-Man). And, continuing with the trend of the Captain America series of being multi-lingual, the film constantly invokes the Soviet-era and makes extensive use of the Russian language, which gives the film this kind of "international" flavor, and genuinely makes it seem as if the problems that plague the world aren't all just threats to America, which is the impression given by, say, most of the Iron Man series, and which is not reflective of the way the world actually is. And, by comparison, Civil War, and the rest of the MCU, continue to be the standard that superhero films should adhere to. I railed against Dawn of Justice in one of my previous reviews, and Civil War seems to underline many of my previous points. Civil War managed to introduce Black Panther far better than Dawn of Justice introduced Wonder Woman, and developed the Winter Soldier far better than Dawn of Justice developed Ben Affleck's Batman. Granted, there is a dedicated Wonder Woman film in the works, but there is also a dedicated Black Panther film as well, and yet we already have an idea of who Black Panther is and how we can relate to him.
          In short, I think Captain America: Civil War will end its theatrical run well. The masses, of course, will easily be drawn to the superficial elements of over-the-top special effects and convoluted brawls, and the fact that these are characters that the American public has grown attached to from previous Marvel films will ensure that the film continues to generate revenue for many weeks (this is the point that Dawn of Justice seemed to miss - if you don't develop the characters adequately beforehand, then no one is going to care when you put them all on screen together). That said, if you have more of an attention span than that of a squirrel, and are able to look past the quagmire of special effects and all-star cast, then you likely won't find much. Civil War is a steady stream of meaningless action, strung together by a number of questionable plot points. Granted, last year's Mad Max: Fury Road was also a steady stream of action, but that was exactly the point - Fury Road was using the action to make a point about the world, which is something that Civil War doesn't seem to be doing.